Helen Schulman, LUCKY DOGS

Helen Schulman, LUCKY DOGS

Zibby interviews New York Times bestselling author (and Zibby’s 1993 summer writing class instructor!!) Helen Schulman about Lucky Dogs, a dazzling and propulsive book about two women on opposite ends of a high-profile sexual abuse. It explores love, power, betrayal, and obsession. Helen describes the heartbreaking Me Too story that inspired this novel and delves into her fascinating female characters. She also talks about her teaching career, her writing process, her screenplays, her next projects, and how the aftermath of the pandemic is still affecting her and the people around her.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Helen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest novel, Lucky Dogs.

Helen Schulman: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: As we were just discussing, I’ve sort of been following your — not sort of. I’ve been following your career for many years because I took your class for the summer at Bennington College in the summer in 1993. What is it now? Thirty years ago. That’s crazy.

Helen: Oh, my god, it is thirty years ago. We both look great, I must say.

Zibby: We look amazing. That was such a formative summer for me. I really loved your class. While I was there, I had this article come out in Seventeen magazine. I was like, oh, my gosh, this is my whole destiny. It’s going to happen in two seconds. Here I am, forty-six.

Helen: It seems like it’s really happened, Zibby, in a big way, in so many ways. You’re a publishing whirlwind and doing so much good.

Zibby: Thank you. It’s taken a long time. I want to talk about Lucky Dogs, your book. I also am curious, where did teaching Bennington fit in your life? What’s happened before and after that, when our paths first crossed and then now?

Helen: I went to grad school at Columbia. Jill Eisenstadt and Michael Drinkard, I don’t know if you remember them from the faculty, but they were members of my MFA class. They started teaching at Bennington. Jill had gone to Bennington. She was part of that literary mafia out of Bennington with Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt. They got me a job. I taught there for six summers. I just loved it. For us, it was like going back to college. We all lived in this place called Welling Townhouse in North Bennington. We’d play guitar and smoke pot and taught these great kids. It was gorgeous. It was fun for struggling writers. It was great. I ended up going back to teach at Columbia where I’d gotten my MFA. I adjuncted there and Bard and NYU for about ten years before I ended up at The New School, where I’m now the fiction chair. I have been for twenty years. Teaching has been one of the parts of my life that has sort of held me and my family together. I teach. I write screenplays sometimes. I write books sometimes. I do whatever I can.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my gosh. What a story. It’s so funny to think of all the students and all the stuff they had going on and then all the faculty. It sounds like a novel in and of itself.

Helen: I don’t know if you were there the Robitussin year. There was one year I was there where all the kids were getting high on Robitussin. It was this huge scandal. We were all called in to do stuff about it.

Zibby: No way. No, that was not my year. We were listening to Stone Temple Pilots. I don’t remember, really, anything else about it except for the soundtrack. You have written many books at this point. You had already been a prolific writer at that point, and that was thirty years ago. Now your latest book, Lucky Dogs, which, by the way, is blurbed by Jennifer Egan, so that’s amazing, who says, “A brash, sometimes heartbreaking saga,” your best novel yet — that’s pretty awesome. Tell me about writing this book and how you came up with the voice of the characters. The main character has such a unique point of view, this twenty-four-year-old trying to find herself and having this unlikely compatriot and just the way she writes and thinks and talks. Tell me a little bit more about the backstory of this book and how you came up with the protagonist.

Helen: It was a found story, in a way. I was just so glued to the Me Too news as it broke. There was this little piece in it that jarred me into action, which was that I had read that Harvey Weinstein, through David Boies at the recommendation from Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel, had hired a spy agency of ex-Mossad spies to silence one of the women who accused him of sexual assault. I was just so shocked by it. It took all these really important, important, wealthy, powerful men beating up on this young woman. That this female spy would do that, what would make one woman so utterly betray another woman in that way? That was what animated me. That’s what got me started. Mary is nuts. She’s a young actress. She’s cursed by beauty.

Zibby: I circled that, actually. I was like, cursed by beauty, interesting.

