It seems perfect. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is not really a novel. And this is not really a review.
Opening sentence: “How should a person be?”
Subtitle: A Novel from Life
Off the page, there is an interview with Shelagh Rogers, “To Plot or Not to Plot?”
Sheila Heti talks about moments.
“But in the moments that haven’t existed yet, there are truths none of us can predict, and as an artist I want to be there for them, creating out of those moments. I haven’t been there yet, none of us have, it’s exciting, and it’s the unknown.”
Certain moments. Specific moments.
“It is in those future, untouched moments that I want my words to come into being.”
“At any time when you’re reading the book and you’re saying what is this book about you can just look at the title “Oh, it’s about how a person should be, or it’s the question of how a person should be”…in some sense the outline [of the book].
(I did that. It helped. But only sometimes.)
In an interview with Liz Hoggard in The Observer, Saturday 19 January 2013 she reminds us that “How should a person be?” is the question Moses answers for the Jews with the 10 commandments. If Sheila could give the answer, she’d be like Moses. But she has to accept she’s not.
From the book:
“I admired all the great personalities down through time, like Andy Warhol and Oscar Wilde. They seemed to be so perfectly themselves in every way.” (1-2)
“One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me.” (4)
But this is bigger than I thought.
“I know that personality is just an invention of the news media. I know that character exists from the outside alone. I know that inside the body there’s just temperature. So how do you build your soul?” (2)
And I’m not even sure about the characters, like Sheila, but also Margaux, because she exists in the book and out of the book too.
“In an hour Margaux’s going to come over and we’re going to have our usual conversation. Before I was twenty-five, I never had any friends, but the friends I have now interest me nonstop.” (3)
[Margaux Williamson (b. 1976) About the film.Watch the film. Yes, a film. And a brochure. “How to Act in Real Life.” Because in 2012, Sheila Heti was the artist in resident at the Art Gallery of Ontario and did a live performance every Wednesday night in the museum’s main atrium.”]
This makes me wonder: what else interests Sheila Heti nonstop.
Here’s something: an interview with Mary Midgley. It’s here.
“The Financial Times praised her work as “commonsense philosophy of the highest order,” and she was characterised in The Guardian as “the most frightening philosopher in the country… the foremost scourge of scientific pretension.”
And here’s something else: an interview with Charlyne Yi, comedian (she was in the Judd Apatow film “Knocked Up” a few years ago, on screen for only about two minutes, but she was “mesmerizing and memorable”).
“Maybe the idea of surprise is part of what makes something funny, or what gets a reaction. At least when I’m an audience member, after you hear a joke so many times it’s not as funny because it loses its surprise or its twist. So I think funny has to do with surprise.”
In the Paris Review Interview by Thessaly La Force, she is asked to articulate the differences between you and alter-ego Sheila:
“I don’t think of it as an alter-ego, but yeah, I’ll try to explain how I experience it. Writing, for me, when I’m writing in the first-person, is like a form of acting. So as I’m writing, the character or self I’m writing about and my whole self—when I began the book—become entwined. It’s soon hard to tell them apart. The voice I’m trying to explore directs my own perceptions and thoughts. But that voice or character comes out of a part of me that exists already. But writing about it emphasizes those parts, while certain other, balancing parts lie dormant—and the ones I’m exploring become bigger, like in caricature. That sounds really orderly but I never realize it’s happening, because who is “the first person” becomes confused. Of course, this transformation happens very gradually over many years. Then, months after the book is done, all that falls away—the ways I was behaving and thinking while writing the book—and a different self from the original one is left, with the qualities I was emphasizing much less prominent than originally. But I’ve only realized after finishing this book that it happened with Ticknor and now with this book, too. During the times it was happening, I didn’t realize that was going on.”
And, on the topic of alter-ego and not alter-ego, Sheila Heti also plays Lenore Doolan in Leanne Shapton’s book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry.
(I bought this book for a friend who retired from an ad agency a few years back. I thought she’d appreciate the idea of artifacts comprising a life. Later, I wondered it was exactly the wrong choice for such an occasion. I didn’t think about Sheila Heti at all when I bought the book.)
Sheila Heti’s novel, Ticknor, was released in 2005. The novel’s main characters are based on real people: William Hickling Prescott and George Ticknor, although the facts of their lives are altered. So says Wikipedia. More alter-ego talk. Or, not.
In her 2007 interview with Dave Hickey for The Believer, she noted, “Increasingly I’m less interested in writing about fictional people, because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story. I just — I can’t do it.” “It doesn’t make sense to me. And the complicated thing is, I like life so much. I love being among people, I love being in the world, and writing is the opposite of that.”
Life. Story. World. Writing.
” If you want to write from life, you can’t really write a story. People are always changing, and I think if we didn’t look the same day-to-day, and our self weren’t always in our body, would we even be the same?”
Interview, SHEILA HETI’S HYSTERICAL REALISM (Were these my caps or theirs? I can’t remember. But it seems caps-worthy.)
How should we talk about how we should be?
Sheila Heti will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors to interview Karl Ove Knausgärd.
This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.
Next Wednesday, thoughts on another IFOA2014 author.