The Future Is Coming, That’s a Fact: Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and Sarah Schulman in Conversation

January 2, 2019 | 3 books mentioned 8 min read

Sarah Schulman and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore are both iconoclastic queer writers known for their activism and analysis (and their activist analysis), their fiction and nonfiction (and everything in between), their instigation and experimentation (all or nothing). Sycamore first became aware of Schulman’s work in the early ’90s while coming of age as a radical queer in San Francisco, looking to Schulman’s already extensive history of writing against the grain, her activism with ACT UP, and her journalism of the time as incisive examples of interventionist queer troublemaking. A decade or so later, she invited Schulman to contribute to one of her anthologies, That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (published in 2004), and the two became friends.

This past fall, Schulman and Sycamore collaborated on several East Coast book release events for their new novels—Schulman’s Maggie Terry, hailed by Oprah as one of “18 Brilliant Books for Fall,” and described as “off-kilter neo-noir,” and Sycamore’s Sketchtasy, described by NPR Books as “not just one of the best books of the year, it’s an instant classic of queer literature.” Here Schulman and Sycamore talk about the problem of nostalgia, the writing process, the gentrified gaze, a collaboration with Marianne Faithfull, linear time, a political history of ACT UP, film adaptations, the creative impulse, the theater, Todd Haynes, Palestinian solidarity, a Baltimore artist, Boston’s queeniest tower, Seattle’s suburban imagination, an elevator in New York—and, the future.

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Sarah Schulman: I don’t want to talk about the past because I am sick of repeating myself. So let’s focus on what we are making now that has not yet been completed.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I love this idea, but can we talk about the past for just a second first? Specifically, nostalgia. At the risk of repeating myself, I want to talk about why I hate nostalgia. To me, talking about the past is a great idea, as long as we’re learning something. But a nostalgic lens replaces all the lived experience, the nuance, the contradictions, the daily struggles, and the heartbreak with a whitewashed product ready for mass consumption.

SS: Well, your new novel Sketchtasy is about Boston queens in the 1990s, but it is also about reaching a revelatory level of craft as you are able to evoke, rather than describe basic experiences—dancing, getting high, freaking out about imminent death—making canonical 1995, the year before the protease inhibitors allowed people with AIDS to live, but the characters in the book don’t know that the corner is about to be turned. So, turning to the future, is the subsequent unpublished book, The Freezer Door, also set in the past?

MBS: For better or worse, I am generally stuck in the present. The Freezer Door, my next book after Sketchtasy, is set in current-day Seattle, and is part sexual diary, part social criticism, and part rumination on the creative process. I’m trying to figure out how to have an embodied self in a world that doesn’t allow it—in a gentrified city where people walk around with a white picket fence in their eyes, where the suburban imagination has a stranglehold over city life. Where the sexual culture that exists for me only exists if I minimize everything that makes me alive, and what violence does this enact, over and over. What happened to the dream of the city as the place where you meet everyone you never imagined? The dream of queerness as ending borders rather than creating them. I know these are themes that come up in your work as well.

SS: My past work. Old, old! That’s the problem with being ahead. Why is it called The Freezer Door, a title I love, and what can you say about the writing?

MBS: It’s funny, Sarah, because you want to talk about the future, but I find myself thinking, wait, aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves? Because we both have new books out now, and here I am planning the West Coast book tour for Sketchtasy, paying such close attention to every element of the process that it’s hard to focus on anything else, although I do have the manuscript for The Freezer Door right next to me, so of course I am focusing on other things too, and I’m thinking about something a few people have said about Sketchtasy in reviews, that past, present, and future merge, right, and that’s trauma, that’s drugs, that’s the queen’s vernacular, but also it’s the suspension of linear time, which I always dispense with when not absolutely necessary, to move toward feeling, and one thing I can say about The Freezer Door is it is a quest for feeling, for connection, for self-expression and intimacy. Against all odds.

