In 2007, The New York Times Magazine asked a group of young writers for essays about their college experiences. Most of the responses were predictable—addictions to good grades, new horizons abroad, the pleasures and terrors of youth activism. Then there was the piece by Sheila Heti, a Canadian writer who studied playwriting at the National Theatre School of Canada before attending the University of Toronto to study art history and philosophy.
Heti wrote about how she had come to the University ready “to uncover the great mystery beneath the surface of everything,” and had spent her first few months confident in her ability to do so without talking to anyone on campus. “That summer I ended a relationship with a guy who was more charismatic than I was, and he kept all our friends. Well, to hell with them.” This, it turned out, was a pretty lonely way of going about things, so instead she began to interview other students for a project, which, she explained, had no purpose. “Suddenly, the yellow-brick road to friendship seemed to unravel before me. I hurried home to the room I was living in near campus and came up with a long list of questions: What lies do you tell yourself over and over? For whom are you performing?”
I remember reading this as a senior in high school and gulping. If college was going to make me a new person, this was the kind of person I wanted to be.
Young writers are often told to craft a “voice” or develop a “personal brand” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) in order to be more attractive to readers. But the most exciting writing gives you a sense of all the contours of a person, not just a well-defined identity. Sheila Heti writes that way. Her work is bold and daring, but it never sounds pushed—as if writing were just another extension of her self .
Heti’s first book, The Middle Stories, was published in 2001; Ticknor, a first person narrative based on the relationship between the historian William Prescott and his biographer George Ticknor, came out in 2006. Her most recent book, How Should A Person Be?, is a novel and was published in Canada last year. The Chairs Are Where the People Go, a collaboration with the improvisation artist Misha Glouberman, will come out this summer.
This conversation took place over the phone in two parts. It has been condensed and edited.
How did you write The Chairs Are Where the People Go?
I had wanted to write a book about my friend Misha for a long time. I had written part of a book about him but it was bad. So instead we talked. He talked and I typed. Before that, we had asked friends of ours about things Misha was good at. We came up with a long list. Then we talked about every single one of them. Mostly he just spoke in a monologue and then I edited the book.
Much of your work is very collaborative. For How Should A Person Be?, for example, you interviewed your friends and transcribed interactions with them.
I come from the theater world. I missed theater. I missed the part when you do a play with somebody. I missed how close you get—what happens when they become family. I wanted to think of writing the book in this way.
That must have been a change from writing your novel Ticknor.
I don’t even think I talked to anybody about the book when I was writing it. Writing the book was more like writing about a relationship. All conversations just with myself and I was stuck all alone with my problems. I had to be stuck in my head.
That’s something I want to get away from. It was like writing a biography. I had to become Ticknor. My brain became a book’s brain.