How Should a Writer Be? An Interview with Sheila Heti

June 12, 2012 | 3 books mentioned 10 8 min read

covercoverSheila Heti is the Interviews Editor at The Believer and author of five books including the critically acclaimed Ticknor. Her new novel How Should a Person Be? feels different from her previous work. It is deeply personal, while also detached and experimental. The sex is rough, the revelations are raw, and the form is strange. Heti lays bare what many writers try to hide — the mismatch between how we feel and what we do. Miranda July calls it a “book that risks everything.”

The main character in the novel, Sheila Heti, is reeling from a recent divorce and struggling to write a commissioned play. Seeking inspiration, she records conversations with her best friend, a painter named Margaux, and has an affair with a devilish and handsome painter, Israel. Sheila dives into both relationships, a journey that is steeped in philosophy and that uses email transcripts and recordings as clues on a search for the heart and mind. Ultimately, Sheila discovers how an artist can create work in the face of her own self-doubts. As a writer, I read the novel as a story that explores writing and rejection and moving on, but the themes can be more widely applied. It is a book about finding a way to move forward again.

I first read the book when it came out in Canada this past September. Given the theme of revising, it felt fitting when I read in The Paris Review that Heti has since rewritten parts of the just released U.S. edition.

Making changes a book that has already been published strikes me as both unusual and risky. If a writer makes changes, is it an admission that the original work wasn’t good enough?

I did a line-by-line comparison of the Canadian edition to the U.S. edition and then put the question to Heti.

The Millions: How did you start How Should a Person Be?

Sheila Heti: My last novel, Ticknor, was so neurotic. It was inside one person’s head. I wanted this one to be about a system among people. I didn’t want to just be in my room. I wanted to write it in the world.

I wanted to know, could I write without torturing myself? Well, I did end up torturing myself, but less. Less than I did with Ticknor.

TM: Many writers develop a style or a thing that they become known for, but this book is very different from Ticknor.

SH: I guess. Editors don’t buy two books from me. They say that they don’t know what my next book will be, so they will only buy one at a time. That’s fine. It could be that I won’t or I will find something that I will do and repeat, but maybe not because I like newness. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over in any area of my life. I don’t find it stimulating.

TM: How much did you work with your editor on this book?

SH: Lorin Stein, who is now the editor at The Paris Review, bought Ticknor at FSG. He was the person who I showed a draft of the book to first, apart from Margaux. It was a very early draft. He didn’t really like it. He told me this story about a young writer he knew who had a big book out then, and he said, “You know, he wrote a whole other book before this book, and he threw it away. Maybe this is that book for you.”

TM: Wow.

SH: I felt a lot of despair. I put How Should a Person Be? in the drawer. Finally I took it back out. I decided it was the wrong thing to do. I couldn’t accept that a drawer was the fate of this book. I felt determined to make it work.

I might be misremembering how all this went down with Lorin. But anyway, so you see he was very useful. The book was much, much more fractured in its earlier form. He and I talked a lot about it. I tried to show him that it was better than he understood by explaining to him this complicated process I had used to write many of the sections, with three decks of cards. It didn’t seem to change his feelings about it!

TM: I wonder if that’s a description of people who end up publishing books? You get angry. Rejection steels you, rather than breaks you?

SH: Hopefully, right?

TM: Hopefully.

SH: I was at Yaddo around this time. There was a writer who told me about how he had a great editor at FSG. This writer felt that he had showed the editor his second book too soon. He was never published by FSG again and said that he should have never showed the draft so soon. It ruined his career. That story became my horror story. I was convinced that would happen to me.

TM: The career of a writer is always an exception. There is never one way it happens, but the temptation to draw conclusions from another writer’s experience is always there. Do you find it tempting to try to follow the path that someone has taken? This is a theme at the heart of How Should a Person Be?

SH: Yes, but life doesn’t work that way. I don’t know what you can realistically learn from other people. Everyone’s experience is so different.

TM: Did you know that before writing this novel?

SH: No. It was something I figured out.

TM: Is that why you write, to figure something out?

SH: I hope so, yes. I don’t write from the place of “I know something that I’m going to tell to you.” I write from the place of “there’s something I don’t know and I need to write this book to figure it out.”

TM: Do you start a novel with an outline?

SH: I’ve tried. I find it too boring.

TM: Do you have to torture yourself every time you write a book?

coverSH: There always comes a point of deep uncertainty in the process. And it affects your feelings about your certainty as a human. I don’t know if you can get away from that, writing. Even with the children’s book I recently wrote, We Need a Horse, there were several days that were just deeply terrible. But when you look back, those are the days you romanticize. You realize that’s when you were really working.

TM: So How Should a Person Be? was published in Canada first?

SH: Yes. A lot of publishers saw it and didn’t want it, but Anansi took it.

TM: Do you think that’s because it isn’t like anything else? It’s a different kind of book, especially a different kind of book from a woman.

SH: Maybe. I wasn’t modeling it on other books. I was thinking about movies made by Werner Herzog and TV shows like The Hills. Other mediums are doing this kind of thing more.

Why do you think it’s different kind of book for a woman?

