an interview with sheila heti

by Natalie Eilbert

Natalie Eilbert: First of all, how has your day been so far? What do you plan on doing for the rest of the day?

Sheila Heti:  It’s been good. It’s almost noon. I’m in Guelph where I’m writer in residence, whatever that means. Today is my second-to-last day. I spent an hour in the car commuting from Toronto. In the front seat were two women who I carpool with, who teach in the art department. I can’t drive so I usually just sit in the back like a kid. Then I had to write a short thing about Truman Capote, which I just finished. And I was texting with my friend Kathryn, too.

At one I’m going to talk to some students, then I’m going to take the bus home. I wanted to read a certain book on the bus but I forgot it at home when I went back in because I had forgotten my warm hat. I put on the hat but left the book behind.

This interview was conducted by Natalie Eilbert for  issue 3 of    The Atlas Review,  Winter 2014.

This interview was conducted by Natalie Eilbert for issue 3 of The Atlas Review, Winter 2014.

NE:  How has the residency been so far? Besides the car rides?

SH:  Nice. It hasn’t been too much work. But I would always rather be at home than somewhere else.

ME:  Do you find you get more done at home, writing-wise? Or is that more of a simple comfort spot?

SH:  I get more done at home. When I’m here I tend to just check email and do that sort of thing. There’s something about the bare walls…

NE:  Oh, I get that. It’s very impersonal to try getting into a creative space. To change topics a little bit, I wanted to talk about female friendship, especially as you write about it in How Should a Person Be? You begin with some resistance to a tight-knit female relationship, but Margaux is insistent, different, but the friendship needs a lot of maintenance work, creatively and otherwise. Did the friendship with Margaux change the way you viewed friendship with other women?

SH:  Well, in the book Margaux is my first female friend. In real life that’s not at all true. So I can’t really answer that question because my life is different from what I portray in the book. But no, I wouldn’t say my friendship with Margaux (in real life) changed how I viewed friendship with other women because I don’t think of me and Margaux (and never have) as “female friends.” I don’t think about her as a woman or about myself as a woman, most of the time. She changed how I thought of relationships in general and what one has to fear or not fear from letting other people change one.

NE:  That’s interesting, writing so close in proximity to the real You, but then, not at all in so many other ways. Can you talk about writing against the autobiographical in your work?

SH:  I wasn’t “writing against the autobiographical.” I was just writing, trying to use everything at my disposal, which included my imagination, my life, what my life might be if it was a novel, what friends said, what I imagined they might say, and what I made them say in order to write about it.

NE:  Did you write plays before your choice to write novels? Or is that part of the fiction as well?

SH:  Well, I studied playwriting at the National Theatre School in Canada in my late teens, after high school, and wrote plays even before that. I did indeed write a play and abandon it several years into writing How Should a Person Be? and though the themes of the play and the book are similar (I wrote the play in 2002 and began the book in 2005) I’m not sure what kind of relationship they have with each other. The play was recently produced in Toronto and I understood it in a new way, it having been 12 years since I wrote it. And it actually felt good that it was produced now rather than back then, when I wouldn’t have understood it. In the book, of course, there’s a very neat relationship between the play and the book, but in life I’m not sure what the relationship was except that I felt like a great failure at the fact that the play couldn’t be produced, and that shook me. It distressed me. I felt I was someone who could not follow through, and a million other things.

NE:  Did the play give you a sense of closure in any way to that time in your life? Did it reinvigorate those same artistic fears in any way?

SH:  Seeing it produced did give me a sense of closure, but finishing any project does, and a play can only be finished when it’s put on a stage. It made me feel the opposite of fear. It made me feel really relaxed. I wanted the play to be produced in 2002. It ended up being produced in 2013. And it was fine. It happened exactly as it should have—I loved the production, the director, the cast, the space, all of it. It was received differently because people knew it as that “failed play,” which is really nice. It’s nice for people to come to see a play that they know is a “failed play” rather than a play that the playwright and others are putting on in the hopes that it be a “success.” Everyone can relax a lot more and just enjoy what’s there. So I guess I feel like sometimes things take a long time to work themselves out and that’s okay. It’s made me feel more Zen, and I’m the most anxious person in the world, but this experience has resolved some anxiety.

I am pretty patient in terms of, I know it takes a long time to write, a long time to publish things, and I am generally very patient. But I did think this play was a horrible monster, and it wasn’t. But it took 12 years for it not to be a horrible monster. And it wasn’t because of something I did. It was because the world surrounding the play and its context changed. So sometimes you can work at art to make it better, but sometimes the world around the art has to change. I guess that was new for me to see.

NE:  There’s so much pressure to produce good art immediately, so it’s heartening to see how time can actually aid in the production, at least in your case. For so many writers, that lack of immediate creation is detrimental to the process. What kept that failure you so wonderfully described from slipping beyond the grasp of a finished product? Were you fully committed to the novel in that time?

SH: Yes, I think so. I really wanted it to work, to make it, to finish it.

Also, Margaux was working on a movie (Teenager Hamlet) at the same time and we had the sense that these projects were twins. If I abandoned mine, that would fuck her project up somehow. They were spiritually bound. I had to finish it or else that whole balance would be upset. But also, I had an editor tell me to abandon it, and I wanted to show him wrong.

NE:  That’s incredible. How was Margaux’s movie? Was her process nearly as long?

SH:  Yes, we started at the same time and we finished at the same time. You can watch her movie on UbuWeb. It was crazy how long it took us. And just as my book had two “finished” versions (I published one version in Canada in 2010 and then another in the States in 2012) so she, oddly, also had two finished versions—one which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and then one, a few years later, which was distributed on DVD. But I think that’s because we both were learning so much about our craft during those years, and when we thought we were done (the first time) we weren’t; we were still learning, so had to “finish” yet again.

NE:  Wow! That’s such a great story. Have you ever collaborated with her on a project?

SH:  We have a production company called The Production Front and so we collaborated on the various things we did in that guise. She has asked me to participate in her work, and I have asked her to participate in mine, but no. We haven’t yet made something from the ground up together. (The Production Front mostly facilitates the work of artists we admire.)

NE: What artists are you currently interested in? Have other artists influenced your writing the way Margaux has?

SH: I’m sort of at a moment of transition, where the artists I got the most from these past ten, fifteen years—I think I’ve taken all the inspiration I can from them. I don’t know what’s next in that area. Margaux was a unique case—she influenced my writing because she is an artist in my life, and she had influenced my adult life more than any other person, probably. Bu you can’t really compare that kind of daily engagement, where you both change each other, to something like thinking Manet is the best.

NE:  You collaborate quite a bit with writers and artists. Can you talk about other collaborative projects you’re excited about?

SH:  The biggest thing right now is Women in Clothes, the book I’m doing with Leanne Shapton and Heidi Julavits, about women’s relationship to style. The book is being built up to answers to a survey that we created. We have 500 surveys in so far. So that’s sort of a collaboration between the three of us that’s extending out into the world. But I’m also working on things on my own. I don’t only like collaborating. I like working alone because I think there’s a kind of quietness that’s very special to working on one’s own, which doesn’t happen in collaboration. In one case you lose the ego because you push outward into other people and in the other you lose it because you push inward into the void.

 NE:  I’ve heard about the Women in Clothes project, which sounds fantastic! As a closing note, How Should a Person Be? really exploded the lit scene all around and gained you so many new admirers. Are there any new novels or collections in the works?

 SH:  I’m writing something new but I don’t know how to classify it. Also, things change. Until you’re done with a project it’s hard to say what it is, or when the project began, so I might be three years into this thing, or I might not even have begun.