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An Interview with Sarah Schulman

[Writer]
“To remember that you can actually write a book that can change people’s lives is something I had forgotten.”
Consequences of America’s sexual regression:
Diminished lesbian content in fiction
False naturalization of people with AIDS
Guys smoking cigars
by Zoe Whittall
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Sarah Schulman

[Writer]
“To remember that you can actually write a book that can change people’s lives is something I had forgotten.”
Consequences of America’s sexual regression:
Diminished lesbian content in fiction
False naturalization of people with AIDS
Guys smoking cigars
by Zoe Whittall
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Sarah Schulman

Zoe Whittall
20 Snaps

In the spring of 2012, Sarah Schulman invited me to her partner’s Toronto home on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The partnership being somewhat new and long-distance, she moved about the space a bit awkwardly, claiming she had never spent much time in a house before, having lived in Manhattan for fifty-three years, and in the same sixth-floor walk-up in the East Village for the past thirty. “In New York City, if you want privacy, you just sit in the same room and don’t talk. This house thing is very new to me.” She made me a cup of tea and we sat in the living room with my iPhone recorder between us on the ottoman.

At the time, her fifth nonfiction book, Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, was the forthcoming lead title from Duke University Press, and she was in Toronto for the launch of The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. Her documentary, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, had just premiered in New York City. But while Schulman is many things—an accomplished political activist, a distinguished professor, filmmaker, playwright, and general cultural agitator—her primary love is writing fiction. When we met, she had just finished writing her tenth literary novel, The Cosmopolitans, which she described to me as “an answer book to Baldwin’s Another Country and a response to Balzac’s Cousin Bette,” set in New York City in 1958.

A gifted storyteller, Schulman has spent much of her career chronicling queer lives. She approaches fiction with a fearlessness regarding both form and content, and possesses an unflinching ability to create nuanced, emotional characters while simultaneously crafting stories that embody the political and cultural complexity of America at its most unrepresented. Her versatility as a writer is proven with each new story she puts out, whether she’s embracing her own imaginative take on literary realism or jumping into satirical speculative fiction, as she did with her latest novel, The Mere Future. She is best known for her widely praised, groundbreaking 1995 novel, Rat Bohemia, which was set in the swirl of the AIDS crisis in New York City.

While many writers of her generation are content to stay coyly closeted—too many prominent best-selling American writers to mention—Schulman has steadfastly refused. As a result, her status as a cultural pioneer and icon to aspiring queer writers has been cemented, while her literary career has, on occasion, suffered. As the publishing industry has grown more conservative, her last two novels were difficult to place. When recounting the plot of her latest literary manuscript, The Cosmopolitans, she acknowledges: “It’s an opportunity for me to return to mainstream publishing, if they’ll have me.”

—Zoe Whittall

 

I. LOVING MENTOR

THE BELIEVER: I want to talk about your experiences trying to publish your novel The Child. It seems to me as though America is in a period of deep sexual regression right now. I mean, the right to acquire birth control is actually up for debate. What was the process like, trying to publish it in this climate?

SARAH SCHULMAN: It was a nightmare. First of all, I had been publishing a book almost every two years since forever, and suddenly I was stopped dead. People would stop me on the street and ask, “What’s happening with you? I haven’t seen any books by you.” And I would say, “It exists! They just won’t let you have it.” I was sending it around as samizdat. I would print it out and give it to people. This was in 1999, before Kindles. It was awful. So many bad things happened. An editor at Beacon read it and really loved the book and told me she was going to buy it. She made an offer, but her editor in chief vetoed it because she said it was supporting child abuse. Finally, one day I ran into Diamanda Galás in the neighborhood. She asked me why I hadn’t published in so long. I explained that I had written a novel about a sexual relationship between a fifteen-year-old boy and a forty-year-old man, from their points of view, and that since I didn’t condemn the relationship, it was unpublishable. She took out her cell phone and called Don Weise at Carroll and Graf on the spot. “This is Diamanda Galás,” she said. “I’m sending you Sarah Schulman’s new novel. Treat this sister with respect.” Don ended up publishing the book, but, typically for the book business, Carroll and Graf went out of business the week The Child was published. They printed it, but it wasn’t reviewed or distributed. Fortunately, Arsenal Pulp Press in Canada published the paperback, but the book never got its moment, which is very sad for me since I love it. I think it would make a great movie.

