This Beautiful Book: An interview with novelist Helen Schulman

by Randolyn Zinn

Last week on a cold afternoon in New York City, Helen Schulman and I met at a café for a bracing talk about her new book. You may have seen that The New York Times chose This Beautiful Life as one of their Notable Books of 2011 or perhaps you've read her other novels, which include A Day at the Beach, P. S., The Revisionist, and Out of Time, as well as the short story collection Not a Free Show. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Vanity Fair, Time, Vogue, GQ, the Paris Review, and the New York Times Book Review. She is also an associate professor of writing at The New School.

RZ: Could you give 3QD readers a brief summary of This Beautiful Life?

Helen SchulmanHelen Schulman: Sure. It’s the story of a family that’s come newly to New York from a place where they were happy. Father has come for a new job opportunity and the two kids are placed in a fancy private school. One night the teenage boy goes to an unchaperoned party and hooks up with a younger girl, who wants to take the relationship further, but he says no. When he gets home, he finds a video in his in-box that the girl has made of herself performing a sexual act and it’s so white hot, before he thinks twice, he presses forward and send, flinging it to his friend. His friend looks at it, presses forward and send, the video goes viral, and the family’s world explodes.

RZ: It’s a gutsy story lyrically told. I couldn’t put it down.

Here’s actor Allen McCullough reading a passage from Richard’s point of view.

Richard

HS: I didn’t want to write a story about a scandal. And I know there are people who take it that way and buy the book for this reason and are disappointed sometimes. I was trying to capture a moment in history. With my last couple of books, I looked at a large societal shift or cultural moment through the lens of an individual or a couple or a family in order to take in something very big in the world through a very small prism. In The Revisionist, it was the Holocaust and Holocaust denial. In A Day At the Beach, it was 9/11 and the hinge moment in the culture between then and now; what we could do and what we didn’t do.

With This Beautiful Life, it’s the Internet, which is changing everything about the way we live. When I was in grad school, I supported myself working as a neurological research assistant at Bellevue for a family friend, who was writing about brain death and brain birth. So I spent two years learning about neurology, and what’s so interesting is that the way we use computers is literally reshaping the structure of our brains: how we surf the net and shift attention constantly actually changes the physical structure of the brain. For good or for ill, I don’t know, but it’s an evolutionary shift that’s taking place about how we think and how we study and how we use time. It’s changing everything.

RZ: Your books are marked by compassion. Characters bring their good intentions as well as their frailties when confronting situations of their own making or those thrust upon them, which elicits empathy in your readers. Is that your goal as a writer?

HS: People always ask me about the “warts and all” qualities of my characters. Sometimes they don’t like them; but I like them. I love them. Especially the German choreographer in A Day At The Beach, Gerhard. I loved him more than anyone I’ve ever written about. I think flaws are part of being human. Everyone I know is flawed, myself most of all. I don’t know people who aren’t flawed, and so my characters are too.

With this book it was a conscious decision…I didn’t want to shoot ducks in a barrel or spoof or stereotype and I didn’t want to pick easy targets either. I got the idea of this incident and I didn’t know whose story it was at first, who was culpable. Maybe the girl was bullied or the boy was cruel. But then I decided, no; I wanted to capture a moment in a time of innocence. I wanted them both to be innocents, Jake and Daisy. In fact I had a hard time titling the book. At one point I thought, oh my god, I wish I could just call it The Age of Innocence… It would be a great title for many books.

RZ: Or Design for Living. I love that one too.

HS: Right. Or The Way We Live Now. I just felt it was important that they be characters in full, not evil, but very human and flawed.

RZ: How did you come to write this story?

HS: I had things I wanted to write about, areas of interest. As I said, I was really interested in post-9/11 American society. The incredible greed and income disparity that led to the crash and the “we’re gonna’ party like it’s 1999” feeling that squandered the possibilities that the tragedy of 9/11 had opened up in the culture for generosity and compassion.

This b life3 copyI was also thinking about the early over-sexualization of girls and shifting sex roles. I grew up in the 70s and had ideas about how the world was changing, but they didn’t prove to be true. So it was very shocking to me when my kids went to school and I met all these women who were very educated and highly trained but had chosen not to work. I thought that was interesting and wondered what happened to them and what such a decision meant for these highly intelligent people to not be part of the work force; and what that meant for men and how men didn’t have that flexibility.

