The second time I meet Sheila Heti I’m standing outside the gated front yard of her home on a cold, sunny day in Toronto.
The overgrowth and general unkemptness of the corner lot puts it a far cry from what can accurately be described as a garden, though invested in it is still the imagination and care of a space that is tended to; the tail of an overturned porcelain cat pokes up among stiff grass folded the wrong way. I feel comfortable enough to reach over and open the low wrought-iron gate but I grow more uneasy with every step I take toward the front door as though I were encroaching on a place of uninterrupted creativity. I wonder which of these windows she looked out of when she wrote, “At a certain point, I know, you have to forget about your soul and just do the work you’re required to do. To go on and on about your soul is to miss the whole point of life.” There’s a sign on the window that reads Hier ist es zur zeit sehr schon: “Here it is nice at the moment” (a relic of a former tenant). I knock but nobody answers; I’m a little early. I decide to wait for Sheila on the sidewalk. I reach over and lock the gate behind me.
Heti spoke recently with Joan Didion about how in many ways writing is a performance. Heti, like Didion, wanted to be an actress before becoming a writer and she studied at the National Theatre School in Montréal as a formative compromise between these two aspirations. Her most recent novel, How Should A Person Be? (2011; to be published in the States in July 2012), is obsessed with questions of performance and identity as told from the first person singular voice of a woman who carries a tape recorder everywhere she goes. “Character exists from the outside alone,” says Sheila, “I know that inside the body there’s just temperature.” The book is organized into five acts.
This question of performance finds articulation in The Chairs Are Where the People Go, an extended dialogue with her friend Misha Glouberman in the form of a collection of monologues that was selected by the New Yorker as a top nonfiction title of 2011. After completing the book, Glouberman and Heti remarked that the book is less an account of how Misha talks in general than how he talks with Sheila; that is, the version of Misha he performs for her.
The first time I meet Sheila I’m at her book reading in Montréal. Of the things a writer must pack before a week of travel and book readings, some things are obvious (toothbrush; clean socks) and others less so. Having forgotten to pack her books, Heti read excerpts from her BlackBerry like an actress reading script notes from her palm, squinting at the lines not already committed to memory. After her reading we talked about Trampoline Hall (a popular Toronto-based series invented by Heti in which people give lectures on subjects on which they are not experts), the Believer magazine, where she works as Interviews Editor, and literary interviews. I was surprised to learn that there would even be such thing as an Interviews Editor—literature is a craft and so requires revision, but interviews implied a kind of literalism to me that resisted editing—whereas I think she was surprised that the thought had never occurred to me in the first place. So we agreed to do an interview.
Of the things a writer must pack before traveling to conduct an interview, the line between obvious and oblivious is obscure. Arriving at her house some weeks later without so much as a tape recorder, I must have seemed a fundamentally ridiculous person. But for all Heti’s worry about how and who to be, nothing of what she said in the interview felt rehearsed. Writing, for Heti, might be understood as a way of overcoming or excising those past-obsessed voices that we find in her fiction, the ones that make us think more about life than actually experience it. We met at her house, where she had a jar full of fortune cookies,but she decided to conduct the interview at a nearby restaurant, where we ordered coffee and doughnuts.
DELUX RESTAURANT, Toronto, ON, 2/12/2011
The Rumpus: How did Trampoline Hall begin?
Sheila Heti: Ben Katchor [comic artist] was giving a talk in Calgary, and for some reason I was in Calgary and I heard him talk and it just reminded me how incredible lectures are.
And so I came back to Toronto and decided to start this series. And I remember telling Misha about it: it was like the third time I had ever met him and we were at a party at my place—um, me and my ex-husband Carl’s place—well, no: Carl’s place—but, um, I told him about this thing and said, Do you want to lecture? and he said, No, I don’t want to lecture but I really want to host.
When he said that I felt so relieved, because I didn’t relish the idea of going on stage. And so we started working on it and he brought in the idea of questions with the audience, which is a huge part of the show, as you’ll see. He really helped.