BLVR: Was it hard to inhabit any of the characters creatively, or to have empathy for them? Do you believe writers have to have empathy for their characters?

SS: It wasn’t hard to have empathy for the characters. My job is to figure out what is it like for these people to be alive. What is their perspective on their own experience? That’s my job because I’m a novelist. But because I did my job, it made the book unpublishable, because I saw that there were positive aspects to the experience for both of them. The kid’s parents were so homophobic and awful that the fact that he had a sexual relationship with an adult man was, in a way, an antidote to his relationship with his father. It wasn’t a desirable relationship—the man in the book is very childish and can’t take responsibility for things, but the kid got many positive things out of it. What caused him pain was not his boyfriend, but his parents and the state. And that’s not what the message is supposed to be. The message is supposed to be the evil, child-abusing predator, blah blah blah. I had the wrong message. I was in a state of perpetual censorship for almost ten years.

BLVR: In a recent interview, The New York Times said that you were a loving mentor to many young writers. Do you agree with that?

SS: Yes, I do agree with that. I’m very supportive of young artists. I treat them with respect, especially queer artists. I want them to do well. Because somebody has to care.

BLVR: Did you have mentors when you were young?

SS: Grace Paley famously helped me by sending me home after my first and only day of an MFA program. That was truly great. But mentor as in sitting down and reading the books and helping me professionally? There wasn’t anyone. It wasn’t like there was some lesbian writer who had published mainstream books and had access to stuff who could help me. There wasn’t such a person. The generation before me is, like, Susan Sontag… they were just in the closet. My generation is the first to be completely out in popular culture. The people before me couldn’t and wouldn’t help me. The ones who didn’t have access, because they were out, couldn’t help me. The ones who did have access, had access because they were in the closet, so they wouldn’t. I found out later that behind the scenes people do do things. I got into MacDowell in 1986, and years later I found out that Tillie Olsen was one of the people who supported my application. So that’s cool. I never met her, but that was nice. Edmund White did me a huge favor by writing that review in the New York Times of Rat Bohemia. That was extremely supportive and kind of him. Kathy Acker wrote a really nice review of After Delores in the Village Voice, and I didn’t know her. She did it just because she liked the book.

BLVR: Tell me about the group of young writers that you host in your apartment.

SS: I did a reading at Bluestockings in New York City about four years ago, and there was a big discussion afterward about how frustrated I was that younger lesbian writers are not having lesbian content in their work. I know why they’re not doing it: because you can’t have a career if you have it. But unless people keep submitting that material, it’s never going to change. What we see is really bad-quality work, because the most talented writers are escaping the content. The literature gets destroyed. I was talking about how MFA programs are a really obstructive force in the development of lesbian fiction, because most of them don’t have faculty who actually understand how it works and who can actually give informed support to their students. I mean, you know this. There are all kinds of representational and aesthetic questions in writing lesbian fiction that are very specific. The English language is constructed around a male-female dichotomy, so just having two shes in one sentence is something that has to be finessed, right? Then there is the balance of characters. When I wrote People in Trouble, I had a straight male protagonist and I had a lesbian protagonist. Balancing them was almost impossible, because anything she did, she would be seen as pathological, but anything he did, the reader could excuse. Having them in the same scene was so hard because he could do anything and she couldn’t do anything. All that stuff—you need people who can understand that. MFA programs don’t provide that. Lesbian writers who go into them end up producing material that doesn’t have any primary lesbian content. Ellis Avery was my graduate student. You can actually trace who the exceptions are, and see who they studied with. So I was talking about that, how upsetting it was, and the audience was quite young. Someone said, “You should start a group!” or, “Put your money where your mouth is!” I said OK. I passed around a sign-up sheet and I called everyone who signed up and invited them over to my house. I live in a very small apartment. About ten girls came over to my apartment. I didn’t know any of these people. They crammed into my living room. I didn’t do any screening. It’s turned out to be a wonderful experience for me.

BLVR: What do you get out of the experience?

SS: They’re very interesting. I love to watch the ways they help each other. They’re quite smart. They’re very different. Their work is very engaging. They struggle. They rewrite. One of the rules is that once we agree on a date and time, no one is allowed to cancel. You can’t come late and you can’t cancel—no matter what. I got a free trip to China and I came home early because I had promised the date. If you keep all your promises, you can be very productive. If you say that you’re going to come here on this time and this day and bring a work that is four to ten pages—and you do it because you said you would—you will produce work.

