In 2006 my best friend Elissa had an everyday uniform of a deep V-neck shirt, pigeon-colored toque, and a forest-green hoodie, and she cited Brody Jenner as the main influence on her personal sartorial style. We watched MTV online, affectionately trolled each other's MySpace profiles, experimented with men and alcohol and other drugs. We were newly adults, newly university students, newly Torontonians. We were young and in love with each other, with our friendship, with the future we felt we were promised.
Elissa and I lived together, those first few years in Toronto. We sat on our couch or on our beds and watched Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag in HD, taken in by how beautifully their lives were framed, even as their lives themselves were a banal simulacrum of ours and other young women we knew. It's not that we felt more deeply than they did or that we were smarter than they were; it's that our lives were unframed and unconstrained. It's that we were learning to set our own boundaries, whereas LC and Heidi were having their relationships, their fates molded by television producers.
Near the beginning of Sheila Heti's most recent novel, How Should a Person Be? — which blurs reality and fiction, exploding documentary conventions into the realm of art — the main character, Sheila, expresses anxiety about having her life scripted, her fate overdirected. Her high school boyfriend wrote a cruel play about her, imagining a degraded future of destitution, depicting her toothless and on her knees, a Nazi's cock in her mouth.
When I spoke to Heti at her apartment in Toronto to talk about the novel, I couldn't help but wonder if by including her friends in the book she was directing their fate, essaying to produce their lives.
SH: No, that never occurred to me. Because the book all took place right now, so there's no future element. It's just because it was difficult. It's like if you've had a difficult thing in a relationship, you don't go and bring it up all the time. It was a big enough thing in all of our lives that to talk about it would make it even bigger. I mean, Sholem was down in Austin, Texas, and a guy was like “Are you the Sholem in Sheila Heti's book?” So that was kind of glamorous for him. But that was the only time we've talked about the book in the last year. The whole thing takes place in the past, and because I see such a difference between my friends and the characters I don't think it's about writing their fate. It's just the characters based on them.
EMK: Do you get sick of answering that question?
SH: No, I think it's a fair question, and even if I did try 100 percent to depict them as they are, still a person's such a different thing from words in a book. You can't really ever think that that's a person.
The novel is modeled on the life of a woman struggling to write a play, frustrated by the limits of pure imagination when trying to get at something real. She uses the world as a mirror, trying to see a reflection of her ideal self in everything. “How should a person be?” She asks over and over again, of everyone, including her reader. But she gives us an early answer too: “I sometimes wonder about it and I can't help answering like this: a celebrity.”
So she celebrates her friends. She writes about them, she gets the idea to make a record of them, to build texts in their image.
EMK: The character Sheila, she has this kind of fixation on genius. She says that “one good thing about being a woman is we haven't too many examples of what a genius looks like. It could be me.” Julia Kristeva, writing about Hannah Arendt, said that genius interrupts history. Is the impulse to record a moment of genius what's reflected in Sheila's or your own fascination with using documentary reality in art?
SH: The impulse to record came out of wanting to know what we really said to each other as people, as opposed to how novelists imagine people talk to each other. So the recording had to do with that more than with genius. I don't think, not in any conscious way, that I connected the two things. But in terms of the individual I thought about Jesus and Moses, the idea of leading the people. And I thought a lot about how Moses didn't want the job — didn't feel like he could speak well enough to be a leader. And so in this modeling oneself after the great leader, I think I wanted the language in the book to not be great, to be really plain and utilitarian. I like what she said though, the subject that interrupts history. That's a good way of putting it, but that's a lot to ask of oneself. But it happens. But those people are like, Martin Luther King Jr. Those aren't people that write novels. I don't think novelists interrupt history. I think they do something else.
EMK: How Should a Person Be? has these references to Nietzsche and Jesus and Moses, but it isn't necessarily in conversation with other novels — would you put the work in more of a philosophical rather than literary tradition?
SH: Yeah, probably. I read a lot of philosophy. I read John Dewey, and I read Otto Rank, though that's more psychological, and Kierkegaard. Yeah, definitely more philosophical. And also I see it in connection with that show The Hills and reality television. So a lot of things, but not the novel. Like, Andy Warhol, and all his business. But not the novel. I wasn't reading any novels at the time. I wasn't interested in thinking about novels.
