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Monday, February 11


I first met Sheila Heti last spring at the AGO when she was working on Margaux Williamson’s performance series How to Act in Real Life. At the time Margaux had just lent me Sheila’s latest novel, How Should a Person Be? and I was finishing up the last few pages. I loved the book and it sparked an impulse in me to read more of Sheila’s work. She has written five books, including Ticknor, We Need a Horse, The Chairs are Where the People Go, and The Middle Stories. After reading The Chairs are Where the People Go, a conversation-based book written with Misha Glouberman, I began to follow her interviews for The Believer, where she is the Interviews Editor. These interviews were of particular interest to me as I came to really admire Sheila’s ability to get to the “nugget” of the person. I wanted to learn more about how she approaches interviewing.

In late January, she agreed to meet me at her home in Toronto to discuss how to interview people. We sat in her study, surrounded by books as her bunny, named Bun, listened in on our conversation from the next room over.

Sheila was really helpful, offering some insight into the art of interviewing, something I feel she’s mastered. There were times I felt like I was having a meta moment, where as we discussed how to interview people I realized I hadn’t considered some of the tips Sheila was giving me. It made us giggle and added some playfulness to our discussion.

-Sagan MacIsaac

Sagan MacIsaac: I thought we could start off by talking about how you started interviewing people, and then a bit about your work at the Believer.

Sheila Heti: Ok. Well, I used to visit my relatives in Los Angeles and there’s this cassette tape of me as a little girl interviewing my sixteen-year-old cousin. It goes on for fifteen minutes but it didn’t matter what she said because my only question was “Why?” The point was that she made a tape for me to take home to remember the trip by, and listening to it over and over gave me so much joy and pleasure. So clearly I’ve always liked interviewing! [laughs] But professionally, my first big one was probably when I was asked to interview Vendela Vida, who was the Interviews Editor at the Believer, on stage in Toronto. I wanted to do the best interview ever because I wanted to interview for the magazine, so I felt like if she thought I was a good interviewer, then she would ask me to do interviews for them. I prepared so much for that interview..

SM: And when you did start interviewing for the Believer, who was your first interview?

SH: It might have been Dave Hickey, but I’m not one hundred percent sure.

SM: Were you nervous to interview him?

SH: Yeah. He came to town to be on a panel at the University of Toronto, and I got the idea of interviewing right after the panel, and so we set up the interview for the following morning. I didn’t know anything about him, I hadn’t read his books, but I really liked him, so I had to do all my preparing that evening -- read Air Guitar, everything. I had, like, 100 questions or something like that. But he’s such a great talker, so I don’t think I could have fucked it up. It took me about a year to transcribe it, because I was so nervous that there wasn’t anything on the tape. For the first few years, I would always leave tapes for, like, nine months before I transcribed them, because I couldn’t bear to bring myself to listen to them. I always thought there would be nothing there.

SM: Have you ever been in a situation where your interviewee didn’t turn out to be very interesting, or they didn’t really share anything?

SH: I’ve had some difficult experiences. Sophie Calle refused to answer any of my questions after I had waited two and a half years to interview her. I was really dismayed, but when I transcribed it, I realized it was actually kind of funny. In some ways it was better than her answering my questions, because her pride and desire to control was conveyed. Her personality came across, and you just want somebody’s personality to be revealed. It’s hard to come away from an interview with nothing.

SM: When you are formulating your questions, are you thinking about what might be interesting to your readers, or are you focused on what’s interesting to you?

SH: Just to me. I don’t know who the readers are, and I think that the likelihood that they’re like me is greater than the likelihood that they’re not like me. I don’t see why I would waste an opportunity with somebody interesting. If I have a chance to talk to them, I want to ask them what I’m curious about.

SM: What is the difference between having a conversation with somebody and having an interview? Is there an importance in that differentiation?

SH: If you’re interviewing somebody, you have to be thinking about the page. When I’m interviewing, I always see what they are saying written down, so I know if I’m getting anything or not. In a conversation you talk more, and you talk about yourself often. But in an interview, you don’t want to talk too much. It’s not really a give-and-take in an interview. You’re prompting somebody to give you stuff.

SM: I think I’ve talked way too much in interviews before…

SH: I feel like it’s wasting their time or something.

SM: Yes, you’re not really their friend…

SH: Well, you can use the tone of friendship in your conversation, but it’s not a friendship. They’re not that interested in you. Well, I mean, I’m usually interested in whoever is interviewing me, but… [laughs]

SM: Do you consider a formal or informal tone based on who your subject is? What approach do you take?

SH: I don’t like anything too informal. On the Internet you’ll see websites that publish interviews that aren’t edited at all, and they’re so informal. It’s just completely boring and you never get to the nugget or the heart of the person. I don’t think you want to be formal, but you should be trying to get somewhere. It’s like mining; it’s not formal or informal, you’re just trying to get to the gold. Formal or informal doesn’t come into it.

SM: So, what makes a strong question?

SH: Just something you really want to know.

SM: Is there something you wish you knew when you were starting out?

SH: You don’t have to write down every question you want to ask.

[I looked down at my page; a list of questions, and we giggled]

SH: At this point, I just write down 5-10 point-form, general things that I’m curious about. It’s better to memorize your questions because then you can move with the other person. If you’re reading your questions from a list, you’re not really listening to what they’re saying. And you appear not to care. The thing that could never make a good interview in the Believer is if people don’t ask follow-up questions. A good interview is based entirely on follow-up questions. If you memorize your questions, then they can come up when they’re prompted by something the person has said, in the form of a follow-up question.

In the beginning, though, something I couldn’t do was to not perform. If you’re the interviewer, you don’t have to make perfect eye contact the whole time, and all of those things that felt like a performance to me. You don’t need to impress the person you’re interviewing. I felt like I was the more important one, in some ways, and I wasn’t humble enough. But that happens because you’re nervous and you want to do a good job.

SM: So, as a person who also gets interviewed, what are some of the ways that people make you feel more able to share, or make you feel calm?

SH: I like it if they know my work, and seem familiar with it. That’s the most important thing. If they are interviewing me about How Should a Person Be? and all they’ve read is How Should a Person Be? then I don’t feel entirely comfortable with them because I don’t feel they are a good journalist because they don’t know their subject. If they show familiarity with other things that I’ve done, then I feel more comfortable because I have a greater likelihood of being understood.

I think the worst thing to do is to ask a clever question. I know somebody is a bad interviewer if they ask, “So, how should a person be?” They feel like they’re the only person who has asked that question. Clever questions are just the worst possible thing.

SM: Editing has been the most mysterious part for me. Maybe it’s a fear of misrepresenting the person…

SH: Well, you’re inevitably representing a person, but I think the most important part to representation is not in the editing exactly, but in the transcribing. People always sound stupider written down because when we talk we say a lot of yeah’s and uhuh’s, and in life we don’t consciously pick it up. It’s just part of the rhythm of speech. Somebody once interviewed me and they left all of that stuff in, and I was really upset because I thought it wasn’t honest. They made me sound like a valley girl, and I don’t sound any more like a valley girl than anybody else. Unless you hate your subject, you should always make them sound smarter than they look in the transcription [laughs].

We always show our interviews to people before we publish them at the Believer, and I’d love to start asking people to do that for me when I’m the one being interviewed. But most journalists and newspapers won’t let you see things first, because they think you’re going to ruin it.

SM: Are you working on any interviews right now?

SH: I just finished one with Chris Kraus, and Tamar Adler, who wrote a book that I really love about eating, and Tavi Gevinson.

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