Brooke Berman is back in town this week, getting a handle on all the changes afoot in her ever-mercurial life.
After weathering a tumultuous two decades in New York, the award-winning dramatist is now living in Los Angeles, where she is negotiating brand new terrain as a newlywed with a baby due in less than two months. Following the success of her new book No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments (Crown, 2010), Berman has taken a quick trip back to her old Gotham stamping grounds. Right on the heels of her reading at Debut Lit for the Brooklyn Book Festival, the expecting mother has been run off her feet, not only en route to her own baby shower but to multiple meetings for possible stage or film adaptations of her memoir.
Yet Brooke has graciously found time to catch up with me online as I sit in my hotel room in Singapore and she comes down from her whirlwind weekend in the city she once called home:
Kyle Thomas Smith (Rail): Brooke, your best-known play, Hunting and Gathering, explores the theme of transience, both in love and real estate. And your new book, No Place Like Home, is a tell-all about how you inhabited 39 apartments in New York alone! How do you feel the experience of constantly picking up stakes has informed your creative process and product?
Brooke Berman: I can’t say that it has, particularly. As I say in the book, I’m at my creative best when I have stable housing. Virginia Woolf was right—one really does need a fixed income and a room, with a door that closes, over which one is sovereign. However, insofar as product, I have been inspired by the Woody Allen model of doing a project a year—some more successful, some less so—and the notion that there is value in creation itself. Meaning: I don’t wait around to have “an idea” for a play or movie (or, now, book), I just start writing and see where it goes. And that takes precedence over having the ideal housing situation.
Rail: After writing plays for so long, how did you find the process of writing a book? Did you have to use a much different set of creative muscles?
Berman: Writing a book was an absolute joy! I had started my career as a solo performance artist, a monologist in the Spalding Gray tradition. Prose writing felt like a very natural extension of what I’d started out doing in the first place. In fact, I had to be reminded to include dialogue at all!
Rail: When you set out to write a play, do you have a firm sense of subject/setting in mind? Or, like many writers, do you just ramble along until something gels?
Berman: Depends on the play. With Hunting and Gathering, I had just read Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and I was obsessed with the story about the street names changing after the revolution. I kept thinking about home and transience —physical transience, spiritual transience—through the lens of changing place-names. Around that time, I dreamed I was going through airport security with Tony Kushner, placing my body through the security scan, on that conveyer belt, and I knew I wanted to write about my own transience and the shifting idea of what home means....and then I started writing. The play took forever to come out right. With The Triple Happiness, I started with a question: Who do you want to be in the New Millennium? (My friend, Francine Volpe, had overheard a boy asking someone that question on the subway in December 1999.) I wrote a play called Casual Encounters almost entirely through actor-improvisation, because I was interested in the way online casual sex hookups were becoming more commonplace, almost a part of a cultural conversation, a new way of connecting with people, and yet no one was talking about it, at least, not when sober. What does it mean to engineer a “hookup” through an anonymous digital network like Craigslist? And is any encounter ever really “casual”? Don’t people meet and still impact one another, or change each other’s lives?
Rail: I was recently talking to a young painter/musician who told me he can’t afford college but he’s doing what he can to learn and grow as an artist through self-education. But he also said he fears he won’t be taken seriously if he doesn’t have a degree. I immediately thought of your life story and how, though you did eventually go to Juilliard, you had dropped out after your first year at Barnard and learned your craft through a lot of spit and determination. So how important was formal education to your career and what advice would you give this young artist?
Berman: I would tell this young artist to go to school. And to finish school. Find a program he can afford and give it a shot. My husband teaches in the community college system, and while it’s not ideal, there is a way to get some kind of formal education and to connect with professors. And not so that people will take you seriously, but rather so that you can arm yourself with as many skills and as many cultural references as you can.