The girls on The Hills are friends, ostensibly. They almost seem to care about each other, they go through the motions of care, and the medium of slick commercial television belies the tedium of production, of their lives. You could feel the hands of the producers reaching in, reshaping the world they lived in. The drama is real and unreal. The women appear to be improvising in scripted roles, but that script goes beyond the framing of the show; they are reading the scripts of mediated life. They've internalized a mythology of love, of friendship, and of femininity. They worry over what to wear, they worry over each other, in however perfunctory a way. They stress over making their boyfriends jealous, they feign jealousy over other women. They play at being adults, at being women, they pretend that they were tailor-made for these roles, though the roles are static ideals, too flat to fit a human being inside. But there are moments when they seem sincere. Though they don't laugh enough.
One time Elissa and I were out walking. She was wearing a caramel-brown leather bomber and jeans. Plus her trademark gray touque. I was wearing the brown canvas shell of a long Yukon Parka and a yellow polka dot dress. It was autumn. We were going somewhere, a party or a bar. We were walking fast, comfortable together, talking, not talking, it made no difference. We passed a house and man outside, smoking near the front of his lawn. He may have been drunk. We may have been drunk. He told us that we looked great together. He said that we seemed like a good fit. Elissa and I locked eyes, smiled. We already knew we were made to be friends. So we laughed.
In How Should a Person Be?, Sheila and her friend Margaux take walks too. They stalk the city at night, turning down alleyways, investigating and perpetually extending the limits of their minds and friendship. They ride the bus. They work together in a studio. They talk about art. They make jokes. They talk about artists and the jokes that artists make. They decide that there is nothing funny about Jackson Pollack. They laugh anyway.
Throughout the novel there is an undercurrent that guides the friendship between these two women: gratitude. They can't believe they found each other, that they get to love each other. There is a palpable relief that they've found each other, that together they can say new things, outside a script of the frivolity or jealousies of female friendships. Margaux leaves a message on Sheila's tape recorder, trying to bridge a gap after they have a fight: “I always had a fantasy of meeting a girl ... who was as serious as I was.”
EMK: It's interesting that you use The Hills as an example, because that was scripted reality, which is like reality made of fiction, and then you took the opposite tack.
SH: I don't know what The Hills was. When it first came on, for me, I didn't know what the hell it was. It was like, these girls are friends, and somebody's editing their lives in some way. And when I started writing the novel, in 2006, or around then, there were all those girls, Paris Hilton, all those "dumb" girls — dumb in quotes, I don't think she's actually dumb. So the idea of bringing all those girls into the book, of making me and Margaux more like them than characters in a book seemed to make sense. I was like, What if we cast ourselves as those girls have been cast?
EMK: There's a part in the book where Sheila's working on the play and when she first discovers that feeling of, Oh my gosh, I have the answer. It's life! David Shields's book Reality Hunger came out the same time your book did in Canada. So it's interesting to me that maybe inadvertently you sort of put yourself into the literary tradition.
SH: I guess all of us were watching TV. And it felt like the whole culture, that's what we were interested in. Literature takes so much time, they could do it all in a season, and it took all of us five years! Yeah, I think that there's a lot more of that right now.
Why is it that when I think on those years, living with my best friend, I find it easier to remember what we wore than what we said? Glances and bubbles of feeling come back to me, my memory of the time made up of seemingly meaningful looks across the room, the sensation of love and belonging more than evidence or facts of our shared existence. To remember something is not to bring back something from the past but to narrativize it, to necessarily make a fiction out of fact, to give it shape by imbuing it with symbolic meaning. I remember our recent conversations, but so much of those first years has turned now into mythologies of myself, of Elissa and of our friendship. The things I remember happened but perhaps not the way I remember them. But it doesn't matter. I understand that where we've been is part of where we're going, together and not-together. It's real and unreal.
EMK: Did you find that after writing this character Sheila that it was also a way of distancing yourself from those events?
SH: No, it keeps it close to me. Because I would've just forgotten everything. I don’t have a very good memory, so in some way my my memory of the past five years is that book, even though the book is not an accurate representation. A lot that happened in the book didn't happen in my life. So it doesn’t distance it; it pushes it out of the way. I'm sure that in 15 years when I look back at that time, I'll think that that was my life and that's who I was. I'll forget.
EMK: Do you think that may be the case for other people that were characters?
