'All My Conversations Are Too Personal': An Interview with Sheila Heti

by Tom Cutterham

Sheila Heti is the interviews editor at The Believer. She has also written two novels, a book of short stories, and a book of 'conversational philosophy' called The Chairs are Where the People Go, based on conversations with her friend Misha Glouberman. Her novel How Should a Person Be? was published in Canada in 2010, but came out in the UK early this year. She talked to Tom Cutterham about her book, about the art and practice of the interview, and about the meaning of conversation.

What makes a good interview?

An interview for me, if I'm doing the interview, is usually driving at something I want to know, and it's not a specific thing, like 'what was your marriage like,' more like I really want their point of view on the world, and just to get some sense of their philosophy, how they approach life. You try to get a whole relationship into that hour or that half-an-hour that you have with them. You know, to have a beginning and an end.

It's nice if the two people can feel private, that they're in some private space, and you, the reader, can feel like you're eavesdropping in, but not in the way where you're eavesdropping on something that should never be public because it's too banal. So there has to be some balance between the intimacy and the fact that both people are conscious that they're putting on a show. A lot of the interviews that I don't like are too intimate. Neither the interviewer nor the subject is really trying to bring the audience in. Or they're trying too much to speak outwardly to the world and not to each other.

I think that balance is really hard to get right and I think the best interviewers get it. Like Dick Cavett. His interviews were so supremely intimate and so supremely public. It's the skill of the interviewer to be able to get people to open up in that way. Not all people are capable of getting to that place. And I think the people that are, get there instantly.

Obviously a large part of any conversation is body language, but then that's something that you can't actually get onto the page. In How Should a Person Be? you transcribe conversations that you've had; but the transcription leaves out loads of things that an ordinary novel would have in. You're deliberately cutting those out.

There's a huge loss, for sure, between what happens between two people in a room together and the words on a page. And in the traditional novel you fill in that space by describing what the people's expression is on their faces and all that. But I think I was just thinking about plays. I used to read plays almost exclusively, and although if you're in an audience you get all that body back, I still love the play on the page.

I have a very vivid imagination maybe, and it's enough. I can see the people, I don't need to be told what their faces are. It's more intimate because you do so much more of the work. It becomes more a creation of your own imagination, so it's closer to your knowledge of the world. You think, 'oh right, that's the kind of person that would be saying these lines.' You associate everything you know with the dialogue.

I find theatre a little depressing, though. To be in theatre's a very different thing than to write books. There's a lot I love about it, like working with other people, but you can work with other people when you write books. I feel like books have a greater reach. At least in my experience, I've been able to talk to more people with books than with plays. I think a novel's very direct. You go right into the person's – whatever that dark, black region of the brain is that words go to. You go right into that emptiness.

It took an incredibly long time for the book to make its way to the point it's at now, so you had to spend a lot of time doing that, and now you're spending a lot of time promoting it. If that's the content of your life for the last three years maybe that's the content of your next novel?

I doubt it. I've found it a little hard to talk so much about the book, because the more you talk about something the more you forget what the reality was. At least for me, talking about it doesn't bring me closer to the truth of what happened, it obscures it every time I talk about it. At this point I can barely even remember. I sort of feel a bit sad about that. That was a very intimate thing, the five or six years working on the book, and its genesis was a very beautiful and personal, precious memory [laughing] that's now completely obscured!

If you did write another novel, would you use the same techniques – transcription and so on? One of the interesting things about the book for me was thinking about the way friendships are conversations, and the conversations aren't discrete, they're ongoing, they're continual.

Lately I've been dissatisfied because I feel like all my conversations are too personal. I don't know how it got to be this way, but lately I've been dissatisfied with how narrow they are. I feel like I'm always talking about what my mood is. I'm frustrated by how we all, I mean my friends and I, are in this phase of talking about how we're feeling. Like, who cares?! It just feels too random, and not that important.

It's nice to think that your moods come from the world. Sometimes I just think they come from some mysterious internal place that you can't quite locate. And I'm sure that they come from both places. I'm reading a book about the making of the DSM 5, and one of the things the author says is that, this is completely normal for people to have all these feelings, so why are we medicating so heavily? Why can't we just deal with the fact that this is what it feels like to be a human being. It's not a condition to medicate, you know? The complexity of being a human being, and the sadness that comes along with it inevitably.

I was at a Seder yesterday and people were talking about, 'let's remember how many people in the world suffer from the kind of oppression that we're talking about, today.' It was a very political conversation. And my friend's mother, she's a psychoanalyst, was like, 'and let's think about the ways that we oppress ourselves internally, and our own oppressors,' so she brought it back to the psychoanalytic. But it was interesting to think about it in the context of, this is something that people do to each other and something people do to themselves: oppress and enslave, and so on.

When people talk to you about How Should a Person Be?, because the work and the person are somewhat difficult to disentangle, have you found it difficult? Have you had good or bad conversations as a result of the book?

The problem is I feel like with this book people want me to answer more like a pundit. What do you think about female friendship in general? What do you think about feminism in general? All these questions. Those are the kinds of conversations I don't want to have. A novelist is the wrong person to ask. A work of art is a proposition about the world, but it's not a final statement. It's asking, 'is the world like this?'

Maybe [laughing] I'm just tired of talking to people. Maybe I just, I don't – maybe I just want to, like, not have so many conversations right now. Because sometimes you feel like you don't have anything to say. I mean, you've run out. Like, now maybe what you want to do is read books, maybe what you want to do now is just think on your own and be private. I think that may be part of it. Sometimes you just get worn out from talking to people.

Sheila Heti will be in conversation with Adam Thirlwell at the LRB Bookshop on Tuesday 30 April. How Should a Person Be? is published by Harvill Secker.