Understand the People, Understand Ourselves

an interview with Sheila Heti

by Drew Dickerson

Illustration by Casey Friedman

published February 7, 2014

Sheila Heti is a writer working across various forms, but it feels relatively safe to say that the conversation is her central artistic concern. She worked for a time as Interviews Editor of The Believer (and is now credited on the masthead as Contributing Editor). Her work The Chairs are Where the People Go is a book of applied philosophy written from transcribed conversation with improviser and friend Misha Glouberman (with whom Heti co-founded the Trampoline Hall Lectures series, where speakers extemporize on topics about which they are inexpert). Her book How Should a Person Be? is described on its jacket as “a novel from life,” with Heti drawing from e-mail, telephone, and face-to-face conversations in order to reconstruct some version of her own lived experience.  She and I talk here about her recent n+1 essay “From My Diaries (2006-10) in Alphabetical Order,” how it is that a conversation comes together in the editing, and throwing I-Ching

The College Hill Independent: I was hoping to start off with a question about form. I know that you were formerly the Interviews Editor for The Believer and your work features a strong transcribed element. Does that alter your perception at all of what it means to be an interviewed subject?

Sheila Heti: No. I do a lot of interviews and I just figure the more you do the less careful you have to be.  If you only do one interview in your life then you have to be very, very careful. If you have many, then you’re more free to sort of contradict yourself and be stupid—it just becomes part of life, like having a conversation with a friend does. The stakes aren’t really that high, and they shouldn’t be that high anyway because you don’t have any obligation in an interview to be anything but yourself.

The Indy: I know in your novel How Should a Person Be? There’s the character Margaux’s anxiety towards the voice recorder, but in your own case, it seems like volume works as a corrective.

SH: That’s actually an idea that I think I learned from Margaux. That was kind of her idea, that the more representations there are of one person in the world the freer one is. That’s nothing that would have ever occurred to me before.  Ever since she said it, I think it’s really true. Especially in the internet world where nothing disappears. Even when I started out, when I was doing interviews for The Middle Stories, which was 2001, something would be in the newspaper one day and then the next day no one would see it. Now that everything’s online—not only that, but things like your Twitter feed, Facebook and everything— you can’t really control things.

The Indy: What does a successful characterization by interview look like?

SH: I like things where it really feels like the person is present, where the person is responding to your questions, isn’t guarded, where their personality comes across. I think a lot of the success of an interview is in the editing. I’m not a fan of interviews where every “um” and “ah” is transcribed. I think there is an art to making people sound more intelligent than they are, and I kind of feel like that’s my responsibility.  Transcribed, a person should still sound like themselves, but a better version of themselves.

     The idea is not to make people better, but to make people maybe more clear than they are. I kind of feel like we go to literature—and I consider interviews part of that—in order to understand the people around us and to understand ourselves. So to leave an interview unedited doesn’t help at all with that, doesn’t help somebody who’s reading through something. There’s something to be said for mystifying humans, but for myself at this point in my life that’s just not what I’m interested in. Things seem mysterious enough. To me, writing is closer to some kind of clarity. But, obviously, in the process of getting there, you go into deeper and deeper confusion and things become more and more mysterious. But, hopefully, at a certain point you come to some clarity about some things, even if it’s only temporary.   

The Indy: I’ve been thinking about different strategies of how to animate a person’s life through non-fiction materials. I spoke in October with Miranda July about the “We Think Alone” project, in which you took part, and that seems to me an interesting synthesis of techniques and themes that you yourself are concerned with. There’s the social aspect of art-making, as well as specifically disclosed elements of autobiography. What is the allure of using such pedestrian materials in the making of art or literature?

SH: I think that one thing that we turn to art for is to see our own materials reflected, and most of our experiences are actually quite banal. One reason to use that kind of material was because, when you look at it, you do see something transformed into art that doesn’t look as though it’s obviously being transformed into art. I feel like that illusion is important, unless you’re going all the way and actually writing fables or something that’s meant to be much more in the imaginative realm. If you’re trying to write something that has a relation to realism, there’s no reason not to use that kind of material.

     I also feel like most of us writers, we spend more of our day writing emails than we do writing our books. So if you can somehow incorporate the writing that you’re doing already—which is an honest expression of yourself—into your art, that’s just really resourceful. If it’s there, why not use it? When you’re a kid I think you have this tremendous imagination, but I do think that, as you get older, that kind of wild imagination might be less present to you on a day-to-day basis than the e-mails that you write or the conversations that you’re having with other people. So why privilege the imagination over that real matter? If you’re working with words, you have so much material at your disposal. Why not transform that rather than the fantasies in your head?

The Indy: That calls to mind your piece “From My Diaries” in the most recent issue of n+1. What went behind the decision to alphabetize those entries?

