Sheila Heti: How I Write
Why does Sheila Heti put books she doesn’t like on her bottom shelf? What’s The Believer like? Why shouldn’t young writers listen to advice? The author of How Should a Person Be?, out in paperback next week, answers those questions and more.
You live in Toronto, which I’ve heard is a great literary city. What do you like about it?
It’s a good place, I’ve lived here all my life. I’m not so involved in the literary scene these days, more the art scene in general. It’s a good place to be an artist, because people intersect a lot: writers, artists, musicians. It’s stimulating in that way. I find it a quiet place, an easy place to be in your head and go at whatever speed you like. You can feel like you’re interacting with the world, but also feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, even in the city.
Describe your morning routine on a day you’re writing.
Get up, get coffee, make coffee for my boyfriend and see him off. Or else he makes coffee and breakfast for me. Sit down and start working. I usually check email first—it’s not a good idea to, but I can’t help it. Then I work all day.
Do you have a designated work space, or a room of one’s own?
I have a study in the middle of our apartment with a big dining-room table, and all my books are in here. We have a rabbit, and all the books on the bottom shelf get torn apart and eaten up. I tried putting no books on the bottom shelf, but that looked really weird. Now I just put the books I don’t like on the bottom shelf.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
It’s different with every book. I usually don’t realize that I’m working on a book until a few years in. It often starts off, like it did with How Should a Person Be?, with me just making notes, putting things down on paper. But every project is different. Right now I’m working on a collaboration with Heidi Julavits and Leanne Shapton called Women in Clothes. We just decided to do it and began, but it usually isn’t that straightforward for me. The book is about women’s relationship to style.
When you collaborate on a book, what’s the process like for you?
I like it when the roles are clear. With Misha [Glouberman, for The Chairs Are Where the People Go, he talked and I typed. I’m working on an adaptation of the I Ching, where I write the text and an artist, Ted Mineo, makes the images. I try to work with people I trust, so any communication can just be pleasure communication, as opposed to trying to guide the other’s work. I like working with people I’m excited by.
In How Should a Person Be? you’ve given your protagonist your own first name, Sheila. I’m interested in the thought behind this decision, both what you think the reader will get out of that decision, as opposed to what you’d like to present as an author.
It wasn’t so much a decision to name the character Sheila as a decision not to name her something else. I was transcribing dialogue between me and my friends before I conceived of this as a book. I thought it might just be an article or something for myself. I was doing interviews for The Believer at the time, so I was used to transcribing in interview format. When I started to fold the transcripts with my friends into the other material I was collecting, and it started to become a book, I had to ask myself, Should I change the names? I tried, but it seemed fake, I couldn’t justify it. Who are Marla and Shelley? There was not a good enough reason to change the names. In terms of what it does for the reader, I guess you over-assume, blend the author with the character. I don’t mind if people do that. I think it ends up happening. People have talked of the book as autobiography, but it’s not. I was inspired by reality TV, and I consider this book a book that was sort of acted.
I’m a fan of The Believer magazine. I have this Alice in Wonderland image of what it must be like to work there. What’s it like?
Like me, many of the people who work for the magazine are not in the offices in San Francisco. I’m one of two Interviews Editors, with Ross Simonini, and he and I correspond a lot. We get a lot of pitches and we also seek out people we want to interview. I can be pretty free in that job—no one’s ever told me that I can’t do something, not once in the whole time I’ve been there. It was hard at the beginning, because no one gave me parameters—there didn’t seem to be any, or no one knew of any. So I was just following my own instincts about who would be good to feature in the magazine, and how to edit them.
Please recommend three books to your readers that inspired your writing and might appeal to readers who enjoy your writing.
The first one I’d say is Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, which I read when I was writing The Middle Stories, my first book. That’s one of my favorite novels ever written. It’s so odd and original. Mes Amis by Emmanuel Bove, is about a man talking about his friends—but it’s clear that the people aren’t his friends. It’s a heart-breaking book. And The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard is really interesting. Very short, not even short stories, like tiny little news articles. He wrote them based on stories he read in the newspaper. It’s a wonderful, completely unique book. Makes you feel a bit sick to read it. Actually, they all make you a bit sick.
Do you have any superstitions?
I always feel bad if I say something bad about another person. Not to say I don’t do it, of course I do. But I feel superstitious about it, like something bad has come into the world.
What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
I had sent five stories blindly through the mail to McSweeney’s, and they were published by Dave Eggers, and then Martha Sharpe, who was the editor at Anansi, a respected Canadian press, contacted me and said she wanted me to assemble a book. But then I had a hard time getting The Middle Stories published in America. No one was interested. Finally I just asked Eggers if he’d publish the book, and he said he would, which was amazing of him. It was exciting. It was also a time of real transition in the company, chaotic, and their first edition of the book, we all agree, reflected the chaos at McSweeney’s at the time.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
I don’t think you should listen to other people’s criticism of your work at the very beginning. There’s a point where it’s useful to do that, but not at the very beginning. For a few years, write in your own way. At the beginning, if you listen to advice too much, you lose track of why you’re doing it for yourself.
This interview has been edited and condensed.