And I was thinking, of course, about the internet and what an earthquake it was for the culture and how, in some ways, the technological revolution was certainly bigger than the sexual revolution and maybe even the industrial revolution, in how it is changing our lives, the way we live and how we feel and, as I said, maybe even changing the structure of our brain, and certainly raising issues of privacy.

When I was writing A Day at the Beach, somebody sent me an email of a photo of young woman in a strapless bridesmaid’s dress as she started reaching joyously for the bouquet…and her breasts popped out. This had gone viral and ended up in my inbox; the woman wasn’t anyone I knew nor did it come from anyone I knew and I was absolutely horrified. A private moment when you’re so mortified and your friend says ‘no one saw’, and gives you a glass of wine and you go you back to the party and hope what your friend said was true, that no one saw, and try to forget about it. Instead, this image went everywhere.

And then there was a famous story from England about a woman after a date with a guy when the next day she writes him a sexy email and he very gallantly forwards it to five or six of his friends. By the weekend a million people had seen it and the woman could not leave her home. I was amazed by the lack of privacy and the proliferation; the fact that everything could travel so fast and you couldn’t take it back. Once this stuff is out, you simply can’t stop it. Then there was an incident at a private school in our area and I thought I might write a non-fiction book about it, but ultimately decided to go ahead and make up a story. Once I had the idea of a video going viral, then I could figure out narrative.

Story is like a skeleton. You can start layering the meat and the fur on the skeleton until it turns into a being that can move. Then I added all those other issues that were on my mind.

RZ: The computer functions as a shadow character in your book with its doppelganger sidekick, the Internet. While I was reading the book I thought that the Internet might now take the place that Nature once held in literature.

HS: Interesting.

RZ: So you set the book in 2003.

HS: Yes, very specifically. I chose that year for a lot of reasons. I was having a hard time writing the zeitgeist because everything kept changing; our relationships to the Internet kept changing.

The opening of the book, the prologue, is of the video Daisy shoots for Jake. I hope it makes the reader the voyeur, so you’re pulled in from the get-go, watching it like everyone in the book watching the video.

Daisy

RZ: Everyone is complicit in what happens, including the reader. And yet we feel empathy for all the characters.

HS: I didn’t want them to be villains; that would be too easy. I’d thought what if they were average people who mean well and love each other and make bad choices and are faced with worse ones? Then you’d have life. Most of us mean well and love people and make bad choices and are faced with worse ones…know what I mean?

RZ: Yes. And readers relate to these characters. The circumstances are plausible too. The consequences feel inevitable.

Words accrue in your prose. You entice the reader with colloquial diction, then you hit us with lush descriptions of people and a sly sense of humor. At one point Liz mentions that her son Jake must take a “cocktail of public transportation” to get to his party. That remark is funny and hip and off-hand, but there’s also danger implied in the word cocktail that is borne out in a scene a few pages later.

HS: And Liz needs a cocktail to get through the day. It’s very hard on women not to work. It’s hard on women to work, of course. Obviously anybody who has to work knows how hard it is. In my family, I had no choice; I had to make money. Watching friends and people I know who don’t work is interesting…when you’re smart and capable and know a lot and have nowhere to put all of that energy, it can be very frustrating and dispiriting and sometimes all that energy goes into good things but sometimes into not-so-good things.

Look, I was raised in the 60s and 70s and my friends’ mothers would tell us, rasping over their eightieth cigarette, “Look girls, you need to have careers. Don’t be dependent on someone else for money.” There really is something to having financial independence. No matter how well-meaning a couple is, there are always uncertainties: people get sick, lose their jobs, people leave, people die…to be solely dependent on someone else makes you vulnerable in many ways.

RZ: Add children to the equation and the woman in that well-meaning couple must change the way she interacts with the world–which is Liz’s problem.

HS: Well, we haven’t solved that yet in our culture. There are countries with better child care and better hours for both parents….although that’s going to change with the euro crisis. In America, it’s been very hard on parents.

RZ: Do you want to talk about the woman writer thing?

HS: Sure.

RZ: Virginia Woolf said that artists are androgynous. Here are some other quotes.

Nadine Gordimer wrote, “I don’t think it matters a damn what sex a writers is, so long as the work is that of a real writer.”

Joyce Carol Oates: “Advantages! Too many to enumerate, probably. Since being a woman, I can’t be taken altogether seriously by the sort of male critics who rank writers 1, 2, 3 in the public press. I am free, I suppose, to do as I like.”