SH: I can’t remember how I came up with that idea, but I have probably hundreds and thousands of pages of writing that I just did for myself in those journals that I never intended to publish and that I don’t intend to publish. When I put this together, it wasn’t really with the thought of publishing it, it was really just a curiosity for myself. I have five years of writing where I’m writing to myself and some of it would be like: “What’s the date today? The 29th of January? What was I thinking on the 29th of January four years ago?” And—not that I wrote every day, but if I did have one from the 29th of January four years ago or even if it was a week earlier—I would be so curious to see what I was thinking then. And I would go and I would be like: “That’s exactly the same thing that I’m thinking today!” There would be this great sense of disappointment—“I haven’t changed, I haven’t evolved, I still have the same problems.”  I might write something yesterday that said “my life has completely changed” and I’d see something from four years ago that said “my life has completely changed today”.

     I kind of wanted to look at the journals in a more kind of scientific way. Like, what were in fact the repetitions? How many times do I say “nothing will ever be the same”? How many sentences start that way? How many sentences start with that idea? By alphabetizing them—which I did in Excel—it just gave me more sense of my preoccupations and my formal ticks in terms of writing sentences than it could have, had I just reread all of it, which also I would never do because there’s just too much there. It’s too depressing to reread all those old journals. I think the idea always of applying science to something that’s not scientific is so compelling. My parents both were kind of scientists, and I love the idea of an objective eye on the world. I think bringing that objective eye to something as not-objective, as personal or as subjective as a diary—I just wanted to see what would happen if I did that.

The Indy: I saw on Twitter that you’re editing a collection from Penguin called Women in Clothes.

SH: Yeah. It’s more like an oral history or something than an anthology. What we did was we wrote these surveys. Between five and six hundred (mostly) women have filled out these surveys, and the surveys ask questions about why they wear what they wear, how they make decisions in terms of dressing, and the book is sort of being built up from all the material that we built up in those surveys. We also commission some things—Miranda did a project for us and Cindy Sherman had a conversation with Molly Ringwald. We commissioned things from artists, but most of it is women speaking for themselves. I’m really fascinated with plagiarism. I have always found that there’s an excitement to me in the idea of plagiarism, like it’s the worst thing you can do as a writer. So to make a book based on the words of these women can feel exiting and dangerous and I just like working with other people’s voices. That’s formally why the book exists in that way.

     I mean, when you read a book of fiction what you know is how that writer sees the world. I didn’t think there was anything in the world already where you could open up a book and see why women put on what they put on. All you see in terms of women in clothes are fashion magazines, which have nothing to do with a human being. It has everything to do with selling things to people. I kind of see the book as a balance of that. We just talked directly about this thing. I don’t even think it’s the most important thing, but I also don’t think it matters particularly what you talk about, it just matters how you talk about it. If you talk about clothes in an interesting way you can get deep into the psyche of a population. You can talk about people’s relationship to God. You just have to start somewhere.

The Indy: That seems to resonate well with what you were saying about science. Here it looks like you’ve put a question to the world and then had a very real return on empirical results coming back in.

SH: Yeah, exactly. That’s a good way of thinking about it. I guess I thought that I was going to learn something, like I was going to have some sort of conclusions based on reading all these surveys. The kind of conclusions that I got are not scientific at all, but they taught me a lot. I just feel so differently about clothes than I used to, which is nice for me because I’m not somebody who thinks about that sort of thing. I don’t usually think about the physical world that much. It’s nice to be brought into the physical world and think about objects, how they’re as real as things like character. I’m more interested in the things that you can’t really touch, but it’s interesting to think about the things you can touch.

The Indy: The character Sheila—to whatever degree she’s distinct from yourself—in your novel has a sort of mistrust in speaking for women in general. This seems like a good work-around.

SH: It’s nice because I’m not speaking for anyone. People are just speaking for themselves. Obviously there’s selection that goes into it.  In terms of what I chose to put in the book—I don’t think we put just the best stuff in the book, everything is great—I think the stuff that’s in the book is valuable. It’s certainly been valuable to me.

The Indy: In a previous interview for the Indy you talk about how you’re working on a theory of change. Do you remember at all what that was?

SH:  I don’t know what I was thinking about. I’ve been working on kind of an adaptation of the I-Ching, which is sort of about change. “I-Ching” is translated “the book of change” or “the book of changes.” The idea is that life is constant change. I might have been thinking then about that, but I don’t know.

     This is my adaptation of the I-Ching which I’m doing with this artist, Ted Mineo. It’s another translation—I mean there are thousands of them. This is my own perspective on what each of those sixty four states means. The way that I do it is I have dozens of translations, and I can’t read Chinese or Ancient Chinese for that matter. But if I’m working on Hexagram One I’ll read all the interpretations that I can find of Hexagram One, and from that you get a very good sense of what it is about. And then I write my own version of it, which is speaking more directly to the concerns that I have at the moment that I’m writing it. So for instance, the way you use the book is that you ask it a question like “What should I do with this problem that I have?” Each of those sixty four Hexagrams addresses how you can contend with that problem in a different way. What I write is trying to help myself through that, help myself think about that problem in a different way. I’m trying to write it as a direct helper for what’s going on in my life or my attitudes.