Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Sheila Heti Versus Toronto

Toronto’s fiction dynamo returns to claim her spot as arguably the city’s biggest “new” writer under 35 this decade.
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Sheila Heti Versus Toronto

By Nathaniel G. Moore

"You said to me after he told you that he had made out with me, you told Alexei: You should try fucking her. Lend me to Alexei then, to whichever one of your friends. I will fuck them like I’m fucking you and think of you all the while – your body, and the greatness of you that makes me do such things — fuck your friends while you’re not home, or watching. And I will lick it up — whatever trails you leave and wherever you leave them. You just call me. I’ll be there with my whole mop of hair to clean it up."

                                                                               How Should a Person Be?, pg. 119


Last fall, Vancouver artist and writer Michael Turner released his first book in nearly a decade: 8 x 10 a fiction, or novel, devoid of character names, city location or a general sense of time and place. The promo copies for the work allude to this heavily during the early parts of the book’s exposure to media and readers. But did it really matter? Was it a gimmick? No. It was a truth about the book that seemed to be emblematic of Turner’s artistic believes around the time of 8x10’s creation. As I interviewed him, I recall him answering my question about the book’s construction, and whether it could have been pulled apart and rendered threadbare from a large unravel, from a book with too much crammed in it at first. Turner wrote, "To the question of whether this book could have been written clothed, then stripped naked later — it wouldn't have worked. 8x10 owes more to multiplication than subtraction."

So far, a little bit of fuss has been made about the fact that Toronto writer Sheila Heti’s new novel How Should a Person Be?, just released with House of Anansi this month, is about a woman writer named Sheila, struggling to complete a play she’s been commissioned to write.

Hey wait! That’s the author’s name! I don’t see how it’s so interesting to dwell on. I think it’s a real basic approach to discussing the book, quotidian, pedestrian and part of what I call “grim ritual.” Which is a term I think I stole from a 2007 music article about the last days of the band The Smiths. (I mean, didn’t Pasha Malla have a story in The Withdrawal Method whose protagonist was named Pasha? And what about the Jonny lead in Jon Paul Fiorentino’s Stripmalling? Your honour, let’s move on…

Back to the book: I was so much more excited about how readable the work was; how it was also focusing on a compelling philosophy, a socio-human quest if you will, one which the protagonist attempts to fulfill.

At times the sexual lyricism of the novel is reminiscent of Henry Miller (as previously noted in Sheila’s recent interview with Lee Henderson, author of The Man Game) and creates a rhythmic hypnotism that preaches a provocative and conflicting view of a character’s overall and all encompassing desire: a desire for self-preservation and interest in playing out sexual subordination roles and questioning everything that motivates everyone around them. These are the secret fun bits of the book. The primal howling that goes on just down the street. There are artists and art parties, discussions about the creative economy, the creative landscape and the obstacles that creative types face in the world that seems poised on being proud of being anti-intellectual.


Also making appearances are examples of how people have been. Whether or not they are in the story to show how a person should be is up for debate. Take the inclusion of ex-pat Toronto painter Eli Langer for example, who brewed up some national controversy nearly twenty years ago when the artist’s paintings and drawings at Mercer Union Gallery received a negative review in The Globe and Mail on December 14, 1993. Two days later, police seized thirty-five drawings, five paintings and a slide collection from the gallery. A warrant was issued and the art seized. Langer and Sharon Brooks of Mercer Union were charged with "possession of child pornography."

Langer (who is currently represented by Toronto’s Paul Petro Contemporary Art) has two minor appearances in the book by name and reputation; while his work itself is described in detail and seems to haunt (at least for a moment) the narrator’s reality and psychic space. This intricacy is just one of the many fascinating nuances the book encompasses, and helps reinforce the humanness the book is capable of delivering.

