Helen Schulman is the author of a short story collection, Not a Free Show, and the novels, A Day at the Beach, P.S., The Revisionist, Out of Time, and the book I've just read and reviewed, This Beautiful Life.
Welcome, Helen! I'm honored to have the opportunity to interview you. I'll start my interview with a confession. We went to the same high school, The Bronx High School of Science. I'm not sure that you knew me, but you became friends with a good friend of mine, so I knew who you were. When I first heard your name in relation to this book, I wondered if it was you from my high school days. Then I saw your picture, which confirmed that it was you. That made me interested in reading your work.
1) Tell us about what inspired you to write This Beautiful Life, a gripping story about a 15-year-old boy, Jake, who impulsively forwards a sexually explicit video sent to him of and by a younger girl, Daisy, to a friend, who then forwards it to others, and which soon goes "viral" and is viewed by countless others around the world. I know you've been asked this before, but I think it's important to discuss. There are serious technological dangers for young people related to the Internet and cell phones which were not present while we were growing up, such as what happens in your book and "sexting". (How do we warn kids? How can we prevent them from doing things that they'll regret--can we?)
HS: The novel was inspired by many real life events—more than I reckoned for when I first starting thinking about it. This Beautiful Life is set in 2003, the year I sort of woke up to the fact that incidents that once would have lived and died in a private sphere of embarrassment had through the ease of the internet become huge scandals with a worldwide audience. Over email, a friend sent me a photo of a bridesmaid reaching joyously to catch a bouquet at a wedding, only to have her breasts pop out of her strapless dress. A young woman in the U.K. sent a recent date a sexy email and he forwarded it to a few friends and within days the email had gone global and the woman was afraid to leave her house. And then there were kids and their indiscretions, incidents I read about in the New York Times about cyber-bullying, but also thoughtlessly self-inflicted wounds where kids sent pictures and videos of themselves naked or performing sexual acts. I think of myself as a private person, and I found by proxy the after-effects of these actions haunting and painful. There were several incidents in New York City, where I live, involving teenagers and their schools and I found the gossip surrounding them overwhelming—some compassionate conversations to be sure, but also some needlessly vicious. I was working on my last book then, A Day At The Beach, and was thinking ahead to my next project. I thought to write a non-fiction account of one of these incidents but was stymied, so since my first instinct is to make things up, that’s what I did in writing this book.
As for your question regarding how things have changed since when we were kids (re: the Internet, sexting, etc.), I think in a lot of ways my book was meant to be a defense of privacy. It goes without saying that the Internet has changed the way we live now--in great ways in terms of collecting information, forming communities, even inspiring and maintaining relatively peaceful uprisings like the Arab Spring or our own Occupy Wall Street. But it can also be a risky forum in terms of privacy violation, and the fact that the Internet does not forget (at least at this moment) presents new hazards for adults and kids alike. I don't think any of us really have come to terms with its powers yet, and certainly adults seem to be making the same mistakes kids make all the time (Anthony Weiner is a case in point). There is something about typing alone onto a screen that seems to shed inhibitions, at the same time as it makes it possible for one's actions to become public and irretrievable--a very dangerous combination.
2) In This Beautiful Life you write in the third person, from the perspectives of members of the Bergamot family, Jake, his parents, Liz and Richard (Coco, their precocious Chinese daughter, is of course too young), and Daisy ("Great Gatsby") Cavanaugh. Why did you chose to use multiple perspectives, and how difficult was that? You seem most sympathetic to Jake and Daisy (or at least I was), probably because they're young (and innocent), and didn't mean any harm. Daisy presented herself to Jake as a gift, and he was just puzzled about what to do, and a bit proud of the video (look what I'm getting!).
HS: I used third-person limited points of view so that I could get under the skin of the different members of the family. I had a great deal of sympathy for all of the characters, even when they made terrible choices and did terrible things, which is why I chose to employ their different perspectives. I had a lot of territory that I wanted to cover with this book--the Internet was only part of it. Even though I see the technological revolution as a real earthquake in the culture, and a divide between generations, I was also frankly interested in other aspects of post 9/11 America, the greed and selfishness that led to the banking crises of 2008 and the world-wide recession. I was also interested in sex roles, the early sexualization of girls for example (poor Daisy and Coco, they are taught from a very young age that that is where their power lies). And I was pretty interested in what happens to highly trained women of a certain economic and educational class who choose not to work, and also what happens to their partners. When we were in high school, which was the '70's, I did not think that we would be embracing such rigid sexual roles again, but I think many of us have, often out of good, loving parental reasons, but not without cost. Richard and Lizzie are both really talented academics and, at heart, parents who love their children, and yet the way they have divided up their roles in their family, coupled with their ambitions, has warped their strengths, their relationships with their kids and with each other.
3) Jake, along with his family, is quite distraught, but at school he is almost seen as a hero by the boys, and is now the recipient of a new girl's ardor. As awful as the events are in this book for the Bergamot family, isn't part of the point of this story that even negative events may have some positives, and that things eventually blow over or die down?
