Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Sarah Schulman

In art, books, fiction, nonfiction, writing on December 27, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2011).

An introduction to Sarah Schulman, author of The Mere Future (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009). Schulman’s numerous books include the novels Rat Bohemia, Empathy, and The Child, and the nonfiction book The Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences. She is co-director of the ACT UP Oral History Project, and she is currently organizing the first US LGBT delegation to Palestine for Winter 2012. Sarah is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at CUNY, College of Staten Island, and was awarded a Brown Foundation Fellowship from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Her other awards include a Guggenheim, Fulbright, and the 2009 Kessler Award for her “Sustained Contribution to LGBT Studies.”

Quick Facts on Sarah Schulman

  • Sarah Schulman’s ACT UP Oral History Project
  • Home: Manhattan, New York
  • Comfort food: Well, I’m in San Francisco. I like the burritos with salsa verde at Alabama and 24th Street. That would be my San Francisco comfort food.
  • Top reads: Carson McCullers, Rabih Alameddine, Caryl Phillips, Vivian Gornick, and Claudia Rankine. I like Funeral Rites by Jean Genet.
  • Current reads: Lady Painter, the Joan Mitchell biography by Patricia Albers; Open City by Teju Cole

What are you working on at the moment?  

Well, I’m working on a lot of things. I have a book coming out in the fall of 2012 from Duke University Press called Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. It’s a political memoir that’s basically about how the rise of the gay movement in Palestine is going to transform secular politics in Palestine, and that’s going to transform Arab politics and therefore global politics. I am predicting and feeling that it’s a key movement to emerge at a very key time. I’m anticipating a lot of great consequences as a result.

I just finished a new novel. It’s called The Cosmopolitans. I wanted it to sound like a Henry James novel. It’s a remake of Balzac’s Cousin Bette. Cousin Bette is about a spinster who is wronged by her family and wants to get revenge. She destroys everybody and everything, and in the end, she wins. That was the plot I started with but I set it in Greenwich Village in 1958. I was born that year, and it’s set in the building I was born in, and in fact it ends on the day of my birth.

In the process of writing, it also became an answer book to a second novel, which is James Baldwin’s Another Country. Because of the milieu and the time, The Cosmopolitans is about interraciality, bohemianism; it’s about straight people and gay people interacting with each other. Suddenly I ended up in the same territory as Baldwin’s Another Country, only the difference was that my female characters are real and his aren’t. I thought, wow, this is a book that’s speaking to both Balzac and Baldwin at the same time. I’m really happy with it. I’ve been working on it since 2003.

Where did the idea for The Mere Future come from?

I had this sentence: “Passion escapes me on the hot sun porch.” I just had that and I didn’t know what to do with it. I believe it became the words of the article that the main character writes about Glick. She’s only allowed eight words for the article. That’s what I started with, and I just started justifying it. I was feeling very free.

I’ve written 17 books and each book is in a different style. But, I’ve written another book that has a similar impulse to this one, which is called Empathy and came out in 1992. It was also highly formally inventive. I think form really has to come organically from the emotions at the core of the piece. Sometimes you’re just in a territory where nothing that’s known is appropriate for that content, or that emotional impulse, so you have to invent it.

“Sometimes you’re just in a territory

where nothing that’s known is appropriate

for that content, so you have to invent it.”

In this case, since the subject is the future, you can’t really write a novel about the future using language of the past. It doesn’t make any sense. I guess Anthony Burgess proved that in A Clockwork Orange. But what is the language of our future? And it’s the mere future, not the far future. I wanted it to be like something that we’re on the precipice of linguistically. There’s texting fragments and email, and all that. Then, there’s the incredible speed with which slogans and marketing and advertising creep into conversation, and people internalize that. And then, there’s like channel surfing, where you can completely understand what’s happening in two or three words. So many of the paradigms in entertainment are repetitive and you can trigger them with very few words; they don’t have to be full sentences. All of that is the language of the future. It’s a language of reduction. But, I didn’t want to just do that because it’s boring—it’s flat. I took that kind of minimal, associative, reductive language but I made it sort of funny and interesting, and a little smarter than it normally would be. I stylized it up. That’s how the language part came to be.

