Bookforum talks to Sarah Schulman

Maggie Terry BY Sarah Schulman. The Feminist Press at CUNY. Paperback, 272 pages. $17.

Sarah Schulman is a native New Yorker, an activist, and, although I'm not sure she would apply the label to herself, a profound philosopher on social relations. All of these streams flow into her recent novel Maggie Terry, a literary detective story about a former NYPD officer struggling with addiction, a tough case, and her ex-partner's theft of her daughter. In a compressed time frame of a few days, Maggie, fresh out of rehab, both loses and finds her place in the new New York. I spoke to Schulman about Maggie Terry and her other work by phone on a Saturday afternoon, me in Los Angeles, Schulman in New York.

Can you tell me a little bit about your new book?

Maggie Terry is my first detective novel in thirty years. It’s really a faux mystery novel, for while there is murder and intrigue, it is actually very funny and about a lot more than the plot. Maggie is a disgraced NYPD detective, who lost her badge and her child because of addiction. While retaining the page-turning fun of reversals and red herrings from the crime genre, I am looking a lot deeper at police logic, the hard work it takes to get control of addiction, and the ways we use blame to hide our own complexities.

As in your previous books, you explore the reasons behind your characters questionable or poor decision making in Maggie Terry. What value do you see in understanding why we do the things we do?

When I wrote Conflict Is Not Abuse I realized all my previous books were actually about how conflict is not abuse. From day one, everything I've written is about how there are no demons, and people do things for reasons, and we should try to understand what those reasons are. This is what motivates me and always has. You try to reach for the complexity that has been overlooked due to the unfortunate need for perfectionism that people have. Perfection is impossible, so it means we're ignoring what actually happens to create this perfection or superiority.

Maggie Terry is much more about the detective than then crime. Is there detective fiction that you love?

I don't read a lot in the genre, but Patricia Highsmith is my favorite. She’s the master of the master of the master—in the first chapter she tells you who did it, and then the whole book is about their guilt. I did write a novel called The Child, which is actually one of my best books, but almost no one read it! I used the John Grisham format. It was about a lawyer who was defending a forty-year-old man who was in a sexual relationship with a fifteen-year-old boy. I was attracted to that structure—the drama comes from the lawyer’s life and how she interacts with the case. Maybe I'll come back to that at some point.

In some of your other books there is definitely a theme of blame, whether deserved or not. Maggie Terry experiences both of those things—she’s someone who has made huge mistakes and selfish decisions, but has also been blamed for things that were not her fault. She's both a victim and a fuck up.

I think you used the right word—the whole book is about blame, both deserved and undeserved. The dead actress—the murder Maggie is trying to solve—blamed her boyfriend for pain that her father caused. The police officers who are collaborating in an unjust racial murder, are also, because they're Latino, subjected to racial marginalization within the force. None of these mitigating factors excuse anybody—I'm just trying to show the totalizing role of blame in people’s experiences. We're living in a time where false accusations and totally unjust blame are driving the entire nation. So they're not only being experienced intimately, they're being experienced internationally.

Most of my characters are people who've been maligned because of injustice, so there's a double burden on them. Some writers respond with a kind of tyranny of positive images. They try to make people so good to contest the pathology that they aren't human anymore. But depicting people who’re oppressed is particularly complex. Almost all of my primary characters—I'm now writing my twentieth book—are people who have been systematically misrepresented in some kind of pathologizing way.

What relationship do you feel to your protagonists, especially Maggie Terry?

Many years ago I stopped writing protagonists based on me, and I started writing protagonists based on people who drive me crazy. So Maggie Terry is based on someone in my life who is caught between alcohol and anti-depressants, and is therefore caught in a total state of blame. And it's kind of my wish that she would get into recovery. So I'm taking Maggie—this person who I really love and really think is great, smart, and has all of this ability—who is trapped in an addiction, and breaking her out of it. And Maggie does get better. She doesn't get fixed, and she slips. She has insights and then reneges on them. She does the work, and it does pay off to a degree. And I wish this person would do that, too.

Recovery is such a big part of the book.

I've spent the last twenty years working on Carson McCullers. Carson McCullers is my greatest influence. In the novel I'm writing now, she figures in it very dramatically. She's a person who was completely destroyed by alcohol. And her best friend was Tennessee Williams, and her protégé was Truman Capote, and they all died from addiction. They could have been writing for another thirty years. So being immersed in her has really given me a lot of insight. I've been thinking about that part of her life, and the self-destruction of great artists, for twenty years now.

You have seemingly a boundless compassion for people, even when they fuck up, even when they do the worst thing, make the worst mistake. Did you always have that?

No, I've had to come to understand it. But right now, there's no one on Earth who could call me and I wouldn't call them back. Even crazy pro-Israel people who call me a Nazi because I support Palestinian rights—I always call them back. Because you have to have the conversation. Our time is very limited. It's detrimental to ourselves to create other people as replicas of our blame. It's a diversion from having a better life.

Sara Gran is a writer in Los Angeles. Her most recent book is The Infinite Blacktop.