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Breakthrough Jew - Sheila Heti

Heti was recently shortlisted as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for her novel 'How Should a Person Be?'

By: Anthony Marcusa
Published: April 25th, 2013 in Culture » Books » News
Sheila Heti

Hot, hip, and heady, the next wave of Jewish artists and influencers has already arrived. This is Breakthrough Jew, your weekly showcase of those on the verge of discovery and ready to be a regular figure in pop culture; setting trends, redefining genres, and simply getting it done-whatever ‘it’ is. These days, it’s not enough to know what’s hot now; you need to catch someone when they’re just starting to simmer.

Featuring those in film, fashion, food, and beyond, we’ll find the story before substance is obscured by style, before hype meets backlash, and before talent and purpose gets lost in a maze of Internet chatter. See an artist in the cozy bar before they hit the amphitheater, dine at a chef’s new restaurant before the line begins, and catch a young writer’s work before the demands of ratings and longevity encroach.

Follow our lead and we’ll follow yours – send us tips or suggestions via email, comment below or tweet us @ShalomLife, as we explore the Jewish landscape for pop culture pioneers.


Name: Sheila Heti

Age: 36

Hometown: Toronto, ON

Breakthrough Cred: One of the 153 most influential people in the world

It has been a strange and memorable few years for Sheila Heti – both the author, and the character. Compiling conversations from friends and families, heeding notes from editors and publishers, and putting a piece of work in a drawer only to take it out, Canadian author Sheila Heti’s compelling novel, featuring main character Sheila Heti, has become increasingly influential and ever popular.

The ‘how’ this book was made is just as fascinating as the ‘why,’ as it took a couple years from the time it was published for Heti to gain recognition. Her internationally acclaimed work, a piece of literature that has recently earned her myriad profiles, interviews, and photo shoots, as well as award nominations, was published in 2010 to far less fanfare.

“The real story about my book and its ‘success,’ it seems to me, is how it was supported by people who relied on their own judgments, without external validation, who influenced its shape.” Heti posted this on the blog Back to the World just over a week ago as her fame has now reached an unprecedented peak with a book that has been published for years.

House of Anansi Press, the Canadian publishing company founded in 1967, was the first to pick up Heti’s novel, How Should a Person Be? back in 2010, believing in Heti while others may have been wary. It did not take off in Canada. Subtly rewriting and working with editors, Heti’s book was eventually taken by American publisher Henry Holt, and it’s released in the States in July 2012 saw it gain instant success and praise.

It has made several ‘Best of 2012’ lists since being published in America, including The New Yorker’s, The New York Times’s, Salon’s, and Flavorpill’s. Moreover, Heti has been nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, an English-language literary accolade bestowed upon the most excellent female writer. She joins the ranks of Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), Hilary Mantel (Bring Up the Bodies), and Zadie Smith (NW), as 20 finalists vying for the $46,000 prize, announced on June 5.

So what is this popular, influential, and even divisive book about? It’s hard to say.

“I wanted this book to be something that anybody could read,” Heti told the Globe and Mail earlier this month. “It was an experiment of being contemporary. The idea of this delicious surface, you know. That’s what I wanted: a delicious, seemingly easy, bubbly surface.”

‘A Novel from Life,’ reads the cover, and it is - Sheila’s life. The main character is a fictional Sheila Heti who is recently divorced and looking to write a play, pondering art, philosophy, romance, and morality. As she was writing, Heti was also recently divorced and trying to write a play, and explore all those same topics in the story.

The novel proceeds from a fateful meeting, where Sheila encounters Margaux (based on her real life artist friend Margaux Williamson), a charming man from which a powerful and platonic friendship forms, where Margaux is the idealized version of Sheila, and Sheila wonders how she can be better. Or the best.

Not only are the characters based in actuality, but much of the work comes from collected conversations Heti recorded with friends and family. “I come from the theater world. I missed theater. I missed the part when you do a play with somebody. I missed how close you get—what happens when they become family. I wanted to think of writing the book in this way,” she told the Harvard Advocate.

Related articles: Sheila Heti, Toronto, Author, Breakthrough Jew, How Should a Person Be?, Time Magazine, Influential People, The Believer
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