II. “SO WE GOT A CAMERA”

BLVR: Can you describe for me how the ACT UP Oral History Project and the documentary United in Anger: A History of ACT UP came to be?

SS: It was 2001. I was in L.A. trying to get a job in television or movies. That’s already funny. I was in a white rental car, and I can barely drive. It was the twentieth anniversary of AIDS. NPR was talking about it, and somebody said, “At first, America had trouble with people with AIDS, but then they came around.” And I just thought, That is not what happened. There’s this American tendency to falsely naturalize change that people fight for and earn with their last drop of blood. America pretends that we just naturally evolved. We’ve always been that way. But in this case, because so many of our friends are dead, and they’re not here to speak for themselves, we do have a special responsibility. It’s one thing if everyone who participates in a social transformation somehow collectively decides not to contest the historicization, but when the people who did are not here, and they don’t have that option, there is a special responsibility. I remember thinking, They’re going to do this to AIDS. They’re going to pretend that all these thousands of people who fought until their death never suffered, never coalesced, and that it was by the graces of the beautiful dominant culture that suddenly we were all so understanding. I couldn’t bear the thought of it. I called Jim Hubbard. We had been collaborators since 1987, and we decided we would start an oral history project. At that point, no one remembered ACT UP, except for the people who’d been part of it. There was no discussion about AIDS; AIDS was over. AIDS activism was barely mentioned. I mean, Benjamin Shepard had written a book called From ACT UP to the WTO—I think that was the only modern engagement with ACT UP. So we got a camera and we wrote a grant to try to get software to start interviewing people. Lo and behold, Urvashi Vaid was at the Ford Foundation. Years ago, she had been the head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. At that time, it was considered to be the most conservative gay organization. It was to the left of the Democratic Party. There were no right-wing gay people at that time. Being in the Democratic Party was considered conservative.

BLVR: This was pre–Log Cabin Republicans…

SS: It was pre-everything. It’s pre–Human Rights Campaign, pre–Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We were the streetpolitic people. They were the policy people. We weren’t that far apart, but we felt like we were. So she helped us write the grant proposal, and we were able to get three hundred thousand dollars. It was her vision. She knew that we could do this huge thing. To date, we’ve interviewed 128 people. Long-form interviews. Everything is available for free online at the website actuporalhistory.org. We’ve sold the archive to Harvard. The agreement is they will make it available for free in perpetuity in all future formats, so let’s say everything switches to HD; they’re going to have to switch it to HD. This is the kind of thing we could not do. Before that, all the tapes were in Jim’s office. He’s sixty-three. I’m fifty-three. If we got hit by a bus, that would be it. It was too much responsibility. This turns out to be the perfect solution. That’s how it started. We couldn’t take it. We couldn’t take that thought of it being falsely historicized. Now there is a little moment going on where other people are making it work. That’s really what cultural activism is: you take the void and transform it into a context. It’s not carpetbagging, where you look for a context and jump on it. It’s starting from nothing. We did the same thing with the MIX festival. There was no venue for gay, experimental film in 1987, so we invented one. Twenty-five years later, we have people showing work in our festival who were not born when we started it. What we learned is that creating a venue creates artists, because people see the venue and think, Oh, I can make something for that. Then they become artists. That’s really what cultural activism is. It’s not exploiting other people’s work. It’s doing the labor from the ground up.

III. THE GHOST WORLD AND THE WORLD

BLVR: I want to talk about the idea of deaths that matter and deaths that don’t, which you write about so eloquently in The Gentrification of the Mind. You said, “The deaths of these 81,542 New Yorkers, who were despised and abandoned, who did not have rights or representation, who died because of the neglect of their government and families, has been ignored. This gaping hole of silence has been filled by the deaths of 2,752 people murdered by outside forces. The disallowed grief of twenty years of AIDS deaths was replaced by ritualized and institutionalized mourning of the acceptable dead. In this way, 9/11 is the gentrification of AIDS. The replacement of deaths that don’t matter with deaths that do.” How did you come to this conclusion? Have you taken any heat for it, or any of the other things you say in the book?

