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Air date: July 29, 2012
[1:31] All right folks, here we go again. This is it, this is Otherppl, this is essentially spontaneous, this is broadcast from an apartment building. Thank you for being here, thank you for tuning in. Thank you for giving me your attention. I appreciate it. It’s good to be with you. I am busy, I’ve been busy this week, lots of things have been happening, the Olympics are now happening. Not sure if you’re aware of that. The thirty-third olympiad is unfolding. The greatest athletes in the world, or some of the greatest athletes in the world, are gathered in London and they are competing for gold. And so it makes me think about book people and how book people typically don’t have athletic ability, or at least not world class athletic ability.
[2:10] And one of the things that I’ve been pondering, as I watch these Olympics begin, is how much I would love to be a world-class sprinter. To have footspeed. I’ve never had footspeed of any kind, much less world-class footspeed. And so I sit here wondering, my god, what would it be like to be able to run as fast as Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinting champion? To be able to run at, I believe, twenty-eight miles an hour? I think that’s how fast the guy can run.
[2:36] He can run a hundred meters in nine seconds, or something like that. And so here’s my question, this is what’s been bothering me; if you’re that gifted, if you’re that lightning fast, your last name is Bolt, you’re the fastest man in the world, you’re the fastest man on planet Earth, it’s got to be so much fun to run. It’s got to be thrilling to have that kind of talent and to be able to move your body at such high speeds. And yet you almost never see the guy, or any of those sprinters, you almost never see them doing it at anything but sanctioned events.
[3:08] The only time you ever see these people running is in stadiums, on tracks. And I don’t get it, because if I could run that fast, I feel like I would run everywhere. I would be in public, sprinting for no reason. I would be running through shopping malls, just to freak people out. And it really would freak people out because if you’ve ever seen these sprinters run in person, you know how unbelievably fast they really do move.
[3:32] And it’s, you know, astonishing. You can’t believe it. And yet it never happens publicly among civilians, it’s always in a controlled environment and I guess what I’m saying is, I want to see world class sprinters sprinting on sidewalks. I want to see them hurdling over cars, I want to see gymnasts doing flips in fast food restaurants, I want to see people pole-vaulting over buildings, I want to see some shot-putting. I want to bring the Olympics to the streets.
[4:00] Yeah. So anyway, my guest today is Sheila Heti. I’m very excited to have her on the program, she’s a very gifted writer and she’s the interviews editor over at The Believer magazine and her latest book, it’s her second novel, it’s causing quite a stir, it’s called How Should a Person Be? And it calls itself “a novel from life.” It is available right now in the United States from Henry Holt, after originally being published up in Canada, which is Sheila’s native land.
[4:27] So without any further ado, I figure we should get this thing rolling. I will stop talking, I will get out of the way. This is my conversation with Sheila Heti. Her book is called How Should a Person Be?
* * *
[4:43] Sheila Heti: I guess, in the very beginning, I had left Toronto just to get a break from the city. It’s the city of my birth so I needed, every once in a while, I needed a break, and while I was away I was in Montreal for six months and that’s kind of where I started thinking about…I guess my first clear thought was, what if I write a book where I don’t think about style, if I don’t think about the style of the sentences? So that was one of the first things I remember thinking about it. And I don’t know why that seemed important, but it did. To me.
[5:16] BL: Well you just wanted, you mean it from like the freeing perspective? Because like, how would you even do that? You know, like –
SH: I know like, not even freeing. It didn’t feel free to me, it just felt weird. You know, like, don’t pay attention to that thing that you’ve spent ten years trying so hard to pay attention to, like there’s other things to pay attention to. So I just wanted to see, I think I wanted to think about other things like “meaning” and “why are you writing this,” because with my other books I hadn’t thought about “why are you writing this” so much.
[5:49] BL: So then in terms of like, practice, in terms of the actual mechanics of writing the book, like how did it differ? You obviously had different thoughts in your head as you approached the work but then how did the actual physical writing of the book differ from past books?
SH: Well I didn’t know where I was going at all. I didn’t know where I was going, I had to amass material for a thing that I didn’t know…I didn’t have like a picture in my head of what it would one day resemble. I think with my previous book, Ticknor, like I had this sort of picture in my head of what, and I was going for that picture, but I didn’t have that in this case, it was just all process.
[6:29] SH: And so I had to generate material in lots of different ways for this thing that also didn’t at first even have a structure. It was really weird because not until probably three years in did I even begin to assemble the patches of material. And then there was no narrative, it was just seven different blocks that were kind of unconnected. And then the next four years, or three years, had to be drawing them together in some way.
[7:07] BL: So there’s always an incredible amount of uncertainty when you’re writing, something longform, you know, but this sounds like there, it sounds like you had to deal with quite a bit of that.
SH: Yeah and I was just uncertain, I was at an uncertain place in my life so there was like, uncertainty [laughs] resonating at every level. But I mean, in retrospect it seems like it was an exciting time but at the time it didn’t feel exciting, it just felt kind of bewildering.
[7:33] SH: I mean, when you pull something off, I managed to finish it, like that to me is pulling it off, then you feel like that was all really directed, you know. But at the time I didn’t, I was just like, this is never going to, I don’t know how this is ever going to work. And I wasn’t really able to, I was just like burning through whatever money I’d ever saved, so that was also another complicating [laughs] anyways-
[8:00] BL: [Laughs] It just adds a layer to the fun, it’s great when you’re like completely uncertain in your creative life for years on end and blowing through your life savings, it’s fun.
SH: Yeah. But I kind of felt, like, I kind of meant it, I had this feeling like, well I really, there was something that I knew, I just can’t really put my finger on what.
[8:27] BL: You mean like, you knew kind of like what you were doing even though you didn’t know what you were doing?
SH: Yeah, yeah, and I can’t say, like I can’t really locate what the nature of that knowing is or what the object of that knowing was but there definitely was that core –
BL: It’s also a book, and the process of writing it and then the finished product, it seems to grapple with form, do you know what I’m saying? It calls itself “a novel from life,” I mean it makes that distinction right there in the title. I got that right, correct? It’s not sitting in front of me.
[8:57] SH: Yeah that’s what they’re calling it.
