The Beatrice Interview

Helen Schulman

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Buy it from

Buy it from

When I was preparing to interview Helen Schulman, I was sure that I'd have to take the subway to the Upper West Side to meet her, but she surprised me by eagerly agreeing to come to a coffee shop in my neighborhood after she'd gotten her children ready for their day's activities. "I was excited about being able to read on the subway," she confessed sheepishly. "At home, there's a million other things I should do, but on the subway, there's nothing else I could be doing. I no longer get to stock up on books and read and read and read, which is what I used to do before a project. The same way I sometimes used to see four movies in a day; now I'm lucky if I see four movies in six months."

Schulman's latest novel, P.S., seems at first glance to be a radical departure from its immediate predecessor, The Revisionist, the portrait of a middle-aged doctor, the son of a Holocaust survivor, whose reaction to his disintegrating marriage is to fixate on a revisionist historian who has come to accept the reality of the death camps. This time around, Schulman concocts a slightly screwball comedy centered on Louise Harrington, a divorced admissions counselor at Columbia who stumbles across an art school applicant who's an exact duplicate of her high school boyfriend Scott Feinstadt...who died twenty years ago in a car wreck on his way to college. She gets involved with this new Scott, which ends up affecting her relationship with her ex- husband, her family, and the best friend from high school who stole the first Scott from her.

RH: Both novels are about people trying to recuperate their pasts, although in very different ways.

HS: It's funny; in a lot of ways, I think they're exactly the same book. They look so different on the surface, but they're both about people who do not feel tethered to the earth, who almost feel like they could slip away and are looking for a way to tie themselves down.

RH: And then, in each case, something pops up in front of them and they try to latch onto it.

HS: As if it's a way for them to get to a sort of beingness, sure, a point where you're actually in your life. I think that's the goal for both of them, even if they don't realize it. And absolutely they're trying to make sense of their past, even moreso for Hershleder than for Louise. I think the past creeps up on her. When this happens to her, she's just living her life. She's not sitting around pining for this guy. The situation just comes up and slaps her on the face, and then she begins to understand its impact on her. It allows her to realize that she's lived her life with a hood over her eyes.

RH: One of the things I liked about P.S. is the ambiguity of this new Scott. On the one hand, it's impossible that this is her old Scott, but on the other hand, here he is. We know there must be a rational explanation for that, but the way you play it out, for the longest time we're not sure, maybe it is him...

HS: The book started out as a short story, and it was suggested that I should make it longer. And the obvious hook was "Who is he?", but that very quickly stopped being interesting to me. It didn't matter who he was, it mattered who he was to her, and who he allowed her to be. All the questions about who he could be seemed reductive of the fact that he was somebody who would take her from A to Z. I wanted the question of who he was to be there because it's mysterious and fun and drives some of the story's tension, but I didn't want to rely on that too much.

If you could go back in your life, knowing what you know now, could you do things differently, or are you the same person, only more wrinkly? I think the answer is both. F. Scott showing up gives her a chance to take control, but it also enables her to realize her own parameters. By the end of the book, she gets a chance to have something that's real, as preposterous as that sounds.

RH: But the lines between reality and fantasy aren't just blurred for her. When her best friend sees him, she believes in him as well.

HS: Something happened to started with The Revisionist, maybe a little bit before. My fiction started being a little bit sideways to reality. It's not really fantasy. It's our world, but it's tweaked. The Revisionist isn't the real world, even though it looks that way. I guess one probably shouldn't call one's own work "cartoony," but the colors in my books's world are a little brighter, maybe, the shapes maybe more accentuated...

RH: This started out as a short story?

HS: I wrote it when my daughter was born. I was feeling tra--I was feeling happy, of course, but also trapped in being a mother, not being young anymore. I got this idea...I had done admissions at Columbia, and one day I got an application from somebody I knew from an earlier part of my life. And I thought, "If somebody from a really former life showed up, what would that be like?" So I wrote the story, and it was published in GQ, and everybody loved it.

I had spent five or six years on The Revisionist, writing it a hundred different times. I just couldn't make it work. Then I was having trouble selling it, and everyone was saying to me, "What about that fun short story?" And after the book was sold, I thought, "OK, what about that fun short story?" Maybe it would be fun to turn it into a book...and it was. It was a completely opposite writing experience. It wasn't tortured, it was quick. Writing isn't easy, but compared to The Revisionist, it was easy.

I went through a very dark period in my life when I was writing The Revisionist. When my daughter was born, I told you that I was feeling housebound, but deep down I was happy, and I told myself that I wasn't about to go to the unhappy places again. Even though there's a lot of pain in P.S., overall the book's meant to be entertaining, and it entertained me while I was writing it. It was a much lighter period for me.

RH: How hard is it for you to find time to write around the responsibilities of parenting?

HS: I have two children, five and two-and-a-half, and I have elderly parents who have been pretty sick, so I have a huge familial responsibilty. But the last five years, since the birth of my daughter, have still been an incredibly productive time for me. I finished The Revisionist, edited an anthology of essays about wanting to have children, wrote P.S, did some screenwriting, had another child. My only way of understanding it is that so much of my life has been about taking care of other people and that this was the only way I could hold on to myself, finding some way to write this. In some ways, it's a much less ambitious project than The Revisionist was, and maybe part of that is because I had so little time. I just went in my office and worked. I didn't have a lot of ruminative time, I just wrote, because it was that or nothing. And it produced a short comic novel. I don't know what's going to come next.

I was talking to some friends of mine who are writers about how a lot of women invariably end up writing about the domestic, while a lot of men don't, which is part of what differentiates us in our status in the literary world. But it's consuming to be in the domestic. I didn't think it would be, but it is. Completely fascinating and all-consuming.

RH: So you write about what's in front of your face all day?

HS: That was always my fear when I was in academia, that I'd write an academic novel--which I hoped I've successfully skirted in P.S. even though some of it takes place on Columbia's campus. My huge fear was to write about middle-aged professors who were all fucking each other. I felt that if it came to that, I'd rather shoot myself.

Buy it from

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Aimee Bender and Elizabeth Stuckey-French | Complete Interview Index