You know, it was written in 1999. It took 10 years to find a publisher. It looks like it’s about Obama, but it actually had nothing to do with that. I was writing about the future, and there were certain trends that I could see were coming, and people who were reading the manuscript couldn’t see that those trends were coming. It was only when the trends had actually already come that those people could then understand the book. It sort of defeated the purpose of it, but I’ve had that experience before. Sometimes I write with a 10-year gap.

What do you hope readers will take away from The Mere Future?

Of course, I want them to enjoy it. I would like them to feel okay about reading slowly. It’s not a long book, but some of the sentences require thought. You can’t glide over it; it’s not a skimming kind of book. You know, I once read Colette’s autobiography and it took me three years. And I think that’s okay. It’s like the slow food movement, but it’s the slow read movement. 

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

I think there are all different kinds of readers, but two in particular that I notice. One really wants to be told things that they already know. They find that very comforting. They want familiarity, which they’ve confused with quality. If it’s not already known, they become angry and frustrated, and they think it’s bad or wrong or they reject it.

Then there are readers who, if you offer them something they’ve never seen before, they’re ecstatic; they live for that. And that is my ideal reader, just in general. They want the experience of being expanded. I kind of think that’s the difference between art and entertainment. People come home from work and they turn on the TV to not expand, to live in a state of repetition, familiarity, and comfort. But art is something that changes you, it doesn’t just repeat.

“Art is something that changes you,

it doesn’t just repeat.”

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I can really write anywhere. Given the quantity of how much I write, I’d better be able to. I don’t have a set time or anything like that. It’s always been that way. 

Where would you most want to live and write?

Well, I love New York City. I was born there and I’m a second-generation New Yorker. My expectation is that I’ll die there. I really don’t want to live anywhere else. I live in a six-floor walk-up, and one of my dreams is to live in an apartment with an elevator.

What do you listen to when you work?

It depends on what phase of writing I’m doing. I rewrite a lot; I’ll do like 10 to 12 drafts of something. For rewriting, definitely NPR. For composing, either NPR or nothing. It’s like white noise.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

How I write? I think I’m a natural. I experience it entirely as biology, some kind of a neuron thing. I don’t attribute it to any kind of will or character discipline, or anything like that.

Why? I don’t know. It’s my natural state. It’s like I’m an animal and that’s just how I do things. I’ve written so much, and I started writing when I was six. I spent my whole life writing, and that’s how I live. It’s not like I don’t do anything else, but it’s easy for me. I just do it a lot and, I don’t know, it’s a way of life. It’s like people who know how to sing—they just sing. I don’t have that. I’ll never have it.

How do you balance content with form?

It’s always been an organic relationship, even before I knew that was the case. With my first book, I remember I was interviewed in 1984, and someone said, “I see you used pastiche,” and I said, “What is pastiche?” Somehow I had a post-modern impulse, but I always thought it was because I was uneven. I kept trying to make it even, and I couldn’t. Then I found out that was post-modern and that it was okay.

“The more I’ve learned about form,

the more I understand the choices I have.”

The more I’ve learned about form, the more I understand the choices I have. There have been times when I’ve said, all right, I’m going to try to write a bestseller. I go to the store, and I try to pick out the least obnoxious bestseller, and then I can’t read it. I’ll think, I’ll just write something that’s even, but I’ve never been able to.

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

Audre Lorde was my college professor. She told my class to write this down: “That you can’t fight City Hall is a rumor being spread by City Hall.” That’s one of my mottos. You might think it’s not about writing, but it is. The only reason you think you have to do things a certain way is because the people who are invested in it being that way are telling you that. It doesn’t mean it’s true.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Well, it really depends on the person. It’s so hard. Do you mean professionally or artistically? I mean, I hate MFA programs; I think they’re terrible for the culture and that they hurt people’s writing. On the other hand, if you are a working-class person or an unconnected person, you have to get an MFA. Even if you do, there’s no guarantee. I teach in a City University of New York, and my students are mostly working class, and I’ve sent like three students to MFA programs in 12 years. Very few have gone. Those students have been ultra gifted, but then when they get there, they’re so fish-out-of-water because they’re the wrong class, and the teachers don’t mentor them. So even though they get the MFA, they still can’t get the goodies from it. But if they don’t get that, forget it. I think in class terms, you have to have it. If you come from the upper middle class, or upper classes, if you have connections and relationships in the social apparatus, perhaps you don’t need it.