SH: I don't know. I mean, I have my own memories apart from the book, so I don't know how other people might read it. But writing about anything is like a way of fixing something about your life. Ticknor really showed me what those years were like for me, on a soul level. And same with The Middle Stories. When I read those, it's like a smell: I remember what that time was like. Not that any of that stuff happened, but I'm just brought back to that time. I guess it has the relationship to time that a smell does, like a perfume you wore.
How Should A Person Be? presents the imagined and the real in tandem. It functions like memory but manages to avoid the territory of memoir. It extends beyond Heti's experience, beyond her conversations with her friends and into something else; the book provokes its reader into examining the very act of being. It becomes both real and unreal.
SH: Every generation wants to — is trying to represent reality. All artists are trying to represent reality, us no more than any other time. It's just like, what tools do you use? And you do sort of open up the idea of the novel. Why are you writing the novel this way? It doesn't have anything to do with anything. It just feels like so insipid, like, this is just an imitation of other novels, like what's the value of it? I don't think that about maybe Alice Munro or something or a bunch of other writers. But sometimes you read a novel that's just an imitation of other novels. Who needs that?
EMK: So do you think that tying yourself too closely to a tradition negates your ability to create authentic art?
SH: No, but you need to see the world. Like, you're not really looking at the world, you're just looking at novels. And I think there's a place for that. Obviously if that's what somebody wants to do they probably have a deep reason for wanting to do that. But I think a lot of times it's just a default. This is how a novel's written, so you write your novel that way. But what does that have to do with the world? Or representing life as you experience it, or as you see it?
EMK: This idea of being willing to discredit received mythologies of greatness and exploring the way a person can live that life.
SH: I'm somebody that really kind of believes in all the myths of the culture. I sort of feel kind of stupid that way.
EMK: I'm very gullible myself.
SH: [laughs] It's like, what do you mean relationships aren't like in the movies? It makes me feel very stupid, so I sort of think of writing as a way of figuring out the truth for yourself. If you're writing something and it obviously strikes you as false, you can't write it. And so by writing, you discover what seems true to you. What seems real. It's a way of thinking through things. I feel like the question of how should a person be, it was a question I took on and emphasized it and really wanted to work to the end of it. I felt like I learned that with Ticknor. I realized that writing can change the experience of living in a certain way. So I thought with How Should a Person Be? I would do that intentionally.
Nietzsche wrote, “In the end one experiences only oneself.” David Shields wrote, “Self-study of any seriousness aspires to myth. Thus do we endlessly inscribe and magnify ourselves.” Sheila Heti wrote, “I made what I could with what I had. And I finally became a real girl.”
SH: Reality TV is one way of putting it. I haven't been able to explain to anybody what it's like, because reality TV was just an analogy. But I really did have that question, how should a person be. That was real. And I thought the only way to answer it would be to use life. I wasn't using life to make a book, I was trying to use life to answer that question. And then I started to make a book. I feel like there's a bit of a difference, and I can't quite express it in interviews. Or even really remember, because now that it's over, it's like trying to remember sex from an old relationship. I tried to change the names at one point and it just seemed wrong. It didn't seem as fun.
EMK: Or probably as dangerous.
SH: Yeah, exactly. Which is fun. But also the title didn't even come to me until three years of working on the book. I'm not sure what I was trying to do. Because I know I did love The Hills, like that was just — my mind blew open when I saw that for the first time. It just seemed so beautiful to me, actually.
EMK: Oh, it was a beautiful show. It was so beautiful.
SH: Yeah, especially the first season. I was just so confused. What is going on? Are these people real? Are they not? Who are they? I couldn't understand the rules of it. And nothing happened. That's another thing I loved about it. It turned into a soap opera of course, but in the first season nothing happened. It was really weird. Then Margaux and I went to see them when they were in Toronto, the girls, they came from The Hills to MTV here, and that ended my interest in it. I realized that they weren't so special.
The thing that is truest about The Hills is that nothing happens. It is all in the framing. The thing that is truest about my friendship with Elissa is that everything happens but always out of frame. The thing that is truest about How Should A Person Be? is that Heti's framing, reimaigining, and reinterpretation of the events she describes, of the conversations she has had with the people she loves, explode what happened or didn't happen onto a higher plane; what's true is that the book is real and unreal. It's reality fiction. And it is brilliant.