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Alan Zweibel’s Secret Project

“Does The Other Shulman exist?” I ask Alan Zweibel, author of The Other Shulman. The novel’s mononomic protagonist, Shulman, is the uncomfortably married proprietor of an endangered stationery store in suburban New Jersey, about to run his first marathon at the age of 51. Shulman surmises that during the course of his adult life he’s gained and lost the same 30 pounds so many times that he could have generated an entirely separate and Other Shulman. And it is he, this Other Shulman, whose wrath the original Shulman confronts as he prepares for and runs the New York Marathon.

“It does get confusing,” says Zweibel. “Does this Other Shulman exist, or not? Does he beat him across the finish line? Or does he finish, but comes in after our guy? Or does he vanish? I went back and forth.”

It’s 11 a.m. at Peet’s Coffee in downtown Beverly Hills. In my 20 years of patronage, this is the first time any Peet’s has been out of French roast, and they’re also empty of Italian. So I make do with a pound of Viennese blend and a cup of medium-blend drip with more or less the same level of disappointment that a heroin aficionado might feel when settling for a case of cough syrup.

I’d met Zweibel the night prior, before he read for a small but receptive crowd at Book Soup. Noting that I, too, was a Shulman, Zweibel told me of a mysterious consistency at The Other Shulman readings thus far that might be of particular interest to me: The first question from each and every audience has been, approximately, What is the significance of the name Shulman?

I thanked him for his concern and we shook hands. More people arrived, and we all took seats except for Zweibel, who took the microphone, thanked everyone for coming, and read some excerpts.

“Any questions?” he asked at one point.

“What made you decide to name the character Shulman?”

The streak continued. The implications, staggering. (Zweibel’s answer: no particular reason.)

Since his days as a writer on the first five seasons of NBC’s Saturday Night (later changed to Saturday Night Live after ABC cancelled its short-lived Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell), Alan Zweibel has written millions of words into dialogue, sketches, memoirs, plays, screenplays and teleplays, more recently contributing producerly to Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the early ’90s, he wrote Bunny Bunny, a book of memoirs about his long friendship with Saturday Night’s beloved Gilda Radner, who died young in 1989. (Radner’d made a habit of incanting “Bunny! Bunny!” at the start of each month, for good luck.) The Other Shulman is his first novel.

“In the beginning,” says Zweibel, plucking out berries from his muffin, “you’re like God. You make characters and a setting and you place them there. But once you get into it, the characters take on their own personalities, and, just like kids, they tell you, No, I don’t wanna do that, I wanna do this. So it’s greatly autobiographical, but when the characters started taking different paths, I followed them.”

“Did you enjoy it?”

“The writing process? Yeah. I think I’ll write another. I like doing it in conjunction with other stuff that’s more social. Like, television’s more social. You know what I mean? Because this is . . . it’s lonely. This is a lonely thing. But it’s the thing that you keep in your bottom drawer, the thing you wake up a little bit earlier to do. The book was written very much at red lights, also. You know, it was on a legal pad on the seat next to me, going to a movie set or going to a television studio. It’s the one that you keep to yourself. It’s your diary. The secret project.”