Cynthia Ozick: “A writer is someone born with a gift. An athlete can run. A painter can paint. A writer has a facility with words. A good writer can also think. Isn’t that enough to define a writer by?”

HS: It’s fascinating because when I’m interviewed about the book, people ask me about my children as if they were the children in this book! My children were a gift. I fought hard to have them and I love them. But they really are separate from my life as a writer. Besides, my children were just babies when I started to write this. These people also assume that I’m the female character. I don’t have much in common with Liz, except that we both have long hair. It’s like there’s the writer and the woman writer, the subset of their greater definition of being a writer which means being a man. No one says ‘oh you’re a male writer’. You wouldn’t believe the amount of questions I get about having children and writing. Nobody talks about a male writer having children to look after, but women are asked about that all the time. I don’t write with my vagina.

I’ve been taking notes my entire life about what I was doing, making a storehouse of information so that then when I’m writing I reach into that storehouse. So yes, maybe I know about school pick-up and if I didn’t have kids I wouldn’t have those details for a scene, but when I sit down to write, I’m not thinking about my children. I’m thinking about my book. I was a writer before and I’ll be a writer until I die. It’s like anything else: if you’re a doctor that has children, you’re still a doctor.

It’s a funny thing that somehow it’s supposed to be different thing when you’re a writer and this sensibility keeps women in the ghetto. Certainly some male writers have children and some don’t. Some female writers have children and some don’t. I’m astonished that we still have to have this conversation. I don’t think that the reading public is sexist. I think the publishing world is sexist, or the reviewing world.

I think there have been great gains recently in terms of prizes and reviews, so things are changing. But you still see articles on writing that only reference men or compare men to other men. I see it in schools in syllabi for courses with 8 male writers and then Virginia Woolf. So what will change all that? I think there are plenty of women who are writing just as well as men.

I love work by both male and female writers. Maybe it’s a question of ambition. If women allow themselves a certain kind of ambition, that may be part of it. But when you have women like Jennifer Egan, an ambitious writer and I mean this in terms of her work; it’s large and complex and worldly. She pushes form, so who’s more ambitious than that in my generation?

RZ: I loved how you nail the teenage diction in the book.

HS: I’ve been doing a lot of book groups and people ask me mostly about Jake. But I have to say that he was the easiest character in the book to write.

RZ: It certainly reads like that.

HS: It was so easy. I felt like I knew him. People say, well did you research teenage boys? And I think, well, once upon a time I did…

RZ: (laughs)

Click the link below to hear Angus McCullough read a passage from Jake's point of view.

Jake

HS: It was a profound moment for me, being a teenager, very rich years, and I took lots of notes. All the feelings in Jake’s scene are feelings I remember.

RZ: Your portrayal of Richard is compelling too, how he blooms as a full-blown character, watching Daisy’s video and realizing his shortcomings as a person.

HS: Yes, he sees his inadequacy. At different points in writing the book, it became different characters’ story. At a certain point it was Richard’s story. I see him as the emblem of an American man that has really very little choice; his role very prescribed: he has to be successful, keep the family together and take care of business because they all rely on him. He has tremendous responsibility and tremendous drive and ambition, but how does he continue to reconcile all of that? He feels a lot of disdain for his own child (Jake) and does not admire him. Liz has much more compassion and understanding.

As per Daisy, the girl who makes the video, she is deprived. All her life, she’s been taught that her only power is in her pussy. Everything has taught her that: her mother, the women around her, the men around her, movies, clothes, make-up. The culture says that the way you get love is by being sexy, and she’s taken the lessons to heart. She’s going to take whatever arsenal she has to get what she wants….which is love. She wants Jake because she’s alone. This is desire. She’s offering herself to him because she wants to be with him. Her video is naked and human and brave in a really strange way and it’s also this weird kind of empowerment that women and girls…people…have now in our culture and they see someone empowered as Madonna or Lady Gaga; that using your sexuality is owning your sexuality, which is different from what I would see as the ideal. So for Daisy, the video gives her power. She has agency. She’s not going to roll over and die. But it’s such a sad way for her to get what she desires. And Richard sees all that in her video when he finally watches it.

Click below to hear Helen Schulman reading the prologue from her book that describes Daisy’s video.

Prologue

RZ: Which brings us back to the author’s compassion. You have created complex, fully realized characters. You present their good qualities and flaws with objectivity and with compassion too. This is quite an achievement.

HS: Thank you.

RZ: Thank you for this terrific conversation, Helen.

Click here to buy the book. Amazon

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