How Should a Person Be? delves into a lot of different ways of human thinking and human processing as its titular vice takes hold of the reader. But perhaps that is its strength. How Should a Person Be? never tries to tread into other “experimental” channels. Its humour and palpability relies on the reader’s own ability to question the motivation and emotionalism behind the daily routines we endure and continue to tread through in our Sisyphean quest to get by, live, love, like, eat, fuck and express ourselves. How Should a Person Be? is straightforward, about a specific social code or order, trying to figure out how this code works, or if there even is a code. The novel never tries to tell a story that is not there.

Taking a cue from the book itself which at times plays out in interview format, I thought I would ask Sheila a few questions about her book, the past ten years of her career and get some great answers. I think it worked, as Sheila gives you some behind-the-scenes details as to how the book was conceived, and insight into what was going on in the world around her when her two previous books were released.

Nathaniel:

When you started this book four or five years ago did you have a clear sense of what it was going to be about? What was your starting point?

Sheila:

I didn’t start a book. I started thinking. I was thinking about why I couldn’t read any novels — and about why it felt so dreary to write one. I was thinking about what would it mean to write a book that wasn’t primarily concerned with style — the style of the sentences, that is. I was thinking about whether I was a good person or not, and wondering why I felt like I had no soul. I didn’t know where I should live or how I should make money. I carried these questions around with me on cue cards, and I carried around quotations I liked, and I read the few books I could stomach, and bought a tape recording and started taping all my friends and transcribing us to help me understand who we were. Very gradually all this work became a book, which I’m very happy about. I love books.

Nathaniel:

You debuted in the beginning of the decade to considerable fanfare (The Middle Stories), followed up in the middle of the decade with your debut novel (Ticknor) and have closed the decade with your third book. What have you noticed about these different time periods in your career so far, or you yourself at the time you released these books — was there a common element or emotion?

Sheila:

Ten years is a long time in a person’s life, and also in the life of a culture. I think the publication of a book and its reception are very tied to what is going on in the world at the moment. The Middle Stories, before it was released in the States in early 2002, had a bunch of stories removed because “the events of 9/11” made the editor feel that certain stories would not touch the audience in the right way. I never found out exactly what that meant, but it seemed to the editor like a different book before and after that September. Do you remember, at the time, that irony was declared dead? So a lot of things weren’t permitted for a time.

Then, around when Ticknor came out, George Bush was elected President of the United States, and suddenly no one wanted to read fiction; only non-fiction. If you looked in The New York Times, almost no fiction was being reviewed. Also, I had created a figure who was neurotic and could not leave his head, meanwhile the whole world had its eyes trained on a man who could not even enter his head.

The common element to all three publications was that what was happening in the world seemed to matter. That was instructive. We all think of art — or at least I used to think of art — as some eternal object that could transcend time, but if a book comes out at a time that has nothing to do with the book, it’s not really as meaningful an object.

Nathaniel:

How Should A Person Be? is removed of pomo tricks and self-imposed narrative (self-referential) structures that other writers seem trapped in working with. Though a lot of the promotional material does reveal your protagonist is named Sheila, how did you approach the "voice" found in the work? Did you consciously think you were writing about yourself or just the book's voice, a bit of both, or am I completely off the mark?

Sheila:

No, it’s a good question. I wrote the Prologue in about six or seventeen minutes, straight through. It was one of those rare moments of inspiration. It wasn’t the first thing I wrote – it came about a year-and-a-half into my work on it. A few months later, I gave it to Margaux to read as we sat in an airplane that was idling on the tarmac, and she was really excited about it. Then we had to deplane and it was another seven hours before the plane’s wings were de-iced and we could get back on. Those seven hours, we wandered around the airport and talked about the Prologue. She said it was the best thing I had ever written, which made me happy. Then I sent it to my friend Mark Greif, who sent me a very intense email that showed that he understood what I was doing. Finally, he said, “Now you just have to carry on like that for 300 pages.” I wanted to punch the wall.

The voice in the Prologue came to me like Ticknor’s voice did — in an instant — and not like it was my voice, but the voice of a character that had something to do with me. I feel like the character of Sheila in the book is partly me, but with parts of me removed, and the culture poured into those empty spaces.

Nathaniel:

You mention artists and identify Toronto reality points throughout the book. Someone relayed back to me after your Word On The Street reading that it sounded like non-fiction. How do you respond to this or do you care? Does it matter?

