(Alfred A. Knopf, 2023)
I’ve worked alongside Helen Schulman at the New School for the past five years, even though much of that time has been remote for one reason or another. She is a marvelous teacher, something of a legend among our students who often tell me one wise thing or another that she said about their work that opened up a new direction in their project. She’s also one of the most interesting writers working today, one who dares to look at the shifting contemporary landscape we live in and ask how the individuals dwelling within these pressure points feel, think, and push back against their situations. In doing so, she brings incredible vitality and complexity to our present, and gives a human aperture to worlds that might otherwise feel impenetrable.
Helen has written one collection of short stories and seven novels (Come With Me, This Beautiful Life, and P.S. to name just a few), the most recent of which is Lucky Dogs, out this week from Knopf. The novel follows American starlet Merry as she flees to Paris in the wake of a career-ending collision with an abusive film producer, where she falls in with a charismatic woman who seems to offer both support and a way to tell her story to the public—but ultimately isn’t what she seems. Helen is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as awards and honors from Sundance, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and Aspen Words, among others. We corresponded over email from our homes in New York City and Colorado.
Alexandra Kleeman (Rail): It’s striking that Lucky Dogs is set in roughly the start of #MeToo, around Harvey Weinstein’s 2017 downfall, a fairly recent time that increasingly feels displaced, almost historical. Five years can feel like a twenty-year stretch. What drew your interest to this near-past setting? Did you feel like it took a great deal of labor to conjure this moment, or is it nearer to our present than we think?
Helen Schulman: Somewhere along the way I had the not-so-brilliant, but crazy idea, to surf the zeitgeist with my last two books. My novel Come With Me was about Silicon Valley, multiverse theory and the triple disasters of Fukushima, so the material for that book constantly changed as I was writing it. Not easy. Then I made the same mistake twice, using this weird methodology again with Lucky Dogs. What I mean to say is, for both books, I wasn’t writing about the past, I was writing about the present, in the present. I was creating in my own mind historical snow globes or time capsules. In the beginning, I wrote as situations unfolded, almost like a reporter might. I had no idea how the real world story would shake out—so I made up my own story, the fiction writer’s job: making stuff up. But in the beginning, the books stumbled along as blindly and breathlessly as the rest of us watching the news explode. The fact that the world of Lucky Dogs feels like near-past to you is likely because of the real world time it took to write and edit and to publish. I mean eventually I had to stop following the news and set a time limit on it, to do the work of making it my own story and producing a novel.
When Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor started publishing their courageous reporting on Harvey Weinstein, I honestly didn’t think he would even be indicted. After some fifty-odd years of living as a woman on this planet, I was so enraged and disappointed in how little change had been made during my increasingly longer life span, that I had no expectations that he or any of the other famous mass rapists of the moment would be incarcerated. What I became hooked on was this one piece in that #MeToo puzzle: a female operative from an Israeli spy agency was paid enormous sums of money to befriend and betray an actress who had been sexually assaulted, and was writing a memoir. The spy’s job was basically to destroy the actress’s life and career. I thought: how could one woman so utterly betray another woman? That was the animating question for this project.
Rail: Meredith is a fascinating character—driven, evasive, fiery, and engaged in a fascinating judo match between her own strengths and vulnerabilities. But what struck me most was how her voice lives on the page—any narrator that can deliver a line like “all’s to say, I have one big fucking mouth” in one breath and then go on to describe the night sky over Paris as “the black plum of an internal organ” is one I want to follow into the storm. How did you go about crafting Meredith’s voice and staying honed in on it over the course of the novel? Did it come to you in a rush, or did you have to practice tuning in on it?
Schulman: In a rush. Her voice flew out of my fingers as I typed. I was so angry, I was on fire.
I suppose my root craft influences are evident in this one. Reading William Faulkner in college changed my life. His characters, inarticulate in spoken speech, have such rich interior lives that they linguistically soar when he ingeniously melds the colloquial with the voices of their inner angels. I’m not half as gifted as he was, obvi, but there has always been a high-low aspect to my work. Some of the smartest people in my life have melded the poetics of wisdom and heart into their personal language. Merry has no formal education really, she dropped out of high school. But she has read like crazy her entire life and she attends intensely to the world around her. Anyone who knows me knows that I am pretty foul-mouthed. I went to high school in the Bronx in the seventies. One beloved family story in my household took place when my daughter was still a baby in a highchair. Whenever she dropped some of her food on the floor, she’d say, “Oh shit.” Boy, did we get looks at restaurants and diners. I think one of the more pedestrian tasks my marvelous editor, Jennifer Barth, had to deal with with this book, was to make me pull back on all the F-bombs that consistently fall out of Merry’s mouth.
