Monday, January 21, 2013

Sheila Heti: 'I love dirty books'

The Canadian has become a literary sensation in the US with a novel drawing heavily on her own life and philosophy. Here she talks about art, female friendship and sexual honesty

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Sheila Heti in New York: 'I'll never write a book in this way again.' Photograph: Mike McGregor for the Observer

Sheila Heti's novel, How Should a Person Be?, has taken the States by storm. Dubbed "HBO's Girls in book form", it's a mash-up of memoir, fiction, self-help and philosophy.
The book, published here this week, has divided critics. The New Yorker's James Wood applauded Heti's "freedom from pretentiousness and cant", but called the book "hideously narcissistic". Margaret Atwood described it as a "seriously strange but funny plunge into the quest for authenticity"; while artist and film-maker Miranda July declared it "nothing less than groundbreaking: in form, sexually, relationally, and as a major literary work".

How Should a Person Be? is structured like a literary version of reality TV. The narrator, Sheila, is a playwright, recently divorced, who is suffering from writer's block. In real life Heti had just divorced her husband of three years, and was trying to write a play for a feminist theatre company – which instead became How Should a Person Be?.

Set in Heti's native Toronto, the book is based on the author's own conversations with her artist friends (the character Margaux is Heti's real friend, painter Margaux Williamson), her analyst and her relationship with Israel, the man with whom she has intense, brutal sex.

But, in the spirit of the 19th-century bildungsroman, the book also asks questions such as: What does it mean to be an artist? What is ugly and what is beautiful? And how do we live a moral life?

Full piece.

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