Ten Questions for Helen Schulman

by Staff

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Helen Schulman, whose new novel, Lucky Dogs, is out today from Knopf. This propulsive narrative considers how sexual misconduct by powerful men is often aided and abetted by women whose lives and livelihoods depend on the smooth operations of the patriarchy. The bones of the plot, Schulman writes in her author’s note, was inspired by the story of Rose McGowan, whose allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein reportedly led the now-convicted sex offender to hire an Israeli spy agency to undermine the actress’s case against him. In Lucky Dogs, a version of McGowan is Meredith Montgomery, who becomes friends with a mysterious woman named Nina after a fraught encounter in Paris, where Meredith is living after her social-media rants have made her a Hollywood outcast. From there, Schulman takes readers on a tour de force through Europe, Israel, the United States, and the inner lives of Meredith and Nina, each of whom has survived a traumatic past that pits one against the other in a battle for their lives. Kirkus praises Lucky Dogs as “a barn burner of a novel,” calling it Schulman’s “finest work to date. In a word: Wow.” Helen Schulman is the author of seven novels, including Come With Me (HarperCollins, 2018). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Vanity Fair, Time, Vogue, GQ, The New York Times Book Review, and The Paris Review. She is a professor of writing at the New School.

Helen Schulman, author of Lucky Dogs.   (Credit: Denise Bosco)

1. How long did it take you to write Lucky Dogs?  
I guess about three years. And then my marvelous editor, Jennifer Barth, and I worked on it together some more. Maybe closer to four?

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
My last few books have been about earthquakes in the culture, through the lens of an individual, couple, or family. So I tend to surf the zeitgeist as I write. What I mean is, I write alongside history as it unfolds, creating a kind of time capsule of current events—a historical fiction of now. Ultimately, of course, it’s almost impossible to put the news of the day into a novel, so I eventually pull the plug and set an end date for my storyline. It’s a habit I’ve vowed to quit.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
I write on my bed. I don’t have a desk or an office. I have a bag full of materials that I used to drag from room to room with me, because I also liked to write on the couch in the living room of our apartment. But then the pandemic happened, and everyone in my family came home, so I lost that coveted spot. I had long-haul Covid while writing this one, which kind of cemented the write-in-bed habit. I have two sweet kittens, who curl up with me. I don’t see this changing.
I write as often and for as long as I can. I teach a lot and I am the fiction chair at the New School MFA program, so I often do not have a lot of time on my hands.

4. What are you reading right now?  
Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel. I’m on a reading jag of female writers who wrote in Yiddish, who have finally been translated into English. I am also late to the party on Claire Keegan and trying to make up for lost time. On my stack: Adrienne Brodeur’s new novel, Little Monsters; my former student John Bengan’s stories in Armor—John writes from the heart and from the Philippines—and Jennifer Grotz’s beautiful and crushingly sad new poetry collection, Still Falling.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general? 
The answer to that is the bookshelf of my life. If you have been reading as long as I have, you are constantly taking notes, especially craft ones, as you go. It all goes in the blender. 

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Lucky Dogs
That nothing can abate my anger.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
I love my agent, Sloan Harris, like a family member—and more so than some of my family members. But when I asked him if he thought the book was funny, because my husband thinks it’s funny, he said: “You know how much I like and admire [your hubby], but he is a very sick man.” I think the book is funny too! So this made me laugh. But it also made me wonder what’s wrong with me, marriage and book-wise. The book’s subject matter is really tough, even devastating, but there is a lot of comedy in it. I didn’t plan it; it just came out that way. I think the humor helped me live through the darkness of writing it.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Lucky Dogs, what would you say? 
This book will challenge and change you. You will never be the same.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
For much of the time I was writing this book, I was teaching and doing other forms of writing to make a living. But from 2019 to 2020 I had a Guggenheim fellowship. Time is the world’s greatest gift. That fellowship gave me time. So I am very, very grateful. I was surprised, and also weirdly horrified, by how much I could get done during that period. Those twelve-hour days! It made me realize what might be possible if I didn’t have to work quite so hard at my day job.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?  
My father always told me to drive my own car. He said, “Don’t look at the traffic. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow anyone else is going.” It was a great relief to me, to learn just to do my own thing, and that has worked for me all these many years.