Novelist Helen Schulman doesn’t shy away from controversial subjects. Her last novel, A Day at the Beach, examined a marriage that falls apart hour by agonizing hour over the course of September 11. Her latest, This Beautiful Life, follows the Bergamot family. They seem a picture of success: Richard a high-powered if overly-committed university man, Liz the stay-at-home mom, Jake a high school student on the road to college, and Coco, their adopted daughter of seven. When Jake finds himself the recipient of an erotic video made by a thirteen-year-old with a crush, Daisy, he forwards it to his friends. The video goes viral, the story becomes tabloid fodder, and the repercussions undo his life and bring the fissures in Richard and Liz’s relationship to light. In Spring 1995, The Paris Review published the story that grew into her novel The Revisionist. Schulman, now the Fiction Coordinator of The New School’s Writing Program, chatted with me about the book over a campari and soda and homemade potato chips.
What led you to write This Beautiful Life?
It started with what was happening in the news—the beginning of “sexting.” One incident in particular, at Horace Mann, had been written up in The New York Times and caused a scuttlebutt among the mothers. I thought I would write a nonfiction book about it, so I wrote Horace Mann, but I was totally stonewalled. Nobody wanted to talk to me. And so I thought, Well then, I’ll make it up.
Do you feel novelists have a responsibility to make social commentary in their work?
If you tell the truth about the world, you’re always being political, because the world is so highly charged. In these last two books I looked at the times we were living in very closely, almost as if I were a photographer or a social historian. In A Day at the Beach, I was really interested in the culture at the moment of a big event. I wanted to write about the nineties, but I didn’t know how until 9/11 crystallized it. For This Beautiful Life, there were several events in the decade post-9/11 that interested me. One was the incredible, unparalleled greed and rush for money. Another was the Internet infiltrating our lives in a new way. The Internet created a divide between parents and kids even larger than sex, drugs, and rock had in the sixties.
In an early interview you described your work as being askance to reality, yet A Day at the Beach was called “hyperrealistic.” Has your work changed?
The last two books have been different. In P.S. and The Revisionist, the events took place outside of the universe we know. A Day at the Beach, on the other hand, was researched. Everything that happened on 9/11 in the novel had a source, including the radio and TV broadcasts and the menu at The Barefoot Contessa in East Hampton. I had twenty-four hours of CNN tapes that I watched. If you ever want to blow your mind, watch those tapes.
In all of your novels the characters have a very real presence on the page. They fart, sweat, use moisturizer for their aging skin.
My characters are human, warts and all, and I am surprised by how often people find them too human. When I wrote A Day at the Beach, many editors were so put off by Gerhard that they didn’t want to publish the book. I remember someone said to me, “Does he have to cheat on his wife?” And I thought, but he does cheat on his wife! Gerhard had become so real to me that to have him not be an adulterer would be to cheat who he was in my head. For me, the world is a rainbow of grays. But I feel like my characters always try.
In This Beautiful Life, how did you decide to include the entire family’s point of view?
I started out writing from the mother’s point of view, but all of a sudden I heard Jake’s voice. Once I wrote his piece I thought it would be the mother and the son, but I felt that the father had been left out, and his plight was powerful to me. Richard is one of these men who have been put in a position where they have all of the responsibility for the family economically. My kids went to school with a lot of children whose mothers had Ph.D.s, were doctors, lawyers, MBAs, engineers, but had stopped working when they became moms because they had the economic freedom to choose to do so. But I thought that a certain class of men hadn’t had their say in this time period.
The idea that money equals happiness is thrown out the window in your novels as a whole.
Being a child in the sixties, when materialism was out of fashion, the unbelievable greed and self-centeredness of the nineties and aughts were shocking. It’s certainly nice to have some money, but all these smart people out there are just making money. It’s almost like a brain drain. I am appalled by it, frankly.
Did you write a lot more than you included?
I always write more than I include. In the beginning, no matter what book it is, I tend to write sixty to one hundred pages of what ends up being back story. I think it’s my way of figuring out who everybody is.
The novel would unfold so differently if the characters had only talked to one another from the start.
The world is full of people who don’t know when to speak up. For teenagers, a lot of their sexuality is private and a lot of it should be. I remember this time as a little kid, maybe of about nine, when I was walking home with a friend of mine. We stopped in the children’s zoo and one of the attendants flashed us. We told the police, but I never told my mother. I don’t think she knows to this day. It was too shameful to tell her, even though I actually reported it. There’s a funny divide between what you tell your parents and what you don’t tell your parents.
The other parents blame Daisy’s parents for her behavior. But is it Daisy who’s at fault?
I’d hate to blame Daisy. I love Daisy. I think that she was misled by the culture. As somebody who came of age in the seventies, when feminism was everywhere, I was shocked when I’d take my daughter to schools or parties and see how girls dressed and comported themselves. They were sexualized very early.
Kids have always experimented with sexuality, it’s only their ability to expose themselves that has changed. Do you pine for the good old days pretechnology?
I don’t like to pine and I hate nostalgia. I had this interesting discussion with somebody the other day about Anthony Weiner. Without the medium, would he have had a desire to expose himself that way? Was it that he really was an exhibitionist, or did the medium feed into a part of him, becoming catalytic and addictive? I don’t know the answer, but I do think that some kids do things online that they wouldn’t have done otherwise. Right now, in my workshop at NYU, I was telling my college students what my book is about, and several said, “That happens everywhere.” On the other hand, a couple kids raised their hands and said, “People always say kids do these things, but I’ve never known anybody who did them. I’m tired of reading about it defining my generation.” And I thought, That’s true, too.
The topic of the Internet being a time suck is one that comes up frequently for writers. Is that something you’ve struggled with?
I used to smoke, and surfing the net for news has become my cigarette.
I was hired to adapt a very short story I wrote into a screenplay. The story is about two and a half pages long, so I have to make all of it up. And that’s fun! It’s a relief.