Sheila Heti
Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Sheila Heti: “My life only changes when a book is done”

Short Profile

Name: Sheila Heti
DOB: 25 December 1976
Place of birth: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Occupation: Author

Ms. Heti, how much of yourself is in the characters you write about?

Many of the traits in my characters are exaggerations of things I see in myself. But in How Should a Person Be? I wasn't trying to write about myself so much as a combination of myself and these women I was seeing in our culture. I thought a lot about Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, these women who everyone considered so bad, so narcissistic… But at the same time, there are many parts of me that were not in the characters—a lot of me that I wasn’t writing about. So, I don’t really see why the link with myself is so important.

But the narrator of that novel is called Sheila, and some of its plot and dialogue is based on your real life experiences...

When you’re writing, I think a big part of writing comes out of an attempt to understand yourself. You’re dealing with emotions and thoughts that are native to you. So that probably winds up in your characters. But no, I don’t think that character is me, that was a fictional character in a fictional situation.

“Writing is a really vivid way and a really magical way of being alone.”

Where do you most often find inspiration for your stories then?

I feel like it comes more out of my feelings and questions and my sense of bafflement and the things that are hard for me to deal with than it comes out of my prosaic life, do you know what I mean? I don’t think it comes out of my daily life, it more comes out of my daily feelings.

Is that what initially drew you to writing? The expression of those feelings and questions?

Well, I did lots of things when I was young: I acted, I directed… People just responded the most strongly to the things that I wrote and not to my acting. (Laughs) You listen to the world. If people praise you for your stories and they don’t praise you for the performance you gave in the school play, you kind of listen to the world and think well, “Maybe I’m better at that.” So it’s a combination of how I felt doing it and the response of people around me.

How did you feel doing it?

I just always felt whole when I was writing. I felt this kind of beautiful privacy that I never felt in any other way. I feel like there’s this great fullness to being alone, and writing is a really vivid way and a really magical way of being alone.

Are those the same reasons why you’ve stuck with writing over the years?

Yeah, I mean, there’s just nothing that even comes close to being this desirable. Writing makes everything else in my life okay; it makes everything make sense. If everything goes to shit and I’m still writing then it’s okay. I cling to it, I guess. There’s something about the way that my brain is that makes writing fiction kind of natural for me even though it’s a lot of hard work. The same way that maybe if you’re a swimmer, there’s something natural about your body being in water. For me, when I’m writing, it just feels natural. That’s the way that I was made.

And then you make yourself more that way by continuing to do it.

Exactly, I’m sure there are people who have this skill and they just ignore it and they become less that way, but if you keep doing it you become more that way. It’s also nice because you can work hard at it forever, you never reach the end; you never are a master, you’re never done. It’s not like you can ever complete it, you know? There’s always so much ahead of you, there’s always so much work to do. Writing is endless and I like that. I like that you can never conquer it.

Kazuo Ishiguro once said that there is no triumphant moment when he finishes a book because he’s constantly revisiting and changing his work.

I don’t think that is true of me though because I like finishing things too. If I was still writing How Should a Person Be? for example, my life wouldn’t have changed or moved on. If I’d been writing the same book I was writing when I was 23 then my life would just be a completely shriveled thing… My life only changes when a book is done.

“You have to have a certain chaos in you. Creativity comes out of a tumultuousness inside you. There’s no reason to make art if everything’s okay.”

What do you mean?

Well, changes happen to everybody, whether they write books or not… But because my life is divided up into these years-long segments where I’m writing a book and then I’m done with it… After the book is done, I always see that I’ve changed in a specific way. And I see a lot of that change in relation to the book. And I like it! Writing a book solves something. And then you’re done and then there’s something new to solve. I think that creativity comes out of a kind of desperate state, like…

Like it’s always a search for something, some kind of answer.

Right, you have to have a certain chaos in you or a certain neediness or a lot of fear. It comes out of a tumultuousness inside you. There’s no reason to make art if everything’s okay and you’re just taking it easy. I don’t even know how the art would be made. Art comes out of a tremendous amount of energy. That energy I think is usually related to some kind of panic. I can’t even visualize the artist without panic.

Is that panic true for yourself as well?

Of course, yeah. I’m not a very laidback person. I think otherwise if you don’t have that panic, you’re a guru, you know? You’re not an artist, you’re somebody with the answers. People put things out into the world as gurus all the time but I think a guru and an artist are really different. An artist doesn’t have the answers.