The Inadvertent Postmodernist: A Conversation with Sarah Schulman


For more than three decades, Sarah Schulman has been one of our greatest and most vital writers. Her body of work as a novelist, nonfiction writer, playwright, and screenwriter is immense, but Schulman has also been a model as an artist who is also a passionate activist. Schulman was a member of ACT UP, a co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers, and co-founded the ACT Up Oral History Project.

In novels like The Cosmopolitans, People in Trouble, Shimmer, and The Child, Schulman has documented the postwar era, tackling questions of politics, sexuality, gender, race and abuse through individual experience. Her nonfiction books, including Stagestruck, Ties That Bind, and The Gentrification of the Mind, tackle a wide variety of issues, one of the reasons Schulman was once called “the lesbian Susan Sontag.” More than delivering the final word on subjects like the meaning of gentrification, and the true costs of familial homophobia, she wants to open a discussion about the implications of those ideas.

In September, Schulman’s mystery novel Maggie Terry is being released by The Feminist Press. The titular character is a former NYPD detective whose first day out of rehab in her new job as a private detective involves investigating the murder of a young actress. In between AA and NA meetings, Terry tries to confront her past, including her dead partner, her vindictive ex, and the daughter she’s desperate to see again, even as she struggles to find stability in a changing city and an unsteady nation. Also this fall her nonfiction work, My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years, is being reissued in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition.

Recently, Schulman and I discussed how Maggie Terry connects with the themes of her other books, the mystery genre, and why she can’t ever write a novel that’s didactic.


The Rumpus: In the author’s note for Maggie Terry, you mention the murder of Eric Garner. Was that an impetus for the book?

Sarah Schulman: Not really. I wrote it in layers. I had a lot of different versions and each time I worked on it, I added another subplot or theme. The final layers were last summer. I have been teaching in Staten Island for twenty years, and in my classes there about fifteen percent of my students are police officers, correctional officers, Port Authority police, and their families and children. They’ve been consistently a presence in my class. When Eric Garner was killed I said to the class, we have to stop and deal with this. What was remarkable was that I had white, Latino, and black kids who were from cop families in that class, and they all supported the police. Not one of them criticized the role of the police. They were saying, If Eric Garner had just done what he was told, he’d be alive today. That was one of the first times I really put it all on the table with the students. I find that the ones who come from police families, they’re very embedded in their families and it’s very hard for them to question the police. They feel like they’re being disloyal.

Rumpus: You said that you wrote Maggie Terry in stages and layers. What was the initial stage?

Schulman: In the first stage, Maggie was straight. Originally this was TV pilot that I wrote and then I decided to novelize it. I tend to have lots of layers in my books. Often in my first draft I’ll just write the story and then I start to develop the subplots. What are the other nuances that are converging on the theme? I don’t think that anything is simple so I’m never looking for simple answers. I’m trying to look at multiplicities of experience.

Rumpus: You closed the introduction to The Gentrification of the Mind by writing, “This book is my effort to find awareness about what was lost, what replaced it, and how to move forward to a more authentic and conscious and just way to live.” I kept thinking, that’s what Maggie is trying to do in the new novel.

Schulman: I’m only just realizing this, that from the beginning—my first book came out in 1984—that all of my books are actually Conflict Is Not Abuse. There have been certain fundamental beliefs that I’ve held from the beginning. Only recently have I become aware of what they were. I think Maggie is very much part of that. My job as a novelist is to reveal how people understand their own lives. Not how we wish they would understand, but how they actually understand them. I have characters believing things and doing things that perhaps the reader would not want them to, but that’s what people do. That’s what I’m most interested in, capturing the complexity but also more importantly, the vulnerability, that is behind being human.

Rumpus: You are very prolific and I kept thinking about Maggie Terry in relation to your early novel, After Delores, which is sort of a mystery about addiction and traumatizing relationships and AA and the changing city.

Schulman: My first book, The Sophie Horowitz Story, has some similar themes. The one thing they all have in common is that they’re funny. I have this strange idea of genre. I write historical fiction or experimental fiction or literary fiction or speculative fiction or detective fiction, but it’s never really locked within the genre boundaries. I think I was an inadvertent postmodernist from the beginning because I just never adhered to formula very well.

Rumpus: It plays with the genre but it works as a mystery.

Schulman: It’s got this noirish feel. I read Dashiell Hammett last summer and it was so fantastic. Maybe that was in my mind when I was writing the final draft. Hammett has gay people and black people; he has everybody. It’s quite interesting. His range of characters is remarkable. I was really surprised, but he was a lefty and had this inclusive worldview.

