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Friday, June 22, 2012

Interview: Sheila Heti on Girls, Self-Help Books, and Why We Do Drugs

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 12:45 PM

click to enlarge SYLVIA PLACHY
  • Sylvia Plachy

There are no convenient epiphanies in Sheila Heti's newest book, How Should a Person Be? Instead there are several intertwined, grinding and brilliantly uncomfortable ones that require the reader to shed a few dozen layers in the service of self-discovery.

In the book, Heti and her two artist friends Margaux and Sholem devise an exciting competition -- to draw not just an ugly painting, but the ugliest. From that point she arrives at many small battles: with her friends, her work, and herself, and finds much to put toward the titular question.

Heti, both an author and playwright, is fond of inquiring into all kinds of human assumptions through the prism of self, and then deciding whether to reinforce or uproot them.

The answer to those assumptions has, as in HSAPB, been converted into a book title, like in The Chairs Are Where the People Go, a breezy, winsome catalogue on life co-written with her sagely and articulate friend Misha Glouberman.

This inquisitiveness finds further purchase in her role as interviews editor for The Believer magazine, where she's spoken with artists like Joan Didion and French filmmaker Agnes Varda. She birddogs her subjects, and in the best way possible. You get the feeling that she's asking because she has a responsibility to some higher truth. Curiosity is its own art in the mind of Sheila Heti.

Even more wonderful in the book is the little bit of violence that Heti does against the stigma of self-help. There are anecdotes about blowjobs, drugs, petty resentments. She may depart from broad harbors, but she is an analytic zealot, never imparting trite one-liners or excusing herself. Reading her is an act of participation, discomfort, and joy.

On June 23, The Believer and Tumblr are hosting a reading for Heti at the Make-Out Room. We spoke with her about life as a performance, the artist as a vessel, and the speculative dumbness of celebrity.

How Should a Person Be? is a fictional memoir. Maybe it's the gossip in us all (or at least me), but there's a propensity to assume that the rawest moments in the book come from your real life. Is it hard to separate yourself from the character?

No. The character is a symbol on a piece of paper. That has nothing to do with a human, which is not made of paper and is probably not symbolic of anything. A character in a book is a thing that is created by an authoritative angle and there is not an authoritative angle on a human.

Since you're writing about people from your own life, did you have any conversations with them about how they would be portrayed? Or were they aware that these representations were symbolic and not meant to be taken literally?

I showed them drafts so obviously it was implicit that I did care about their feelings, and might have altered things if there had been problems, but I didn't ask "Is this okay with you?" of anyone in the book except Margaux, who wasn't going to take advantage of that to make herself more comfortable. Anyway, I wouldn't have used just any random friend in this project. I hope I have some sensitivity and could anticipate who would mind and who wouldn't mind being portrayed in a book.

An extension of that question is one you've asked yourself -- can you transmit an image of yourself and call it art? Does that sort of work hold a special appeal for you?

It doesn't hold any special appeal. It's just what happened with this book. Of course one can transmit an image of oneself and call it art if you're transmitting it in a work of art; why not?


I agree. And then I'll see a show like Girls, which I love, having its creators scrutinized for the '"degrees of realness" -- like how much of this is Lena Dunham? Why is her reality like this? As if she has an obligation. Why do you think such work is taken to task in this way, and is it at all helpful?

I guess because it feels like a "secret." It feels like we're being taunted, and that if we're not being let in on the "truth," there must be something juicy or exciting behind it. But I suspect there's not. Just something different from what's being shown.

There's an exchange between Margaux and Sheila about drugs and the sublime. Sheila believes their drug habit is an attempt to ingest the "awesome power of the universe," whereas Margaux thinks it's about a "feeling of nullity." I'm wondering if you feel, insomuch that Sheila is some representation of you, that external or artificial experiences can have that kind of power.

I think that's why drugs are probably so exciting at first -- at least some drugs, for some people. In my early twenties I stopped doing drugs because pot had wound up totally flattening my experience of reality. I began realizing that reality was more nuanced and thrilling and bizarre when I wasn't high, so I stopped. Maybe I permanently changed my brain. I was afraid of that for a long time -- that I had made myself stupid, but now I don't care.

