In How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti’s latest book, a character named Sheila Heti struggles to finish writing a play. This happened to the real Sheila Heti, who, like the character, grew up in Toronto, currently resides in the west end, and was commissioned to write a play for Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre, a project she eventually abandoned. Yes, the book’s main character is named Sheila, the crux of the story actually happened, and many of the people she encounters are real, but the book itself is not a memoir. Nor is it fictional. Instead, it exists in a space between, weaving together the real and the imagined, creating a new space of possibility, wherein fictional Sheila lives, tries to make art, and spends her time wondering just how should a person be.
The book sounds hard to read, but it’s not. It’s captivating and engaging. The characters are colorful and enjoyable. The situations Sheila finds herself in and the questions she asks of herself are universal. This book is not about finding purpose, in the sense that finding purpose is a quest that requires a mission, hardship, and a moment of epiphany. The story is embedded in real life: the mundanity of eating breakfast, the awkwardness of seeing a former partner, or the joy in discovering new art.
Perhaps this is why, when asked where she would shelve the book in a book store, Heti answered “self-help.” Her rationale for this reasoning was all-encompassing and loftily optimistic: “Because books should help people.”
This straight-forward approach can be found in the pages of How Should a Person Be? and perhaps the premise only feels convoluted because we crave logic and order. Books are fiction or non-fiction. They should be shelved accordingly. There’s no space for a writer to play between the two, nor should a reader shelve them next to each other. But why? Does art not come from the spaces in between?
That is, after all, what Heti set out to uncover: whether worthwhile art could arise in these in-between spaces and how artists can reconcile the expectations of the art world and themselves with the every day reality of being an artist. “It’s about the difficulty of believing that making art is actually worthwhile,” Heti explains, ”when it seems like what the world really wants from you is blow jobs. So the book is about trying to figure how how to live and create given that condition.”
Heti is an accomplished writer. Her previous works, the short story collection The Middle Stories and the novel Ticknor, were published in 2001 and 2005, establishing Heti as somewhat of a darling of the Toronto literary circles. But the tedious writing process of these previous projects had exhausted Heti. She needed to try something new. “After finishing my last book, Ticknor, I couldn’t imagine spending the next five years in the same way, locked up in a room, writing a book all alone, from my imagination. I wanted to be in the world.”
So out in the world she went and brought it back into the pages of her next work. A book wasn’t the end goal. It was a project that evolved organically from Heti’s creative process. In fact, Heti wasn’t even sure what she was going for. She says she wanted to be in the world, and have that world inspire and inform her. “When you write a book, the world takes on the colour of the book you’re writing. I wanted my book to take on the colour of the life I was experiencing. So I had no plan of how my book would go, or even if I would write a book.”
Several people in Sheila’s real life become characters in How Should a Person Be?: artist Margaux Williamson, fellow Trampoline Hall lecture series co-founder Misha Glouberman, and Heti’s ex-husband and author of Let’s Talk About Love, Carl Wilson, all emerge as characters straddling the delicate line between real and imagined. “I think the nice thing about depicting one’s friends is you have to make a real attempt to understand the parts of them that make them different from other people,” Heti says. “It’s so hard to describe people, because it’s a problem of adjectives. Adjectives tell you how a thing is like other things (this thing is green like other green things, or kind like other kind things), but when you want to convey a person, what you’re trying to get at it is what makes them different from other people.”
To do this, Heti simply lived and observed, writing when the inspiration struck her. She transcribed conversations with friends, went to art shows, watched television, did the very things ones assumes an artist doesn’t do when they’re creating art. The one thing she stayed away from, however, was reading novels. “I would pick up a novel and start to read it and then put it down, exhausted and dismayed. I could only see the conventions, which had no value,” she says. “I felt much less interested in what literature had to say to life, than in what life had to teach literature.”
Heti admits that it’s difficult to discern if the Sheila in the book is anything like her real-life counterpart. “I don’t know. It’s very hard to see oneself from the outside, and also hard to see oneself from the inside, and also hard to see what a character you’ve written looks like to a reader, and even what it looks like to yourself,” she reveals. “I know there are parts of me that I feel that I didn’t write about. A book has to be a certain angle on things. It can’t be every angle.”
Indeed, How Should a Person Be? doesn’t have every angle. It doesn’t have every answer. In fact, it’s possible the book doesn’t have any answers. It’s anything but conventional. It’s complicated, joyous, fresh, and on the verge of greatness. Just like Sheila Heti.
And the other Sheila Heti too.
Sheila Heti launches How Should a Person Be? tonight, Thursday, October 14, at Stone’s Place (1255 Queen Street West). Doors open at 9 p.m.