Cliché, but true: we are nothing if not the sum of our choices. Decisions, from the vital to the seemingly infinitesimal, shape our lives. But what if we had the power to glimpse our alternate realities? Who would we be if we attended another school? Lived in a different city? Loved someone else? If these roads not taken could be explored—say, through a virtual reality app—what would we want to know?
Such is the hypothetical posed in Helen Schulman’s latest novel, Come With Me. The book’s protagonist, Amy Ryan, is a mother of three boys, and her husband is in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Sole breadwinner for her family, Amy works part-time in PR, and part time as a guinea pig for a startup run out of a Stanford dorm room. Over the course of the book, Amy is given the opportunity to glimpse her various lives—multiverses, as Schulman calls them. Meanwhile her actual universe is crumbling: Amy’s out-of-work-journalist-husband, Dan, lies about his whereabouts, disappearing to Fukushima to report on the aftermath of nuclear meltdown. This deceit is only made worse by the fact that Dan is bound for Japan with a seductive young photographer, Maryam.
Technology has long been a fascination for Schulman, who explored the effects of digital privacy, or lack thereof, in her previous novel, the New York Times bestseller This Beautiful Life. But while Come With Me is set in tech-obsessed Silicon Valley, the novel’s beating heart is more in tune with the day-to-day: attachment, teen fragility, and—as Schulman says—“how hard it is being a girl.”
Recently, I sat down with Schulman, who is fiction chair of the Creative Writing Graduate Program at The New School—not to mention my teacher, mentor and friend. We discussed how willingly we hand ourselves over to massive tech companies, the mathematical structure behind her novels, and Schulman’s dogged approach to her craft.
—Phineas Lambert for Guernica
Guernica: By your own admission, you are a Luddite. What’s with the tech obsession?
Helen Shulman: I’m fascinated by how technology has invaded our lives. First, I was concerned about privacy. That was the focus of my last book [This Beautiful Life]. For this one, my husband grew up on Stanford campus, so for the last 33 years I’ve been to Stanford once, twice a year. I’ve watched the whole Silicon Valley thing happen, how it’s spread a whole new culture: people have given their lives over to these machines. How much data they’ve collected on us. In the beginning, I remember with Arab Spring, it felt like there could be a lot of positives—connecting people. For shut-ins, or people who were in a community where they felt uncomfortable, they could find like-minded people. But the last election showed just how unruly this thing is. Also, the power the people who invent these things feel. Peter Thiel believes he can cure death!
Guernica: The startup where your protagonist, Amy, works wants to show people the roads not taken. Multiverses, you call them. How did you come up with the concept?
Shulman: Originally, I thought I was going to be writing about someone like Sheryl Sandberg, a mom figure to these baby boy geniuses. Then I read this book by Max Tegmark [Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality]. I’ve always been someone who has wondered about the choices I’ve made. When I read his book, I thought, Wow, that’s fantastic. That’s not mental illness, that’s multiverse theory.
Then I read an article in The Times, about how techies were reading science fiction to get ideas. They had the instruments, but they didn’t know what to do with them. I thought, What could I come up with? I’d like to know what would have happened if I had taken that fellowship and not come back to New York. I probably wouldn’t have married my husband. What would my life have been like? So, I started researching.
Guernica: Amy’s current life isn’t exactly ideal. Then again, no reality is perfect.
Shulman: One of the things this book is about is how hard it is to be a girl. Amy has a fairly good marriage. These great kids. But she’s totally exhausted. She’s making the money. Doing everything, running around. It’s really fucking hard. And something was about to break: her husband was really lost and depressed. She didn’t quite know how to get him out of it. She didn’t want to hurt him, so she took on more and more. I think a lot of women have that pressure, in all socioeconomic strata.
So yeah, she’s blessed. She knows that. But she’s really tired. She’s mad at her husband, who is having this typical midlife crisis in an atypical way, and she’s got to decide what she’s going to do about it.
Guernica: Amy is a runner; it’s the only time she’s truly free. There seemed to be a parallel between the running and the multiverses. Like, if Amy ran fast enough, she could escape into another dimension.
Shulman: I needed something that could be Amy’s own that felt West-Coast, very northern California. Something that could give her release. So I picked running. And it becomes metaphorical, and it’s physical, and it takes you outside of the physical of the house. With this, she could go…she’s running from that husband, her kids, everything that’s kind of slowing her down and starving her.
I’m a big walker. I walk to the gym every morning. I solve a lot of problems then. I think there’s something about the moving meditation that’s good for her.
Guernica: You ask your students—me included—what’s the beating heart of their story. Now, I get to ask you: what’s the beating heart of yours?
Shulman: It’s a complicated book. It doesn’t have a sound bite. There’s a lot of things going on: looking at how the Internet has affected our lives; again, how hard it is to be a girl; how fragile life is in this really protected community.