Rumpus: The Sophie Horowitz Story and After Delores were crime books and you were writing at a time when weren’t many openly lesbian crime writers writing about lesbian characters.

Schulman: Sophie Horowitz was the third lesbian detective novel and I wasn’t aware of any of the others.

Rumpus: People like Ellen Hart and Mary Wings came a few years after. Were you conscious of turning away from writing that kind of book?

Schulman: No. I just write whatever I want. My second book, Girls, Visions, and Everything, was experimental. I just write whatever I want. I’m not calculated in that way.

Rumpus: You’ve always seemed interested in writing a different book each time.

Schulman: It comes out differently. The whole thing is very hard to explain. Why something is a mystery. Why one thing is a play and another thing is a book. Why is this historical fiction and why is this literary fiction? I don’t know the answers to these questions. They’re impulse issues.

Rumpus: I was looking at timeline of your books and in the past decade you’ve written a lot of nonfiction, or you’ve published a lot of nonfiction.

Schulman: There were ten years when I couldn’t publish anything so a lot of that was written during that time and suddenly it was all published together. Sometimes it takes forever for someone to be like, Oh, that’s a good idea.

Rumpus: Books like The Gentrification of the Mind and Ties That Bind are about issues you’d been thinking about for years.

Schulman: Stagestruck was decades ahead in recognizing that the gay movement was being turned into a niche market. Israel/Palestine was really on the brink of a transformation of consciousness for the queer community about the Israeli occupation. It’s interesting because when After Delores came out it was really the first modern lesbian novel to get a review in the New York Times. People were so excited; they thought everything was going to change. Here we are thirty years later and none of these books have been made into movies. Because they’re so much about looking at it from a certain point of view. That kind of view has never been allowed to be represented in a large way. I’m still waiting for people to catch up. I’m going to turn sixty in two weeks. I’ve been waiting a long time. [Laughs]

Rumpus: I read Shimmer years ago and in the opening scene—I can hear you laughing because you know what I’m about to read—”How could a person have written so many books and still not be able to earn a living. Still be so unknown.” When I read it years ago I was like, that’s not how it works, and now that I’m over thirty, that’s pretty much every writer I know.

Schulman: I have two favorite things that have ever been said about me. One was when Publishers Weekly said I was one of the most underrated writers in America. Being constantly underrated is a very interesting experience—especially contrasted to people who are overrated. What a writer wants more than money or power is to know that they’re a good writer. People who are overpraised know they’re overpraised. That’s a problem I’ve never had. The other is that the Los Angeles Times once called me the lesbian Susan Sontag. I just love that because it says it all about the transactional reputation to be found and the deals you make with the devil.

On the other hand, my communities have been incredibly supportive of me. I get an email or a Facebook message or a Twitter note every single day from somebody telling me that some book was important to them. This has been going on for years. Readers don’t ever let me feel abandoned. It’s the system. The difference between the system and the readers has just gotten more and more pronounced. I could not get Conflict Is Not Abuse published in the United States. I had to publish it in Canada. I thought, no one is going to read this book. It didn’t get any pre-publication reviews, but then people started reading it and writing about it online. It went into another printing. Four months after publication, Publishers Weekly finally reviewed it—because people were reading it. That was just incredible. My joke is that I can always tell who’s queer or straight because the queer people say, Sarah, you’ve been doing so much, and the straight people say, So, Sarah what do you do?. That happens all the time. It’s like hiding in plain sight. Often this happens with people who are incredibly successful. We all started in the same place and they’re enormously successful and I’m just sitting here.

Rumpus: A twenty-fifth anniversary edition of My American History comes out this fall and I think this is one of the books to understand the 1980s and where we are today. What’s in this new edition?

Schulman: Urvashi Vaid wrote the initial introduction twenty-five years ago and she wrote the updated introduction for the new edition. We also found some old stuff that Alison Bechdel and I had done together in the ’80s that we had both forgotten about. A professor unearthed them. So we’re reproducing that. Steven Thrasher, a black gay journalist with whom I’m very simpatico, did a kind of updating interview. Otherwise it’s just the original material. It’s incredible material that you can’t find anywhere else. It starts before AIDS. It’s 1980 and I’m covering Reagan and the rise of the new right and the coalition between the religious right and the Republican party. All the things that we’re dealing with now, I’m covering it as it’s happening. I’m covering the bathhouse closings, and AIDS arrests, and women being excluded from drug trials, and children with HIV, and homeless people, and AIDS in the Soviet Union. At the same time I’m covering lesbian culture and stories about black women being excluded from bars. This group called Dykes Against Racism picketing those bars. I covered one of the last bar raids in New York when a black bar called Blues was raided. It was two blocks away from the New York Times and it was part of the gentrifying of Times Square. All of these really key cultural moments for which there’s no documentation anywhere else, all in one place. The book ends in 1994, two years before protease inhibitors, so it’s the height of AIDS. Rereading it was really something. A rollercoaster that we all lived.