Helen: Her beauty has gotten her everywhere, which has gotten her nowhere. She self-emancipated at fifteen, ends up in Hollywood because she’s just incredibly Margot Robbie-perfect, beautiful, American beauty. She’s taken advantage of because of it. She’s raped because of it. Not because of it. Because a monster decided to rape her, but her beauty put her in the spotlight. To me, she’s like Jake LaMotta. She’s Raging Bull. No matter how many times you try to keep her down, she rises up and fights for herself. Her voice came to me really early and easily. It’s a very weird voice, in a way, because a huge high/low thing. I think I’ve always had a high/low thing in my own spoken language. I went to high school in the Bronx in the seventies. I’m so foul-mouthed. When my daughter was a baby and we were in a diner somewhere in Brooklyn, she dropped her little French fry on the floor and said, “Oh, shit.” Everybody in the diner looked like they were going to call social services. Mary is foul-mouthed. So am I. So is my little baby. She’s a big reader. She’s a kid who grew up in her father’s pickup truck and didn’t finish high school, but she always read. She’s got a large vocabulary and a lot to express.

Zibby: How often does your daughter curse now?

Helen: My daughter is so not curse-y. She says things like, oh, gosh. She’s in politics, so everything she says is correct. She’s very well-behaved, much better behaved than her mother, I have to say.

Zibby: Do you worry about having a daughter in politics given the climate overall now?

Helen: I’m proud of her. I think she was moved to action. She started out in a campaign. What she’s doing now is she’s a digital strategist for progressive causes and candidates. Her heart’s in the right place. I just don’t know if she has a thick enough skin for it. So far, so good. There were times during the last election where she just was so overwhelmed with feeling. She’s a very sweet person. I’m for it. Somebody’s got to fight back. I’m so proud of her, my students.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I didn’t mean not to be proud. I think about my kids going into politics now. It just seems like such a high hurdle to overcome to get where we want to go. I don’t know.

Helen: You’re right. It’s very depressing. It’s very corrupt. It’s very polarized. She’s not running for office. At least, not yet. She’s just trying to support the good guys.

Zibby: There we go. Then the other character, the blond who comes in, tall blond woman, who next thing you know is brandishing a weapon — Mary is thinking, wait, you can really do that? That’s okay? This is possible? How did she come into the picture?

Helen: Actually, part of the found story was that the woman who was hired through this strangle cabal of men actually was a woman who had grown up during the siege of Sarajevo and had been airlifted to Israel as part of a righteous gentile program on the part of the Israelis. Her grandfather or great-grandfather — I can’t remember which and which is in my book, honestly — had hidden Jews during the war. It cost him his life. He ended up dying in the camps. The family moved to Israel. When they saw what was happening in Sarajevo, they reached out and brought her family to Israel. Then she become Israeli. I’m a compulsive researcher. I just research all sorts of things. I don’t even know why sometimes. I’m just so moved in such a direction. I had been really, really interested in Civil War because of the politics of our country. I’d actually gone to a lecture Aleksandar Hemon gave after Trump was elected. He said, “You think you live in this beautiful country. You think it cannot happen to you. I am living proof that it can happen to you, and it will happen to you.” He’s Bosnian. I’d been thinking a lot about Bosnia and Israel and us. All of a sudden, all the pieces came together. There was my fury about the fact that — now I’m sixty-two. At the time, I was fifty-seven, fifty-eight when I started this whole thing. I was like, I can’t believe I’m this old and nothing has happened. It hasn’t gotten better. I’m so angry. I was fueled by this fire within. Then there were all these ideas I had been playing with. Then here was this little tiny gift of this encapsulized story that landed in my lap. Then I could put all that emotion and energy into that. That’s how she walked on the stage.

Zibby: Tell me about when you write your books and your process. You get inspired. You start researching. Then you go to the writing. How long does the writing take? When do you like to do it the best? How does it work? Is there no rhyme or reason to it?