TM: It’s based on ideas. Is that sad? I think it is. It’s a book that is brave and exposing and maybe some women work to cover up what you are willing to expose? Or I guess I’m saying that I would. Why don’t women tend to publish 1,000 page novels?

SH: I kind of wanted this to be 1,000 pages. At one point it was 600 pages.

TM: You’ll have to write a book that length next time.

SH: [laughing] Yes! Or I’ll do another version that is 1,000 pages.

TM: How did you decide to re-edit the book for the U.S. edition?

SH: When the book came out in Canada, I felt like I didn’t really pull it off. It wasn’t a specific thing, I just knew it in my body. When it was going to be published in the U.S., I saw it as a chance to finish.

TM: Did your editor at Henry Holt give you notes?

SH: Yes, her name is Sarah Bowlin. She gave me very good notes and I thought about them. I sat down and I started pulling in things that I liked and had written but weren’t in the book. There was very little that I wrote newly; mostly it was stuff I had written before but didn’t end up using. I’d been thinking and living with this book for so long that the edits happened very quickly over a weekend.

TM: I went through and did a line-by-line comparison of the Canadian edition to the U.S. edition to see your changes.

SH: That’s nuts.

TM: It was kind of weird, but I found it so interesting. The changes are subtle, but the way you articulate the relationships between Sheila and the other characters is quite different. The divorce has been brought to the fore in the U.S. edition. What was your thinking behind this?

SH: I thought it might help the reader understand one of Sheila’s motivations for asking how should a person be? if the tipsiness that follows divorce was emphasized a bit more.

TM: There is a new email from your ex-husband’s mom.

SH: All these changes, where something was added – all of those were things that at one point I was thinking of putting into the Canadian edition, but did not. There is just so much material I amassed, so I had to make choices. I made a bunch of choices for the Canadian edition, and whatever I put in and left out – that all worked to make one whole. But when I wanted to rewrite it for the American edition, I put in new things and took out some things and changed others, which made another whole. I just wanted a different feeling in this new book, something more full and resolved, maybe to reflect me feeling more full and resolved than I did when I finished the Canadian edition.

TM: How many drafts did you do for this book? When did you start?

SH: It’s hard to know what the start was, but sometime in 2005. I didn’t know I was writing a book. I didn’t know I was writing this book. I was finished Ticknor…I was reading a lot of things. I was reading the Bible and business books and Forbes and books about companies…

I was thinking about art critics and how do they make decisions. How do they know what they like? I got a tape recorder. Mostly, I was trying to write a book that came from the world. I had note cards with all these sentences, which I carried around with me. I started recording myself narrating. I wanted to find a new way to write that would take things from the world.

I went through a crazy period where I had all these cards. Each card had symbols on them. It was a way of making scenes. All the symbols related to something real that happened in my life. I reduced those anecdotes down to a word and then I put those words on cards, and put those cards together randomly with a few other cards and then I’d try to come up with a scene from that. So it was a way to try and write about life, but not write about my life.

Somehow all these different things that I was writing started to come together. A draft started to assemble itself, but there were a thousand different drafts of the book.

TM: In the U.S. edition, you talk about your ancestors much earlier in the prologue. Why?

SH: My editor suggested that change. I agreed it was better that way; the Prologue is a kind of fugue so it really should have all the book’s themes in it. I hadn’t realized that this one was left out.

TM: In the Canadian edition, the Acts are numbered using roman numerals – Act II. In the U.S. edition, these become numbers – Act 2. I loved finding this kind of small detail. Why the change?

SH: I didn’t realize this! I guess that was a design decision they made without me.

TM: There are fewer words on a page in the U.S. edition. In the Canadian edition, this sentence appears all on one line:

There is so much beauty in this world that it’s hard to begin.
There are no words with which…

In the US edition, the same line looks like this:

There is so much beauty in this world that it’s hard to
begin. There are no words with which…

As a writer, does it make it feel like a different book?

SH: I didn’t notice that either. I don’t think it makes a big difference. I’m not a poet.

TM: There are a minor changes peppered throughout, like “she said it had already departed” (p. 72) changes to “she said it had already left” or “When the sun went down” (p. 99) changes to “After the sun went down…” Is there a systematic reason for these smaller changes, or how did they come about?

SH: It was just from going through the pages on computer, and then the galleys, and changing things to what I liked better. The usual.

TM: Does this interview feel exposing? This is a book about the revising the creative process and then you went through the process of revising it for the U.S. edition. Isn’t that scary?

SH: No. I just really wanted to make the changes. I thought, “that feels right.” It suits the book. It makes sense.

TM: In doing this interview, I am asking you to tell me things that most writers avoid discussing. Am I in danger of killing whatever it is that allows you to be a writer in the face of your doubts?

SH: No, no, this book is done. Whatever I do next I will do in a way that’s different from how I did this book.

TM: If the book comes out in France, will you rewrite it again?

SH: Never! No, this is it.

TM: How should a writer be?

SH: They should do whatever they want.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her novel The Last Neanderthal is published by Little, Brown and Co., was recently featured in The New York Times, and is a national bestseller in Canada. Her writing has appeared in the Lenny Letter, The New York Times, Salon, and The Globe and Mail. Follow her @clairecameron or read more at