Canadian author Sheila Heti asks “How Should a Person Be?”

Recently, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Sheila Heti reading from her book How Should a Person Be? Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

I said to myself, You are only given one.  The one you are given is the one to put a fence around.  Life is not a harvest.  Just because you have an apple, doesn’t mean you have an orchard.  You have an apple.  Put a fence around it.  Once you have put a fence around everything you value, then you have the total circle of your heart. 

from How Should a Person Be?
by Sheila Heti

Canadian author presenting at the Canadian Writers in Person series
Sheila Heti

For Sheila Heti, truth isn’t necessarily stranger than fiction. Rather, fiction and non-fiction are friends and like any good friendship, it’s hard to say who brings more to the relationship. Her third book, How Should a Person Be? draws substantially from her real-life friendship with the painter Margaux Williamson, sometimes including transcripts from their conversations. In many ways it is a collaborative dialogue that explores more than just the question in the title. Heti was the featured presenter at the Jan. 13 session of Canadian Writers in Person.

The question of boundaries between self and persona seems especially prevalent in a digital world where the barriers between public and private are increasingly blurry. Many of Heti’s friends also traverse this territory: she appears as herself in Williamson’s film and Sholem Krishtalka, also a character in her book, paints his friends as characters from Andy Warhol’s circle. Williamson was a little more nervous about being captured in print, though she had a lot of input and read several drafts of Heti’s novel. She overcame this by believing that the solution is not to protect oneself but to have many different representations in the world, to let oneself be “radically used.”

In fact, it was Williamson who convinced Heti that using their real names in the book was not only braver but would make readers question the lines between fact and fiction even more. Fictional names would also suggest they had something to hide, as if behind a mask. Even still, the success and attention the novel received, reviewers assuming they knew the people behind the characters, made their friendship a little topsy-turvy and self-conscious for a little while. Heti also lost another friend who felt uncomfortable with their portrayal in the book, the fiction influencing the reality.

For this reason, Heti thinks her novel has something in common with reality TV shows, leading her to the question: what is an artist?  The prologue considers what our culture expects of geniuses, artists, and women and Heti’s humorous answer is Paris Hilton, someone more famous for her onscreen sexual exploits than anything else.  She was intrigued by our culture’s obsession with celebrity: “You think you’re getting them, but it’s an edited version of them.  Only God knows the real you, but when there’s no God, you’re witnessed by the people who watch your show, which is only a surface reality,” she noted.

The cover of Sheila Heti's book for Canadian Writers in PersonThe novel is so closely bound to the time period in which she wrote it that Heti often remembers the book version more than the actual events.  Like any author who gets closely connected their characters, she almost became the fictionalized version of herself.  “My life became fiction and the book was a documentary of that fiction,” she said. The transcripts give the book a documentary feel, but she also cites a poor memory for depending on the recording. “The trick of art is to hide the things you’re not good at, or to find some clever way around it,” said Heti.

What is art?  Heti’s novel begins and ends with a friendly art contest, one where the ugliest painting wins.  Before meeting her painter friend, she used to think that creating art required faithfulness to a perfect vision of what’s in your head, revising and polishing it into a perfect jewel.  In contrast, the book’s central character Margaux pursues her work stroke by stroke on the canvas to see where the paint leads her, without looking back.  It’s this messiness, even ugliness, to which we can relate because though you may admire a work of artistic perfection: “It’s not going to get inside you in the same way.”

This contest happened in real life and though Heti herself doesn’t paint, she feels like this book is her entry into the ugly painting competition. She doesn’t feel it necessarily answers any of the questions it raises and “I don’t have a universal idea of what people should do,” she said. A central concern of her novel is the fear of becoming a puer aeturnus, the Peter Pan who never finishes anything or commits to anyone.  After writing the novel, what she calls a “self-help book for myself,” this is no longer a problem for Heti.  She has learned to “do that Margaux thing, and make the best of what’s around you,” she said. “You change to make the circumstances around you great, rather than look for the best circumstances or best person.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts.  For a full schedule of upcoming writers this year, see YFile, Sept. 9, 2014.