But I wanted to quit after the first show. I thought the show was a great success—because I didn’t know if it was going to work, and it worked: tons of people came, the audience was so alive, the lectures were so interesting,
I thought, Oh, great, it worked! We proved it could work, and so let’s stop now. And he was like, Are you crazy? After that I wanted to quit every three months. Finally, I did quit after three or four years.
And Misha kept the shows going. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to quit and make it so Misha couldn’t do the shows either—I just had this feeling like I knew if I wasn’t going to be involved in it anymore then it might turn into something I didn’t really like. But then I thought, Art/Friend, and Friend won out. I gave the shows to Misha in ’05.
Rumpus: Where did that impulse to quit come from?
Heti: Well, there’s a lot of work, because you have to find three people every month and figure out the lectures with them, and I always wanted reluctant people, and so it’s hard to find three people who don’t want to do something and get them to do something every month. So there’s a lot of convincing. And then there’s printing tickets and doing the programs and the website. There’s a ton of work.
And also, I was starting to look at everybody like—if I met you, say, my first thought would be, Would he be a good Trampoline Hall lecturer? because I was always needing people. And so after a while I thought, I don’t want to look at the world that way and I don’t want to look at people that way anymore.
Rumpus: How has the show looked since you left?
Heti: It’s kinder. I don’t think this is always good. Sometimes you do have people who are great at curating; sometimes you have people curating who don’t know what they’re do…
I don’t know why some people are better at that than others. It’s like choosing art for a gallery: some people are good at it, and some aren’t. Most of them are good at it though.
So the shows are kinder. And Misha talks more. I was always trying to rein him in, and now that I’m not there, no one’s there to rein him in, which is good.
Rumpus: So what was your upbringing like?
Heti: What was my upbringing like?! No one’s ever asked me that before.
My parents both came from Hungary, so I don’t think it felt like a very North American upbringing—I wasn’t allowed to watch music videos, for instance. There was not an awareness of pop culture in the household. There was a lot of respect for working hard, and for intellectual and professional achievement.
My mother and my father are very different, sometimes like different worlds. My father is an engineer, but he still believes in the individual spirit. That’s the most important thing; more important than manners, for example. But my mother is much more strict. She’s all about good grades and respecting your elders.
Rumpus: Why do you think your parents forbade you from watching music videos?
Heti: My father thought it was, Low class! Low class!
Rumpus: That was his term?
Heti: I think so, yeah.
Rumpus: That’s good.
Heti: You think that’s good?
Rumpus: Yeah. I wasn’t brought up with much restriction—sometimes I think I had too much freedom and as a result any boundary I saw I would just cross. I often find it difficult to police myself.
Heti: How do you mean?
Rumpus: With regards to, say, pop culture. I sometimes wish I had grown up in an absence of it because now I feel bombarded by it. I have friends who grew up reading. TV wasn’t an option in their house; they had, say, a piano.
Heti: And they can police themselves much better?
Rumpus: I’m not even sure policing happens at that level. If you haven’t grown up with that kind of relationship with media, then it’s just not a thing, not a thing you have to police.
Heti: I think it’s true what you say. That makes sense. I’ve always felt outside of it because of that, because I could never have these conversations with people, and by this point in my life I don’t feel any anxiety about not knowing who the bands are, because I never have. Maybe that’s good to not feel like you have to keep up when there’s so much to keep up with right now. It’s bottomless.
And when I was in high school, and even to a degree while I was in university, I wasn’t on the Internet. So it’s not as embedded in my soul, that kind of way of being.
Rumpus: The parts of the Internet I find problematic operate on the same principle as TV, it’s just like one technology replaced the other. Clicking around through websites is like clicking around on the channels: the arrival of the pleasure you’re seeking is perpetually prolonged because there’s always something better on the next channel.[Two doughnuts remain]
Heti: I think those are both yours.
Rumpus: Both of them? Are you done?
Heti: No, but I think I’ve had more than you.
Rumpus: You’ve been counting?
Heti: No, but I assume I eat faster than you.
Rumpus: Could you tell me about your creative process?