Rail: That question—how could one woman so utterly betray another?—is so rich, tough, and full of grist in your telling. Thinking about that moment in time, one of the interesting contradictions for me is how the memory of this feeling of expansive solidarity with other women coexists with the memory of learning suddenly, sharply, how I differed from some other women—friends and family, even—in the way that I thought about power, consent, how our visions of what living as a woman could be split apart. One of the most remarkable things about this book is how you gift heft to Nina/Samara’s character, especially in the intricacy of her backstory, when it would be easy to imagine her as a paper-thin villain. How did the process of writing Nina, and her story, change the way you viewed her? How did you go about building and developing her?
Schulman: “Very early in my life it was too late.” That’s a quote from Marguerite Duras, and it is the epigraph to Lucky Dogs. In some ways Nina is really the heart of this book. How can I not feel some compassion for her? Her life has been terrible. As a toddler, her life is interrupted by genocidal war. Her mother is raped in front of her while her father, helpless and held back by his “friends and neighbors” is forced to witness the crime. Nina grows up in a shared basement during the siege of Sarajevo. Her father disappears, presumed dead. All she has really is her mother who loves her endlessly and fruitlessly, the way some mothers can love their children. Nina grew up literally in a constant state of hunger and she can never be satiated at any point in her life. I had a lovely guide in Bosnia who told me that she too as a child was endlessly hungry. When we ate a meal together, she had to stop herself from finishing eating every bite. She said she never experienced fullness; she implied that the feeling of almost hysterical emptiness never goes away. She told me about the fashion shows she and her cousins put on when they were hiding in their basement. In the nineties in Bosnia, like so much of the rest of the world, kids loved to gorge on American pop culture. It only makes sense to me that Nina would be very jealous of Merry, with her all American beauty, and her insta-career in Hollywood. I did some research on the Mossad, which is a feeder for the private spy agency Black Cube that I used as a model for my Israeli spy agency Dark Star. Female spies are known for using their “feminine wiles” in their work—they are asked to do so by their employers. I thought a lot about the female spy who entrapped the Israeli whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, who was captured in Italy and then imprisoned in Israel for eighteen years for sharing nuclear secrets with the British. Nathan Englander has a wonderful Vanunu-like character in his beautiful book, Dinner at the Center of the Earth. All is to say that both my main characters had early lives filled with abuse and both were overly sexualized. Nina thinks Merry is a whiner—what Merry sees as suffering Nina sees as a woman’s lot in life. But she crosses the line again and again in her selfish push for attention, for money, for luxury. I remember talking early in the editing process with Jennifer Barth, who as I said combed through this book a million times and is a human treasure. She said: “Why is it different because she’s a woman? How could anyone do this to anyone?” But I felt it was different. Nina enables a rapist. If there ever was anything that women should have a sisterhood about, I feel, it is sexual abuse. But of course, that is a ridiculous and naive statement, when you look at the history of the world. There are plenty of women without loyalty or honor. And so the answer to my question had to be in the fabric of Nina’s own life, what it was that ripped to shreds her soul, her humanity.
Rail: There’s a chapter in the novel anchored by Nina/Samara’s father—who goes missing during the long siege of Sarajevo—that’s so propulsive, so fiery, so damn great, that I am burning with writerly curiosity about where it came from. Did you know early in the novel’s planning you’d be writing about Nina/Samara’s father? What made him the natural starting point for introducing her character—her real character, not the character she plays when she first approaches Merry?)
Schulman: When Donald Trump was first elected President in 2016, but before he took office, I was privileged to attend a craft talk given by the author Aleksandar Hemon. Sasha, as he is called, was forecasting what he thought would happen next in America. At that time we really didn’t know what was coming, although those of us who voted for Clinton were scared, but maybe not scared enough. (Remember all that talk about checks and balances?) Sasha talked about his own experience as a Bosnian. He said: “You think it can’t happen to your beautiful country. I’m here to tell you it can and it will.” I’m paraphrasing because I didn’t take notes that night—so forgive me, Sasha, if you read this and I don’t have it exactly right—but he was talking about civil war, when neighbor attacks neighbor. And of course, that is what did happen: our country has split in half, although, thank God, not yet a war-war, locked and loaded as we are. That phrase kept echoing in my mind, “You think it can’t happen to your beautiful country,” and in writerly fashion it morphed in my strange brain into: “Do you live in a beautiful city?” The majesty of that question turned into an incantation, as Nina’s father outlines all the ways one can lose one’s beautiful life, even as he celebrates what he’s had and what he still can’t believe has been taken away from him. When I wrote it, I wanted it to intimately include the reader in its present action. I wanted to fold together time. You know how there can be a self-preservation aspect to how we read the news? Sometimes we devise ways to tell ourselves: that can’t happen to me. I don’t live there, the fires, the floods, the fascism, I live in a television suburb, I live in paradise, or the Midwest or Connecticut. I’m talking about how we try to distance ourselves from the terrors of the twenty-first century. But that is no longer easy even for Americans to do, between the pandemic, the international rise of nationalism, global warming, and the barbarism of civil war. I wanted to partner the reader in this musical, repetitive, poetic, cadence-full method of story-telling, so that at the end of that sequence we realize that none of us are safe anywhere, from anything, ever. I had no idea I would write from Nina’s father’s point of view, that just happened as the words spilled out. It’s probably the work here that I’m most proud of—it’s the aria of a Bosnian Christian thirty-five year old broken man, who is but a footnote in the story, and less than that to the world. He is a speck of dust. Who is his child then, if he himself is nothing?