SS: No heat, except Publishers Weekly said I was vitriolically against motherhood. Women who question parenting are always the witch. [Laughs] I live on Ninth Street. I saw the World Trade Center thing happen from my roof. When the building went down, I got on my bike and I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital to give blood. On my way there, I was watching these people in business suits walking up from Wall Street covered in ash. When I got to St. Vincent’s, there was a line around the block. So many people had had the same thought and just ran there. But there was no need to give blood, because everyone was dead. It was a weird, ghostly thing. Then they closed off the city at Fourteenth Street. We had free access, if you lived downtown. I biked to the World Trade Center. You could watch. Everything was burning. Everyone was so shocked. It was so strange. The first thing I thought was—this was when we were bombing Bosnia— I remember thinking that Americans were finally going to understand what it’s like; what we do to other people. That was my first thought. This will be an incredible wake-up. The next day, people came looking for the corpses. And because most of the people who died were either cops or firefighters or traders, the people who came to Manhattan to look for their dead people were from Queens and Staten Island and New Jersey. They were bringing these American flags, they were putting up signs: have you seen my person? And it just suddenly turned. It could have been this moment of compassion, understanding, and revelation, and it became this patriotic nightmare. Bush went on TV and said, “They are evil and we are good.” Everyone was stunned and in shock. I thought, This is so how I felt during AIDS, emotionally, and now everyone is feeling it. That thought stayed with me the whole time. Later, I found out that only two people I knew had died. One was the mother of a friend from ACT UP, and one was the husband of an actress I knew. So in all of those thousands of people who died, it didn’t reach my people. It was like AIDS in reverse. Back then, I knew all these people who were sick and dying, and then I’d meet some straight person and they didn’t know anybody. I started to think about these two things as like, the ghost world and the world: two sides of the same situation, but infecting entirely different populations. As the whole schtick around 9/11 evolved, and the war in Iraq, I always kept that in mind. AIDS was one version and 9/11 was the other.

IV. THE APPARATUS

BLVR: I read The Gentrification of the Mind within months of reading Just Kids by Patti Smith and Inferno by Eileen Myles. They feel like excellent companion pieces to yours. My experience of New York City is limited—I have spent only a total of seventy-two hours there, as a tourist. But reading these books and yours in succession felt like I was taking a course in what it was like to be an artist in the New York City of the 1970s to the 1990s. What did you think of those books?

SS: I loved Inferno. I think it’s her best book. I love her work. It’s funny, sexy, it’s got a history of the New York School, it draws its own literary genealogy. I hated Just Kids. I felt it was very disingenuous. She made herself very clean. She’s a good person because she was understanding that her boyfriend was gay. Yet he ended up being pimped by a rich guy, whom she kind of pimped off also. She doesn’t like women at all. Every man she dates ends up being incredibly connected and powerful, and propels her professionally. She has a high ick factor around lesbians. The only woman she mentions is Sandy Daley, an experimental filmmaker who made the film Robert Having His Nipple Pierced, which we showed at MIX. She seems to have instinctively stayed away from women who don’t have any power, and gone with men who had enormous amounts of power. I was shocked to discover that, because Patti Smith was my hero!

BLVR: Feminists love Patti!

SS: She wrote all that great lesbian stuff in her songs, apparently none of which is real. I quote it in After Delores. None of it was true. I was crushed when I read that book. But I loved Eileen’s book.

BLVR: Your style is not stagnant, and it changes often, but it was quite a switch to speculative fiction with your dystopian novel, The Mere Future. The villain, Harrison Bond, is a parody of a depressed celebrity author, and he’s writing a book called My Sperm. Was he based on anyone?

SS: When I was writing this, I was at Yaddo. When I arrived, there were five male writers there: Tom Beller, Donald Antrim, Rick Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides—and was it Jonathan Franzen? No, I can’t remember. It was of that ilk. I arrived with my suitcase and they were sitting on the porch and smoking cigars. I said, “I can’t believe you guys are smoking cigars.” And the guys said, “Paul Auster showed us how.” I spent the summer with them. At that point, I had published maybe eight books, and they each had one or two. And they had no interest in me. They had no respect for me. The worst of the lot became Harrison Bond. He’s a type. Gish Jen was there, too. She’s an Asian American writer who at one point had a lot of currency and success. At that time, she was really up there. We were at dinner, and it was me and this gay Filipino guy, and we asked her, “What’s it like to be up there with all the guys?” That was the era of the Rick Moodys of the world. She said, pointing to us three, “We are the center of the culture, but they have the apparatus.” And that’s true.