Sheila:

I’m really happy to have it straddle fiction and non-fiction. I think non-fiction is wonderful, for it talks directly about the world we all experience — or at least, that is non-fiction’s conceit. I hope the book also has some relation to self-help books. Self-help books are as close as books come to theatre, and I love that one is supposed to act differently after reading a self-help book. It’s so direct!

Why I’m not interested in straight non-fiction, is because journalism can’t play like fiction can, it can’t make things up.

I know that some people will think it’s a work non-fiction or memoir, but I really feel — more then ever before in my life — that what people think of me is not the same thing as me, so it doesn’t actually matter. This is a necessary development, I think, not just for me, but for many of us. We have representations of ourselves online, and in order to maintain your sanity, you have to know that those representations, and what people think of you based on those representations, is something radically different from You. If you don’t, you get all sorts of suicides. Online bullying wouldn’t work as well if we understood our personas to be radically detached from our beings.

It was writing this book — and my work with Margaux — that taught me this. I felt very nervous about representation before, as did she.

Nathaniel:

How Should a Person Be? seems to deal with obsession and purpose and a quest of self or a quest to belong and to find a life. It also attacks superficial structures like club culture, but also pokes fun at the experience of reading a book versus the experience of having sex. It also focuses a lot on the idea of what a woman is in the modern world. Is that true? Am I right? What do you hope people will take away from it?

Sheila:

I didn’t think I was poking fun at club culture, but maybe I was. Definitely I was interested in the experience of being a woman today. I would love for this book to be considered part of a century-old — and longer — conversation about feminism. It seems to me that having to contend with half-naked women all over the place changes how one feels as a woman in the world. It changes what it feels like to be a woman when there is such an abundance of porn. I have nothing against porn, but it has a tremendous effect on who we are.

It changes men, I think, to see models of dominance in porn; to see the cultural ideal of a man as having a harem. I overheard a conversation on the bus yesterday between two men in their late thirties; working-class men talking about women. One man, clearly in love with his girlfriend, asked the other man, who also was newly in a relationship, “Are you going to move in together?” He was really eager and excited to know. The second man said, “No no, I like to take it slow.” The first man, almost sounding humiliated and contrite and as if putting on an act, agreed, “Cheryl and I are taking it slow too, you can’t move in too soon. Life is short, and you can’t take it so seriously — especially when it comes to women.” But it was so clear that this man was a romantic and wanted to move in with his girl and take it all very seriously. That kind of romantic, hopeful tenderness — where can men find models for that in this culture?

I don’t care what people take away from the book. There’s lots in the book, I think, stuff about how to protect what we love from our own impulse to destroy it.

Nathaniel:

How do artists and authors influence each other? Or artists in general; how do they influence each other? Do you think its good they talk to each other? Do you think they can learn from each other?

Sheila:

I have always found painters so much more interesting than writers. Margaux and I had this ongoing argument, where she thought writers led the culture and I thought painters did. Telling you this now, I see that the truth is probably that neither writers nor painters lead the culture. But that’s what I’m interested in — the artist as someone who stands at the centre of culture and does the work that art is meant to do, which involves showing the culture the things it has forgotten to see. But to answer your question, I do think artists and writers are potentially great teachers for each other, because while both are looking at the same world, how you work with materials affects how you understand that world. Right now, I think probably computer programmers — those whose work involves a series of IF THEN and IF NOT, THEN codes — kind of steer the way we see the culture. But it would be nice to hear from the painters a little more.

Sheila Heti launches How Should a Person Be? Thursday night at Stone’s Place. For more details, please see our Events Page. For more information on the book, visit the official website.

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Nathaniel G. Moore (1974-present) is the author of Wrong Bar (short-listed for the 2010 Relit Award for best novel). He is working on a Bravo!Fact film short with Toronto artist Geoffrey Pugen (1975-present) based on his 2007 book Let’s Pretend We Never Met and a new novel about the middle class called Savage. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanielGMoore

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