Helen Schulman is the author of This Beautiful Life, A Day at the Beach, P.S., The Revisionist, Out of Time, and 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. The recipient of a Sundance Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and a New York Foundation for the Arts grant, she lives in New York with her husband and two children.

Helen Schulman

posted Oct 25, 2011

The scandal in Helen Schulman’s latest novel is the stuff that keeps parents awake at night: How do they keep their kids safe in a world where privacy is scarce, where so much information—appropriate or not—is at their fingertips? This Beautiful Life tells the story of a Manhattan family that begins to fall apart after a teenage son emails his friends a homemade, sexually explicit video sent to him by an underage girl. In this and her earlier works, Schulman takes on ambitious themes like 9/11 and the Holocaust with a light, lyrical hand. An associate professor of writing at the New School, Schulman took time out during her first days of class—and her kids' first days at school—to answer our questions.

Julee Newberger

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In This Beautiful Life, you delve patiently into the after-effects of a teenager’s careless choice on his entire family. The plot—a sexually explicit video gone viral—could have veered into tabloid territory, but instead you let the characters rule over the plot. As a writer, how do you manage this?

I am a firm believer in narrative—that is I think no matter what the structure, be it classical in nature or post-modern, collage, whatever—some story however small or large needs to be explored to keep my interest as a reader and a writer. Here the story could have been loud and bossy, but in truth, when really carefully examined, Daisy's action—making the video, sending it—wasn't that interesting in and of itself. It was a terribly misguided love letter of sorts, and in another era with another desperately lonely girl it could have manifested as a passed around Polaroid, or a group game of truth or dare gone wrong, or even a striptease in an alley or a barn. What fascinated me here was how we live now. Where we are as a culture. It’s so representative of our mores and our varying stance on privacy, shame and sexuality and celebrity that a young girl would choose to express herself this way, in this new century. Daisy’s instrument, the internet, and her reach—almost infinite—give her more power in a way, and power to destroy herself, then someone her age ever had before. All the guns are bigger now, so I was pretty curious about how a family would respond when under attack like this, when the weapons of self-defense are also so huge and, when unleashed, uncontrollable (the internet, the courts, the media). In essence, here, the events or story is what puts pressure on the characters, but it is the characters’ response to these events that I find most telling.

The novel was inspired at least in part by a true story at a private school in Manhattan—a story that interested you enough to devote a whole novel to it. What did you discover while writing the book that you hadn’t by learning about the real scandal? Did exploring the characters in fiction give you new insight?

What was thrilling, and also crazy-making, was how much the culture was changing over the years it took me to write this book.

Forgive me if I sound like I am still answering question #1. Where I start out before I begin a book or a short story is with a big swirling stew of ideas that I want to explore further by writing about them. With This Beautiful Life that stew consisted of my thoughts about post 9/11 American society, about sex roles and the work force, about greed and materialism and the rush for money leading up the banking crises of 2008, about the commodification of young girls, about the earthquake of the internet and its effects on society, about the technological divide between adults and their children (as big if not bigger than the divide of sex and drugs and rock n' roll was for my generation), about the changing face and value of the concepts of privacy and shame. When I first became aware of these internet incidents—people sending intimate images of themselves to other people via cyberspace— in the news, in my inbox, in sidewalk gossip, the ideas started to take shape and coalesce into a story. Once I had the bare bones of a story, a narrative skeleton, I could begin to layer on my concerns and observations about some aspects of where we are now as a society. What was thrilling, and also crazy-making, was how much the culture was changing over the years it took me to write this book. I couldn't keep up with the zeitgeist, didn't always have the distance to make sense of it. This was probably my biggest struggle.

Did you consider focusing the story on the young girl who exposes herself on camera, rather than the boy who forwards the video to friends? Why was the boy a more interesting character for you to explore?

It took a long time and many different openings to find my way into this piece. I wasn't sure whose story it was. I wasn't sure if the kids involved should be cruel or kind, if there should be a cyber-bulling aspect to it all, etc. But those explorations felt more scandalous and I didn't want to write about a scandal. I wanted to write about, among other things, how we every single day of our lives now use and rely upon an instrument whose sheer force and muscle we don't truly understand. Jake may get more airtime in the book, but I think Daisy is a specter that hangs over every chapter and in a way, it is just as much her story. I picked her as the primary actor because while there have been many instances of boys or men emailing or sexting intimate images (Anthony Weiner comes to mind), the majority of the cases I have read about involve girls and women. And so my choice was two-fold in origin. 1) I do think girls are viewed as commodities and presented in a hyper-sexualized way from a very young age now and so that it is often how they self-identify, and 2) In the majority of sex scandals I have read or heard about, someone almost always ends up blaming the girl. In her own way, Daisy is emboldened and empowered by her ability to act—what breaks my heart is that this is the only way she can conceive of getting attention and love.

I no longer count the years between books. I don't count sales and I don't check Amazon. I don't tally rejections or accolades or whatever is in between.

In a recent article in Real Simple magazine, you write about your obsession with counting anything and everything, and your identity as a self-proclaimed “mathematician of torture.” Can you explain how this habit of counting as a means of tracking your accomplishments and deficiencies had some effect on your fiction writing?

Well, I hope that essay made clear that I see myself as "reformed,” or trying to be. I've stopped counting as much as I can and it is a relief. Now it just takes me as-long-as-it-takes me to write something—I no longer count the years between books. I don't count sales and I don't check Amazon. I don't tally rejections or accolades or whatever is in between. I have a very busy day, usually. Two kids, a husband, a full-time job, various creative projects, my work, and unfortunately over the years both of my parents—my father is now deceased—have had debilitating illnesses. Counting gains and losses is both a psychic and literal waste of time, so I try not to.

