Q&A with Sheila Heti

Q
I interviewed you for my website when The Middle Stories was published, and you said many astounding things, and offered many fascinating, provocative ideas. Your story collection was quite the same — alarming, prescient, familiar, scary, and full of wit. Now, your third book is out, your second novel, and I have a new look for my website. I upgraded just in time to interview you again. In that period of eight years though, you have developed and designed many personal websites — before I ask you about your new book, will you talk a little about your experience with the web, what it’s meant to you as an artist, and how you approach the medium, creatively?

A

You have so much up there now! Before it was just a photograph of your bookshelf with a few links!

Margaux and I always talk about how it’s nice to have a website because you can change it when your mood changes, to suit what you now know or think is important, while you can’t change a book or painting once it’s out there. So it’s art that can evolve with you. One day the website feels great and like a real representation of what you’re interested in, and a week later it feels out-of-date and worthless. It’s neat to be sensitive to those changes. A person’s website can really be a living artwork, a changing artwork, with no record of what it was.

Q
I’ll only ask one more internet question, to segue to conversation about your book. Your new novel How Should A Person Be? discusses ideas surrounding idolatry, art, desire, fame, celebrity, and influence. Social networking has given audiences a feeling of unfiltered access to the people who fascinate them, in a medium that feels more intimate, but is still very much an entertainment valve. But there’s the opportunity to actually communicate, which is so strange. Have you been in contact with any celebrities online?

A

I follow Steve Martin on Twitter. To me, he feels like the most celebrity of all the celebrities that exist today. He’s not so great on Twitter, but no one is. It’s like we’re at the beginning of a new expressive medium and no one knows quite what to do with it, so it’s always this weird artificial mixture of self-promotion and attempts and humour and forwading interesting things – I think to counter the self-promotion – and failed attempts at communication, and shoddy, transparent networking, and name-dropping. It’s like we’re all babies.

Q
Perhaps this decade was the first in which becoming celebrity outweighed our culture’s fascination with celebrities. Has celebrity been democratized?

A

Maybe. Someone misquoted the Andy Warhol quote to me the other day, not realising she was doing it. She said, “It’s like Andy Warhol said, ‘In the future we’ll all be famous for fifteen seconds.’” I was like, Fifteen MINUTES! But fifteen minutes seems impossibly long now.

Q
Do you make a distinction between fame and celebrity? There are people now, like Paris Hilton, who are celebrities first, and then do various things with that celebrity. Fame seems to come from having done something in particular?

A

I’ve never thought about it before. To me those words have always been interchangeable. I don’t think there’s a single person in the world who deserves the level of fame they have today. Who deserves to have their name passed down through the ages? That would be great if we all, everyone today, agreed to it – shook hands over that: None of our names will outlast our bodies. Agreed. What freedom! It would be a much more friendly world. We should be the first generation to say, Forget it. We should all, collectively, opt out of posterity.

Q
Were you seeking, and what did you find then, in the eroticism or neuroticism of becoming celebrity — not the obsession with celebrity, but the act of trying to make oneself a celebrity?

A

I discovered – and I think Margaux discovered, too – just from me taping her and writing down what she said — that it must be impossibly hard to be a famous person unless you’re okay with misrepresentation. You’d have to understand that who you are and who your persona is – that thing that celebrity attaches to – are radically different. If not, celebrity would become a highly painful state, because then you’d always be trying to attend to your image, which is idolatry.

Q
I’m trying to think of a male equivalent to the pure celebrity of Paris Hilton. I wonder if that kind of pure erotic celebrity is only granted to young men if they die prematurely.

A

Rock stars, too, though – that’s pure erotic celebrity, right? Jack White and so on?

Q
Who else in fameworld fascinates you?

A

Just Steve Martin.

Q
In writing this book, you often thought to describe it as something like making a Reality novel — as a response to Reality TV. But your new novel is also wonderfully indebted to Henry Miller and the many autobiographical novelists of that first wave of the sexual revolution, sensual humiliationists who made their obscurity legendary — all of which is now mainstream enough to be TV. Can you tell me a bit about your thoughts on the historical parallels between novelists and Reality TV stars?

A

I love Henry Miller. I’m so glad you brought him up! It’s wonderful to think about him in relation to the cast of The Hills. I think it’s true that sometimes an artist has to use themselves in their work – like Cindy Sherman did, or Agnes Varda in Les Plages d’Agnes – in order to get people to pay attention. All humans are interested in their limits and capacities, and I think these days we all sort of feel like we can’t learn about our limits and capacities from fiction, because fictional characters can do anything. But when you’re looking at journalism or memoir or autobiographical novels – well, that’s about real people, right? So the limits and capacities of those real people surely tells us something about our own limits and capacities.

Both Henry Miller and Heidi Montag are pretty playful about persona – like that totally wasn’t Henry Miller, and I’m sure that totally isn’t Heidi Montag; obviously they’ve both used life as an artistic medium – and their selves as characters in it.

