Years ago, author and artist Sheila Heti conceived of a project called The Moral Development of Misha, a novel about friend and collaborator Misha Glouberman. Heti churned out a good sixty pages before throwing it over for a different idea: a non-fiction, first-person guide to everything that Misha knew — Glouberman speaking, Heti transcribing.
The resulting product, The Chairs Are Where The People Go, offers a composite image of Glouberman by way of his work, interests, and values — a slim handbook of practical wisdom as gentle and funny as the man himself.
Having recently completed a multi-city tour to promote the book, Heti and Glouberman sit across from each other in Heti’s breezy Toronto apartment, eating blackberries and discussing the pleasures and challenges of writing in tandem.
The Rumpus: What ultimately happened to The Moral Development of Misha?
Misha Glouberman: I think that fed into How Should A Person Be? [Heti’s 2010 novel]. The other thing that came out of the earlier project, less directly, is this book.
Sheila Heti: There was a time when I wanted to make How Should A Person Be? and The Chairs Are Where The People Go part of the same book. It was always hard to understand what the relationship between the two were, but when Misha said, definitively, that they could not be the same book, then the Chairs became clear as a book in its own right. But I wasn’t always sure how it was going to work out.
Rumpus: Misha, how did your demands direct the project?
Glouberman: There were things that both Margaux [Williamson, featured in How Should A Person Be?] and I were willing to do in terms of our involvement that shaped what the books were. Margaux was comfortable being fictionalized, but I wasn’t — and then Margaux also wasn’t comfortable being fictionalized—
Heti: I thought that was just you?
Glouberman: No, it was very equally both of us. Margaux had agreed to be in How Should A Person Be? on the premise that it was a work of fiction, but if you merge it with this other piece of non-fiction writing, then it becomes much more confusing.
Heti: It was really stressful when you said the two books couldn’t be one volume — I was so angry!
Glouberman: Yeah, but that was just for, like, one day.
Heti: Now I can’t understand why I wanted them together so badly. I had this whole narrative about Moses and God and Moses’ brother. I was Moses, and Misha was Moses’ brother, and I could see this… superstructure. When you said it couldn’t happen that way, that plan kind of fell away.
Glouberman: There’s a funny restriction on the work, when actual people are involved. You’re in this mode as a novelist or a writer, and you have all these ideas for what you want to do in your books, but these books were actually connected to real people, so that created restrictions. And then those restrictions became useful.
Heti: I like restrictions.
Glouberman: Of course, restrictions are good, but it’s an unfamiliar restriction to think, “Oh, you can’t just do whatever you want with your characters,” because in this case, your characters are all real people in your life.
Rumpus: Thinking about that original title, The Moral Development of Misha — did you want to hang onto that at all? Not the title, but charting Misha’s development, moral or otherwise?
Heti: No. I don’t think the format of the Chairs allowed for a narrative kind of development. All the chapters were mostly written at the same time. The way we wrote it just didn’t support narrative.
Rumpus: Is there an arc, in terms of where it begins and where it ends?
Glouberman: There’s a thematic arc. The book, in some ways, describes a single moment. It doesn’t have a temporal arc to it.
Heti: It’s like when you meet someone and then slowly get to know that person. They’re not changing; you’re learning more and more about them. Misha gives off this impression of being someone who’s completely in charge of himself and his life, very confident and capable. Initially, when we were becoming friends, I couldn’t see any of his weaknesses or struggles. The more I got to know him, the more I was like “Oh, here are the weaknesses, here are the struggles.” Now the struggles and weaknesses have been divulged in the book.
Rumpus: Misha, when you look at the Chairs now, do you feel like it accurately reflects a lot of your knowledge, or how you like to live?
Glouberman: In a lot of ways, it does. But it’s very much me through Sheila’s eyes. It’s not just me: it’s me as seen by Sheila.
Rumpus: Was there a dialogue aspect in the way you worked together?
Glouberman: Not very much, really. There is a kind of feedback when you see the moment someone becomes interested or bored, or nods, or becomes excited — all those kinds of things. So Sheila’s presence was very much something I could feel, but it wasn’t an interview. We would just name a chapter, and then I’d talk.
Rumpus: Misha, a lot of your insights seem based on being adaptable, and not responding to situations habitually, in improv classes or otherwise in life. Looking at the book now, are there any parts that you’d like to modify?
Glouberman: Yeah, the whole book is like that, kind of. It’s a very weird book for me in that way. It’s definitely a part of the collaboration between Sheila and me. I would say something and tell her not to write it down, but then Sheila would say “That’s the best part!” and so we’d leave it in.
Heti: There’s a line I’m really sad that we cut.
Glouberman: What’s the line?
