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 me...it 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
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
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