"The learning and the meaning in my life comes from friendships." Canadian writer Sheila Heti. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Nothing – and everything – is as it seems in Sheila Heti’s ambitious new book, a candid collection of taped interviews and emails, random notes and daring exposition, writes SINEAD GLEESON
Let’s take a woman called “Sheila”, who has a background in the arts, writes plays and has friends called Margaux and Misca. “Sheila” also has strong opinions on blowjobs (more on that later) and once worked as a hairdresser.
In real life, Sheila Heti is also a writer, who can cut hair and whose real friends have the same names. Still with me? Right. Down the rabbit hole of Heti’s novel, How Should a Person Be?, nothing – and everything – is as it seems. Journalists are typing “meta-fiction” as fast as their fingers allow. Some note the touches of novelistic memoir, others murmur about experimental biography, but Sheila – the writer, not the character – insists this book is a novel. Ambitious in its structure, it also tackles the pitfalls of artistic ambition, friendship, sex (good and bad) and a host of existential ponderings, suggested by the book’s title.
On the phone from her hometown of Toronto, Heti sounds younger than her 36 years, and charmingly shy, which seems at odds with the daring ideas and form of her book. “This novel came out of a lot of experimenting with writing things down and I didn’t understand that these fragments would go towards a single, finished book. Previously I wrote a book [Ticknor] in the way that people do, where you sit in a room for five years and write a book.”
What had also changed in Heti’s life was that her marriage had ended, and all the ideas she had about her own identity were shifting. “I wanted to be out in the world. I took notes and carried around cue cards. I wasn’t trying to write down exactly what happened. I was working from an imaginative place, but I really cared a lot about form. Nothing about this book is careless. I thought about all the different ways you can speak to a reader through a book and went from there.”
The book is presented as a serious of exchanges with various friends who double as characters. Sections are written like a play’s script, others appear as emails (real ones), with much cataloguing of her, and her friends’ lives. This line blurring of life and fiction is the most fascinating aspect of the novel. Heti’s friendships with film-maker Margaux Williamson, and writer Misha Glouberman are presented in huge detail and the writer admits to taping their conversations. Did they mind? “Oh, they knew, but I took their advice and consulted them all the way along. It was very complicated for Margaux and I. She had to trust me to use her image. In the book I make Margaux say things that she never said. There were scenes she wished I had changed – and sometimes I did – but often I just left them. It was an act of faith, but she was the most helpful editor on this book.”
The friendship between the two women is intense and reciprocal. It is rooted in their creative ambitions – to write books, paint, make films. In the prologue, Heti says: “In everyone, there was something to envy,” which doesn’t necessarily apply to her own friendships, but is an issue the book touches on. Some people are unhappy with their lot, irked by the success of others, focused on what they don’t have, rather than what they do. “It’s hard to look at yourself apart from other human beings,” says Heti. “Comparing yourself to others is not sophisticated, but it’s common.”
In an early chapter, Sheila (the-character-not-the-writer) ponders her relationship with women, wondering at “all the ways I had been betrayed by girls, all the ways I had been hurt by them”. Friendships between women, I offer, can display all the intensity of a relationship, including its conflicts and power struggles . . .
“I wonder why that is?” asks Heti. “We don’t put as much emphasis on friendship as we do on romantic love. When I look back, a huge part of the texture, the learning and the meaning in my life comes from friendships. When I was writing this book, I was thinking about my friendship with Margaux. I had never put the words “female friendship” together, but since the book has been published, the term has come up a lot. There is a different dynamic between the sexes when it comes to friendship. Men have told me that they would never put up with the kind of stuff that Margaux and I put up with with each other. They say it’s “not worth the bother”. No woman would ever say that of her friendship with another woman.”
When Caitlin Moran wrote How to Be A Woman, she couldn’t have predicted the feeling she tapped into among women. At best, people might laugh at her championing of unwaxed pubic hair as “a tiny hair trampoline”, or felt solidarity at her experiences of casual sexism. Similarly, Lena Dunham’s TV show Girls has been applauded for its eye-wateringly real depiction of women’s lives and their 21st-century concerns.
Both women have been mentioned in the context of Heti’s book, and there is a generous blurb from Dunham on the back cover. It’s hard not to notice the sense of something afoot: from the Everyday Sexism and No More Page Three twitter accounts, there is a groundswell of women talking – online, in podcasts, tweeting – about independence, choice and standing up for themselves and other women. “I’ve definitely noticed this,” says Heti, “but I’m not sure where it comes from. These things are all out there and sometimes the dots just get joined.”
How Should A Person Be? is very anchored in the idea of personal fulfilment through art, love and friendship, but it is underpinned by a sense of female autonomy. Does she see herself as a feminist? “Totally. Feminism is one of the lenses that I see the world through.”
Our conversation veers towards abortion, and the recent tragic case of Savita Halappanavar. Heti is shocked at the lack of availability of abortion in Ireland. “Feminism is about equality, and the need for abortion legislation, but it’s also hugely about a woman’s perspective on the world. Maybe that’s why people have been getting excited about Girls, and about this book.”
Amid all the exchanges about procrastination and how to be an artist, Sheila meets a man called Israel. Their burgeoning sexual relationship is captured in detail, and it is the only section of the book where her character seems submissive, and not in control. Was there something ironic in the way she wrote their interaction? “Not at all, it was very sincere. That’s how she felt about this guy. Feminism is not about lying about strengths you don’t have. Maybe it’s actually a strength to feel that way about someone, to be felled by another person. I think that goes beyond politics.”
Here, the character of Sheila admits to “working on my blowjobs, trying to make them perfect”. There’s also a reference to them being an art form – does Heti think they are? “[Laughs] They’re not a very high art form! And it only has an audience of one. I’d put blow-job more into the category of skill – an art form is something that has to do more than just give pleasure.”
When Sheila begins her long-awaited play, one thread of the story is about a woman – a mother – who is dissatisfied with family life and feels she hasn’t reached her full potential. Heti would like to have children one day, but wonders about the juggle of art and domesticity. It’s a conversation she says she has regularly with friends in their 30s who have had children. “I’ve asked them what having a family – the loss of time, the tiredness – is doing to their work. My biggest fear would be a loss of interest in making art . . . that my life-force would dissipate.
“ That said, there’s something very beautiful about having a child. It adds to our understanding of the human race. You miss things by not having children, so you gain things and lose things. It’s a huge question for creative women – ‘what’s the best thing to do?’ – but then I guess the best thing to do is what you want to do.”
How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti is published by Harvill Secker