Heti: In the Robert McKee chapter, you originally said, “That understanding of love has ruined more marriages than the Nazis.” I really wanted that in, but Misha didn’t — it was off-the-cuff and funny, but in a way that he didn’t want. It was more funny than true.
Glouberman: The way you express opinions and the kinds of jokes you make when you’re talking to a friend — a lot of things end up being more funny than true.
Rumpus: When did you become aware that you weren’t just talking to a friend anymore?
Heti: In the editing.
Glouberman: I was scared during the editing process. It was frightening to see this conversation with a friend – conversation being a very fluid medium – become a book – a very fixed medium – and realize how that changes something like accountability. There are perfectly reasonable things to say to a friend in a conversation that are totally unreasonable to put into print. That was hard.
Rumpus: Especially if you know that you’re going to be held accountable. But you did it anyway. That seems brave.
Glouberman: There was also the interest of the book versus my interest. I didn’t want to be saying things that were wrong and crazy, but it makes the book uninteresting if every difficult thing that I say gets taken out. There was a lot of compromise on that – between me and Sheila – and also our editor, to some degree.
Heti: That’s kind of what I enjoyed, the compromise. With How Should A Person Be?, I wasn’t thinking at all about what Misha was concerned with. Misha is much more cautious than I am in all sorts of ways. When I’m writing alone, I like those risks, I find them interesting and exciting. Misha isn’t interested in them because he’s more concerned, I think, with being a good guy. Whereas I don’t feel like I’m me when I’m writing, or that this really is Misha.
Glouberman: Yeah, yeah.
Heti: With How Should A Person Be?, I could say whatever I wanted because it wasn’t really me, Sheila, it was a character.
Glouberman: And I love what you did with How Should A Person Be?, and I think it’s really admirable that you did all this crazy stuff; how wild and how loose that book is and, among other things, how wild and loose it is in your depiction of yourself. I think it’s amazing — I think it’s amazing literarily, and I think it’s amazing personally, to have the courage to do that. But for me, I’m the exact opposite of that, and that was one of the things that we had to be very clear about with the project; that this is a non-fiction book, and that’s where the objection over combining the two books came from. This is a non-fiction book, and if we combine it with a fiction book, I want to be clear about that. And what that means is that we can’t take liberties with depictions of real things.
Rumpus: Sheila, was that challenging, not being able to take those liberties?
Heti: I remember a day when I was really frustrated with the things we were talking about – with these debates we were having about which contentious things Misha said should be cut or left in. I went to the washroom – I remember this so vividly – and opened the I Ching. There was this passage, something like: “The man who speaks has to judiciously consider everything he says, and go slowly” — or something. The passage was describing Misha’s character, it wasn’t at all me, and it was this big moment where I was like right, this is Misha. This book has to take into account Misha’s values. It was a revelation. And Misha’s values are on the side of being cautious, being diplomatic, being fair. The book couldn’t be reckless, because that’s not Misha. What I love is Misha! I wanted him to be portrayed. For me, Misha’s speaking in the moment was more true, but for Misha, more true was not the moment, but the thought that went into the words.
Glouberman: I think that’s right, and I don’t think it would’ve been a better book if all the things I said got put in there.
Glouberman: I think it would’ve been jokier—
Glouberman: Crueler, yes. If you think about the book as a depiction of a character, I think part of that character is my caution.
Heti: It would’ve been a less warm book, and a less thoughtful book.
Rumpus: Working on this together, did you came to see one another a little differently?
Heti: I think we trust each other more than we did before. If you have an impulse to use your friends for art, as I did, and then you do it thoroughly, the impulse goes away. I don’t have that impulse towards Misha or Margaux anymore, which make the relationships a little purer. Now our relationships are more clearly just friendships.
Rumpus: Are there any chapters that either of you feel particularly attached to?
Heti: I like the chapter called “How to Improvise, and How Not to Not Improvise.” It reminds me of a lot of the books I used to read when I was twelve years old. For a while, our book was number one in the Acting & Auditioning category on Amazon, and nothing could’ve been better for me than to see it there, because acting and auditioning books were to me the most important, the best books when I was a kid. I love that chapter.
Glouberman: I think the chapters that I’m most aware of are the ones that are really core to my work, like the ones about conferences or teaching negotiation classes. I’m not sure that they’re always the strongest ones, because they were the hardest ones to talk about.
Rumpus: I feel like the “Absenteeism” chapter shows pretty succinctly how your work and personal values intersect. You observed that participants in one of your classes would sometimes call up and say they weren’t feeling well, that they didn’t want to come. But once they got to class, they would relax and enjoy themselves — that initial hesitation like the kind you have before stepping into a cold lake. What’s especially touching about that chapter is the part where you said that even as you persuade people to attend, you secretly hope no one will show up. It’s one of the clearest moments of empathy and understanding in the book.
Glouberman: That stuff’s hard for everyone, I think.