BL: Yeah so I mean, you know like it’s just, it seems to kind of like, you know bridge the divide between nonfiction and fiction and it seems to do things, like it makes me think of David Shields and Reality Hunger. You know what I’m saying? This is a book that seems to reflect what he was getting at with that book and I don’t know if you read that and if it had any influence but it just seems like, sometimes regardless there are these synergies and it feels kind of like a part of that somehow.
[9.26] SH: Yeah I read that pretty close to the end so it was nice, it was nice to see somebody else thinking, you know, about similar things. But I think that I was thinking actually less about reality and more about self-help and books that address the reader’s life directly. So that’s, I was thinking about all sorts of art, like relational aesthetics and these kinds of things that, I wanted the book to be like that, I wanted it to be like a self-help book in the sense that it addressed the reader directly. Whereas fiction addresses the subject of the fiction.
[10:12] BL: Right, right.
SH: I think the book, yeah, I don’t know. It never says “you,” it never comes out and says “you” to the reader but on some other level I feel like it does address the reader directly. Because I was sort of trying to address myself directly and even though the character is fiction, it’s not really the way I am entirely. I wanted to write a book that would solve some problems.
[10:35] BL: Well yeah and I mean, how close is it? It also begs that question. I mean it just, so much of the writing feels so raw, like the sex writing in the book feels like particularly blunt, you know, in a way that I found refreshing and like, you know you’re sitting there going, “Wow this is really brave.” Or is this Sheila sort of like pretending to be braver than she actually is? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but do you know what I’m saying? It made me ask that question. I think it’s probably a natural thing that a lot of people who read the book find themselves asking.
SH: Well what do you mean, like what would be brave and what would be not as brave? Like I don’t understand the…the line.
[11:18] BL: I guess I just mean there’s so much candor and like it’s just trying to parse what’s real and what’s not, that’s all that I really mean. Especially when it comes to talking like about the intimate details of one’s sex life, you know, like that’s such an obvious place to point to, just because it’s the kind of thing that most people aren’t apt to talk about, especially in really honest terms and so it makes you wonder. But it’s also really affecting, too. So I’m just curious to know, you obviously could sense that you were approaching the line of fact and fiction and when you decided to push off in a direction that was fully fictionalized, did you understand why you were doing it, do know what I’m saying? Or was it all just intuition?
[12:02] SH: It was a lot of intuition and just thinking, too, thinking about the culture and thinking about internet porn and what is this thing that we all have in our –
BL: [Laughs] I have no idea what you’re talking about. No idea –
[12:22] SH: [Laughs] I don’t know if it’s true but I think that it affects the way that people have sex, to have this completely insane, these really extreme depictions of…I mean I think it’s got to change people a bit to have, to have such nutty, like insane…I don’t know, I mean I don’t know what it does, but I wanted to take that in.
[12:50] BL: I mean think it’s like, I don’t even know if there’s a way that anyone’s really measured the kind of damage that it could potentially do. I mean actually you know what I think there have been a lot of studies about porn addiction and stuff but, I’ve talked to…I want to say I talked to somebody who was dating someone who had like a real porn addiction, and not on this program either, but like talked to a friend or somebody, I don’t know, I can’t even remember what it was. But I remember having that conversation and being like, “Are you serious? This is a real addiction?” And then, I guess it can happen, and if it gets to that level then it’s got to be like really toxic, right?
[13:27] SH: Yeah I’m thinking less of porn addiction. I’m like, you’re a sixteen-year-old girl and then you’re a sixteen-year-old boy and you have sex and it’s an early experience of sex and how is that different now that there’s… if you’ve seen all these images before you’ve ever, it’s got to be different from what it was like twenty years ago. I don’t know, I don’t know.
[13:50] SH: I read Henry Miller and Marquis de Sade and that stuff was, that stuff changed my brain, I’m sure. [Laughs]
SH: And maybe it’s no different to see it, to see it on the computer, maybe it’s even more, maybe it’s even more disturbing to read about it. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
[14:11] BL: Yeah. Well okay, so let’s talk about the book then as it became a finished product and you had at least a finished draft and you had a manuscript. Can you talk a little bit about the early reads that you got on the book, like particularly from your editor?
[14:30] SH: Well the editors came later, I showed it to a bunch of writers, I always show stuff to writer friends first. And they were all really enthusiastic. I did end up showing it to an editor, my editor, of Ticknor. He…he was just like…he just said, “I don’t know what you’re doing,” and…I tried to explain it to him as best I could but none of my explanations were very convincing because at that stage the book wasn’t really pulling it off, probably…it was a very different book when I showed it to him than it is now.
[15:13] SH: There was no sex in it, there was much less narrative, it was totally different. So I can understand why he was perplexed.
BL: Well no, but timing is a big issue, I’m actually grappling with that right now because I’m getting close to the end of a manuscript and it’s like, I say “close to the end” but I have to kind of put that in quotes because when is it ready to show? Do you know what I’m saying?
BL: That’s nerve-wracking for me because I don’t want to write, you know there’s like a weird impulse to get it in front of people and then. Actually it’s not weird, it’s natural, you want to show something to people and you want it to be done but you don’t want to go too soon.
[15:48] SH: I know. I remember I was talking to this writer. I was at Yaddo, and he was this old guy, like seventy or something and he said, “Oh yes I had my first book published with FSG and I thought I was set for life and then I showed them my second novel too quickly and they didn’t publish it and ever since then I’ve never had a proper publisher.” And it was just such a horror story and I was sure that that was what was going to happen to me. I do think there is that question of, if you show it too soon to the wrong, especially to an editor, then are they just going to ban you for life, from that… you know…from their…
[16:25] BL: From that house, or do you think they all talk?
SH: From their respect, you know?
BL: Maybe there’s a blacklist, it’s not even just that imprint, it’s like the entire world of publishing.
SH: [Laughs] Yeah. But that editor told me just recently, he said he loves the book now and so he came around to it in the end.
BL: Yeah but it’s easy to say, like it’s getting reviewed in The New Yorker, it’s all fancy, it’s a revisionist history, don’t buy it for a second-
SH: And he has to say that, he has to say that. I don’t know, there is a question of how soon do you show, but I think that often you want to show something because you know that it’s not done and you want somebody to say that it is done. So I think that if that’s your impulse, then probably better not to show it.
[17:00] BL: Yeah. Yeah it’s weird, when do you step away from the canvas? Or whatever, like it’s really never done but at some point you just quit.