Helen: This one was really nuts because it was so big. It was such a capacious story. It takes place in Paris and in Bosnia and in Venice Beach and Florida, etc. I wrangled a trip out of Travel + Leisure to go to Bosnia. I had pitched a story on dark travel, which was the dumbest thing you could possibly do to Travel + Leisure. Dark travel is when you go experience horrible things, like, you go to the killing fields. Instead, they came back and said, “Do you want to do luxury adventure travel in Bosnia?” I was like, “Sure.” By the way, there is no luxury adventure travel in Bosnia, but Bosnia’s an amazing country and really beautiful. I had that piece. I was starting on that. When COVID hit, I had a Guggenheim that year. Usually, I’m just teaching around the clock. I was home. I had COVID. I had long-haul COVID. I was lying in bed depressed and scared. I wrote my book. There was nothing else for me to do. It was a very different writing process than anything else I’ve ever done. It really came out of just being entrapped. That was my way out. I’m really lucky. Because I teach at The New School, every year, I get a really wonderful research assistant. One of the students works with me. They feed me all this stuff. Some of it’s just nuts. When I call and ask, “How do I get to The Villages in Florida? How much is an apartment there?” they’re like, okay. It feeds me. Research feeds me. This book was research. Not every one of my books is so researched as this one. There was a lot for me to learn. Because I had COVID and I couldn’t leave the house, I wrote twelve hours a day. Usually, I’m really busy. What I try to do is write in the morning before I go off to do whatever else I’m doing, teaching and all that. I use my vacations as wisely as I can.

Zibby: When did you get COVID? What were your symptoms of long-haul COVID like? How long did it last?

Helen: I got COVID — I know when I got it. I got it at a book party, the last book party in New York. It was Honor Moore’s book party, March 9th, maybe. I know because I talked to someone who was an old friend of mine who was elderly. She kind of coughed on me a little. In two weeks, I was sick as a dog, and she had died. It was so terrible. I got it around the 15th of March. I couldn’t walk to the park for three months. It was six weeks that I really was down. Then it was slow, slow to be able to get any stamina. I had symptoms for almost two years. It didn’t stop me, but it was hard. It was hard. A lot of my problem was that I was just nauseous all the time. I’ve been on this drug that they give to chemotherapy patients for two years now. That helps me. I get through the day. It really knocked me out. I wasn’t that sick with COVID compared to how sick people get. I remember calling my doctor. She said, “Look, call me again if you can’t breathe. Otherwise, stay home. Don’t see anybody.” That’s what I did.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’m sorry.

Helen: That’s okay. I’m okay.

Zibby: I know. The reverberations of that time period are going to be felt for so long in so many ways. It’s just staggering when you stop to think about it sometimes, which obviously we don’t anymore as much because we’re all so busy again. Yet it was so recent.

Helen: I don’t think people understand how traumatized they actually are. We just move on. It’s like a war.

Zibby: Of course, then all the anxiety rates are up. It’s seeping out from the inside out.

Helen: I see it with my students and my students’ students. I run this program that I formed with my students where we train MFA students to go teach in area middle schools and high schools. I see how the younger kids are so traumatized and how traumatized my students are. It’s kind of beautiful to watch them work together. They all find solace in literature, which, to me, is sometimes the only solace. That part’s nice, but they’ve just been ravaged.

Zibby: What are some of the things you do as chair of the entire fiction department at The New School? What are some of your big responsibilities? What’s something you love the most?

Helen: I’m responsible for almost a hundred students. I’m their first person of defense if they have an issue or problem. If they’re happy, I like them to come see me too. I have a faculty that I try to help. I see myself as a liaison between the faculty and the students and the administration. I bring in writers. We used to have a really lively reading series. We did all the big events, the NBCC Awards and the Triangle Awards and The Story Prize. Then with COVID, everything went online and shut down. Now we’re back. I just had Lan Samantha Chang come in. She’s the head of the Iowa Workshop. She has this beautiful new book that’s based on The Brothers Karamazov. The Family Chao, it’s called. She came and read and spoke to my students. We’re getting back in business with that. There’s a lot of social work in it right now because between Black Lives Matter and all the anti-Semitism, anti-Asian stuff, students are pretty traumatized. We help them find agents and get published. We have parties for them. We love them. They’re awesome. They really are. They’re the nicest students.

Zibby: That’s amazing. When you said you write screenplays sometimes, have any of your screenplays been made into film?

