I met Sheila Heti at a bar in Galway, and the first thing I thought was: This woman really knows how to rock a fringe. The second observation, 45 minutes later, was: Why am I telling her the story of my life?
Heti is the kind of person you tell things to. Say you’re at a party, wondering whom in the room to sidle up to, she would be the one. Smallboned, stylish and with aforementioned rocking fringe, she invites talk. She’ll ask you a personal question, like do you want to have babies, and then compliment you on your choice of eyeliner colour. She’s insanely curious, but she also shares. In fact, Sheila Heti in real life says exactly the same kinds of things as the Sheila in her fifth book, How Should a Person Be? – things like: “We don’t know the effects we have on each other but we have them.” Or: “Better to have a good imagination than a good grilled cheese sandwich.”
In How Should a Person Be?, which released worldwide in 2012, Heti uses a mixture of recorded conversations, email transcripts and real-life events that involve her painter friend Margaux Williamson, and their Toronto posse of artists and philosophers, to discuss, among other things, why we pick certain dots and connect them and not others, the importance of art, ugliness and truth, perverted boyfriends, why nothing bad can ever happen in a hair salon and whether it’s really possible for a woman to take up home in the heart of another woman. Heti’s preoccupation isn’t just to play with fiction and reality, she wants to blur the walls between private and public, the sayable and unsayable. I don’t think I’ll ever come across another writer who pursues Kierkegaard and blowjobs with the same tenacity.
HSAPB? had a thundering reception in North America, with TIME calling it one of the most talked-about books of 2012. It was on several ‘Notable Books’ lists and received accolades from all the right places. It had its share of detractors, too, criticising it for being narcissistic and overly self-conscious. One person even called her a bitch. Heti doesn’t think too much about any of this. “I wrote the book I wanted to write and I don’t feel the need to investigate too closely why people admired it or hated it or why it made other people angry. I don’t think we all read for the same reasons, and I don’t think we all go to art for the same reasons.”
Heti’s reasons for coming to art began early, when, as a child, she dreamed of becoming an actress or a clown, and wrote plays for her friends to act in. Things didn’t get really interesting though, until she was 15, reading The Metamorphosis, going to theatre camp, having that boyfriend who makes you stay out all night and developing her first girl crush. For all her many experimentations, Toronto has been a constant in her life. It’s the city where she was born and where she continues to live and work. “I like my life to continue in one direction and to draw strands from my past into my future… Some people are drawn to places like New York or Paris or London, which have their own mythologies already established, and they fit themselves in. But I find it more exciting to be in a place that doesn’t have its own mythologies, to be one of the people who make them.”
I ask Heti what she makes of all the self-mythologising that goes on now, the ability of everyone to narrativise their lives on social media. “What a big question! I think all this social media self-presentation makes fiction more necessary than ever. Because the fiction that is ‘written’ on Facebook and Twitter is such a narrow angle on the truth of a person’s life. I think that creates a lot of anxiety in people. Great fiction is the opposite of such lying and curating and posturing… Fiction is the opposite of advertising for the human being; it undercuts our image of what a human is, which is a relief. I think that’s one of art’s great tricks: to show what’s ugliest and most horrid about us in a way that makes us want to move closer to it.”
Heti is currently working on multiple projects – an adaption of the I Ching, a novella, a book about motherhood and Women in Clothes – a book collaboration with her friends, novelist Heidi Julavits and visual artist Leanne Shapton. The idea behind Women in Clothes is to investigate women’s relationship with style – what women think about when they dress, what are their rules, what aesthetic thoughts go through their head? “Magazines show us ‘what to wear’ but we want to ask ‘why do we wear the things we do?’” The book came about the way books often come about for Heti. “I’m looking for a book and it doesn’t exist, so I think, ‘I’ll have to write it myself so I can read it.’” It’s being built up mainly from surveys filled out by women all over the world. “There’s such intimacy in these surveys, and character is revealed in such interesting ways,” Heti says. “One woman said that for her, dressing up meant putting on a gold bracelet. That was all. I so very much wanted to be the kind of woman for whom dressing up meant simply slipping on a gold bracelet.”
The success of HSAPB? and Heti’s preoccupation with modern women have made her something of a spokesperson on feminism and all things female, a position she is uncomfortable with.“I really am not a pundit. I create fictional worlds that are propositions about life,not declarations. I am far too uncertain, and still curious and learning, to ever be able to say anything for sure. My questions are exactly the same as yours. I love to surround myself with people who feel they know things for sure, but I am far from this kind of person.”