SH: I think it’s when you start making it worse.
BL: Yeah. And hopefully you know that, you know, hopefully you know the difference. And speaking of not being done and of tinkering with art, you actually revised the US edition of this book. You had it initially published in Canada and then you wound up actually tweaking it a little bit before it published in the States, correct?
[17:29] SH: Yeah I rewrote sections and went through the whole thing actually and did line edits.
BL: So obviously you felt like it needed to be improved.
SH: Yeah I mean, even when I published it, I thought, this is not quite ready. But I didn’t think it would ever feel ready, so why polish it? I thought that that was just the nature of the book. And then when I had an opportunity to publish it again I thought, well maybe I can go back and do those things that since it came out I had a feeling of the things that I wanted to change, so it’s a great opportunity to do that. And then it does feel done now. So I was wrong.
[18:04] BL: I was going to say, was it a big relief to get to kind of go in and give it a makeover?
SH: Yeah, it was great. It felt really good because I felt so much more clear-headed than I had when I published it in Canada. When I published it in Canada, I still felt in the middle of that, I didn’t feel like I could step back far enough away from it to give it a proper…to do something, to do that kind of edit that like, where you feel like you’re a master of the text. I still felt like I was submerged underneath it a bit.
[18:39] BL: You know that’s so interesting to hear you say that because there’s a part of me, it’s like these dueling voices in my head, where I think there’s something to the idea that it’s good for the work of art to have you kind of expend all this energy in one big burst or in as compressed of a timeframe as possible. I don’t know if I’m saying this right.
[19:05] BL: So on the one side, the time in your life that you’re trying to capture, or whatever it is, you want to sort of like pour all of yourself into it and get it down on paper so that there’s a consistency to the energy and so that you don’t drag it out interminably and sort of make it overwrought and mess it up. But then there’s the other side of me that thinks, god if you can have the patience to kind of just let the thing flower and that you can get that sort of critical distance, where you’re the master of the text as you say, is that the better way to go? I guess there’s no right answer.
[19:40] SH: I don’t know, it’s so delicate, you need both, right? You need that sort of spontaneous feeling in the text, I think, and if you edit too much you erase that, that’s no good.
SH: I always, whenever I edit, I always keep the original writing of it sort of beside it. And I always look back to the original. Because often you edit and you think you’re improving it and then you look back at the original and it’s clear that you’re actually not improving it.
[20:14] SH: So I always have that beside the document, when I’m editing, or I pull it up, you know. Because I do think you can lose things.
BL: So you write a complete first draft and then you print that out and then you have that on your desk while you do your revisions, is that what you’re saying?
SH: Well I don’t print it out but I keep it on the computer and it’s not even like I have a complete first draft but I have the first time I wrote that scene, let’s say. I keep that, I just call it whatever I call the scene and then I say “original.” And I just have that file so that I can always refer to it.
[20:48] BL: Oh okay yeah, because I sit there, and this is the thing with me that I’m also debating, is that I will sit there and like, noodle with something on the same screen over and over again. Do you what I’m saying?
SH: But you don’t keep the original?
BL: It’s like as I’m going. And then I’ll get up the next day and start to work again and I’ll reread what I wrote the day before and I’ll start to kind of like, tinker with it, you know?
SH: Well I do that too. Are you saying you don’t have the original, the first writing of it? You don’t keep that?
BL: No, now I’m thinking I should. [Laughs]
[21:20] SH: [Laughs] Yeah for sure, because otherwise you don’t know if you’re making it worse.
BL: Oh god, I just broke out into a sweat.
BL: So let’s talk then about the aftermath of publication, both in the States and in Canada. This book has gotten a good ride, you must be pleased, right?
BL: It got reviewed in The New Yorker, that’s some sort of, I don’t know, it’s James Wood? Please tell me I got that right.
[21:51] BL: He reviewed it, when he reviews a book, that means something, in the world of literature and stuff like that. How did you find out that that was happening?
SH: Well they called me up and they said that, no, my publicist called from the publishing house and said, “The New Yorker wants to set up a photoshoot with you.” And I think that I, I kind of, I didn’t understand really why they, what was going on. Because they don’t usually shoot the author for a book review. It was really exciting and kind of felt crazy.
[22.30] SH: And I had no idea who had reviewed it or if it was going to be positive or negative. I assumed it was going to be positive because why else would they do the picture, so I was kind of surprised that it had the tone that it did but that was…yeah that felt like big news, for sure.
BL: So take us inside this photoshoot, where did that happen?
[22.51] SH: I was in New York for the month and I was staying with various friends. So one of my friends, actually, the writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus – I don’t know if you read his book, A Sense of Direction. But I was staying in his apartment so we did part of the photoshoot there and then we did part of it in two separate locations in Manhattan, sort of like crossing the street over and over again. I’d cross the street and the photographer would cross with me and take pictures and that’s why the picture looks like it does with those men in the background, they were just crossing the street at the same time as I was.
[23:25] BL: Okay and like were you nervous about this, are you comfortable being photographed?
SH: I wasn’t nervous. He was a really good photographer, so I didn’t feel nervous.
BL: Yeah it’s weird, I have a buddy who’s a photographer and he’s got this like zen thing where he can like, set you at ease. You know, it’s weird.
SH: Yeah, that’s a good photographer. He kind of felt like a surgeon or something, everything he was doing seemed so precise and so certain. This guy Ethan Levitas and yeah, I just felt comfortable.
[23:56] BL: Okay. And so, and then the review, there’s been some kind of, there’s been some sort of debate because James Wood, you know there’s a comparison going on, at least in the blogosphere and whatnot about Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station and your book. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of this, do you pay attention to that stuff, where they start to get into kind of a gender debate, or?
SH: Yeah a little bit.
BL: How do you feel about that? Do you engage with it at all or do you just kind of look on it with like, bemusement?
[24:25] SH: Well I’ve had to stop reading that stuff because it just makes me feel like shit [laughs] basically. So I’ve stopped looking at –
BL: [Laughs] I don’t know. I think it’s a smart thing. Like if I could have the discipline to not read anything about myself on the internet, not that there’s a lot of it out there, but you know what I’m saying –
SH: It just makes you feel bad, because no one has, no one ever sees, and it’s not a very humane environment.
