Sheila Heti, the woman with all the questions
Many of the recent interviews with writer Sheila Heti include something a little unusual: an interviewee asking the questions.
Most of these questions involved Heti’s new book, interrogative even in its title: How Should a Person Be?
Other questions addressed broader concerns. “So you think Vera Nabokov was a genius?” she asked Thessaly La Force of The Paris Review Daily.
When I spoke to Heti a couple of weeks ago, she asked me if I was a feminist.
This kind of behavior is a little unsettling if you imagine, as an interviewer, that you are running the show. It helps to bear in mind that questions are Heti’s job: apart from the question of her new book's title she is the interviews editor at The Believer.
How Should a Person Be? is billed as a “novel from life.” It's about a character named Sheila, and it includes emails and transcribed conversations with Heti’s friends as they all write, paint, and drink in Toronto. The novel reflects a rigorously inquisitive approach to hanging out with friends, and so seemed like a natural project for Heti. At first, however, it was only set to be published in Heti’s native Canada. n+1 magazine ran an excerpt, helping spark U.S. interest in the book—“Why Won’t America Publish Sheila Heti’s Second Novel?” asked an Observer headline—which culminated in a new agent for Heti and a deal with Henry Holt.
Tuesday night’s PowerHouse Arena launch event for How Should a Person Be? was planned as a party followed by a reading and a Q&A and then more party. Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of the recently released memoir A Sense of Direction, said he’d been speaking to Heti before festivities began about the perils of taking audience questions. He advised against it, especially when characters from the book (in his case, his dad; in Heti’s case, her friends) might themselves be in the audience.
But of course it’s perilous no matter what. Lewis-Kraus recalled that Misha Glouberman, one of Heti’s friends and collaborators (and someone who appears in her book), used to give an “unbelievable spiel” at the beginning of the lecture series he and Heti hosted: he would tell the audience to consider whether its questions were in fact questions or statements, and whether the desire to voice them sprang from curiosity or something more like pride. If the “questions” were actually prideful statements, audience members were advised not to "ask" them.
“It totally works,” Lewis-Kraus said.
Once the partygoers had assembled in their seats, Heti gave a brief introduction to her book. Margaux Williamson, her best friend, sat dead center in the front row, and she stood briefly to acknowledge the applause when Heti pointed her out.
“It’s really interesting to have your characters tell you that you did it wrong,” Heti said, acknowledging Williamson’s collaboration on the book. “It’s really useful.”
Heti read from her book’s prologue. The line “these are my fucking contemporaries!” earned the biggest laugh, from an audience of Heti’s contemporaries.
“Maybe I’ll answer a few questions and then we’ll go back to lining up for beers,” Heti said after she had finished.
The first question was not a question; it was a command to “talk more about” the difficulty of male-female relationships as presented in the scene where Heti’s characters watch a French movie about bondage.
Heti knew the part he was talking about—the part where the Sheila character exclaims, “Love is a battle between the sexes in which the man always wins because that’s more erotic for everyone!”
“That’s the scene you’re talking about,” Heti said, “and your question is...?”
“If you could talk about how you address that,” the man said. Heti said that she was not sure how to answer the question, but she was glad she’d gotten to use the battle-between-the-sexes line.
Then writer Jon Cotner spoke up next, less to ask a question than to tell Heti that he had just taught her book, and he thought James Wood’s New Yorker review was way off.
“Are you OK?” asked the next guy Heti called on.
“I’m OK," she said. “Thanks for asking.”
Then it was time for the final question. A man and a woman had each raised their hands.
Allison Lorentzen, an editor at Penguin Books who did not have her hand raised called out "Girl! Girl!" People turned to look at her. “It’s been all guys!” she said. Heti called on the woman.
If this were a “story from life” rather than a report from a reading, the woman would have asked a beautiful question. It would have surprised Heti and awoken her listeners’ attention, and possibly enacted the kind of female communication (“What women had to say to each other,” as Heti's novel has it) that the book puzzles over.
Instead: “How should a person be?” asked the girl.
Heti responded dutifully. The answer, she explained, was not the point. The book was not called How a Person Should Be. It was called How Should a Person Be?—the question—and she did not claim to know anything further.
“I guess the answer to that,” she said, and slid into a goofy, apologetic voice, “is, like, ‘buy the book.’”