Taking Responsibility: An Interview with Sarah Schulman




SARAH SCHULMAN is an East Village icon and a hero to many readers and writers because she has made queer characters the protagonists in her novels and LGBTQIA history the focus of her historical work. I was excited to talk with her about her new novel, Maggie Terry, because it shares some themes — gentrifying New York, queer outsiders, and parenting, to name a few — with my debut novel, The Not Wives. (Full disclosure: Maggie Terry is published by the Feminist Press, which is also publishing my book, due out next year.) The book is a page-turner and follows Maggie, an addict, an alcoholic, a former police officer who has lost custody of her daughter, as she moves through her first five days back on the job as a private investigator.

On a sunny day in late August, I walked east to Sarah’s apartment. Like many New Yorkers, I noticed new stores, old stores, and empty storefronts. Astor Place is largely unrecognizable. There’s a CVS, a Shake Shack, and the lipstick building (as my daughter and I call it) full of luxury condos. St. Marks still has a weird assortment of stalls and tiny stores and there are a lot of thriving boutiques and restaurants throughout the village, but banks and bros abound, and sometimes, well, it’s withering. Like many of us who have managed to cling to a gentrifying New York, Maggie Terry is stunned by the changes to her city.

Sarah gave me a glass of water while we both worried over my recording app, and then we talked about Maggie Terry, which proved an opening for a wide-ranging discussion on everything from the dialectic between blame and responsibility, the complexity of motherhood, new opportunities for queer fiction writers, and the struggles of gentrification.

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CARLEY MOORE: Maggie Terry is the first murder and intrigue novel you’ve written in 30 years. What was it like for you to return to such a plot-driven form? What are the charms and frustrations of the mystery novel?

SARAH SCHULMAN: It was very easy. The two books I had written before that had so much gravitas. The Cosmopolitans (Feminist Press, 2016) is a book I’m really proud of. I felt like it was an accomplishment, that it was a really literary book, and Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016) was like the hardest thing I ever wrote. I just thought, I can’t do this to myself again, right away.

Maggie’s trying to piece together a self of some kind between being an addict, an alcoholic, a former police officer, a mother who has lost custody of her daughter, and someone just getting back on their feet. She’s a fuck-up who wants to get better, navigating life in a gentrified Chelsea amid the borderline apocalypse that is the Trump presidency. How does a character like Maggie speak to this particular political moment?

Well, there’s a couple of questions there. A really long time ago, I stopped writing protagonists that were based on myself, and I started writing protagonists based on people who were driving me crazy.

So there’s a couple of people that I’m trying to figure out, and I’m sure you noticed that the book is dedicated to Thelma Wood, who was, historically, one of the world’s worst girlfriends who ever lived. She was the bad girlfriend of Djuna Barnes and she drove Djuna Barnes so crazy that she was the muse for Djuna Barnes’s work. So the book is dedicated to bad girlfriends.

But one of the elements in the protagonist that I’m currently plagued by is somebody whose life is a combination of alcohol and antidepressants, and when you see her, she looks like she’s been drinking pain for 20 years. She looks terrible, and yet, she thinks that people like me are her problem. I’m very interested in that. The question of blame. I’ve always been interested in the question of blame. So Maggie Terry is a person who has the disease of addiction, and is grappling with who to blame for it and, because this person in my life is doing that, I wanted to understand that.

Though Trump is not the center of the book, he’s definitely informing it, and stressing every character out. He’s such a narcissist and in so much pain. He blames everyone for his problems, so we are grappling with that as a country, too.

Yeah, it’s like when I wrote my novel Shimmer, which is set during McCarthyism, and you’re in this period where the government is so corrupt, and they’re punishing people, and scapegoating people, for no legitimate reason. And you’re asking people to make moral decisions about how they treat their friends in that context, and it’s impossible, because there’s a trickle-down of corruption. Our period now, that Maggie Terry is set in, when we have a president who’s insane, and everyone is living in fear, has to affect how we make decisions about responsibility and accountability. And so that’s one of the frames of the book. Another one is that I’ve been teaching on Staten Island for 20 years, and I have had a lot of police officers and their families as my students: New York Police Department, correctional officers at Rikers [Island], Port Authority Police [Department]. And listening to them justify the behavior of the police, I have so much information about how they look at it, and I really wanted to address that in the book as well. Because it’s another frame of lying. There’s the alcoholic who’s lying, there’s the police officer who’s lying, and then there’s the president who’s lying. And yet, there are those of us who are trying to figure out what’s true, in the middle of all this.