[24:58] BL: No. Well no, in fact I was joking with a friend the other day that I want to start selling t-shirts that say, “the internet makes me feel bad.”
SH: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah.
BL: Because I really think it does, it’s like something, it’s sort of along the lines, to draw kind of a weird, wide circle, but it’s sort of along the lines of the whole internet porn discussion that we were having a few minutes ago and the effects of it. Like, I don’t know if we fully understand what the internet’s doing to us, you know? I think a lot of people probably have that, but –
BL: I spend way too much time immersed in it and talking about it on this show. But it’s just one of those things that I feel like I’m not a hundred percent clear on.
[25:37] SH: Yeah it’s very weird but I think an author, I mean I had the same feeling as you. But I was reading this Tennessee Williams memoir and he talks about going to somebody’s house and he’s let into the library and basically he’s staying overnight and he can look at any book he wants and the book he takes down from the shelf is like Who’s Who in the World.
[25:57] SH: He’s looking to see if he’s in there. He takes the book down and he like flips to the index and he sees that he’s in there and he goes to his entry and he reads it and they got something wrong about when he got a grant and he got so angry and it completely ruined his night because the year that they said he got the grant was actually the year that he was his most poverty stricken and like, even before the internet [laughs] people can still make themselves like just, that’s like googling yourself instead of googling the billions of other things you could possibly, right? He’s got this whole beautiful library and he goes in and he like, takes down Who’s Who and it ruins his night.
[26:32] BL: Does Who’s Who even still exist? Those books are sort of –
SH: I don’t know.
BL: Yeah those books are sort of outrageous. But you know, you might be right, it just could be human nature and this just happens to be like the latest permutation of something that’s been going on forever, you know?
SH: Yeah or you hear somebody talking about you in the next room and you like, you can’t help but want to listen.
SH: Maybe it’s the same thing.
BL: Maybe it’s just more convenient now, it’s more expedient, you can easily always check at any point with your phone or your computer, you know what I’m saying? Whereas like, Who’s Who, you’d have to be in a proper library, to track that down.
[27:07] SH: Yeah I wonder how it’s going to change people. I mean I’ve talked to a bunch of different writers and artists about this question of like, do you look at what people say about you on the internet? And everyone basically says that they at a certain point decided they had to stop because it just, you know, like your t-shirt, it just makes you feel bad.
[27:30] BL: Well and it’s also sort of like, I don’t know if you ever done this, but when you google anything related to a medical condition, you’ll start to feel like you have a pain in your chest or you’ll feel like…and then you start googling “chest pain” or, you know, it’s a wormhole and it becomes very scary, very quickly. [Laughs]
SH: And is it like if you google your name and then you see all the things that’s written about you, you start to feel like you are that person?
SH: And is that the person you really are, you think, “Oh I really am a…” whatever they say?
BL: I’m sick, I’ve got a bleeding ulcer, things are happening.
[28:03] SH: But do you believe the stuff, like when people write, do people sort of write all and say all the same things about you and then you come to believe that that’s you?
BL: Yeah I mean think like, I think it’s hard not to be affected by it, I think if, you know, it’s sort of a test of character. You know, to make sure that you don’t let something like that overwhelm you but I think it’s human to be affected by it. I think you’d have to be lying to say that you could read something really nasty that’s written about you and not feel bad about it, right?
[28:34] I mean, I don’t know, it seems kind of like, I can’t believe that. I can’t believe somebody could read something horrible about themselves and have no response, but I do think that there are different levels of response, some people could be totally devastated by it, other people could –
SH: A twinge, like a little twinge in your body.
BL: Yeah, shrug it off, you know. It’s like the, there’s like that old Kingsley Amis quote that like, “a bad review spoils my breakfast but it never spoils my lunch”. I think that’s what it is.
SH: That’s nice, that’s nice.
[29:00] SH: Well I kind of feel like, I kind of feel like when you read those really negative things that they’re aimed at you, in a way, like I almost feel like that person wants you to see them. You know, it’s not just for themselves or for an audience of whoever is reading that stuff, it’s actually at the artist or at the politician or whoever they’re talking about. They want that person to see it.
SH: It feels personal.
[29:26] BL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No that’s true, especially with the internet because they feel like they might get you. And in fact to acknowledge it in any way, especially if it’s really mean-spirited, would be not a good thing to do as tempting as it would be. Like have you ever rebutted a bad review? Have you ever actually like, you know, replied or commented or anything on anything like that on the web?
SH: No, no, no, but I feel more defensive of other people, like you brought up Ben Lerner. I love his book and I was reading his, the reviews of it on Goodreads, I don’t know why, and people were, I just felt, so wrong about it and I really wanted to respond and I felt really angry on his behalf and really angry on the book’s behalf and I feel more like I want to respond if it’s somebody else.
[30:10] BL: Yeah I love that book, I think that book is hysterical and just like really smart, you know, unusually smart.
SH: Yeah it’s amazing.
BL: So let’s talk about things that aren’t books that might have influenced your book, because this interests me. Like I was reading an interview with you and you talked about The Hills, which I’m a huge fan of, and you talked about Werner Herzog and you said them in the same sentence which sort of made me extremely happy because I’m a big fan of both things and I think that, you know, at first blush it might sound like two wildly disparate things but I think there might be some sort of through line between them.
[30:48] SH: Yeah for sure.
BL: Talk about why those kinds of, the work of Werner Herzog or a show like The Hills, you know, felt relevant to the writing of How Should a Person Be?.
SH: I never understand what the rules are when I watch a Werner Herzog movie and I didn’t understand how they made The Hills, like I didn’t understand…were these girls, did they write the lines for the girls? Or did they listen to the girls talk and then write down their favorite lines?
[31:21] SH: Like I just didn’t understand how it was made and I think, I think that’s what excited me about that show and that’s what excites me about Werner Herzog and really anything that excites me, I think that that, I think I really love that, when I can’t figure out how it was put together. If somebody is just writing a novel, I understand that they just took images from their imagination and put it down and…but these just felt so mysterious to me, like there was a secret that I couldn’t unlock.
[31:51] BL: Did you ever unlock it? I mean did you do any sort of like research into the process of how The Hills was made or anything like that?