As for me, I sometimes wish I’d finished Barnard. I was visiting the campus in April and had lunch with my advisor there. I said, “I may want to finish my degree some day,” and she said, “But Brooke, you’d have to take all of those required classes you neglected as a sophomore. Don’t think I’d waive the science and language requirements!” and I smiled, enjoying the thought of say, studying French grammar at 50. Who knows? Life is long.
That said, I followed my hunger and I like where I wound up.
Rail: Something I found so refreshing about your book were your spiritual proclivities. Where a lot of artists are hell-bent on being bad-ass and nihilistic, you were doing Vipassana retreats, repeating metta phrases, smudging, studying A Course in Miracles, dabbling in tarot, and consulting a clairvoyant. How important has spiritual practice been both to your creative career and your overall sense of wellbeing?
Berman: A spiritual path has been central to both. I didn’t have the luxury of nihilism—I was recovering from rape and from a tumultuous childhood, adjusting to life in the city without money. I was scared. I needed to find a way to celebrate life, to heal the splits inside of me and commit, entirely, to being alive and in the world. This was more important, at times, than anything else, including my career goals and creative pursuits. Twice I tried quitting the theater for a more “spiritual” path, but both times, the more soul-searching I did, the clearer it became that I was a creative artist (although a writer and not, maybe, an actor) and that I belonged in the theater.
In The Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham has a holy man telling the protagonist, Laurence, “It’s easy to be a holy man on a mountain.” So we have to find ways to be holy in our work, in our lives, in our relationships. It’s why I love Whitman and the Beat writers. They were looking for—and amplifying—this everyday mysticism.
Rail: Who are some of your favorite authors and which ones have had the most influence on your work?
Berman: In theater: Maria Irene Fornes, Tony Kushner, Caryl Churchill, Spalding Gray, Chekhov, Pina Bausch. Outside of the theater: (film) Hanif Kureishi, Woody Allen, Nicole Holofcener, Hal Hartley. In literature, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, I like this Susan Minot novel Rapture—the starkness of it, how tiny it is—Salinger, Ellen Gilchrist for the way in which characters come back in different books, she’s never finished with their stories or their families’ stories. I freaked out over that Patti Smith memoir this summer.
Rail: How long have you been in L.A. and how is it different for you to be working there?
Berman: I’ve been in L.A. on and off for a few years—since 2006. But officially for one year. (We gave up our apartment last August, trading in our New York drivers licenses for C.A. licenses in November 2009.) We plan to come back to New York and settle down, but in the meantime, L.A. is a great adventure. I love hiking, and I love the farmers markets and it’s a good place to have a baby. I have much more time to write in L.A. But less stimulation. More time alone, to think, to compose, to sit and work. Less time at readings or plays, less time in public, less time absorbing culture. It’s a trade-off. But I wrote the first draft of my book in LA—in two months. The alone-time is really good for me. I get more sleep. And I feel healthier.
Rail: Have you managed to stay in one place in L.A.?
Berman: What do you think? No, no, I haven’t.
Rail: Are you writing a new play?
Berman: I’m workshopping the play I wrote last year (My New Best Friend) at the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco next month. I’ve spent the summer writing essays and prose and polishing a film script. But I’m curious about what the next play will be. I really don’t want to be one of those writers who gets pregnant and then writes about being a mom, but I’ll tell you that I wrote an essay this summer about the shift in identity, in archetypes, from “daughter” to “mother.” Rebecca Walker talks about it a little in her book Baby Love. After a lifetime of being the daughter to not only my own (narcissistic and sick) mother but then a line of surrogates, it’s startling to play a new role. Or, to prepare to play that role. There are all sorts of implications.
Rail: Since I couldn’t sleep, what with the 12-hour time difference between Singapore and New York, I started going through your book again, and I think this is my favorite passage:
The thing is, I believe in creation. And I’ve noticed that most plays dealing with the tragic suffering of the human condition are written by people who haven’t experienced that much of it themselves. People who have genuinely suffered, more often than not, want to laugh.