Maggie’s former partner, Julio, had a son who is also a cop, and he shoots an African-American man in a stairwell. There’s a public outcry for justice, and a scandal that haunts Maggie throughout the novel. You treat the corrupt officers with empathy, while not letting them off the hook. Why do you think this approach is important in a moment when we see such urgent protests of police brutality from individuals and organizations like Black Lives Matter?

Well, because it doesn’t water down what’s right and wrong to understand that people are fully human. In fact, it reinforces it. When I wrote Conflict Is Not Abuse, I suddenly realized that actually, I’d been writing Conflict Is Not Abuse my entire life. Every book of mine is about how there are no demons. It doesn’t mean there’s no right and wrong — there is. But people do things for reasons, and we need to understand what those reasons are. It’s not an excuse. But to pretend that people are one-dimensional is tragic, not just socially, but intimately. There are people walking around blaming someone that they used to love, which is one of the themes of the book, for absolutely nothing. One of Maggie’s concerns is that because she’s the addict who screwed up, she’s the one who’s wrong. And then everyone in her life gets to create her as the wrong person, and they never have to look at their own participation.

She’s especially frustrated with Frances, her ex, and Frances’s role in the end of their relationship and in Maggie’s drug use.

Yeah, because Frances did drugs, too, but that never comes up. Not only do we take advantage of other people — we create other people as receptacles of blame so that we don’t have to look at ourselves. But also, when people have some kind of success, like Frances is in a successful relationship, so she thinks that means she’s right. Like people think if their career is going well, they’re right. But it’s not true. Sometimes the glue of relationships is in creating a wrong together, a lie that people tell each other, and it bonds them. They can never confront it, because their relationship would shatter. Other times, it’s creating a person that you know as the receptacle of evil, which is the easiest way to never, ever question yourself.

That reminds me of a favorite moment in the book, Maggie’s realization that “[s]ome people don’t believe in the unconscious.”

Well, that was something that I learned with publishing Conflict Is Not Abuse. Because there were some people who had principled disagreements with that book, and it’s the kind of book where it’s impossible to agree with everything in it because there are too many ideas. So any regular, normal reader would have things they disagree with. But there were people who destroyed it, and never read it, clearly. They had probably read half the title. And I realized that their objections were not to what was in the book, but was to the larger issues of the unconscious. That there were people who strongly objected to the idea that they may have motivations that they’re not in touch with.

My students struggle with this around ideology — a larger, cultural way of thinking about the unconscious — specifically with the fact that there are ideological forces that determine how we behave. Maggie Terry does a lot of work around the ideology of the police state and how relationships function within it.

The topic of the book is blame, on all levels, right? So you have Trump, who’s blaming everybody for his flaws, and blaming people for problems that don’t actually exist. And then you have Maggie as the person everybody blames because she got caught. Then you have Jamie Robbins, who can’t face what her father has done to her, so she blames her lover who wants to protect her, and this blame destroys him.

False accusation, something that I’ve addressed in Conflict Is Not Abuse, is the thing that people hide behind. Whenever Trump blames things on immigrants that are actually caused by the white one percent, for example, he’s employing false accusation. So when Jamie Robbins falsely accuses her boyfriend, Steven Brinkley, of a crime that was actually committed by her father, he can’t live with that.

There are also a lot of different families in the book — Maggie’s broken family, her ex-wife and her daughter; the work family that she creates at her new job, and the work family that ended with the death of her partner Julio; and, of course, Maggie’s AA meetings, which have this kind of loose, familial structure that keeps her afloat. Can you talk about how queer families or queer people configure families in this book?