SH: Well [laughs] the most glamorous thing happened to me the other week, which was that the producer of The Hills sent me an email on Facebook and said, I couldn’t believe that, it’s so rare, I’ve never seen the name The Hills come up in The New York Times Book Review as an influence on a book and I just wanted to say that that’s really exciting for me and I got your book. And I wrote him and I was like, you have to explain to me how this show was made.
[32:23] SH: So I’ve been emailing with him and this guy, Andrew Perry, and now I’m learning, you know. It’s better that I’m learning now than then because I think that if I knew then it wouldn’t have been so exciting to me but, it’s so cool to learn.
BL: Well share, because like honestly, this is the thing, I’m a huge fan of that show, and like I say that without, I mean it’s easy to sort of say that kind of thing with some irony, do you know what I’m saying? To sort of like mock it while you like it or whatever, but I truly find it like beautiful in some strange way and there’s something cinematic about it.
[32:59] BL: And I don’t know if I fully understand why I liked it so much but I live in Los Angeles and I think part of it was that it’s set here and it’s so beautifully photographed that like it almost makes me feel like it’s in a different city than the one that I’m in. Do you know what I’m saying?
BL: It’s like a surreal world, it’s unusually well photographed for a reality show, I think, which is like part of the allure and it makes you feel like you’re living in like another planet or something.
[33:27] BL: What did you learn? Was there anything that you learned about how the show was made that you feel like might be applicable to, say, a future book or might bring into clarity things about How Should a Person Be? that you might not have been aware of previously?
SH: I don’t know, I was just really happy to hear that they all really loved working on it and they were really excited about it and that they spent so long on every shot. He said they shot and edited, I can’t remember the equation, but I think he said like they spent three times as long on every episode than a normal reality show, like they really were trying to make something beautiful and they put a tremendous amount of work into it.
[34:10] SH: And it was a joy for them to work together and he said it was very collaborative, and I was so happy to hear all that, like they weren’t cynical in other words. They were trying to make something interesting and he described how they, how the show changed over the years because in the beginning, they really were like looking at these girls lives and trying to build storylines around it but of course as time went on, they had no lives outside the show.
[34:40] SH: And so that they, the process changed as the years went by.
BL: I think making like an oral history of The Hills would be interesting because it’s really meta, you know, it sounds like it was this process of discovery for them you know, like they sort of learned what they were doing as they did it which is similar to what you did, and I guess it’s similar to what all, you know, writers go through but I don’t know, I get excited when anyone says they like The Hills because I typically get laughed at when I mention that.
[35:10] SH: It’s a special show, I mean I think it’s a really special show. I mean obviously it’s changed, I mean I only saw the first couple of seasons, I’m sure in Season Six it was a different thing but in the beginning there was almost nothing that, it was like Beckett, like nothing happened but there was so much, you felt so much meaning, like so much was going on between these characters but you didn’t, but there was no events, right?
[35:34] BL: Yeah. It was just like girls talking over brunch and – [Laughs]
SH: [Laughs] Yeah it was like, what’s going on?
BL: I wanna say I read something in like, The New York Times, where the person made the argument that it was like, you know, the show owed a lot to like Antonioni or, there was like all these high art comparisons made, which also made me feel good because there’s something, I don’t know, like I said I guess I could just detect like a subsurface seriousness to that show that it wasn’t getting credit for.
[36:01] SH: Yeah. And that’s why it was nice talking to the producer, to realize that it’s true, I mean we weren’t just projecting art onto it, it actually was made by people who were really careful and serious.
BL: See now I’m going to have this as ammunition next time somebody tries to refute it like, no I talked to Sheila Heti, she talked to the producer, we were right all along.
BL: I’m not crazy.
SH: [laughs] Yeah.
BL: Oh my goodness. Okay, so the book is out, the book is getting reviewed, it’s getting reviewed well, I mean on balance, obviously there’s been some stuff that’s not necessarily pleasing but that’s the case whenever a book gets reviewed widely.
[36:37] BL: Do you feel a sense of satisfaction, because you know obviously you had success with Ticknor too, but I feel like this book is sort of like popping more. Is that a fair assessment?
SH: Yeah, of course.
BL: Do you feel like, how does it feel? You’re there and you’re essentially in it right now, is it everything you dreamed it would be? Or is it –
SH: Well I didn’t dream really anything but it is relaxing, like it does feel good, I mean yeah, it is neat because you do want, you do want that.
[37:06] SH: You do want people to read it and review it and talk about it and I didn’t really experience that with Ticknor or The Middle Stories and I was writing it so, I wanted it to have, I wanted it to talk to people now. Like with Ticknor I didn’t care whether anyone read it, but I wanted people to read this book and that was one of the things that I felt all along and I’d never really felt that before.
[37:35] SH: But I felt like I was writing for people living right now alongside me, so the fact that people living right now alongside me are reading it is good, a good feeling.
BL: Well it’s interesting to hear you say that because it’s not often that I hear an author say that with a past book, “I wasn’t as concerned about people reading it.” Is that what you just said?
SH: Yeah I didn’t care, I didn’t write it for that, yeah it wasn’t one of the motivations.
[38:02] BL: What was the motivation?
SH: It was more for me to figure something out, or to…it was just my own puzzle I guess.
BL: Right, I say that because I can relate to it. You know, to have this sense, like I talk to author friends of mine who very urgently want everyone to read everything they’ve ever written. And obviously there’s nothing wrong with that. But I felt, I especially feel with my novel, I have one book out and I’m like, I don’t necessarily want that. [Laughs]
[38:37] SH: You don’t really want people to read it.
BL: Right, it’s like, people always say, “I’m going to read your book” and I’m like, “Oh no don’t do that” and they think it’s like false modesty and it’s like, no it’s really, I’m serious, please don’t. [Laughs]
SH: Why don’t you want them to?
BL: You know, I think that it feels really imperfect to me. I think there’s some embarrassment that it’s not as good as it should be or I was too young, I was in my twenties when I wrote it, you know, it’s like some of that and then it’s also sort of…I don’t know.
[39:07] BL: I think I guess maybe like you say, it was my own puzzle, I was trying to work something out. And it’s this thing and it wasn’t necessarily an urgent conversation with the reader the way that maybe How Should a Person Be? is, I get what you’re saying, you know, the difference between the two. And I’m wondering now like, do you feel like one approach to literature, or to the writing of literature, is better than the other?