BLVR: There was a period of time in the 1990s when queer writers were embraced by the mainstream publishing industry. Do you agree?

SS: It was caused by AIDS. AIDS made it impossible for people to deny that homosexuality exists. There were a couple of women editors—at Penguin, at Avon—there were a couple of lesbian editors who started publishing lesbian books in the mainstream. That went on from ’85 to ’92. In 1992, you started to get the niche marketing going on. That’s when Barnes & Noble starts its gay and lesbian section, which is the worst thing that ever happened to us. That’s when companies started hiring gay people to niche market gay books to gay audiences. We were removed from mainstream literature. Then it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, because you could never get the sales. Instead of selling the books as American literature, they started to niche them as gay literature, and that killed it. That was the end of that little seven-year period. The end of that was the publication of Bastard Out of Carolina, because it was a book that had no lesbian content but had an openly lesbian author. That was something that the industry could handle. But they could not promote and reward and have a great American success be a novel with a lesbian protagonist. The editors stopped being willing to publish those books. There was a time when seven to ten lesbian novels a year would be coming out of mainstream publishing houses. Now there are zero, or maybe two. It’s the inability of the reading public to universalize to a lesbian protagonist. The industry has such a high ick factor that it’s been unwilling to do what’s necessary to help readers make that connection. But in Britain, lesbian writers are human beings. Their books are considered books, and regular people read them.

BLVR: I want to ask you about your book Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences. What was its reception like?

SS: It got a very divided reception. In terms of regular queer people, I got two to six contacts per day from readers on Facebook, or email, or people leaving messages on my phone, letters, stopping me on the street; they were reading it in their church group in Iowa. I hadn’t had that experience since Rat Bohemia, when people with AIDS would stop me on the street and say, “You really got it.” To remember that you can actually write a book that can change people’s lives is something I had forgotten. But I did not get a single review, or one mainstream review. It was this transformative book for all these people, and yet it doesn’t exist.

BLVR: Your novels are political because you’re a political person, and your characters reflect that, but your fiction isn’t didactic, and it doesn’t seem as though the authorial voice has a political agenda. But when I read criticisms of your work, I feel that critics take your characters as political ideas. Yet books where characters talk about ideas that are considered politically mainstream are not critiqued this way. It reminded me of what the poet Sina Queyras tweeted a few months back: “Don’t judge a book by your limitations.” What do you think of that statement and how it might apply to your work?

SS: The problem is that novels that reinforce dominant culture values are considered to be neutral, but actually they are political. So they’re like, why can’t you be neutral like these really right-wing novels? That’s the problem. In terms of reading reviews, I’ve only ever had one review that taught me something, and it was a negative review, and it was by Vivian Gornick; she’s a genius, an older feminist woman. She reviewed Rat Bohemia. She said that these characters are not bohemians, because bohemians are refuseniks— they step out of their class position, but my characters had been thrown out. And I was like, You’re right. That’s it. All the other reviews, whether they rave, rave, rave, or hate, hate, hate, I never feel like they get it.

BLVR: Do you feel that way when you talk to readers who give you feedback?

SS: Usually when people talk to me about the book, the benefit I get is I understand that it was meaningful to them, even if they hated it, because they were invested on some level. That is important information for me. But what I almost never get is that they read something that then gives them a deeper idea that they can bring back to me, and then we’re actually in a dynamic conversation, so that I now think about something differently than I thought about it before. That almost never happens. The problem is that it takes a lot to really meet someone on the level of everything that they are offering in a novel. It’s very easy to read superficially and to project. Most people read just to find out about themselves, and it’s interesting to me what readers have found out about themselves by reading my books, but it’s not that helpful to me as a person. I also want to say that I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had a very high level of interaction with readers for my entire career, since 1984. I often walk into a room and there are people there who have read many of my books. Some of them I’ve aged with, as audiences or as readers. They’re very engaged and very invested. If they hate something, they hate it, hate it, hate it. I’ve never had this experience of passive readers. I’ve gone to the readings of yuppie writers and I feel like their audience is completely unengaged. So I’m lucky. I’m writing for people who don’t have any representation, and so they’re happy to have something, and they want to interact with it.

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