So it’s an intensely personal interrogation of culture—dominant culture, counterculture, gay and queer cultures—the ways all of these cultures end up limiting the possibilities of the body, or of connection, or of self-expression and communal possibility—in my life, anyway. I would call it a lyric essay because I’m trying to move through the gaps between analysis and feeling. And there are times where the text literally breaks open because of the disconnection, so, for example, at one point it becomes a conversation between an ice cube and an ice cube tray. And when the ice cube tray says, “Open the freezer door,” this is the invitation of the whole book—the invitation to feel, to risk, to experience everything.

I know that you don’t want to talk about the past, but isn’t it true that you are now writing very specifically about the past, in a new book about ACT UP?

SS: I have two book-length manuscripts right now—a political history of ACT UP called Let the Record Show, which right now is running about 800 pages. And a novel I have been writing since 2003 called The Rise and Rise of Jamie Robbins, of which I only have 153 pages. It is about the history of psychiatry, the death of Carson McCullers, and a closeted lesbian actress named Jamie Robbins. It is the slowest thing I have ever written.

MBS: Sarah, Let the Record Show is the perfect title for a book about ACT UP. The original ACT UP piece using that name was a call for accountability by Gran Fury 30 years ago with the slogan “Silence = Death” in neon, right? What will your call for accountability look like now?

SS: Let the Record Show is not really a call for accountability, more of an analysis that coheres ACT UP’s strategies and tactics in a way that will be helpful to activists today. But, moving along from books—what is happening right now is that I am starting to be able to bring my novels to screen—which would be very new. About half of my novels have stories that would be exciting for film/TV but the kind of lesbian perspective and how far left I am just kept it all from happening. However, I am hoping to break the curse with my current detective novel Maggie Terry, which came out this year. Nothing is a better antidote to stress than losing yourself in the fun of a pulp novel, enough with the gravitas. And Maggie is very suited to television. So, hopefully I will have some good news about that soon. What about your work, what do you imagine when you think of your novels on screens?

MBS: I generally don’t think about that much because most film adaptations are so unbearably awful, but I will admit that I do keep thinking that Sketchtasy would be fantastic as a movie, I mean it’s already written in scenes, right? It’s intensely visual, and it already has a soundtrack, because music comes up so much in the book, and changes the narrative. When I was reading from Sketchtasy in Boston, where the book takes place, I kept walking around, and seeing the exact angles of the buildings that would make perfect shots. I mean there’s one building in particular that keeps coming up in the book, the John Hancock Tower, which the narrator, Alexa, a 21-year-old queen, renames Jeannine Hancockatiel because she thinks the building is the most glamorous queen in Boston, and I could see it all. And, if we really want to get meta, there are scenes in the book where Alexa watches movies of the time, particularly Todd Haynes’s films Safe and Poison, so wouldn’t it be great if Todd Haynes made the movie? Todd Haynes, are you there?

SS: Did you know that I got Todd his first review? Jim Hubbard and I showed Todd’s first film, Assassins, at an early MIX Festival, and I chased down the gay experimental-literature critic at the Village Voice, Elliot Stein, and Jim and I gave him a private screening in Jim’s studio with Jim’s projector. I remember Todd was still a boy. He said, “What should I do?” and I said, “Send him a thank you note.” But that is THE PAST.

MBS: Sarah, I love that story about Todd Haynes—and, strangely, I’ve never heard of that first film. I thought his first film was Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and I remember when it would show every week at the 99-cent Queer Video Fest in San Francisco in the early ’90s, in protest of the lawsuit by the Carpenter family that banned the film from showing, but I would always miss it because I was at ACT UP meetings. But I know that’s the past—and, before I get really weird and mention that for my senior page in my high school yearbook I used a T.S. Eliot quote—yes, the one about time present, time past, and time future. OK, just for a second: “If all time is eternally present / All time is irredeemable.” Sorry—what could be more past than the dead white men of the literary canon? Tell me about the future.