[39:34] BL: Do you think that there’s something more positive for you, as an artist, to approach it with that perspective like, I should only write a book if I’m in urgent conversation with the reader, or do you think it’s okay to write a book that’s a private puzzle that just happens to also be available in your local bookstore?
[39:55] SH: I think they’re both legitimate and they both have their price, I mean, if somebody was, if I was to give somebody a book of mine to read I’d give them How Should a Person Be? because I think Ticknor, it doesn’t have much pleasure for most readers, it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for most readers. I think for some it would be a more interesting experience than How Should a Person Be? but that’s a very specific kind of reader.
[40:20] SH: So I think that, I feel like that’s, for me I always want new challenges, so the challenge of trying to make something, this is why I wasn’t thinking about style because if you’re thinking about style that’s really about you and your puzzle and your own…something internal, I think. That’s how I think, I didn’t want to think about style, I wanted to think about the world and I hadn’t done that with Ticknor.
[40:51] SH: So I think adding in the challenge of speaking to the world was the one I needed at that time. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a superior challenge, it was just, it could go the other way around, right? You could start out wanting to speak to the world and then say, well let me see, what if I do something that, that it’s not about anybody, it’s just about what I, I don’t know, it’s hard to say what the opposite of that is.
[41:20] SH: Because obviously, even when you’re speaking to the world you’re also speaking to yourself, it’s not like there’s this binary like speaking to the world, speaking to yourself, in both cases you’re speaking to yourself it’s just an additional person you’re speaking to or an additional, you know, people you’re speaking to.
BL: Was one book more pleasurable to write than the other? Was one approach distinct?
SH: Yeah How Should a Person Be? was way more pleasurable. I didn’t have any pleasure writing Ticknor.
BL: Yeah, see this is, now I’m all screwed up in the head because the book that I’m writing right now there are moments when I like it, and I like really like it, which I think is normal, you’d have those moments where you’re like, this is genius.
[41:51] BL: And then most of it is just so damn excruciating, you know, it’s like pulling teeth but I have to do it, it’s weird, you know.
SH: Yeah, that’s good, well I don’t think that that, but probably what you’ll look back on those times as the most pleasurable, in retrospect, right? Those are always, like we always make nostalgic the hardest things.
BL: Yeah it’s like childbirth, you look back on it somehow like this, you know, horrific, thing. I mean, you know, it’s not horrific but horrifically uncomfortable, and then somehow you have to find nostalgia, like a nostalgic view of it, especially if you’re going to repeat it.
[42:31] SH: Yeah yeah, you’ve got to forget, I think it’s like, going into labor and you have the baby and then you forget the pain. I know people who talk about that, who have a second or third child, you sort of like have to forget what it was really like.
BL: I have to forget and I didn’t even have the child.
SH: Yeah. [Laughs]
BL: I have to forget what I’ve seen. [Laughs]
[42:52] BL: Okay, so I want to talk about you, your personal history, like where are you from, I know nothing about you in that respect. You’re from Toronto, you said that earlier.
SH: Yeah, born and raised. I went to theater school in Montreal for playwriting and I studied at U of T, art history and philosophy. But most of my life I’ve lived here.
BL: And what kind of childhood did you have? What were your parents doing, were they artistic people?
[43:19] SH: No, my mother and my father are both professional, like they’re not artists. My grandfather was a painter but I never knew him. But I think because of that my father, it was his father, he understood. He had some, he had a lot of respect for art and there were good books in the house and, but I was just an artistic kid. Like probably half the kids are, you know.
[43:49] BL: Were you social, or were you the kid who’s like up in her room writing a novel when she was nine?
SH: No, I don’t know, probably a bit of both. I was putting on plays with friends and I did write when I was a kid but I also acted. I did commercials, I wanted to be an actress when I was younger. I did plays, like, you know. I was just a kid that did all the, enjoyed all the arts, dance –
BL: But that’s not necessarily a hundred percent typical for writers, you know, to have also a performance gene, or at least like an impulse or the ability to do that, do you still have that or has that receded as you’ve gotten older?
[44:28] SH: No I still have that, I mean I kind of feel like with this book, it’s a repressed theater thing, like not just in terms of the dialogue and the play but like, I miss the theater, I miss making a show, I miss working on a project with other people. Like that’s the great thing about doing theater is that you have these people and you’re making the show together. And with this book it felt a bit like that.
[44:52] SH: It was like, okay here’s the other actors and –
BL: It’s social, it’s a collaboration.
SH: Yeah, it’s social.
BL: So okay, your folks, what did your folks do if they weren’t artists?
SH: My mom’s a pathologist and my dad’s an engineer.
BL: Okay, so and they supported you, do you have siblings or anything?
SH: I’ve got a younger brother, he does stand up comedy. They didn’t support me after I moved out, but they did support me when I was growing up.
BL: Well sure, yeah, but they weren’t opposed to you pursuing the arts, pursuing something literary. And then it sounds like your brother’s also artistic too, so they really lucked out, they got two of them.
[45:34] SH: Yeah, well my brother went to law school and actually spent a year working as a lawyer but I think that he didn’t like it. And in fact, he was told not to do his stand up comedy because it was too, it wasn’t the image of a lawyer to be doing this stuff. His stuff is really hardcore.
[45:56] BL: What’s his name?
SH: David. David Heti.
BL: Okay, can he be found anywhere?
SH: You can see his stuff on Vimeo. There’s a set there and it’s very dark. The first time I saw him do it I was completely shocked and horrified and I couldn’t believe this was coming out of the mouth of my little brother. But now I understand him, that’s part of my understanding of him. That that’s part of him. But I think for the whole family, we were pretty shocked at the darkness of his imagination [laughs]. But it’s not so different from mine. I think that we, I don’t know what happened to us, because we both have these sort of dark imaginations – we had a lovely home.
[46:41] BL: But this is the thing, okay, like it almost, it doesn’t always have to happen like this, but I think it often happens that if somebody has like, I don’t know. It’s like that belief that it’s okay to express these things, people that have unusual levels of candor or have like this really dark imagination and they’re willing to express it. I think a lot of times they do come from like happy families.
[47:10] BL: And their parents were supportive and kind of nurtured an environment where it was okay to be creative and they didn’t feel like if they said something wrong or dark or weird or potentially risky that it would somehow affect how much their parents loved them. Do you know what I’m saying? It’s like a safety issue.
