The real and imaginary mingle in Sheila Heti’s world

Life and art are one and the same in witty works like the internationally praised How Should a Person Be?

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      On the cusp of publishing 2005’s Ticknor, her debut novel about the American literary scholar and critic, Sheila Heti was residing in Montreal and contemplating the purpose of creative endeavour. Prior to this, the author had released an acclaimed collection of surrealist vignettes, 2001’s The Middle Stories, and was regarded for droll intelligence and a kind of idiosyncratic cool.

      Wanting to engage different topics, she started what would result as her second novel, 2010’s How Should a Person Be?. An erudite look at navigating identity in a clamorous culture, it fuses prose with transcribed conversations and emails to illustrate a young woman’s existential quandaries, and subsequently launched Heti onto the international stage.

      Following a revised American edition last year, How Should a Person Be? has received a feature review in the New Yorker, been designated as a New York Times Notable Book, and secured the author a nomination for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a place on Time’s annual list of the 100 most influential people around the globe. Reached at home in Toronto, Heti is unaffected as she speaks to the Straight about the development of this novel, negotiating selfdom, and the interplay between fact and fiction.

      “I was thinking in the beginning about The Picture of Dorian Gray,” she says. “This question of how can a preoccupation with beauty destroy a person, and how destructive that could be.” Additional inspirations were My Dinner With Andre and Annie Hall, the latter cited by Heti for inventive storytelling.

      Over seven years and various iterations, the author culled enough material to fill thousands of files, and she notes that the narrative frequently fluctuated. How she felt on a given day, “or the questions that I had about the world that day, would radically change the direction of the draft. And then, the next day, it would change into something else.”

      Around this time, Heti was toiling on a play, a stalled project that would come to fruition after being synthesized into her novel. Further elements, like her social circle and previous employment at a salon, also surfaced in the final manuscript.

      Early in 2007, a preliminary draft emerged; set in Toronto, How Should a Person Be? trails Sheila, the protagonist who struggles to write a play, and her citified peers as they muse on personal relationships and professional ambitions, gender dynamics, faith, and individual morality. An “ugly painting competition” involving a couple of Sheila’s friends is a key event, and underscores questions of artistic motivation and appraisals of truth and beauty.

      Split into five acts, including an intermission, the amorphous plot is billed “a novel from life”; though Heti hesitates to elaborate on specific details, she acknowledges that some names and locations are rooted in reality. Misha and Margaux, for example, are characters based on Misha Glouberman, who partnered with Heti on 2011’s The Chairs Are Where the People Go, a volume of nonfiction, and the artist Margaux Williamson, another collaborator and confidant. “Whether something comes from your imagination or it comes from the real world—it all is filtered through your imagination,” she says. “It’s not journalism—it’s a novel.”

      Parallels between life and art extend to the recent Toronto run of All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, Heti’s play that strongly resembles the novel’s doomed script about two families vacationing in Paris. That the majority of the audience already had that context for the production was a point she cherished. “It’s strange that the book brought the play to life,” she says, laughing, “instead of what I thought was happening, which was that the book was kind of like an epitaph for the play.”

      Irony, meta-conceits, and deadpan delivery have leavened Heti’s works since the beginning of her career. Romance and friendship remain constant motifs, yet in How Should a Person Be? she delves deeper, revealing moments of striking clarity, while inquiring into ways of becoming a better version of oneself and the ongoing search for authenticity in all forms.

      This was partially a reaction to the age of oversharing: “It’s such a new thing for all of us—these new personas and roles that we sort of have to push into the world,” she says. “Everybody who’s engaged in the Internet in any way has to contend for themselves—what should be private, what should be public. It’s not a simple answer for anyone.”

      In the novel, Heti writes: “How should a person be? I sometimes wonder about it, and I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity. But for all that I love celebrities, I would never move somewhere that celebrities actually exist. My hope is to live a simple life, in a simple place, where there’s only one example of everything.”

      There is the impression that the spotlight causes unease. “I don’t know if it’s ironic or not,” she says. “I mean, that answer [in the novel] is not my answer as Sheila Heti. I’ve never had this experience of a book being taken up in pop culture. But I’ve also never written a book that’s about the contemporary. I think that’s part of the reason why this happened.”

      Asked if artists process the world uniquely, Heti offers a pragmatic response. “If you’re a working artist, your job is to reflect on your experience—and reflecting on one’s experience makes it more vivid,” she says. “I don’t think artists necessarily experience the world any differently from anybody else, but the reflecting on it changes it.”

      Sheila Heti will appear at the Norman Rothstein Theatre on Saturday (November 23) as part of the opening-night gala of the Cherie Smith JCCGV Jewish Book Festival. See the Jewish Book Festival website for more.