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  • A Conversation with Sheila Heti
  • David Naimon (bio)

Canadian writer Sheila Heti is the author of five books, all very different in form and style. She has written a collection of modern fables entitled The Middle Stories; a historical novella called Ticknor; and an illustrated book for children, We Need a Horse. Recently she ventured into nonfiction with her book of “conversational philosophy,” The Chairs Are Where the People Go, written with Misha Glouberman, which the New Yorker chose as one of the best books of 2011. Sheila Heti works as Interviews editor at the Believer magazine. Her newest book, How Should a Person Be? blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir. [End Page 106]

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Photo Sylvia Plachy Color

[End Page 107]


I view your last book, The Chairs Are Where the People Go, and your current one, How Should a Person Be? as companion pieces. They both play with form. They both involve collaboration with friends. And they both have a self-help aspect to them. For people who aren’t familiar with these two books, you call your nonfiction book, The Chairs Are Where the People Go, a book of “conversational philosophy.” Really, it’s the thoughts of your good friend, Misha Glouberman, that you then shaped into a book. Similarly, you populate your most recent novel, How Should a Person Be? with your friends, or at least the characters share the names of your real-life friends, and the protagonist shares your name. I’m interested in the impetus behind creating How Should a Person Be? What were you thinking in developing this form that is fictional but sort of semifictional?


First of all, I agree that they are companion pieces. I was writing them at the same time. At different points I thought they were the same book, and I tried to make them one book. So they really do come out of the same curiosities. I think I just wanted to be in the world when I was writing these books. I didn’t want my writing life to be any different than my social life. I wanted to bring them together. I’d read this book called Art and Artist by Otto Rank. He was the psychoanalyst of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, and he broke from Freud. He said the problem with modern artists is that they are always going neurotically back and forth between making art and then life, where they collect the experiences. I recognized that in myself and thought, What if I can make them one? Instead of having to write in my room and then go out and collect experiences, what if I can write among people, among my friends and with my friends?


What was the actual methodology? When you were hanging out with your friends, were you recording them or taking notes? And how did that go over with them?


I never took notes. I was recording some of our conversations, and I only did it with those friends who were comfortable with it. Some friends weren’t, so I didn’t use them. They’re not in the book. But with Misha [in The Chairs Are Where the People Go] it was very structured. [End Page 108] He would come over to my house in the mornings, and he would just talk the chapters to me. I would type them as he spoke. I could type pretty quickly, so I would transcribe them as he talked.

The other thing is that certain things happen in the book that I would say I kind of orchestrated in order to write about them later. There is a competition between two painters. It’s called the “ugly painting competition.” There was the seed of that in my circle of friends, and I really pushed for it to happen because I wanted to write about it and make it real.


You mention Otto Rank in the book, and you just mentioned him now, too. Rank said that in the future there will be artists but no art. I wondered about that a lot while reading...


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pp. 106-118
Launched on MUSE
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