Heti: It’s just another relationship. Literature and art are one of a number of relationships I have with the world. Like you have relationships with your friends and a relationship with your lover and your relationship with your family and your relationship with your work—sometimes it’s really great; sometimes it’s non-existent, sometimes it’s fruitful; sometimes it’s depre…—it’s another thing to respond to.
Rumpus: Like an ethical relationship with ideas.
Heti: Well, I didn’t say ‘ethical,’ but that’s a nice way of putting it. I don’t know if it’s ethical or not—it’s aesthetic.
Rumpus: Are you somebody who follows through with an idea when it comes up?
Heti: Some. I kind of try to resist working a lot. I’m not a very disciplined worker. When I look at the last two years, there’s so much writing I could have done and so many ideas that I had and so many things I wanted to work on that I didn’t. I like too much having things in my head rather than doing the work.
OF WRONG TURNS AND SWERVES
Rumpus: I’ve noticed a trend—one that’s worked out in How Should A Person Be? and one that seems to be at play with what you’ve told me about Trampoline Hall: things that seem to go wrong wind up turning into good things. Could you tell me about how the idea for The Chairs Are Where the People Go developed?
Heti: It was going to be called The Moral Development of Misha. I did write sixty pages of it when I was in Spain at this retreat, but somehow it wasn’t right. The voice was wrong.
Some things don’t have the Spark of Life, and some things have the Spark of Life. And as much as I liked how some of the sentences were, it didn’t have the Spark of Life. I don’t think something that doesn’t have the Spark of Life can be given the Spark of Life—you’ve just got to change to something else.
Rumpus: And the same dynamic is played out in How Should A Person Be?, right?
Heti: Right. Right, that’s interesting. Right, because the play turns into the book, you mean?
Heti: That’s interesting. I don’t know what to say about that.
Misha said that to me before: that that’s my process, having a new idea and discarding it, and then having a new idea and discarding it. He sort of used to be fed up with me because of that, and then he realized that it was just part of my process, and so he wouldn’t get too attached to things.
But I don’t know why that transformation happens. But it happens to everybody, doesn’t it? Isn’t that how people make art?
Rumpus: Some people. But there’s a difference between abandon and transformation; it’s the difference between a wrong turn and bad turning good.
Heti: Bad turning good? Right.
Rumpus: Does that make sense?
Rumpus: You mentioned this intuitive Spark of Life—what’s your relationship with that? How do you recognize it?
Heti: You recognize it because it’s compelling to you in a way that another person is compelling to you. I think the Spark of Life for me is always like an other life, not my life.
Rumpus: How do you think of the voice in How Should A Person Be?
Heti: I was interested in Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, all those young women in the press about five years ago. It just seemed like every tabloid was talking about those wretched girls, you know? Totally superficial, empty girls. So I think the voice in How Should A Person Be? is an alchemy between some part of me and something I see in me that is a part of those girls. I wanted to see what kind of depth they had and what kind of emptiness I had.
But it’s important that the women I’m talking about are all also artists: Paris Hilton has a TV show; Lindsay Lohan is an actress. Whether you respect their work or not, they are on the spectrum of artists.
Rumpus: They’re creating something in the world.
Heti: Right. And for me, the struggle is, are you going to create a work of art or are you going to create an image of yourself?
Rumpus: Whereas Margaux works this struggle out by painting Buddha, who removed himself from a world of suffering. Is that what creation looks like?
Heti: No, I think you go into the pain if you’re writing. You have to; that’s the point. For me, there’s something that needs to be solved, and that’s why it’s compelling; that’s why you don’t just drop it halfway through, because there’s something that needs to be solved, or soothed, or understood. If you don’t go into the pain then you’re not going anywhere.
Rumpus: But there are at least two ideas of creation in the book: Margaux describes creation as an interaction with an “invisible castle,” which is something that’s already there and whose shape you discern by “throwing sand” at it. But it sounds like the other way creation could work is by “throwing your shit” at it, which is what Sheila does. So one is coming out of a place of pain, which you get by throwing your shit, but a castle would have to be something that’s there already.
Heti: Yeah, that’s the shape. It’s a form vs. content question.
Rumpus: Right, but is throwing shit the same as throwing sand?