In part because The Chairs Are Where the People Go was billed as a "strange self-help-y book," people might want an answer to the question of How Should a Person Be? -- which is strange, since this seems to be the fundamental question of living, and one that could not and should not be readily or broadly answerable. What do you make of this?

I think it's okay. We all want that answer. And I disagree when people say the book doesn't answer the question. There are useful answers, or half-answers, throughout it -- or at least the answers or half-answers I needed most when writing the book. Maybe in a few years those answers won't apply. Who knows?

In the chapter "White Men Go to Africa," Ben talked about it being difficult to separate his "desire to create art from his narcissism," but also that his need to go to Africa was a "continuation of narcissism," but that he could maybe be helpful too. At any point did you relate that to How Should a Person Be?

No, I don't think it's a narcissistic work. I never felt narcissistic working on it. The self and the human are the most legitimate concerns of art and every artist looks at themselves and what they've learned about life by what they've seen around them.

The book deals a lot with boundaries. There's the story of Margaux's irritation after you bought the same dress and then she explains it by explaining the need for boundaries, retelling the story of the spider -- the one you trapped in the bathroom, visited lovingly, only to instinctively crush it later. I was reading Margaux's excellent movie blog, and she reiterates the need for rules in one of her posts, asserting that life "without rules comes with its own joyless burden." Do you agree?

Probably. Oh god, I just want you to quote me the things Margaux said on her blog and ask me, "Do you agree?"

I have never lived a life without rules. I am sure it would be quite confusing.

Other people have pointed out this thing about boundaries to me (the chapter about fences near the end of the book is about boundaries too). I suppose there was a point before I understood that boundaries were an okay and even necessary part of love. That was something I was, I guess, trying to understand in writing this book, but I wasn't conscious of it at the time.

Is the question of How Should a Person Be? at all framed by a perceived societal demand? Meaning the way in which we elevate celebrity, and what that says about us as a culture?

Well, more important in the book than the example of celebrity is the example of Moses -- of leading the people. Celebrities don't really do that. Moses gave us the Ten Commandments, and that's what Sheila would like to do. The Ten Commandments provide a pretty good and fundamental answer to "how should a person be?"

Have you ever looked to other people for how to be?

Yes. Who else would we look to, but other people? I guess one could look to abstract principles, but I think that's less common than looking to people we admire.

Regarding philosophers, do you read Montaigne? I'm thinking of Sarah Bakewell's wonderful book How to Live, in which she uses Montaigne's own material to answer the question. Were you looking to any philosophers as you wrote the book?

I have always loved Montaigne. I haven't read Sarah Bakewell's book. Kierkegaard's Either/Or, which sets up the ethical life against the aesthetic life -- the question is, which way is better to live? -- was an important book for me, but I wouldn't say I was looking to philosophers to answer the question of the book. I wanted any answers that came to come from my life, from action in the world, not from my reading or from research.

The following people have been mentioned in many of your interviews: the cast of The Hills, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, none of whom you view as being dumb, but instead part of a performance. What about them makes you think they're smarter than they seem, or that they're aware of the performance of being "reality" stars?

I have no idea if they're smart or not, but it's more interesting to consider them through the lens of the possibility that they are smart and do know what they're doing, than through the lens of them being dumb bitches.

I love that you've taken on so many different, vexing, and meaningful issues, and then distributed them in a way that's immediately relatable. There's a lot of heavy stuff, but it's not taxing. It's actually a relief. Is there any work that does the same for you?

I felt that way about that Lars Von Trier movie, Melancholia.

Your friendship with Margaux wasn't just the kind of recreational bliss, positive reinforcement and sentiment so many people might mistake as friendship -- yours was challenging, something to be exercised. Is this an ideal?

No, I wouldn't go that far. But it was very good for both of us.

You've talked about the stigma of self-help books, and that interviewers rarely ask their author subjects, "How is your book meant to help people?" So, how is your book meant to help people?

I just put this question to my friend Kathryn Borel, who is sitting across the table from me, not knowing how to answer it myself, and she thought for a moment, then said, "Make them feel less lonely, stupid." She calls everyone stupid. Don't worry.

Well, that's good. But is that answer true? Is loneliness so bad?

I don't think loneliness is so bad. I think loneliness uninterrupted can be bad, but loneliness interrupted by connection is not so bad.

Maybe this is an answer: I want to give people a new dimension to think and feel inside of.

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Shona Sanzgiri


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