At Sheila Heti’s launch party for the US publication of her book, How Should A Person Be?, Sheila Heti exuded a seriousness. She had obviously prepared for her reading, for the event, and her care didn’t result in the studied off-handedness one can sometimes see in people who read their work out loud in front of other people. Those people always seemed like they were accidentally good readers, or can sometimes be seen as relying on a cultivated charisma. Sheila Heti, instead, was so competent she commanded respect. The man sitting next to me said excitedly, “There she is,” to his friend. ”Isn’t she awesome?” She was.
Sheila needed nothing extra to impress everyone, her reading and her writing stood for themselves. Her respect for the audience conveyed something beyond competence or kindness, it conveyed the satisfaction of an artist in a work she’s proud of presenting to the world.
I’m excited to be posting five questions posed to, and answered by, Sheila Heti:
When I saw you read last week, a man in the audience asked if you were “OK.” Does this happen to you a lot?
I have never been asked, “Are you okay?” at a reading before. I didn’t like the question. Whatever he was implying, it wasn’t right. I said, “Yes, thank you for asking,” but I was only thanking him because it was an interesting question for an audience to hear someone ask, not because it was something one wants to be asked.
What is your approach to writing about sex? Does it feel expositional or particularly personal to you? Or is it more fantastical?
It’s definitely on the side of fantastical. The sex in How Should a Person Be? is almost hysterical. I think most sex is not like that. But sex can be a million different ways, even with the same person. I think it makes sense that in a book like HSAPB?, where the main character is so exhausted and oppressed by her own thinking, sex is like this great high — this great escape where someone else is powerfully in charge. I wanted the writing to seem like it was losing its mind, not to depict the losing of the mind, but to embody it, and for that total abandon to be bodily in the sentences.
Does your parents being immigrants influence your writing? Have you ever been to Hungary?
I’ve been there once before, maybe twice.
Perhaps language has always had been at the front of my mind all my life, because of how oddly my mother puts things. She came to Canada when she was 24. She was always getting cliche phrases a tiny bit wrong. I can’t think of any examples, but it always was deeply endearing to me (and still is). I think her grammatical construction was a bit strange, too. Not in any huge way, just very subtly. As a result, I think I admire when things are written down in a slightly off-kilter way. I love Jane Bowles; her sentences remind me a bit of how my mother speaks. My mother is very poetic, though I don’t think she would think so.
What was the process of finding a US publisher for HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE? like? What were your feelings about the time it took to come out here?
My last agent sent it to just about everybody. Nobody wanted it. I switched agents and by coincidence, around the same time, the Observer piece was written about the book not being able to find a publisher in the States, and n+1 had just published an excerpt of the book, so the article and the excerpt I think created an opportunity for my agent to re-submit the book to some of the same publishers, or maybe he sent them to all-new publishers. I don’t really know what happened, but then six presses wanted the book, and we ended up selling it to one. I’m used to this kind of thing. The Middle Stories couldn’t find a publisher in the US either. Finally McSweeney’s published it. It wasn’t like there was a bidding war around Ticknor. Only one publisher in Canada wanted HSAPB? so… I don’t know. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
One of my favorite scenes in the book was an exchange between you and a Jewish shopkeeper. Did this one really happen? If so, what led you to record it, how did you know it was a remarkable moment? Do moments stand out to you as writable or readable?
It actually did happen. I don’t know why I recorded it or how I knew it was a remarkable moment. I don’t think I’d ever secretely taped anything before, certainly not with a stranger. I just knew. I knew the minute I stepped into that place. And so as I talked to him, I wonder if there wasn’t a bit of performance-brain in my brain. I wasn’t there talking to him lazily and slack. I was very present and alert, the way I am when writing. It was like I was writing that scene while I was living it.
As for your final question, I am not one of those writers for whom things happen (or who witnesses things) and thinks, “I’ll remember this for later; I’ll write about this one day.” I have a very bad memory. And I wouldn’t make notes to use later. Who knows what I’m going to need later? Probably not the very amazing thing I saw. Probably I’ll just need that gum on the sidewalk.