Heti: No, they’re not the same, but I think creation involves both. Because there’s something there and you’ve got to figure it out—like, for me, in How Should A Person Be? there was something that was there, and I’ve got to excavate and throw sand and see it. But the way I was thinking about doing that was by throwing shit.
But it’s not like one or the other; I think Sheila’s metaphor was shit and Margaux’s was sand because they’re different people.
ANGELS IN DISGUISE
Rumpus: You write about the puer aeturnus.
Heti: Pu-er ae..ternus. [We both struggle to pronounce this]
Where people refuse to grow up and that’s really a refusal to be in a situation long enough to experience the pain in it and suffer through it, and so you leap from thing to thing and abandon and you don’t build anything in your life. That was a big fear of mine while I was writing the book, that I was living that way.
And I think that that’s a cultural problem as well. I think we live in a culture where people don’t take their responsibilities necessarily so seriously, especially romantic responsibilities. Don’t you think? …I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but that’s what I was thinking at the time.
That’s the whole thing about my character leaving Margaux and just going to New York—it’s about not dealing with problems and just running away. We all have that, right?
Rumpus: In Person, the image of the puer and facing responsibility is inseparable with the idea of destiny or fate.
I’m not sure if you remember the scene or not, but destiny becomes important when Sheila is going to leave her husband. But while being married is seemingly the point at which one would have the rest of their life and future mapped out—relationships are built on futurity—Sheila describes this as the moment in which destiny, fate, and the future all turn against her: everything used to be like “swimming in warm syrup,” but being married seems to alienate her from her destiny.
Here, I’ll find the scene—
Heti: I remember the scene.
Rumpus: Okay, so she draws the problem of responsibility—to others, to her job—through the metaphor of the path, as though wondering how a person should be is like wondering if you’re on the right path. And Sheila’s answer to the problem of romantic responsibility is to correct the wrong turn—to turn around, retrace her steps to the fork and to find the right path to follow.
Rumpus: So how do wrong turns work? Because on the one hand you could have a wrong turn that needs to be undone and corrected, like Sheila’s marriage, but on the other hand, you could have wrong turns turning right, bringing you to a place of accomplishment.
Heti: Right, like all of those things we were talking about earlier.
I haven’t figured that out, because I don’t know, I don’t know. When do you abandon a struggle? What’s the point at which abandoning a struggle is the right thing to do, and when is it the wrong thing to do? I don’t know.
I don’t know, I don’t know. I feel less critical now of the idea of abandoning struggles because I think it is possible to…—how do I put this?—overstate your responsibility to other people? I don’t think you’re only responsible to other people. There’s also the question of are people are being responsible to you.I don’t have as Old Testament a feeling about it now.
Rumpus: Well there, so Sheila identifies a lot in the book with Moses, and this would be another instance of things gone wrong leading to new creation: the creation of a people. But from this perspective, mistakes you make along a path start to look more like swerves than wrong turns.
Heti: How do you mean?
Rumpus: Well so like today, I’m walking down College St. with a friend and we’re trying to find breakfast and he stops and says, Oh, what about over there? But then like, No, it’s closed, or whatever. But then, by stopping and realizing that it wasn’t the place, we turned around and there on our left was the perfect breakfast place, our promised land. And we would have missed it had we not stopped in the first place, right?
Heti: Right. And in the book she’s afraid that she’s going to end up with her face in someone’s ass and that’s her terrible destiny. But then that is what happens, and it liberates her—it does happen! Her terrible fate does manifest. But it’s the moment of transcendence—like you say: volition, because she chose it and accepted her destiny.
And I don’t know what there is to be afraid of. I don’t know, that’s always the question: what is there to be afraid of? I don’t know.
Rumpus: You don’t need to have the answer.
Heti: But I want the answer! because it is hard to live.
Rumpus: In the novel it seems like the angst that Sheila deals with in decision-making has to do with an idea of decisions leading one way or the other—
Heti: Right. And you’re saying that they don’t necessarily?
Rumpus: Well, there are so many instances in the novel where wrong turns right.
Heti: Really? Like where?
Rumpus: Like this failed play turning into a great novel, or this horrible relationship with Israel turning into a moment of transcendence and liberation.
