The story of Stella Penn Pechanac, Rose McGowan, and Harvey Weinstein—a spy, an actress, and a habitual sexual abuser—sounds like fiction. But it’s a fact that the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein hired Stella Penn Penchanac, a member of the Israel-based espionage group Black Cube, in an effort to dissuade McGowan from writing a memoir that would disclose that Weinstein had raped her.
When the novelist Helen Schulman first learned of these facts, she asked herself a question, “How could one woman so utterly betray another woman?”
Out of this simple question grew her latest novel, Lucky Dogs (Knopf, 2023)—a novel that follows the fictional actress Meredith (“Merry”) and fictional spy Nina, who are brought together by a serial rapist and powerful Hollywood producer known as “The Rug.”
After the Rug assaults Meredith (in a “meeting” facilitated by her agent, Marietta, and Jilly, another producer) the actress flees to Paris. But in a plot twist that echoes the real-life story of McGowan, Weinstein, and Pechanac, the new friend she meets there is “Nina”—a spy hired by the Rug to discredit her. Lucky Dogs, which switches between Meredith and Nina’s point of view, explores how Nina’s betrayal affects both women’s lives.
When I met with Schulman to discuss Lucky Dogs, she welcomed me into her sunny office at The New School dressed in a white button up and blue slacks, arms jingling with red bangles. She’s a stylish and warm person. Though Lucky Dogs examines both the #MeToo movement and the nature of civil war (between women, between cultures), Schulman is quick to add that Lucky Dogs is also meant to be funny—as in fact the author is herself.
Brianna Corley: I was first introduced to Lucky Dogs through a forum held at The New School. During the panel, there was something you said that was really interesting to me—when you were writing the book you initially didn’t think Harvey Weinstein was going to go to prison. Did that affect the events of the novel?
Helen Schulman: Well, even though my novel follows some of the contours of what actually happened with Weinstein, I made up a lot of it. I looked closely at those two women, Stella Penn Pechanac and Rose McGowan, but my main characters are not meant to represent them and were made up in my head. At the end of my novel, you’re not totally sure what’s going to happen to anyone—except that Meredith, the actress, is not going to stop fighting.
More important to me was to try to examine the idea of the good victim versus the bad victim, and if there is such a distinction—I don’t really believe there is, I think a victim is a victim. But through all these trials and sometimes in the court of public opinion the defense takes the same position: “She wanted it,” “She asked for it,” “The sex was consensual,” “She’s a slut,” “You see the way she dresses,” “We have this dirt on her,” and it’s just like slime buckets of degrading material are thrown at these women, people who have the courage to say, “This is what happened to me.” So I wanted to create characters that were being cast as “bad victims,” in the hope that the reader would come out of it and think, “No, they are not bad victims, they are victims, period.”
Corley: Throughout Lucky Dogs, you show how women perpetuate the patriarchy. Not only Nina, but also Jilly and Marietta—these characters who set up women to be assaulted by powerful men. Why do you feel they did this and what was it like writing from their point of view?
I think Marietta and Jilly are two different characters. I don’t think Jilly set her [Meredith] up per se for that meeting. I think she was a useful cog—because they go into the meeting together ostensibly to talk about an acting role and then she leaves Merry alone in the Rug’s hotel suite. This was something that Harvey Weinstein did all the time. There were many women involved in the Weinstein scandals who worked with him. Some knew what was going on, some guessed, some didn’t know and many were terrified.
I mean, I remember reading about one woman who wore two pairs of Spanx before she would go into his suite in the hopes that that would keep him from raping her. It didn’t work. But he was a very powerful person, so he could ruin an actress’s career—he would set out to do that if they turned him down, if he felt threatened by them, rejected or insulted. He stopped people from getting parts. He destroyed their livelihood.
If you start to study rape culture, it’s not uncommon for women who have been raped to wish it had never happened, to try to erase the assault or rewrite it in their heads. In courts, they’ll say, “But you flirted with him.” “You even had sex with him consensually after.” “You wrote him love notes.” “You continued to work with him.” But that seems to be a part of the trauma that women experience—again, they may wish it had never happened. They may try to erase it. They push it from their mind. They may be very, very scared of this person. Maybe part of it is identifying with the aggressor, and maybe some of it is trying to get back some empowerment, sexually. There’s so many different reasons for it, but these are not uncommon responses to sexual assault
Corley: Were all the women who worked with Weinstein victims in your view?
Schulman: Well yes and no, it depends who it was. Some women, I think, were scared. Some may have not known. I think some wanted jobs. There was one woman who Harvey had raped, she left, she got paid a settlement, she signed an NDA, and then she couldn’t get any work. And after a while, she went back and worked for his company again—she went back and worked for him for seven years. Many people thought he was their only ticket, and in many cases they were right.
Corley: Would you say that in your novel, Meredith is working against and Nina is working inside patriarchal systems?
I mean, they’re both fighters in a way. Nina has a mother who put her first, but she had such a traumatic start. She’s very concerned with herself and wants to be famous and looks at America as a place of ease and American women as very lucky. Meredith has the looks that Nina wishes she had—an all-American beauty. So does Nina work through the system? I think Nina will do anything to get ahead—sleeping with her acting teacher, using her boyfriend for money and access. She reinvents the system to get what she wants, or she tries to.