But what I really wanted to write about was attachment. There’s a quote in the beginning of the book, from the great poet Brenda Shaughnessy. It starts off by saying: “I’ll go anywhere to leave you but come with me.” And I think that’s what attachment is. Push me, pull you. I hate you, but I don’t want to let you go. Then—and this sounds really corny—it’s about the healing powers of love. I do believe in that. Right now, with all that’s going on, it’s like the only thing I believe in.
Guernica: In the author’s note, you write: “When I started this novel, even I didn’t know what I was writing about, except that I was haunted by the tragedies that befell the people of Fukushima, Japan.” What about that particular disaster so captivated you?
Shulman: What drove me crazy was that this horrible thing happened, and it left the news. Nobody cared. They’re leaking all that radiation into the ocean every single day. So, [the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was] 2011, and now it’s almost 2019. Almost eight years of radiation leak. They haven’t cleaned that shit up, and nobody is writing about it. One of my old housemates from college is a big media star, and I asked her, “Why is nobody writing about this?” And she said, “You know why. You can’t see it. Can’t taste it.” I kind of get stuck on things like that: the invisible pain of people who are suffering, the invisibility of radiation.
When we were out on the West Coast, there were radiation readings in the milk from Fukushima. Nobody cares. It stuck with me. Then I went to see this art exhibit, by this woman who is a photographer and video artist, and she went to the no-go zone. That felt like a present from God. I thought that’s what I’ll do, I’ll have Dan go to the no-go zone.
Guernica: You could almost substitute the horrors of the California wildfires for the Fukushima and set the book today.
Shulman: I wrote the book in real time. I decided I was going to stay current the whole time I wrote, which took about three years. But I stopped when Trump was elected. I would have had to change too much. At that point I locked it into time. Otherwise, it would have become a whole different book. It all took place in May of 2016. As I was writing, whenever new changes came out in technology, I went back and made changes. It was hard, surfing the zeitgeist, trying to stay current. Every day, looking at the paper, going back and making changes.
Honestly though, the time I’m writing about seems almost innocent compared to what we’ve lived through with Trump.
Guernica: Amy’s husband, Dan, is an out of work print journalist, a profession he shares with your husband. Art imitating life?
Shulman: My husband was a print journalist. Not unemployed at the time, which I knew was coming. I watched the whole industry collapse. I know a lot of journalists, and I’d watched them lose their jobs, their whole way of life. My husband is sixty; he started writing for magazines in his twenties. He had a great ride. Made a fairly good living out of it. But it’s mostly gone. And I don’t think there’s a correlation between Trump being president and the death of print.
Guernica: You portray Dan empathetically. Often, situations like his are depicted as black-and-white. Wrong-and-right. Hero-and-villain.
Shulman: I don’t like to create villains. I try to understand the people I’m writing about. And I don’t see black and white: I see the world in rainbow shades of gray. Most people are complicated. Most people are vulnerable. Dan gets to a point where he can’t even see what’s best for his family. He’s dying. Maryam takes Dan from A to Z. She’s so passionate about the things he was once passionate about, and he feels so over. This experience of going and reporting on something that’s important, instead of doing what he’s been doing—which is not much—is really powerful to him.
And then this stuff happens a lot, and I’m very interested in it: how can you stop loving somebody and start loving someone else?
Guernica: Come With Me has multiple points of view. Do you assign characters and scenes? Is it organic, or preordained?
Shulman: It’s actually all math, and very precise. It gives me a structure on which to hang all the things I’ve been obsessing about. It helps me with form. The book takes place in three days; the book takes place in three parts. There are six sections in each part, and it moves from speaker to speaker, and then there’s a multiverse with Amy. There are eight speakers in the book, but Amy and Dan each speak twice in a section, so they each speak six times. And it is carefully calibrated: the sections with Amy and Dan are around the same length. I guess if I were a poet, I’d write sonnets.
Guernica: So, Amy and Dan are co-protagonists?
Shulman: I remember my agent saying, “Whose book is this?” And I’d talk and talk and talk, and he’d say, “I guess it’s Amy’s.” I like looking at things from a lot of different angles. One of the speakers, Cindy, is referred to throughout the book, so that her one section doesn’t come up and hit you in the face. I saw her as a variation—almost a living multiverse—of what Amy was afraid would happen to her when she had the choice to be a single mother. It was a manifestation of the vulnerabilities of that particular spot. And again, about how hard it is to be a girl.
Guernica: As a full time teacher, how do you find the time to write?
Shulman: It’s been [nearly] impossible, but I have always done it. Not only am I full time at The New School, but I teach courses in the summer and winter, and in low-residency. I love my children, I take care of them. I took care of both my parents. Now my kids are in college. I come home from the gym. I work. That’s really been a luxury. But all those years, it was like, the kids were asleep, my husband was out, I’d write. Go to the hospital with my parents, come home, write. Wherever I could find it, I slipped it in. All those stories that are streaming around my head would drive me crazy if I couldn’t write. Writing allows me to be—hopefully—a good mother, a good daughter, [and] a good wife because I have a place to put my crazy. I put in my books.