I think it’s like Cubism, but instead of collapsing the foreground and background, you collapse life and art.

Q
Your openness about sexuality in the book is a little unlike Reality TV — it’s more common for novels to have the kind of candour you employ, TV still has to be shy. But I like this idea you begin with that along with the painting of the nude, the readymade urinal, the real sex act is now art, too. Is this the sexual revolution documented in, and accentuated by, Reality TV?

A

I think the sexual revolution is documented in, and accentuated by internet porn, not Reality TV. I don’t think reality TV has anything to do say about sex, but it has a lot to say about relationships and dating. These shows where women compete for the love of one man – or one woman picks from a bunch of men – the idea that there are “a bunch of people out there” and you pick the one that’s best – I think that courtship structure is particular to our culture. That’s not how people always conceptualised the search for a mate.

What I learned with Margaux is that there’s something to be said for the inevitable happiness and the inevitable misery and the inevitable compatibility and the inevitable incompatibility of whoever you might be with. Love is not about finding the best person, but has more to do with recognizing the valuable singularity of every person you deal with – and it’s always difficult, and the value is in the difficulty.

I think Reality TV says the value is in the search, and that one’s intelligence is activated in their search is for the “best” or “perfect” one. But the more I learn about life, the more disgusting and destructive that idea becomes.

Q
Your Reality, though, is not TV but language — in breaking up the narrative into memories, transcripts, e-mails, incantations, you also maintain a clear structure — the language guides the reader through your themes quite clearly. I guess I’m thinking right now of the aspects to do with faith, God, Moses, and prayer. Before writing this book, had you ever prayed? There is a prayer in an e-mail Sheila Heti writes to her self, but as Moses might write it. Has this book brought you to a different place in terms of that big question, that first step beyond?

A

I was not someone who ever prayed, really, and am still not, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful human acts possible. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a God who hears; just the idea of a human humbling themselves is very profound – I don’t mean the kind of prayer where you ask for something, but the kind of prayer that is about thanks and awe of what surrounds us.

Q
In your novel, there’s a little mention of doing the I Ching and some other experiments with random actions — did this process of letting chance decide one’s actions help you at all in writing the book?

A

Yeah. A whole section of the book was written with a contrivance of various cards with numbers on them and a dice and lists of words and a map – I was like a D&D geek. It worked really well for two weeks, then it stopped working. But it was very useful for generating scenes that I couldn’t have come up with otherwise. Basically, it was an elaborate way of combining real things from life in a way that they could be made into fiction, because it’s hard to fictionalise what you’ve experienced and is real. So one list was a list of “actions of the gods” and the other was “contingent variables” and the other was “human gestures” and there was one more list, and these lists came from distilling 600 scenes I wrote, on the advice of Robert McKee, who said that no good writer writes one scene; they write 600. So I wrote 600 scenes – each a paragraph long, and distilled each scene’s essence and made them into these lists… and then the die and the cards led me to combine words from these lists in a random fashion, and from those four words – which had depth because they came from those scenes – I wrote a bunch of new, imagined scenes.

Q
One book I’m reminded of, have you ever read Andre Breton’s novel Nadja?

A

No. I used to really like Breton – when I was 18 – and then I got a bit older and he reminded me too much of all the pompous men I was meeting who believed they were starting literary movements!

What’s Nadja all about?

Qanswers

Nadja reminded me of the sections in your book with Israel – although Nadja’s a lot less graphic in its obsession with the mate.

Q
What seemed like a crucial book to you while writing How Should A Person Be?

A

There were a few: A to Z by Andy Warhol. Art and Artists by Otto Rank. Art as Experience by John Dewey. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Those were the books I thought about the most. And a bunch of self-help books, but not one in particular. And the Bible, of course.

Q
What seems like a crucial book for you today? Yesterday?

A

Yesterday I liked The Normal Personality by Stephen Reiss, which argues that personality is an assemblage of values – and he gives, I think, 16 possible values. And any combination of those values is “normal,” like one can really value and be driven by success and romanticism and family, and that’s normal, but also normal is to be driven by athleticism and status. He also makes the point that good marriages occur when people with similar values marry. It’s not rocket-science, but it’s the kind of science I love, which is when people try to make science from the human sprit.

Today I want to read “The Female Eunuch” by Germaine Greer.

Q
Part of your inspiration for the book was to search for a way to be more at-ease, less neurotic about book-writing, to emulate Margaux Williamson, a close friend of yours and a happy painter. Or did Margaux end up becoming more neurotic?

A

She became a public writer, with her amazing movie review blog, Movie Is My Favourite Word. And she does that neurotic writer thing of worrying over sentences now, which is really the essence of neuroticism: a sentence in your head that is worried about a sentence. So I’m happy to say I made things worse for her, while she made things better for me. I have much less patience with my desire to make things beautiful all the time. I’m pretty sure it was bad for me and resulted in my work and life being rather lacking in oxygen.