You’ve described your habit of “revving up” or writing to get to know your characters, then cutting the first 60 to 100 pages of your novel. Can you tell us about some of the material about your characters that didn’t make it into This Beautiful Life?

Sure! Liz was spacing out on her bike, thinking about her philandering, sex addict boyfriend, when she plowed into Richard when they were both graduate students at Stanford—they met cute. There was a lot about Richard, his brothers and his childhood. More about his first job. More about her work as an art historian. More about her life in high school, the derelicts she hung out with, an act of teenage thuggery she participated in. More about her sister and mother. Her friendship with Stacey. In other words, pages and pages of backstory, that slowed the narrative down but ultimately helped me to discover who they both were so I knew how they'd respond when the shit hit the fan.

In A Day at the Beach, you wrote about a Manhattan couple who escape to the east end of Long Island on 9/11 after watching the Twin Towers burn through their apartment window. What insights did you intend to share about that unforgettable day that you hadn’t seen in other books or stories?

I started A Day at the Beach very early after 9/11 so I didn't have a lot to compare it to. I had been noodling around with some ideas that had to do with the decadence, hedonism and selfishness of the 1990's. I'd started two stories that took place in the Hamptons that wilted and died. I also was very interested in writing about how a child (and in this case a child with many issues) can impact a marriage. I was interested in where the creation of art stands against the backdrop and responsibilities of family. And then 9/11 came and I could think of nothing else. When you’re a writer, and you can think of nothing else, well, that’s usually your next project—as scary as it may be. And this one was way scary, super-scary, because the subject was so charged and my feelings about the attacks were so deep. I think what the book did was allow me to look at something huge (the Grand Canyon, let’s say) through a small lens, one family (one rock formation). And in that way I could have the courage to grapple with a small piece of a very large story. Finally and of foremost importance, for me, was the incredible flowering of humanity we witnessed that day. Amidst the worst humankind had to offer, the best rose. So many people reached out, so many people put the safety of strangers before themselves. It was so beautiful and thrilling to witness. And it was so terrible to watch all that good will squandered by the Bush administration, by the ill-conceived war in Iraq sure, but also in the hideous treatment of the first responders, the very heroes who set out to rescue us. For me, 9/11 was a pivotal day in world history, not only because of the mass murder of so many innocent people, but because we were presented with very different choices of how to respond. We had a moment we did not grasp. It was lightening in a bottle and I wanted very much to capture that.

In This Beautiful Life as well as your other novels, your prose is vivid and carefully crafted. Are you the type of writer who works slowly to perfect each sentence before moving on, or do you surge ahead and hone the language during the process of revision?

I am a very careful and neurotic writer. I don't like to move forward until I can find the music of the previous line. That can be a very time-consuming and frustrating process.

I am lucky if I can squeak out a paragraph a day. I am a very careful and neurotic writer. I don't like to move forward until I can find the music of the previous line. That can be a very time-consuming and frustrating process. It also doesn't preclude me from ripping the whole thing up and starting over again once I've finished a draft. So I'd say I'm a micro-rewriter the first round, and a macro-rewriter the many rounds after that.

Your last two novels focused on middle-aged couples confronted by exceptionally difficult challenges. In both, you provide the husbands’ and wives’ perspectives. Can you explain this decision to give equal page time to dual protagonists?

In A Day At The Beach I did have two dueling protagonists—it was more of a pass-the-baton narrative than anything else, Gerhard taking over for Suzannah when she no longer could observe and experience the next sequence of events and vice versa. In This Beautiful Life there are multiple points of view. Liz, the mother, and Richard, the father, each have their own section and then one which they divide up, battle it out and share. Jake, the boy, has two. Daisy, the girl who sent the video, has the coda. And the reader, in the role of voyeur, has the prologue.

You’ve written that you’re preoccupied with the materialism and consumerism of the decades pre and post 9-11. Why do you find this good fodder for fiction? Will you continue to write about it?

We are living now amidst the wreckage of a new Gilded Age. The story of money, the consolidation of wealth in the hands of the few, the unequal distribution of income, the threat to the shrinking middle class, the blind eye to the poor, is the story of our time. Right now the super-rich rule the world. It behooves us all to recognize this and reckon with it as it has had a profound effect on our culture and how we live. I am not sure what I'll write next. Right now I am working on a romantic comedy. A screenplay. A relief! And I'm really enjoying it.

Your last two books featured strong women who traded their careers for motherhood. Why is this an important theme for you personally and professionally?

I was a teenager in the 1970's, the height of feminism. I remember sitting at countless kitchen tables while my friends’ mothers lectured us: You girls need to have your own careers. Don't ever be dependent on a man for money. And I took all of this to heart. So it surprised me when I grew up and had children, and for a while sent those children to private school, to find that many of the mothers at my kids’ schools (not all, many) did not work. These were very educated women, women with MBAs and law degrees and Ph.D.'s, and they had all the choice in the world, and they chose to stay home. And a lot of this was for very good, loving parental reasons—children need parents and parents love to be with their children. I completely believe the best choice, if a family has a choice, is for the family to do what is best for them individually. Certainly, the mothers who worked, myself included, were often as tortured over their choices as those who didn't (it's an impossible balance). That said, it's a big brain drain to have all these smart, well-qualified, highly trained women out of the work force. And I was very interested in where all that drive and intelligence and ambition went. I don't know the answers for women, but I'm pretty well-versed in the questions!