SH: Right, that’s interesting.
BL: Do you know what I’m saying?
SH: Maybe everybody kind of has a very dark imagination, but it’s just not permitted to go there.
[47:39] SH: Like my father really is an unconventional sort of person, he’s sort of an eccentric man.
BL: How so?
SH: He just doesn’t, he doesn’t really think, he doesn’t think there’s anything inherently to respect about authority. He’s always questioning and he was always trying to embarrass us when we were kids in public because as he puts it, he wanted us to feel like you don’t need to be in the world in such a way that cultivates the world’s approval.
[48:18] SH: It’s okay to be laughed at, it’s okay to be ridiculous. So he was always like that in public and trying to get us over shame or embarrassment.
BL: So give me an example, like are we talking about like all of a sudden he would just start quacking like a duck? What would he do specifically? Do you have any memories?
[48:38] SH: I don’t have memories of it, but it just be like, it would be that kind of thing. I don’t mean to make him sound like a ridiculous man, I think it was kind of rare. But he, I think that he probably disdained, you know, gestures toward conformity for its own sake. Ridicule it and…I don’t remember what weird things he did to embarrass us, but I had those memories until like my teens, you know? I don’t have them anymore, I don’t have a very good memory.
[49:14] BL: Yeah neither do I. I found myself really liking your dad, that sounds like a cool thing to do for your kids, you know?
SH: Yeah, he’s a fantastic father.
BL: So, I take it he liked your book? Because like this is another thing, it’s the kind of book that, you know, some people might be reticent to share with their dad [laughs] or their parents.
[49:34] SH: Yeah, he said he didn’t read the sex parts. He didn’t read that like, the interlude, he said he skipped the sex parts but he loved the book. He didn’t really like my other books that much but he did like this one a lot.
BL: Did he tell you that he didn’t like your other books that much?
SH: Yeah like with The Middle Stories he’s like, I don’t really get it, you know, or. Yeah he told me.
BL: That’s good, I like that too.
[49:56] BL: I kind of feel that way about my book and my parents, but my parents have never been able to admit it to me, but I could be wrong. [Laughs]
SH: [Laughs] What do you mean, what do you mean?
BL: I think they’re proud of it, I think they were probably like, what the hell is this? Kinda. You know?
BL: Which might be a, you know, I think it is a very valid response. You know, it’s just, it’s hard, as a parent. And frankly, the book wasn’t really, they really weren’t the audience. They aren’t the audience.
[50:20] BL: So it would be sort of a stretch to imagine that they would love it. But then I say that and I had an 88-year-old woman come up to me and tell me how much she liked it and it was authentic, so you never know, age is not necessarily a determining factor when it comes to who’s going to respond to a book, you know?
BL: So, and speaking of which, responses to this book, have you been hearing from readers?
[50:46] SH: Yeah, yeah, I get little notes and letters and so on. And yeah.
BL: Anything creepy or weird? It’s such a personal book, do you feel like people have this sense that they know you? You know what I’m saying? In a way that might –
SH: Maybe. But not in the way that’s weirded me out, like I expected a lot more creepiness but I haven’t gotten any creepy letters directly.
[51:12] SH: There was somebody, some guy, he wanted to be my friend or something, and he said that he’s going to get these four women to write me to tell me that I should be friends with him and I was like, okay well I don’t have to reply to that, you know. [Laughs] And I never got letters from those four women, so he was probably drunk when he wrote it, but that’s, I haven’t gotten anything any weirder than that which is nice.
[51:38] BL: It’s sort of nice to get a weird, drunk, a slightly weird drunken email from a guy who’s promising that four of his girlfriends are going to email you.
SH: Yeah to tell me, I’m not creepy.
BL: You have arrived.
SH: I’ll ask all my women friends to write you and tell you I’m not creepy.
BL: [Laughs] If you need four to confirm that, you might be in trouble.
SH: [Laughs] Really scrounging, yeah I felt like he was just like, pulling them off the street or something.
BL: Okay so let’s, I want to try to track, you know, in a circuitous way, your bio, like how did you come into writing books? You went to school for playwriting in Montreal, you said, and then you went to U of T for art history, is that right?
SH: Yeah and philosophy.
BL: And philosophy.
[52:17] SH: And I just started writing The Middle Stories when I was there, when I was at U of T, and I didn’t know that I was writing a book, I was just writing short stories. And then I was sending them to journals and no one was publishing them and then I sent four of them to McSweeney’s because I was so excited by that journal and Dave Eggers published all four of the stories that I sent him and then as a result of that, this publisher in Toronto contacted me, her name’s Martha Sharpe. She was at a publishing house called Anansi, who publishes me in Canada, House of Anansi.
[52:53] SH: And they, she just said, I’d like to do a book of your stories. So I gathered up, I had so many stories I gathered up thirty of them, and that became a book. So I wasn’t really planning to write those, you know, in that form, they were just like stories on their own.
BL: And so once that happened, I guess before that happened, were you conceiving of yourself as an author? Was that the path that you were on? Or were you just doing this because you liked to write stories and you couldn’t stop yourself? Do you know what I’m saying?
[53:26] SH: I was trying to make myself into, I was trying to write, I was trying to learn how to write. I was pretty serious about it. I can’t remember if I thought, I think I thought, well maybe the ideal thing is to write five or six books over a lifetime. I think that was in my head. I was thinking about James Joyce and I was like, he published the right number of books.
BL: Yeah I’ve had that thought too. You know, or I think about filmographies too, like Stanley Kubrick was not super prolific, he kind of took his time. Paul Thomas Anderson’s doing that, where it’s like, you have to sort of wait, you know? [laughs]
[54:01] BL: And there’s something, I think, sort of great about that because you know, you think you know, when they’ve got a movie coming out, that you’re going to be really getting something that they need to say or something that they really spent time on, I don’t know.
SH: Yeah but then there’s the Woody Allen model, which also is kind of exciting, you just make a movie a year, it’s just what you do. And there’s something workman-like and beautiful about that approach too. Even though the movie –
BL: Yeah I feel like his movies have gotten fairly uneven though –
SH: For sure.
BL: I guess that’s just the way it goes, but he likes to do it. And people pay him to do it, so why not, I guess.