Q
Are you pleased to have had the chance to see and document the Miami Art Fair in its heyday? Would you think going back might reignite some of the same ideas you had about the strange democratization of the pursuit of fame? It’s still happening but so much has changed, it’s even funnier now.

A

Wow, what’s it like now? I feel really amazed to think that we were there at its peak – its total, decadent, insane peak. I really felt sorry for the art there, but not for the artists.

It’s so rare one is at the right place at the right time, but that was definitely the right place at the right time for us. One has to give thanks for those moments in one’s life. When were you last at the right place at the right time, Lee?

Qanswers

I really can’t recall ever being in the right place at the right time.

Q
Did you find a narrative to the ascent to Famous, is it a state of ease or anxiety? fixed or fluxed? is it a vice?

A

I think it’s a vice, yes – vanity, idolatry, avarice. You make yourself into an icon to get there. You can’t actually be what a human is – this creature whose only nobility, only divinity – is that it changes and learns and grows. Instead, you have to be this fixed thing, like a car, so that other humans can understand you and worship you. Wanting to be famous is wanting to be worshipped. I think that creates a tremendous amount of anxiety when it works, because being worshipped is a sickness for both the worshipper and the worshipped – it’s a perversion of the human relation.

I think many people in this culture feel a particular kind of anxiety but don’t know where it comes from, and I think a lot of that contemporary anxiety comes from this unconscious desire to model ourselves – our beings – after things like perfume bottles.

Q
Do the tabloids matter?

A

Yes. I can always ruin a good day by looking in a supermarket tabloid. The problem is they are so certain about who is important. But who is important is your mother, your father, your brother, your wife, your best friend, your grocer… The tabloids fuck that up.

Q
Are you fond of the kind of writing that appears in magazines, and what do you find is the best way to prevent writing in that fashion?

A

That’s a neat question. I never thought about “the kind of writing that appears in magazines” before, but you’re right. There’s something about it that’s different from writing that appears elsewhere. I once worked as a magazine editor and the main question you had to answer at editorial meetings – if you wanted the magazine to cover something – was: “Why is this important NOW?” In fact, nothing is any more important now than anything else, so I think there is a kind of desperation in magazine articles to prove to the editor and some imaginary reader who supposedly cares about NOW that this is important NOW!

I believe that’s why Lawrence Weschler quit writing for The New Yorker – because it had once been a place (like The Believer or Geist magazine are today) – that didn’t care about NOW. It just cared about good writing and good stories. Then that changed. The stories he wanted to write about were things that seemed important for all time, and that’s not what magazines are selling: they’re selling urgency, the feeling that if you don’t buy the magazine you’ll be out-of-step all month.

Q
Did you go through many revisions? Are there parts of How Should A Person Be? that didn’t suit the final manuscript that your readers may see published later in lit journal or magazine?

A

Nothing but revisions. There are chapters that could have been in it, but aren’t, and chapters that are, that easily might not have been if I had worked on it six months more or less. I thought for a day about putting some of the sentences that I liked but that didn’t end up in the book on Twitter, but for one thing there weren’t enough characters on Twitter, and for another, it ultimately seemed stupid.

Q
Is part of the project still ongoing?

A

No.

Q
What do you like to see in a finished sentence (you write some perfectly epic lines of prose)?

A

It has to sound like it does in my head. I’m still disappointed with some sentences I edited in The Middle Stories to please my editor’s sense of how a certain sentence should be. Every time I read those sentences, I feel a pain. It’s like music, like a wrong note. I just think it needs to have its own music, which is probably the music of my metabolism, just as your sentences are the music of your metabolism. Or maybe it’s like a gait. Reading my writing feels to me like walking down the street, and when I read a sentence that I’ve compromised on, it’s like I stumble. I assume the reader stumbles too, but I might be wrong.

Q
What do you prefer to see from contemporary fiction (in this case I mean another person’s writing)?

A

Just something really alive. The best genre of fiction today is probably amateur porn – the written kind – found on bulletin boards on the web; really out-there stuff like incest porn and other taboo stuff like having sex with animals. It’s not that these works have great literary qualities, but they have something better – they’re vibrant and vital – because the author HAD to write it. Much contemporary fiction lacks a connection to real life; it’s like someone standing up and singing in a warbly voice beside a piano; it’s some recital in a 19th-century drawing room, and you have to smile and nod while they display their talent. But that amateur porn stuff – they’re real writers, to me.

Q
I don’t know if you can answer for yourself if it feels different now that the book is published and the overlap with your life and the text is no longer a concern, but I know this novel has been an important part of the lives of your friends, can you talk a little about the feeling of having these overlapping projects completed?

A

This is the happiest time of my life.
Q
Thank you, Sheila!

A

Thanks, Lee!

One Response to “Q&A with Sheila Heti”

  1. Girls Bedroom Says:
    January 28th, 2011 at 12:30 am

    ”- I am really thankful to this topic because it really gives great information *-~

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