I don’t view those communities as families. For me, “family” is the dirty word, so I think I once said that the two words that give me the most fear are the words “chosen family.” I think it’s about friends. Maggie’s life has been completely destroyed, and so she has two communities. She has these meetings, she goes to NA and she goes to AA, and she never really commits to them in a certain way, but she grapples with them, and she meets people inside them. But it does help her solve a crime. The sheer humanity of people being able to admit their flaws in a world in which no one will admit their flaws is illuminating to her, and it helps in trying to understand who killed Jamie Robbins.

I love the AA and the NA meetings, the 12 Steps, and the way you embed them into narrative. Those stories are so diverse and such an interesting part of the book and they become moments when people really have no one else to blame.

Well also, they’re allowed to take responsibility in the meetings — whereas in the real world, no one is allowed to take responsibility. Jamie Robbins couldn’t take responsibility, and Frances couldn’t take responsibility, and Maggie’s father couldn’t take responsibility.

Maggie’s a failed mother. I’m a mom, and I appreciate the space that you made for complicated mothers because there’s not much room for them in mainstream media. What do we come to understand about mothering in your book?

Well, people use their children as weapons, right? So people who don’t want to take responsibility for their role in conflict can withhold their child from an adult who actually should have access to that child. In my book on homophobia and the family, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (2009), I talk about a period when there was no legal recognition for gay relationships, and women would have a child with somebody, and then they would break up, and their punishment was to take the child away from the former partner. People say, “Oh, my sister can’t see my child, because I am clean and perfect, and my sister is the embodiment of all evil.” Or, “My ex cannot see the child who loves her and whom she loves, because to do that would mean having to allow contradictions, and things about myself and my own flaws into our world that I don’t want to have there.” These are all ways of creating a false image of perfection. It’s another form of shunning, and it’s extremely detrimental.

In Maggie Terry, it’s all about whether or not Frances can accept herself as someone who also has work to do. And as long as she won’t accept that, she’s just going to use the child to punish Maggie.

Maggie’s time in rehab makes her into a kind of Rip Van Winkle for the city. She returns to Chelsea, to New York, and so much has changed. There’s been so much writing about how New York has changed, including Jeremiah Moss’s Vanishing New York, and Kevin Baker’s recent essay “The Death of a Once Great City” in Harper’s Magazine. I’m writing about this in my novel, as well; so many people are. You’ve also written about this in Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. All these projects feel elegiac. Can we go back in time? Can we stop the malling of New York City?

Well, it’s a question of political will. I mean, gentrification could be ended tomorrow if we built 500,000 affordable housing units in New York City. If we had commercial rent control. If we fined people who buy to flip rather than buy to live. If we limited how many franchises a business can have to three, for example. If we wanted to have a livable and habitable city that produced cultural ideas for the world, we could.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a lot of things. I’m doing a collaboration with Marianne Faithfull. We’re doing a stage play that uses music from her 50-year career. I have two plays in development right now. One is about the Roe v. Wade case; that is having a reading at New York Theatre Workshop. I’m writing a book about the history of ACT UP and that’s like this massive [undertaking]. That’s because Jim Hubbard and I did the ACT UP oral history project, which if people want to check out, is at www.actuporalhistory.org. I interviewed 187 surviving members of ACT UP over 18 years. So I’m now cohering some of that into a book.

Do you think publishing is changing for queer writers?

Well, yeah. Emily Hashimoto, who was my student at Queer Art Mentorship, just wrote a beautiful novel about two young women of color in love, and it’s going to be published commercially. Just a very short time ago, that would have been relegated to the margins of the margins.

I’m thinking about Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, which started out at Rescue Press and will be reissued by a Big Six publisher.

But I hope that people don’t forget those of us who were here first, and all our old books. My late friend Donald Suggs once said, “The people who make change are not the people who benefit from it.” And they make the world better for others. And I hope that that’s not going to be what’s on my tombstone, but right now, it’s kind of looking like that. But we’ll see.

I don’t want that to be on your tombstone.

[Laughs.] Okay.

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Carley Moore is an essayist, novelist, and poet. Her debut collection of essays, 16 Pills, was published in May 2018 by Tinderbox Editions. Her debut novel, The Not Wives, is forthcoming from the Feminist Press in the fall of 2019. In 2017, she published her first poetry chapbook, Portal Poem (Dancing Girl Press), and in 2012, she published a young adult novel, The Stalker Chronicles (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).


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