[54:34] SH: Yeah, to hell with the audience, like he’s doing it for himself and that’s what’s sort of admirable about it. He’s doing it because that’s how he likes to live.
BL: Yeah but, you know, okay, so this brings up another sort of tangent that I went on recently, it’s like, when you see a musician play, you go to a concert and I’m thinking of Bob Dylan in particular, or just as one example. But he’s one of those guys who like plays his songs but he always plays them in weird arrangements that you don’t recognize and in a brand new voice and with a new accent and he’s sort of keeping it interesting for himself, at the expense of the audience, do you know what I’m saying?
[55:10] SH: Yeah but the audience has no rights.
BL: Say again?
SH: The audience has no rights. Like, they have no claims on the artist.
BL: Yeah I guess so. But I just feel like they’re paying his bills. I mean, you know, theoretically.
SH: But they don’t have to, that’s their choice.
BL: Right, I guess so. I just kind of feel like, god man, people just want to hear “Like a Rolling Stone.” [Laughs]
SH: People can go fuck themselves. You know?
BL: [laughs] Yeah he just doesn’t care. I think I’m too, I think maybe I’m too emotionally needy and people-pleasing, like maybe I’d be like, just give them the hits, just give them what they want, I want them to go home happy. [Laughs]
[55:43] BL: Is that how you would be? Or would you be like, fuck them, I’m playing it in like slow motion with a high, reedy twang, you know?
SH: Well I’d say that’s the ideal, I don’t know how I’d be if I was a musician, but I think I’d respect that. You know, I respect it.
BL: Yeah. Okay, so you get out of school, you’ve got these stories, they’re published by McSweeney’s, you’ve got a book, it coalesces and then you start to work on Ticknor, is that right?
[56:13] SH: Yeah, yeah.
BL: So now how are you working? Like what is your day to day? How disciplined are you and is it like an everyday militant up at five AM kind of thing, or how does it work for you?
SH: I just work all the time, I mean it’s not really discipline, it’s just what I like to do most. So, I like sitting at my computer. I have to force myself, I’ve got to remind myself to go for a walk everyday. I like being at my computer. I like sending emails to my friends. I like reading emails from my friends. I like writing, I like editing, like I edit interviews at The Believer.
[56:50] SH: I just like, I like being there at my computer. So, you know, if I have to do errands maybe I’ll spend the day doing errands but I don’t really have a schedule. It’s just really organic, I guess. I just work all the time and I just do what I like to do, you know? I do things, I try to make money and, because I have to, you know, it just all pulls together.
[57:14] BL: How do you make money? Are there side projects or editing projects that you do, is that what it is, or?
SH: I make money from my books and I make money from editing at The Believer and I do, you know, I write things for people and they pay me money to write them and just in those usual ways. I had temp jobs on and off through my twenties. I’ll get, you know, there’s grants in the Canadian, there’s arts funding in Canada so there’s all sorts of different patchwork –
[57:44] BL: What is it, what do you call this? Arts funding?
SH: [Laughs] Yeah we have that here in Canada.
BL: You do? Oh, weird. So that means they what, they just give artists money to make art?
SH: Yeah, don’t they, they don’t do that? Don’t you guys have the NEA?
BL: Yeah we have the NEA. And you know what, I should actually, to counterbalance a little bit, I should say that I’m just not as diligent as I should be in like searching out those kinds of opportunities. There are some writers, I’ve met tons of them, who are like really, really good at getting their hands on free money, you know?
[58:16] BL: And I think it’s a little bit, just requires a little bit of work and hustle, you know?
SH: Yeah, right.
BL: So what’s next for you? What are you working on now? Are you just kind of like going through the publicity cycle for this book before you get started on something else, or are you already working on the next thing?
SH: I have a bunch of little things that I’m working on and then, you know, and then we’ll sort of, we’ll see what happens.
[58:44] BL: What do you mean, like short stories or like magazine projects or something?
SH: Yeah, like little things that have piled up over the last while. I mean, I was away from home for the last two months, I wasn’t really able to do any work, so I just got home two weeks ago so now I’m just catching up I guess.
BL: So what, you were just out on book tour?
BL: What was the best stop? Did you have any like unusually memorable experiences out there?
[59:10] SH: I had a fun time in most of the places I went. Like I hung out with some really fun people in San Francisco and same thing in Portland and same thing in Seattle, like I had a really good time actually. Not necessarily because I was on book tour, but because I managed to meet neat people in every city and I have friends in LA that I got to see that I hadn’t seen in a while.
[59:37] BL: And then what about like movie and television stuff, has there been any optioning of this book? I mean it sort of seems like it could potentially be the foundation for an interesting like series or film.
SH: Yeah who knows, I mean there’s been hints of that, but I don’t know how any of that’s going to turn out in the end.
BL: So nothing official has happened?
[1:00:02] BL: Well, I’ll tell you, I think it’s a great book and I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about it and I congratulate you on all the success, it must be very exciting for you.
SH: [laughs] Thanks very much, yeah it was fun talking to you.
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[1:00:14] Okay, guys there you have it, that’s the program, that is Sheila Heti, go get her book, what a delight she is. The book is called How Should a Person Be? It is available in the United States of America in hardcover from Henry Holt. You can find Sheila on the web, if you want, at sheilaheti.net. She’s also on the Facebook. This program has a website, it’s otherpplpod.com. It has a twitter feed, @otherpplpod. I have a Twitter feed, @bradlisti. You can read my tweets. This program has a Facebook page and if you want to email me something, the address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you to Kill Rock Stars for all the great music, be sure to check out killrockstars.com and I think that’s pretty much it, I think that’s basically the gist. I am now going to go outside and move around, perhaps, in a very pedestrian, average, and increasingly middle-aged manner. Please remember that Jack Kerouac died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage from cirrhosis of the liver and that Bertrand Russell, at the age of seventy-six, survived an ocean plane crash in which a number of other passengers died. Thank you so much you guys for listening, I really appreciate it. Subscribe if you haven’t done that yet, over at iTunes, it’s free, do that at Stitcher too, if you’re a Stitcher person, it’s also free there. And if you happen to be an extremely fast human being, if you happen to have world-class footspeed, please remember to share your gift with the world and go sprinting through your local shopping mall.