Rumpus: The Gentrification of the Mind is a sequel, in a sense, to a lot of that.

Schulman: That book is just catching on now. I had written it in that decade when I couldn’t get anything published. It took years to get it published and so when it came out it was already old for me, but it’s catching on now. I have a French edition coming out in September. People are calling about it and using it in their classes. I think Picasso said the imitator makes it ugly and the derivator makes it beautiful. They always tell you it’s better to be the fifth person to have an idea than the first person. Of course I could not foresee what gentrification would become.

Rumpus: In one sense it was hard to reread My American History but in another sense I enjoyed it and felt energized by it.

Schulman: It’s the foundation that created the moment we’re in now that we need to be aware of. One of the things that I document in My American History is that the Republican Party made a coalition with the religious right around the Reagan election in 1980. What we see from history is that that’s what became the Tea Party. This is what produced the Trey Gowdys and Mike Pences of the world. That wing got control of the whole party. The greedy capitalist Republicans thought they could control those people—but they couldn’t. I also wrote about Trump in 1990 in People in Trouble. People in New York have always hated Trump. That family has been known by New Yorkers for decades. In People in Trouble it’s interesting because what I have him doing is gentrification. Although it’s not called that.

Rumpus: People in Trouble was the first book of yours I read and what I loved about that book (and Rat Bohemia and others)—and what made them stand out—was that they were about activism and activists, but they were never didactic. They were great novels and they were very political.

Schulman: Getting back to where we started, I’m very interested in all the layers. That’s why these books can never be didactic. Because all of my characters are what I call vulnerable. Because they’re real people. I want to understand them. That’s why the People in Trouble transition to Rent is so fascinating, because [Jonathan Larson] simplifies them. He made them binary. My whole game is to understand them. And I also want to be understood. That’s why I think communication is so important.

Rumpus: You’ve always written complicated characters and avoid simplifying them or simplifying their conflicts and differences.

Schulman: People are conflicted and confused and have pain and unfortunately project that pain—which is now completely dominating our nation. It’s certainly true in the subculture. I wrote about stigmatized people from the beginning. My first book, which came out when I was twenty-four, had the first Asian lesbian character in any piece of American fiction. I struggled for a number of books with writing black protagonists. I don’t think I really succeeded until The Cosmopolitans. I’ve been trying to write the world in a way that if people who are that person read it, they would say that it was plausibly accurate. That’s what I’ve been doing from the start because I come from that generation that was not represented. Lesbians are still not represented accurately. I see lesbian misrepresentation everywhere I go. I’m very aware of that experience. In the early days in the ’80s there was this thing called the tyranny of positive images where people would create these perfect characters as a counter to the pathology and I always hated that. I don’t think that helped us. The idea was to show that you’re a full person, not just an oppositional caricature. That’s been part of my impulse from the start.

Rumpus: I suppose that it must be really frustrating to be ignored, to be misread, because you are trying to communicate and want to be understood. And other people and places are clearly not looking for that.

Schulman: They’re looking for books that reinforce a certain value system. There’s a confusion between familiarity and quality. If it tells the people in power what they already think about themselves and reflects that, then they think it’s good. On the other hand, if it tells them that actually they’re quite subjective and they’re not neutral and might want to rethink themselves, then it’s bad.

Rumpus: Art that makes them uncomfortable or is disturbing is considered “bad.”

Schulman: It’s the difference between art and entertainment. Entertainment tells us what we already know; art expands what we think we know. The second is more uncomfortable. You come home from work and you’re exhausted and watch Law and Order because you know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s so predictable that it’s relaxing. That’s what a lot of books that we’re told are great literature in America actually do. They’re repetitive and they reflect an image that gatekeepers want of themselves. You can see it in the theater as well.

I don’t know how those people live with themselves, to be honest. Sometimes I’ll go see a mainstream writer give a reading and the place will be packed but the readers are not invested. Whereas in a subculture if you go see a writer the readers care so much. It’s a completely different dynamic between the writer and the reader. Why would you want to write something that doesn’t matter?

Alex Dueben's work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, The Poetry Foundation, The Comics Journal and many other publications. He is working on his first novel. More from this author →