It’s not like Meredith is some paragon of virtue—she’s a hot mess, but she refuses to be stopped. I thought of her like Jake Lamotta. I don’t know if you know the name: Jake Lamotta was a prize fighter and Martin Scorsese made a film about him called Raging Bull that I saw when I was young, and it so struck me. It was like nothing would stop him from fighting, even though he kept being pummeled. And that’s how I see her. As long as she’s alive, she’ll kick back.
Corley: When Meredith is assaulted by “The Rug” readers don’t see what happened while it was happening. She recalls the assault in pieces and then slowly threads the incident together into more vivid details the further away in time she is from the actual event. Why did you choose to do this?
Schulman: A possible response to sexual assault is that one’s memories of it become fragmented. And at some points, you can think about it and at some points you can’t.
I think also over the course of the novel, she was emboldened. At the beginning she doesn’t say rape. And then she does. And that is part of the battle she’s fighting: to acknowledge what happened to her. But then, she is also playing coy and she’s trying to sell a book. So she doesn’t want to give everything away. You know, she’s a tricky character.
Corley: Playing the part seems to be a theme for both Nina and Meredith throughout the novel. And there’s this one scene in particular, where Nina is in acting school, and everyone is assigned to a typecast. She is named “the femme fatale.” Have you ever been typecast in your own life?
Schulman: Oh, I think so, haven’t you?
Corley: Yes, absolutely.
Schulman: I’m Jewish. I’m a woman of a certain age. I think I’m typecast now and I was when I was a teenager. I think we tend to do that in our minds—we put people in categories by the way they dress, the way they act, the way they speak.
This specific scene, it came out of experiences of one of my research assistants who had gone to a high school for performing arts. She said this kind of thing happened in class. And I’ve seen it through other friends who’ve gone to acting school, where they’re told, “Oh, you’re the gentle giant,” or “you’re the fat girl,” or “you’re the this.” And it’s very dehumanizing, but it’s also how actors are given parts.
Corley: And the characters in the novel, how did they try and break out of their typecast?
I think in some ways Merry gives into it. I mean, she’s treated like trash—she acts like trash. And then she gets mad and she tries to reclaim her dignity. Even though she’s probably one of the least dignified people there is. Her dignity is wrapped up in being heard and speaking her truth—I don’t really like that expression so I don’t know why I just used it—but yeah, being heard.
Nina is such a shapeshifter. A lot of that is her experience in life. She grew up and had one parent who was Muslim and one who was Serbian Christian during the civil war in Bosnia. So already she’s a child of mixed origins, in a conflict that pitted neighbor against neighbor and family against family. And then she is airlifted to Israel, where she becomes a Jew. And then she decides she wants to be an actress and everything about her is putting on a costume for another role. She’s a soldier, she’s an actress-model wannabe, she’s a Mossad agent—which in some ways is really being an actress. And then she’s part of this elite spy agency. So her countenance has changed, her religion has changed, her country has changed, her allegiances have changed. She’s never the same person for very long. Except what she is deep inside—which is damaged and hollow.
Corley: That’s so interesting when you think about it that way. If she’s missing something, she can’t even really fit into one type of category. She exists in limbo.
Schulman: Yes, she lacks a center of self. .
Corley: You started this book because of the #MeToo movement. But how do you think this novel is going to fit into the #MeToo movement as it survives today?
What really kills me is that now that my book is out, so many people come up to me and say, “Thank you for not giving up. It felt like #MeToo was over.” But all these things are still so real and they’re still happening—well, I never thought they were gonna not happen, but as usual I’m naive and I think, “oh, things are gonna get better.” And then they don’t.
And where I’m sitting, I’m 62. I was a teenager in the 1970s, I was brought up on second wave feminism. We were told we could do anything we wanted, that we were not sexual objects, that we could have careers, and we could also be sexual beings. And then one decade after another just erased all those possibilities, whether it was AIDs or changing cultural norms.
By the time I had school-aged children, half the mothers who had kids in our schools had given up their jobs to stay home. And this is in New York City.
And then you feel like you’re getting a cultural reckoning, but how do we know if it really is changing? Harvey Weinstein, of course, is in jail for the rest of his life—but, we thought, so was Bill Cosby. But in a hot-house like Hollywood, does that really change the situation on the ground for ambitious young actresses? Or is it just that a bunch of famous rich men got the rugs pulled out from under them? I don’t know the answer to that. And then what about everybody else? The gas station owner, the hotel manager, a teacher, a coach, any kind of boss? Women from all walks of life are bullied and abused. #MeToo got its strength from the public reckoning with famous powerful men, but power is power in any arena. And at the end of the day, how many men really paid the price for their crimes? Matt Lauer? Mario Batali? Bryan Singer?
Corley: Based on the way people are coming up to you, this book seems to be reigniting a little bit of hope?
It makes me cry. I mean, when people say thank you for persisting. You know, I’m too mad to not persist.
Read an excerpt from Lucky Dogs at Public Seminar, courtesy of the author and Knopf.
Helen Schulman is the New York Times best-selling author of six novels, including Lucky Dogs and Come with Me.
Brianna Corley is an MFA Candidate in Fiction at The New School School of Public Engagement and Editorial Intern at Public Seminar.