HS: I often think about Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" when I'm writing, because his play about the Salem Witch trials (written as an allegory of McCarthyism) profoundly illustrates the effects of a specific time period on people's lives. Even if someone declares themselves to be a witch now (or a Communist) they won't be hung or blackballed (we sincerely hope). So yes, everything has its moment, and the moment when Daisy sends her email and Jake forwards it, is the hottest moment for a scandal of this kind. It happens in 2003, before "sexting" really, and before this kind of teenaged behavior became ubiquitous. I'm not trying to devalue its impact now--there are plenty of kids who have really suffered recently over sexting scandals--there are kids labeled as sex offenders for sending them, and kids who've committed suicide after being bullied because of them. But my novel takes place at the start of this phenomenon, so it's all the more shocking to the community. As a writer, I always want to put as much pressure as I can on my characters--that creates dramatic tension. But there's another factor at play here that I think you are alluding to, and that is that some things in our culture, which were formerly "shameful" are now career or social calling cards. Paris Hilton is a prime example. She achieved celebrity via a sex tape. So for some of these kids, some of this notoriety is sort of cool. Rachel, the girl you mention above, is so damaged, she gets off on degradation. I think that the boy who is being kind to Jake is telling him that there are way worse things in the world than this episode, and they blow over too, so that this one will as well--there's wisdom and generosity in that. The kids in the novel also talk about ubiquity and what ubiquity does to shame (which is that it dilutes it). I think some of the characters wrestle with how inherently "shameful" they think Daisy's act is--Richard, for example, sees the bravery in it, the desire to connect and to be known.
4) Let's talk about Daisy, the girl who made the explicit video of herself for Jake. She's an interesting character, and becomes famous or infamous (the distinction between the two seems to have lessened) as a result of her actions. While you are not telling young girls to do what she did, you are saying, I think, make the most out of the situation that you're in, even if it's devastating, which is quite empowering.
HS: I don't think I'm saying make the most out of this situation. I think what I am trying to convey through Daisy is that a) she has been taught from practically the moment that she was born that her value and currency in the world is primarily sexual, so that it makes sense that she would see this video as a means to getting love. And b) that she is a survivor. I don't think she is unscathed by this episode, not by a long shot. I think it hurts her deeply and it costs her tremendously. I just think she is not stopped by it. Jake is. He is more vulnerable and weaker. And the parents and the school and all the lawyers rob him of any chance really of learning to grow, to accept responsibility and to make the reparations that he can, and then learning to live with the baggage of what he can't repair. This leaves him feeling crippled.
5) Your story is set in New York, my hometown, and I enjoyed the references to various parts of NY and the culture. I do think, though, that it's a story that could have happened anywhere in the U.S., or in other countries that are also technologically advanced. How important was it to you to set the novel in NY? (Do you subscribe to the belief that we should write about what we know?)
HS: I set the story in New York because once again it was Ground Zero, only this time in terms of the banking crises, and the novel is meant to be, among other things, a bit of a time capsule on Post 9/11/ pre-crash America. This same story has occurred all over the country--I've done some traveling for the book and some radio, and wherever I go people have a similar story to tell (with different details of course). I picked New York because of that city's "big guns"--money, media, litigation--and how explosive the community's eruptions were in utilizing them in response, which seemed emblematic of America during that time. But every community has its own big guns and I suppose I would have employed those if I'd set the story in Texas or Kansas or California. You are right in suggesting that I do know this city well--I do. I've lived here for most of my life. But I don't think writers have to write about what they know, they have to write about what they can fully imagine.
6) How do you juggle all of your responsibilities as a writer, associate professor of writing at The New School, and mother? Do you have any advice to aspiring writers who also have a lot demands on their time?
HS: I just got tenure last year at The New School and so I am on sabbatical this semester, my first Spring semester off in about 20 years. It's interesting, because usually I am so stressed out and so scrambling, and now I have the luxury of time. The break came at a good moment, there was more work to do promoting my book here and in England, there was a screenplay to finish, etc., and the hard work of dreaming up what comes next (which is the hardest work of all, for me at any rate). I am really enjoying it--I've traveled some, read more, seen friends and thankfully I've spent more time with my family (I teach at night which is hard on everyone). From where I'm sitting now, I keep thinking, how did I do all of this stuff at once, while teaching? But I have, and I will do it again, starting in June when I go back into the classroom. I guess I just find ways to slip in time to write when I can--it's not a very comfortable or steady schedule, but over time books get written. I've learned not to count the hours at my desk or the years on projects, but just to do what I can, when I can.
7) What are you willing to reveal about your next book or writing project?
HS: I just finished a screenplay, an adaptation of a super-short story of mine, for an independent producer. Floating on the horizon is the prospect of adapting This Beautiful Life for the academy award winning Danish director, Susanne Biers, but we're still looking for funding for the project, so that's on hold (I hope temporarily). I'm working on short fiction now, nonfiction, and researching my next long project.
Helen, thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions, some of which were really multiple questions. Your responses gave me more insight into your book, This Beautiful Life. Best of luck in all of your future projects!