Heti: [Getting agitated] And therefore what? Therefore what? How does one apply that to life?
Rumpus: I think the problem is solved in Person with the image of the invisible angel, who is trying to push you somewhere such that it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake and go to the wrong breakfast place, it winds up bringing really good things.
Heti: Right, so when we were in Montreal you mentioned that part really moved you, that part of struggling with an angel. And I thought a lot about what you said, because when you said it to me it somehow had a different meaning than the one I had in my head. So the way I visualized it after you said that part was, Oh, the angel is pushing you away.
Say you’re in a situation of great pain and discomfort, what does it mean in that context to be wrestling with an angel? The way I saw it through your eyes is that the angel is making it a situation of great pain and discomfort so that you will leave it. Is that what you meant? Like it’s saying—
Rumpus: Get out, get out, get out, get out
Heti: Yeah, but how did you see that wrestling with an angel business.
Rumpus: In my own experience, there have been moments where I completely set my mind on something like, This has to happen, and I’d spend day and night trying to make it happen. Meanwhile all of these obstacles come up, obvious obstacles that make this impossible for you. And now I think we can be so naïve sometimes to think that we’re going to jump over this hurdle and that and challenge fate.
But the idea of an angel intervening, saying, No, stupid, this way, spoke to me because if that is true then it follows that there was only ever one path to go down anyway so that it doesn’t matter if you wander into the wrong breakfast place. Mistakes and swerves bring really good things. And so stop worrying about the right path and stop trying to get off of it and look at the signs.
Heti: But how do you know if you’re reading the signs correctly?
Rumpus: Well, the idea of intuition isn’t beyond you—you know when something is right, like a voice.
Rumpus: Intuition, which has everything to do with a path even if the intellect can’t see it—it’s not intellectual. I think you can live by your head or by your heart.
So the angel metaphor appeals to me because it reminds me to shut my head up and accept the idea that destiny or fate makes it so that we don’t always have a say in what’s happening. Because there’s an angel there.
But there are so many ways we can map our own experiences onto a metaphor and see it work—how does it work for you?
Heti: There are times when things are clear in your head and your heart and everything comes all aligned and it’s easy and it just feels good to do something. But most of the time it’s not like that, right? most of the time there’s conflict between your head and your heart.
And then what do you do? Do you try to determine what the ethical thing to do is and then do it? I kind of feel now more like just sitting back and not doing too much and trusting that—what you’re saying—like let’s see what happens if I do let the angel intervene.
Rumpus: Like Kafka said: “In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world.”
Heti: What made you decide to come to Toronto?
Rumpus: It just felt right to do so. If I went with my head, I would have had to work out an x, y, z of how I’m getting there, what’s going to happen, why, and all of that would have made it seem impossible. Whereas my heart was saying, That’s just right, and it all came together.
Heti: So like what I was saying, with your gut it just felt good?
Rumpus: Mhmm. It’s intangible, but it’s correct.
Heti: And that’s what happens in the book, right? She goes down and sleeps beside Israel’s cock because she knows inside that it just feels right, even though it’s a horrible thing to do. I think that’s the first time in the book where she does something that feels good, even though she might be judged as bad.
Rumpus: Right. It’s like that.
Heti: I always think about that moment. Like it just feels right, even though it just looks awful to him. Do you remember, where she just goes under the covers?
Rumpus: Yeah. But in that moment she’s interacting with a kind of prophecy she feels doomed to.
Heti: It’s nice to go into your doom. It’s so liberating.
PENNIES GO POOF
Rumpus: I just had déjà vu.
Heti: That’s good. I had major déjà vu like five minutes earlier.
Rumpus: Did you?!
Rumpus: You didn’t say anything!
Heti: No, because I was experiencing it.
Rumpus: And this is all part of the déjà vu too.
Rumpus: Yeah: me calling you out on not having brought up your déjà vu is part of the déjà vu.
Heti: And I wonder about déjà vu too. Like when I experience it I know, Okay, you’re in the right place.
Rumpus: I find pennies.
Heti: You find pennies? And then you think, I’m in the right place? Really?!
