"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.”