I am interested in what is the truth of life for other people

How Should a Person Be?

Sheila Heti is a Canadian writer and editor. How Should A Person Be? is her second novel.

Toronto holds a rather important place in the book. As she travels out of the country, the protagonist wonders if it is the right place for an artist, yet she cannot resolve to leave the city for good. Has this interrogation influenced your work in any way?

I don’t know. I still long to live in other places, but I equally long to stay in one place.

The second part of the title says “A novel from life”, which might sound enigmatic to someone who has not read the novel, but it also says enough to draw you in. When do you decide that a writing idea—especially if it is drawn from personal experience—is going to turn into fiction or non-fiction?

No, that’s not a decision I make. I think of whatever book I am working on as “a book” and that is enough for me. When you write, you are always using what you have seen and experienced, as well as what you can only imagine, and all form is invention, but most images in our head come from what we have seen. So the categories of “fiction” and “non-fiction” don’t really make sense to me, and I don’t think about them when writing. I try to make a good book, using whatever I can.

In the novel, Sheila’s friends seem to be the only really reliable people in her life, sometimes more than family or boyfriends. Do you feel that friendship plays a key role in the question “how should a person be?”

One of the questions of the book is how to be in relationships—should a person be loyal? should a person just do whatever they want?—and friendships are among the most important relationships one has. For Sheila, her relationship with Margaux is her most important relationship. So yes, for her the question of how to be a friend is very pressing. I think for many of us, we learn how to love as adults—that is, how to love with responsibility—within friendships, more so than in romantic relationships. It is easier to have some control over oneself in a friendship, which makes it possible to learn, whereas in a romantic relationship it can often seem like you act out of impulses you don’t understand, and that you will maybe never understand.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, you started collecting dreams people had about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and then posted them online. How meaningful is it for you to work with the intimate, the personal lives of other people?

I am not only interested in my own imagination—I am interested in what is the truth of life for other people. Many writers sit alone and imagine characters, and they invest these characters with the mysteries that I often seek out directly in other people, just by asking them. I am not sure if it’s because I’m lazy or what. I think I am just curious about other "I"s and whether the way you feel as a human is the way that I feel? Does the “I” in your head come from the same place as the “I” in mine, do they speak in the same voice? The dream website was a kind of joke about art and science—as if polling people about their dreams could be scientific, or as if polling people about their dreams could be art. But it did turn out to be both, in a way, and I could tell—long before the pundits did—that Obama was going to be elected to represent the Democratic party, simply because of the nature of the dreams people were having about him (which were very messianic) versus the dreams people were having about Clinton (people were terrified of her). I felt very depressed about the Clinton dreams. I felt, at the time, how much difficulty people still have—women and men—with women’s power.

Editorial reviews (2 reviews)

Sheila Heti’s semi-autobiographical novel is a humorous, quixotic quest for selfhood in a generation that sometimes seems defined by celebrity, triviality and Paris Hilton’s sex tapes.

This novel, which includes not just real people but their emails and transcribed conversations, and dangles itself precariously somewhere between "real life" and "art" is, in the end, a meditation on ugliness rather than beauty, and reality rather than fiction.