Aspen Summer Words: ‘This Beautiful Life’ author Helen Schulman
[This is an updated version of a story that originally ran in the Aspen Times in August 2016]
A few years ago, a literary conference asked novelist Helen Schulman to speak on a panel about historical fiction. She hadn’t previously thought of her books about contemporary American life in that category, but it made some sense.
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m doing!’ I didn’t realized that’s what I’m doing,” she recalled during an Aspen Words residency here in August 2016. “I think I’m trying to catch the moment and big cultural shifts through the lens of a person or a couple or a family.”
Schulman is teaching a fiction workshop at Aspen Summer Words this week and will speak on two public panels. During her time as Aspen Words writer-in-residence for August, she was working on a new piece of contemporary history.
The novel-in-progress is the follow-up to her 2011 book “This Beautiful Life,” which details the devastating effect of a sexually explicit viral video on a pair of teens and a family in Manhattan. Set in 2003, the book — which became an international bestseller — is an incisive reflection of life in the internet age.
“It felt like it hit some nerve,” she said of the book’s runaway success.
Schulman uses fiction to examine how the monumental historical events of our time rattle and reshape the intimate spaces of private lives and relationships. Her novel “A Day at the Beach,” for instance, took place over the course of 24 hours on 9/11 shared by a Tribeca couple. “The Revisionist” examined the world of Holocaust deniers.
“I’m so overwhelmed by the world that it’s like Coney Island in my head,” she said. “There’s no other way for me to write. I’m just trying to figure it out.”
Her fiction is often grounded in the kind of research one would normally associate with nonfiction writers. For “A Day at the Beach,” a friend at CNN provided her with 24 hours of the network’s 9/11 coverage. “This Beautiful Life” began with a conversation about the news of an explicit video going viral in a Manhattan high school.
“It girds me with truth,” she said of her research process. “I make everything up, but I have these touchstones in the real world that I can write to.”
After the publication of “This Beautiful Life,” Schulman mostly wrote short stories, along with a screenplay for the film adaptation of the novel.
A writing professor at the New School in Manhattan and a frequent teacher in summer workshops, the residency in Aspen allowed her time to focus full-time on her work – a rare gift – but solitude for this author was an unusual experience.
“Usually I’m just working day and night — running, running, running,” she said. “So I thought, ‘What will happen to me?’ I tried to figure out some kind of schedule.”
Schulman said she spent the residency waking up early and writing through the day, taking a break to come into town and practice yoga at Shakti Shala. She also spent a night watching the summer Olympics at the Woody Creek Tavern, where she befriended a Woody Creature at the bar and heard his amusing history of “the dirty underbelly of Aspen.”