LIANE HANSEN, host:
In Alan Zweibel's new novel, "The Other Shulman," the main character, Shulman, claims that he's been gaining and losing the same 35 pounds since high school, and if you added up all of that discarded weight, he had lost an entire person. The premise of the novel is that Shulman, a chubby, middle-aged stationery store owner from New Jersey, actually encounters the other Shulman. Alan Zweibel was one of the original writers on "Saturday Night Live." He also co-created and produced the "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and collaborated with Billy Crystal on his Tony Award-winning show, "700 Sundays." "The Other Shulman" is Zweibel's first novel, and he joins us from New York.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. ALAN ZWEIBEL (Author, "The Other Shulman"): Thanks for having me.
HANSEN: Elaborate on the premise a little bit. I mean, the other Shulman is not just the mirror image of your protagonist. He's everything that Shulman is not, and he is evil.
Mr. ZWEIBEL: Well, he's everything that Shulman discarded, so it's not only the weight. The weight is--yeah, that forms the physical other Shulman, but he's imbued with all of the aggression and a little bit of evil that Shulman is not. Our guy is very nice; he's very passive. In the person of the other Shulman, he's taunted by him during the course of the novel. And the whole novel takes place during Shulman's running of the New York City Marathon. At one point towards the end of the marathon, the other Shulman shows up, and I think you get the impression that if, indeed, Shulman beats the other Shulman to the finish line, he will have defeated his demons and maybe be a better person for it.
HANSEN: So what inspired the whole concept for this thing?
Mr. ZWEIBEL: I think what inspired it was I was at a point in my career, about four or five years ago, where things were sort of not going well. A couple of projects didn't go as well as I wanted them to. Personally, a 23-year-old marriage was sort of flat-lining. We never got divorced or anything like that, but, you know, it was showing the wear and tear of a quarter of a century of being together. So I was in a rut, quite frankly.
So I was sort of like taking a little personal inventory, and then when I ran in the New York City Marathon, being from Long Island and my dad having his business all the time--growing up in Manhattan--I was basically running through my life. It was like taking inventory--all the sense memories of all the boroughs and all the memories of there and the things that took place in my past--and I said, `Gee, maybe my guy should do that, too.'
So the book works on three levels. There's--one level is the actual running of the race. Another reality is Shulman's present plight in his life: his marriage, his relationship with the world at large. And the other level of reality is the past. It's the flashbacks that he runs through as a sort of bubble to the top when he's going through the five boroughs.
HANSEN: You make references to the film "Ben-Hur" in your book.
Mr. ZWEIBEL: Yes.
HANSEN: Yeah, why is that so--why is that appropriate?
Mr. ZWEIBEL: "Ben-Hur" is appropriate--I mean, look. It was one of the first movies I ever saw as a kid, so I thought, `OK, all right, so let's see if I can get that in there,' because Shulman does indeed run past the movie theater where he saw his first movie, which was "Ben-Hur." But there's a lot of symbolism in "Ben-Hur" which I tried to graft onto Shulman. In "Ben-Hur," you have the chariot race. Charlton Heston's character is not only racing against Messala's character, but he--if, in fact, he's not only going to win the race, but survive the race, he's got to use some of the dirty tactics that Messala uses in the chariot race, like having spokes on his wheels that are going to break Ben-Hur's wheels, and whipping him and whipping his horses and trying to, you know, knock him off his horse and everything. So our guy has to play--fight fire with fire, which is a role he hasn't done before. And my Shulman does the same thing.
HANSEN: Huh. You've written some short fiction that's appeared in magazines--you know, such as Esquire and The Atlantic Monthly. You wrote a book of non-fiction about your friend, the late comedian Gilda Radner. A lot of your career has been spent writing comedy sketches and dialogue. What was the challenge of writing a novel for you? Was it difficult to keep from resorting to the, like, obvious joke?
Mr. ZWEIBEL: Yes and no. There's always the impulse to write a joke because it's part of the neuroses of a script writer. You look at the page and go, `Jesus,' you know, `nobody's laughing yet,' you know? I mean, maybe people will turn the channel. The reason I wanted to write this as a novel is because I really wanted to explore the characters, to go into the internal motivations and the psychology of the people in the book. And I wanted to do that exploration; I didn't want it to have--rely on, you know, cutting to somebody and just see the way that his tie is on, if it was crooked or not--to get to know the character. I wanted to go into the heads of the people, and just have the meanderings and the wonderings that you're allowed to do in prose. So it became very, very therapeutic in a way.
HANSEN: The coach in the book keeps saying to Shulman that the important point for any runner in a marathon is to finish. Was finishing this book a bit like finishing a marathon?
Mr. ZWEIBEL: It was like--well, it was like--finishing this book was like finishing the marathon, and finishing the marathon was like finishing the marathon. That's all I wanted to do, is to see if I can do it. You know, it was a challenge. I'm a big guy; I'm in my 50s. And, you know, there was no logical reason for me to do this. I was in LA--I was in a Ben & Jerry's, of all places--and saw sign that said, `You, too, can run a marathon.' And, like I said, I was in this rut and I went, `Gee, I need a goal. I wonder if I can do this?' So I joined a running group. And my goal was just to finish the marathon without my face being totally blue, you know, and me on my back, you know? Which I thought was a noble goal, you know?
HANSEN: Yeah. Alan Zweibel's new novel, "The Other Shulman," is published by Villard. He joined us from our New York bureau.
Thanks a lot for talking with us.
Mr. ZWEIBEL: Thanks a million for having me.
HANSEN: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.
HANSEN: I'm Liane Hansen.