from “a portrait of thinking”: Sheila Heti and Thea Bowering on the phone


Thea Bowering: How Should a Person Be? is very much a novel that deals with the idea of contemporaneity, making visible your present place in the world. We can look at the question, How should a person be? in relation to a number of themes in the book: sex, being a young woman, an artist, a moral person, but the idea of being contemporary seems to encompass all of that. The two themes I picked up early on in your prologue are themes of ugliness and of fame. And again, that made me think of Stein who said contemporary art always looks ugly at first and then it becomes beautiful over time. So could you speak about that preoccupation with ugly art in relation to being contemporary?

Sheila Heti: I thought a lot about that quote. I thought it was Picasso but maybe they both said it in different ways. I know that Picasso said an original work of art is always ugly at first to its creator. So I guess they were both thinking a lot about that, and I was thinking a lot about that when I wrote this book: how you have to sometimes break down your ideas of what beauty is in order to have some air flowing through your process. If you’re just trying to make something beautiful, which we all are—beauty is compelling—you’re going to go towards a certain shape, let’s say, or towards a certain narrative structure. You’re trying to do something well. But the only way you can do something well, I think, is if at first you have some model in your mind of what the good is. To do something that doesn’t move towards this picture that you have in your head of what you want the work to be, that’s a very difficult thing to do. And you kind of have to trick yourself, and be vigilant. I mean all editing is always in the direction of greater clarity, toward communicating in a more precise way that’s related to beauty. To try to edit, not in the direction of beauty is really hard. But all of that felt really necessary for me because, I mean it seems crazy to say that this is true of somebody so young, but I felt that I’d reached a dead end. When I was working on Ticknor I was really trying to make something absolutely perfect and I knew that I couldn’t do that again. I felt it would be dead if I tried to do that again. In truth, How Should a Person Be? isn’t the book of mine that I like the most. I prefer Ticknor or even The Middle Stories. How Should a Person Be? is very much against my innate aesthetic. It makes me uncomfortable to have put out something that isn’t, in my mind, beautiful or perfect, even though this book has had the biggest response. So I think there is something to be said for making yourself uncomfortable, and for questioning your instinct to please some internalized aesthetic criteria. Maybe there’s something lifeless about that, on some level.

TB: It’s your version of the ugly painting. And as a reader, too, one really has to stick with you through the book. The reader feels all the things that you’re feeling. But at the end there is some redemption. There’s a sense that, much like with Margaux’s painting, there’s that line she can’t avoid, her hand, that signature line of beauty . . .

SH: Right.

TB: . . . that makes its way through. I felt that there was this possibility of beauty again.

SH: Maybe you have to break it down first, though. I don’t feel suspicious now in the same way that I did before about my assumptions about what a novel should be. I don’t feel suspicious about what I’m drawn to in art.

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                                                                                                                              photograph by Sylvia Plachy