Sheila Heti is a Torontonian. Petite, stylish, and with a most enviable fringe, she is a writer of plays and stories. She tells me one of her earliest memories is of being scolded by her teacher, Ms Lyon, a very tall woman who wore lots of “feline makeup”. Ms Lyon called Sheila a chatterbox in class, a word she’d never heard before.
“I remember being so stunned… it had never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with talking with a friend in the seat beside me.” Talk, incidentally, is something Sheila does very well. But the thing she does even better, is to make you talk.
I met Sheila some months ago in Galway, and within five minutes she’d located my verbal incontinence button and pushed it hard. I’m not usually the first to blab my life story to strangers, but in Sheila’s case, the divulging was irrepressible, and I have to say, fun. Later, I got hold of her book, How Should a Person Be? a New York Times Notable Book, described as a “nearly unclassifiable book”, and I thought, Ah, I get it! Sheila steals from life so deliciously that it’s impossible to draw distinctions between what’s real and what’s imagined. Using recorded conversations and email transcripts of her best friend Margaux, and depraved boyfriend Israel (with the “soul-sucking eyes” and the “lips of a real pervert”), she creates a glittering work of fiction that is an amalgam of philosophical quest, confessional and self-help manual. All trying to answer: How should a person be?
“I don’t have a very good sense of reality,” Sheila says. “Those words (real life and imagination) aren’t opposites to me. Relationships, people, ideas, all seem very fluid… things are always morphing, like in a dream.” How Should a Person Be? is a lot about exploring friendships (particularly female friendships), but ultimately, it’s a book about beauty. It begins with Sheila and her friends arranging an Ugly Painting Competition to see who among her friends could win. The entire novel stems from this original idea of beauty versus ugliness. Can an artist make something intentionally ugly? Would she want to? Does someone calling your work beautiful mean that it’s not meaningful? How do Truth and Beauty square up?
When I ask Sheila where this fascination for beauty comes from, she says that it runs in her family. “It mystifies me how much importance we put on appearances and how it’s impossible to imagine our friends without also imagining their faces and bodies. I think it shouldn’t be so important, shouldn’t so drastically condition our relation to each other, and yet it’s impossible for the physical not to affect us.”
Among Sheila’s treasured writers are Kierkegaard, Jane Bowles, Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, Oscar Wilde, Goethe and C S Lewis. “All these people seem like friends to me. Seeing their books on the shelves makes me feel like the world has beauty in it. Not the kind of superficial, intoxicating, empty-calorie beauty we were speaking of, but moral beauty, the kind of beauty that exists because it wants to save the world.”
Sheila Heti’s next project is a book called Women In Clothes about women’s relationship to style. Those who’d like to participate in the survey should visit www.womeninclothes.com. Being stylish is not mandatory.