Rail: I really admire how you ride right into the unresolved storm of the present and wrestle with it in your fiction! What interests you about writing into these unresolved, developing narratives? In this novel or the previous one (Come With Me), did you find that current events collided with the story you were writing? Is that a help or a hindrance to your process?
Schulman: The world right now is so riveting, it’s exhausting. But it is hard for me to think about much of anything else. I became a news junkie on 9/11 and I haven’t stopped. You can’t make this shit up—-and yet that’s my job, to make shit up. I’m a fiction writer. I’ve dedicated this book to my grandmothers, who both played a big role in my becoming a novelist. My mother’s mother lived with us for a long time when I was growing up, and for a while we shared a room. As a child she was beautiful and loved. She went to the gymnasium in what was then Austria, and was rare for a girl. She could read and write in seven languages and was a talented seamstress. All that was taken from her during the first World War, and then during the second World War she lost four brothers and sisters in the camps. She loved to tell stories about her early childhood, the fumes of which she lived off of, and I loved to listen. It was a way to make sense of the world, her world, which was driven off the face of the earth by the Nazis and the sweeping tragedies of Europe. My father’s mother came from the opposite end of the spectrum. She grew up in Russia, one child out of nine; they all shared the same pair of shoes. There was enough money for only one of them to go to America and she asked her father to send her—a girl, not five feet tall, she was so malnourished, she was a tiny slip of a thing. She said: “If you send one of the boys, you’ll never hear from him again. Send me, and I will bring the rest over.” Which she did, until the Iron Curtain came down. That grandmother had no education. If she could read anything, maybe it was a little Yiddish, but I have a get well card she wrote to me when I was in the hospital as a child. My aunt Isabell told me my grandmother dictated a sentence that Isabell wrote out in Yiddish on a piece of yellow pad paper. Translated into English it says: “I ask God that you should be healthy.” Isabell says my Grandma copied the Yiddish letters onto my card. The handwriting was shaky. Long story short, she couldn’t read or write, but she was the world’s best storyteller. Both of them taught me to look at the world through the lens of story, and to get back to your question, writing about “now” is the only way I can make sense of now. But I’m giving it up. It’s too crazy.
Rail: The ending of Lucky Dogs is truly climactic, and offers an outcome particular to Merry and Nina/Samara—dramatic, explosive, moving. Without giving too much away to readers who haven’t yet gotten to the end of the book, I’m wondering if you could talk about the process of finding an ending for a story that has its roots in real and fraught material. Did you feel like you were responsible for dealing out justice to correct a deep unfairness in the real world, or that you needed to reflect the harsh truth? Is it the responsibility of fiction to offer a corrective to injustices in the world, or to put them starkly on the page?
Schulman: If there is justice in the end of Lucky Dogs it’s nothing I wanted or planned for. My goal was to present the complexity of the situation for both of my main characters, what drove them straight into the painful worlds they live in, and the horror they inflict upon each other. I think they are both casualties of misogyny and an undying lust for power. I also think they both endure the unendurable, which countless people have to do daily and at great cost. People live impossible lives. Finally, in the last chapter, I think Merry experiences the healing powers of love. She learns that she is able to give love, even if she may never truly receive it in return. This has been a theme throughout many of my books as it has been one of the greatest truths of my life, that truly loving someone else can be the source of whatever it is we need to survive the traumas of childhood and beyond.
Rail: Finally, I’m so intrigued by your statement about moving away from writing about these ultra-timely topics. Can you tell me a little about what’s interesting you now, and what your next project is about?
Schulman: What the last few books have taught me is the magic of research, and the complexity of the endeavor itself. There are so many stories just floating around en plein air! I’m no longer afraid to write about what I don’t know, I actually live for it. It is so exciting to enter a life completely outside of my own, which in truth encompasses a lot of sitting around in sweatpants and shopping at Zabar’s. Flaubert said: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” I don’t know how orderly I am—our apartment is all stacks of books, records, CDs, papers, and cats—but it was very important to me to have a functioning, happy family and marriage, and I don’t think I could have had that if I didn’t have an outlet for all the inner turmoil and anxieties that have fueled my work. So my day-to-day life is, well, quotidian. I raised two children, I was the first line of defense for both my parents who had very long illnesses and terrible old ages. I taught numerous classes at numerous institutions and programs. Writing has been my escape. Now I want to try my hand at something historical, to enter another world and time, in another country, during an especially dangerous and violent period for humanity; also an exciting time artistically. Honestly, I kind of desperately want to get away from the Internet, as well. So I am going back to a no more simple but fertile and fomenting moment, before I was born.