SS: The other things I am doing now are plays. I just had a reading of my play Roe Versus Wade at New York Theater Workshop and I am waiting. My play Between Covers was in New Works at The Goodman Theater in Chicago and I am waiting. The play is about what happens when corrupt institutions are terrified of liability suits stemming from sexual harassment. Marianne Faithfull and I are doing a stage collaboration, The Snow Queen, that is being commissioned by John McGrath, an old East Villager, at The Manchester Factory, and Elyse Cogan, from the Theatricals Division of Marianne’s music publisher BMG. At least they decided, now we are waiting for dates for the workshop. And my passion project love of my life, my movie about Carson McCullers, Lonely Hunter. What is the book you are writing now, after The Freezer Door?

MBS: I’d love to tell you about Touching the Art, the next book I’m working on now, which loosely is about the creative impulse, trauma, legacy, and what art can and cannot provide, but first I want to pause here because you’ve just mentioned all this great news in the theater world—so, you’ve written a musical with Marianne Faithfull, and two of your plays were just workshopped, and some people might not know that you are a theater queen, so to speak. Before I tell you more about Touching the Art, tell me what it is about theater that speaks to you so much.

SS: To quote Jeff Weiss, “The theater shows that we are all living in front of each other, at the same time, together.” Now, your next-next book is about painting, and a painter. Have you ever painted?

MBS: I painted as a child, in my grandmother’s studio. And art class in grade school was always my favorite place to escape. But for some reason words ended up speaking to me more than visual art, as the way I could express my place in the world, and its failings. So Touching the Art is about my relationship with my grandmother, who was a visual artist from Baltimore.

As a child, spending time in her studio was a rare time when I could dream in the actual world—I could imagine a creative life, because I was living it. She gave me that. But as an adult, she tried to take all of that back, to get me to follow the narrow path of upward mobility that was everything that would destroy me. And that’s one of the contradictions that I’m exploring in this book—how this woman who was so nurturing of everything that made me different, and queer, as a child—my creativity, femininity, empathy, softness, inquisitiveness—once I became an adult, and was creating work on my own terms, to her, my work was vulgar. Why are you wasting your talent, she would say, over and over. I realized that what truly mattered to her, at least in terms of my life, were the same things that mattered to the rest of my family, educational attainment and class status, and all of that I needed to reject in order to search for a place in the world without violence. Of course I’m still searching. What about you?

SS: My future is Palestine Solidarity. I am on the board of a think tank called RAIA (Research on the American-Israeli Alliance). Our Director, Eran Efrati, authored a mind-opening report called Deadly Exchange, in which he shows through extensive documentation that U.S. police have been doing exchanges with the Israeli military, using their tactics here at home, and also using Israeli weapons and surveillance equipment. I am also on their advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, whose brilliant director Rebecca Vilkomerson has grown the organization to 15,000 members at this point, and has been activating that information in their Deadly Exchange campaign aimed at the Anti-Defamation League’s role in facilitating these programs. So more of that in days to come. For myself, I really need an apartment with an elevator. My friends are getting too old to visit me on the sixth floor. Fortunately I have some younger friends. Where would you like to be living in the future?

MBS: I have absolutely no idea.

SARAH SCHULMAN is a well-known literary chronicler of the marginalized and subcultural, focused on queer urban life for thirty years. She is the author of several books, including The Gentrification of the Mind, The Cosmopolitans, Conflict Is Not Abuse, and Maggie Terry. Her plays and films have been seen at Playwrights Horizons, the Berlin Film Festival, and the Museum of Modern Art. An AIDS historian, Schulman is cofounder of the ACT UP Oral History Project. || MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE is the author of a memoir and three novels, and the editor of five non-fiction anthologies. Her memoir The End of San Francisco won a Lambda Literary Award, and her most recent anthology, Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?, was an American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book. Sketchtasy is her third novel.

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