‘This Beautiful Life’ author Helen Schulman working on new novel during Aspen Words residency
If You Go …
Who: Aspen Words writer-in-residence Helen Schulman
Where: Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar
When: Tuesday, Aug. 16, 5:30 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: A limited number of free copies of Schulman’s ‘This Beautiful Life’ are available through Aspen Words’ Catch & Release program. Pick them up at the Woody Creek Community Center and the Red Brick Center for the Arts; www.aspenwords.org
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. “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 the Aspen Words writer-in-residence for August, working on a new piece of contemporary history this month at Mojo Gardens Farm in Woody Creek.
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.”
Tonight at Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar in Aspen, she plans to read from her short story “In a Better Place.” The story was published in the spring issue of the literary journal Ploughshares.
Since the runaway success of “This Beautiful Life,” Schulman has mostly written short stories, along with a screenplay for the film adaptation of the novel. After years of development and switching directors, she said, the producers are currently pursuing making it as a limited television series.
In the new novel, she said, Schulman is aiming to reflect the current turmoil in the U.S. She said she could reveal little about the project, other than to say it takes place on the West Coast in 2016 and that it’s about attachment.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve done before. … And, structurally, it’s the most ambitious thing I’ve done,” she said.
A writing professor at the New School in Manhattan and a frequent teacher in summer workshops, having time to focus full-time on her work is a rare gift. But solitude for the author is 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’s been 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 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.”
The manuscript of the new book is due to her editor next July, so it’s been a godsend to spend this month writing in the mountains.
“This is really key for me to get some traction before I go back to all my demands,” she said.
Through Aspen Words’ Catch & Release program, free copies of “This Beautiful Life” have been making their way around the Roaring Fork Valley this month. Over the past five years, the novel has been chosen as a Big Read in several communities across the U.S. including one high school where parents objected to its mature content.
“I found it interesting because these were high school students,” Schulman said. “I didn’t write it for high school students. I wrote it for adults. But high school students read literature and the internet exists, so my book I’m sure was tame compared to what they’d already seen.”
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