Helen: One was made. It was an adaptation of one of my books called P.S. The director, who’s a nice guy, and I had a really different sensibility. I don’t love the movie. They had a great cast. It was really interesting for me to watch it get filmed. Laura Linney was it, and Gabriel Byrne and Paul Rudd and Marcia Gay Harden. It was exciting to do. I’ve written a bunch of them. I can’t tell you how close I’ve gotten. I guess that’s the screenwriter’s lament. I worked with Coppola. We were weeks away from shooting. We had casting problems and money problems. It all fell apart. Everything was like that, but I didn’t get depressed until I actually had the movie get made. I always had fantasies about them. They’d come back. I could see it in my mind. This was done. Again, the actors were great. Topher Grace played this young boy. He was really cute and sexy. It was sweet. It was interesting.

Zibby: Still, fun to get to see it through to completion. A lot of people come close, and then they don’t get that one last thing.

Helen: It was fun. I was on set. I walk across Columbia’s steps in the opening credits or something. I got my moment.

Zibby: That’s great. Are you working on anything now? Any books?

Helen: I have a short story collection that Knopf signed onto when I moved over to Knopf with my editor. We just moved together this past year. In between things, I tend to write a short story, so that means maybe every three to five years, I write a short story. They’ve accumulated. I owe her one or two. I need to get them into shape. That’s next. I have an idea for the next novel, which I think will be a big departure. That’s probably all I can say. Maybe it will be historical.

Zibby: Now that you’ve gotten the research bug, keep digging. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? I know you do, but would you share some?

Helen: In which realm? Can you be a little more…?

Zibby: Let’s try someone who is desperate to publish their fiction for the first time.

Helen: One thing would be not to be so desperate. A lot of times, I see students try to publish too early, and then they kind of wear out their welcome instead of getting the work to the best shape it could be in. Not that people don’t change in publishing and the world doesn’t change, but it can make you feel bad to go out too early and get rejected. I think it always helps if somebody can sing your praises if you’re looking for an agent or an editor. If you don’t know somebody like that yet, then I’d say go to agents and editors night at your local university. We have writing spaces in New York that often hold agents and editors nights. We do at our university. You can go to a conference just so you get to meet somebody. You get their name. You can certainly submit cold, but it’s easier to get noticed if there’s something warm about your letter. Then just keep going.

One thing is to just, the minute something comes back, I’d say send it out right again because it’s not going to do any good sitting in your drawer. First, take it as far as you can. It will happen. It kind of is like popcorn. You try. You try. You try. You live in the land of no. At least, that was my experience. Then somebody bought something, and somebody bought something. Then all of a sudden, it starts to pop. You just have to really be patient. I remember when I was at Columbia, John Irving came. One of the things we asked him was, how could you tell who was going to be published, when you were teaching, ten years later? He said the ones who kept at it. That’s how you can tell. There are some that are so talented, but they burn out because it’s a tough game. Then there are others who just will not stop. I think there’s a lot to that. Really, just keep going. Keep working. It’s a tough job, but it’s good job.

Zibby: Love that. I swear he came to the Bennington program. Did I make that up? I felt like he came and spoke to our whole program that summer.

Helen: It could be.

Zibby: I felt like he did.

Helen: I know we shouldn’t just reminisce about our days together in the early nineties, but it was a very special program because there was an adult writers conference at the same time as there was this kids’ program. You could take advantage of all of that. It was also so artsy and supportive. I loved teaching there.

Zibby: It was fun. It was really great. Helen, thank you. This was so great. Thank you for the great read. Congratulations, especially on your move to Knopf and all of that. Who is your editor, by the way?

Helen: It’s Jennifer Barth. I love her. She’s great. She’s really tough. She’s really smart, very exacting. It’s what I need.

Zibby: It’s what we all need, I’m sure. Congratulations. I’m glad we reconnected.

Helen: Me too. Thanks so much.

Zibby: Thank you.

Helen: I hope I’ll see you again.

Zibby: I hope to see you too. Buh-bye.

Helen: Bye.

LUCKY DOGS by Helen Schulman

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