“The best way to be an artist

is to make art, see art, and talk about art 

with other artists.”

In terms of artistically, the best way to be an artist is to make art, see art, and talk about art with other artists. If you’re a writer, I’d say read, go to readings, write a lot, meet other people and talk to them about what they’re doing. That way, you accrue eclectic influences, and that’s the most important thing. The problem with an MFA program is that it homogenizes people’s influences. If you accrue eclectic influences, you have a much better chance of crafting something that’s organic to you. The groupthink is antithetical to what our practice is as writers; that’s the problem—homogenization and the branding.

I was very lucky that I met many wonderful, fantastic writers and talked to them, and have had conversations with them all my life. I pulled it together that way, and that’s been very special.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

I was a waitress for 10 years, and I had published two books. Not only did I not go get an MFA, I had never even heard of an MFA. It’s an age thing. The MFA just wasn’t the thing at that time. I was a waitress in the first coffee shop in Tribeca. So Tribeca was gentrifying, and certain artists were coming in for breakfast because it was the only coffee shop. I waited on Yvonne Rainer, and Meredith Monk, and Isabella Rossellini, and all these people, for their eggs. A lot of these artists would talk to me, and I told them that I’d published two novels, and they told me that I needed to get an MFA.

I enrolled in this city college program, which actually was an MA, but I didn’t know the difference. I go the first day, and the teacher was Grace Paley. She has everybody go around the room and read something that they’re writing. I was writing my third novel and it was a first person lesbian narrator. The other students thought that the narrator was a man, and I thought, oh no, this is going to be two years of hell. I got really scared. After class, Grace was like, “Sarah, come to my office.” So I go to her office and she goes, “Look, you’re really a writer. You’re really doing it. You don’t need this class. Go home.” I went home; I never went back. Well, she completely saved me, because I would have been destroyed by that. It was the best thing anyone ever, ever said to me. I’m so grateful, my whole life, for that.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

I have too many ideas. I’m behind, like, years behind. I want to hurry up. Now I’m 53, I can see the clock is ticking. I’ve ramped it up a lot. This year, I had two new paperbacks, and two new hardcovers come out. But, I really have a lot of things I want to do.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I like to consume art. I live in a world where I have a lot of friends who are artists. So, I like to see work that my friends have made or that they’re in, or talk to them about what they’re making, or read what they’re doing, go to their studios and rehearsals. I do a lot of that, and look at cuts of their movies and talk to them about it. I just love being involved in all of that.

One of my favorite things about New York City is that it’s one of the places where ideas originate. You hear the idea and you engage in it with the person who is originating it. It may be years before that idea is a product that somebody else can buy on a bookshelf or see in a movie theater.

And I’m a teacher, so I have a full-time job. I’m very invested in some of my kids. I care a lot about what happens to them, and a lot of my kids are in a lot of trouble, and they have all kinds of problems, so I have to really care. This is at a city university.

About Sarah Schulman

Sarah Schulman’s books include the novels Rat Bohemia, Empathy, and The Child, and the nonfiction book The Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences. She is co-director of the ACT UP Oral History Project, and she is currently organizing the first US LGBT delegation to Palestine for Winter 2012. Sarah is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at CUNY, College of Staten Island, and was awarded a Brown Foundation Fellowship from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Her other awards include a Guggenheim, Fulbright, and the 2009 Kessler Award for her “Sustained Contribution to LGBT Studies.”

Buy The Mere Future, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Sarah Schulman.” Words With Writers (December 27, 2011),

The Mere Future

The Mere Future by Sarah Schulman (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009).

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  2. […] Sarah Schulman was interviewed at Words With Writers. […]

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