Rumpus: Yes. I find pennies in the craziest places during the most intense moments: I found one on the day we met in the park, just after you left, and I found one as I walked into your apartment earlier today.
I’ve got the penny in my pocket.
Heti: That happened to me: I was auditing this class at U of T this Fall, and on the first day of class I was thinking, Am I in the right place? and I was sitting on the side and over on the windowsill there were three pennies stacked. I like the I Ching, and in the I Ching you throw three pennies. And so to see those three pennies there I had that thought.
Rumpus: We develop ways to recognize when we’re in the right moment. But the penny presents itself when the mind—
Heti: Is looking for the penny?
Rumpus: No, I’m never looking for the penny.
Heti: But you’re distracted from the moment.
Rumpus: But it’s like when I get too much in my head… It’s kind of just like poof, a penny, you know?
Heti: All this makes me think it’s so hard to live that one needs a support around life. We can’t live without some supernatural support.
Rumpus: The need of something bigger than us.
Heti: And that there’s meaning and that there’s help.
Rumpus: For me, believing that it’s a coping mechanism kind of cheapens it. It’s recognition of our reaching for something bigger.
Heti: But it doesn’t devalue it. It doesn’t mean that because it’s a coping mechanism it’s not real. Things have the reality you give them, right?
Heti: My parents are both scientists, and I was raised without god. So it’s hard for me to go right into this… mumbo jumbo, let’s say. I can’t be completely uncritical. But I do feel it. And I’ve felt it my whole life, that the supernatural has a role in the world.
Rumpus: Maybe we all need to imagine a world in which there’s a path to walk.
WE NEED A HORSE
Rumpus: Can I read you some questions from my nieces?
Rumpus: I bought them your children’s book, We Need a Horse.
Heti: How old are they?
Rumpus: Hannah is eight; Mariah is six.
Heti: That’s awesome.
Rumpus: It’s Hannah’s birthday tomorrow:
How could the light talk? Why did the light talk in the story?
Heti: I think everything talks—everything talks to us, this bottle talks to us. Why did it talk? Because it was good. It was kind and it was trying to help out the horse.
Rumpus: Why did the horse wonder why she was a horse?
Heti: It probably came a little out of disappointment of being a horse, and so she didn’t understand why she had to be a horse. I think both the horse and the sheep were sad at having to have that form.
I’d been out with a friend of mine before I wrote the story, and she’s this beautiful woman and a lovely person, and she was like, What’s wrong with me? I’m this age and I’m single and I don’t have children, and all this stuff. And when I get home and wrote the story I was thinking she was like the horse. And it broke my heart because there’s nothing wrong with her.
So that’s why it asked the question, for the same reason my friend asked the question.
Rumpus: Why did the apple want to be eaten? That wouldn’t be very fun.
Heti: But that’s the apple’s purpose to be eaten. It’s part of being an apple: you grow and then you get eaten. And it is fun because you give pleasure to somebody; it’s fun to give pleasure to people.
Rumpus: You’re the Interviews Editor at the Believer magazine. What makes a good interview?
Heti: Revelation of personality. When I’m editing, I try to bring out some dramatic structure. I think it is about theater in some way; it is a little play. I studied playwriting but I never became a playwright, but it’s something like you were saying: a transformation of the failed playwright turned interviewer and interviews editor.
But it’s the same thing as a dialogue—and I love dialogue, I love playwriting. I don’t care so much about information—some people do interviews with bands and they’re like Who are all your favorite musicians?! and I could care less, you know?
You want to see something of the interviewer in it; you want to see the interviewer’s personality and curiosity. I think a lot of people try to edit themselves out and I think that’s a big mistake, because the person being interviewed is responding to a person, and if you don’t know who that person is then you don’t really know what’s going on with the person being interviewed. So you want to see a relationship. I think that you don’t want people to go on and on in a long monologue, with the rare exception. There has to be back and forth.
Then in the transcribing and the editing, you want some retention of how the person speaks—you don’t want to edit out all of the hesitations and idiosyncrasies.
And to get people to say something they’ve never said before. That’s big.