Sheila Heti came from Toronto to New York this week, ready to launch her "novel from life" How Should a Person Be? in the States. I’m a fanboy, so of course I was there at the Powerhouse Arena on Tuesday night.
Two weeks ago, I had pushed a copy of the book into my friend’s hands. “You’ll get a kick out of it,” I insisted. A week later, she told me she had a clear picture of the characters: she was positive that the narrator, also named Sheila, was a tall woman with flowing, curly hair—the kind of woman who effortlessly pulls off a feather boa. And Margaux, her best friend (also the book's dedicatee), had to be blonde, with a clean-cut face and an understated, artsy style.
Well, not quite. A quick Google search led to this picture, with Margaux Williamson on the left, and Sheila Heti on the right. Sheila had put a version of herself in How Should a Person Be?, but it wasn’t quite the same as the woman who stood in front of us Tuesday night.
“Yeah, I sort of forgot to describe myself,” she said when we mentioned the discrepancy. Then she looked down and signed my book.
Did it bother her?
“No, I’m not the person I put in the book. That was a different time.”
Hmm. Would Margaux be upset if we asked her to sign the book? (Margaux has not always been the nicest friend.)
“Margaux? She’d love it!”
We went over to Margaux, who was surrounded by an adoring crowd. We opened our books to the dedication page and handed them over. She couldn’t stop smiling as she scribbled our names and her signature.
We couldn’t believe ourselves. It was like seeing the cast of The Hills in the flesh. They were actually real? Wearing the same kind of clothes we did? And signing our books, even though they’d fought about their lives being recorded?
A couple of months ago, I’d gone to a different bookstore to see John D’Agata and Jim Fingal talk about their own relationship, recorded in The Lifespan of a Fact. These were two men who had argued over most of the facts in an essay that was later turned into the book About a Mountain.
“Wow, Jim, your penis must be so much bigger than mine,” John D’Agata spouts off sarcastically in one part of the book. “Your job is to fact-check me, Jim, not my subjects.”
As it turns out, quite a bit of this dialogue had been made up. This knowledge didn’t endear me to the idea of meeting a self-absorbed artiste (D’Agata) and a battle-scarred fact-checker (Fingal). These were the characters they’d made out of themselves, after all.
Then the two men walked to the front of the room.
John D’Agata is actually extremely nice, even apologetic—one minute ofthis video shows how transparent his emotions are. I was astonished at the vehemence of my fellow audience members. “Can’t you understand that you shouldn’t present distorted facts as journalism?” they asked.
No, John D’Agata explained in an apologetic way, he wasn’t writing journalism. An essay was a completely different thing.
He seemed surprised at the monstrous caricature he’d created of himself. Jim Fingal found the whole setup rather amusing. I looked around nervously for tomatoes about to be thrown. These two writers had become victims of their own inventions.
Did either pair of authors owe it to their readers to present an accurate picture of themselves? What transformation was permissible in art, if these books were supposed to be “nonfiction” or “a novel from life”? Was I right or wrong to be surprised by the people behind the characters?
I had read about these characters, but seeing the authors left me wondering: How should a person be?
image credits: velvetroper.com; torontoist.com