[16 September 2010]
Five years ago, when I was an intern screening submissions in the literary development office of a Broadway theater company, I read a play called Hunting and Gathering,by Brooke Berman. At 22, I was morbidly fascinated by the emotional and physical transience experienced by the characters. New Yorkers of all ages were utterly unable to settle into homes or relationships. Was this real life or real melodrama?
This summer, Berman published her first book, No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments, inspired by Hunting and Gathering. The book engages similar themes and events with a new tone and raw emotions. It slaked my thirst for more explanation and insight, but it also inspired new questions about what it was like to move from playwriting to memoir writing. I got in touch with Berman and had the opportunity to ask her some questions about this transition, and her process.
What sparked you to write this book after a long career as a playwright?
The book came as a surprise, but a very welcome one. While my play Hunting and Gathering was running at Primary Stages in NYC, the New York Times ran a piece about me and the generation of artists who are finding that life in the Big City is not so easily bankrolled. An editor from Random House (who became my editor, Julia Pastore) read the piece, saw the play, and contacted me. She asked if I’d be interested in writing a book proposal, basically a memoir, telling my story. I jumped at the chance. I’d always wanted to write a book and hoped I would someday—but I never pursued it.
How was writing this a different experience than writing a play, both creatively and emotionally?
Well, the big difference is that the book is nonfiction, and the play is make-believe. In the play, four totally fictional characters (each of whom contains a piece of me, or a piece of my experience) confront the humorous aspects of New York City housing and the often-absurd ways our real estate and our emotional lives fold in on or influence each other. I’ve been accused of being a very “personal” playwright, because I write contemporary people who are close to the experiences I’ve had, but it was a totally different thing to just write what had happened to me. And it was liberating! And educational! I loved every aspect of the writing the memoir—and it was a different love. With a play, I fall in love with the escape. On a good writing day, the character takes me some place I hadn’t expected to go, shows me the world of my play in a way that changes my preconceptions of what the story is about. On a good memoir day, I learn something about myself. I am able to understand the past—through context, through juxtaposition, through interpretation—in a way that liberates me in the future. The latter process is closer to the bone. And what a joy to not have to make anything up! Plus, I’d been dying to write about New York’s East Village in the late 1980s/early 1990s, when I first moved there, and had been unable to find the play or movie idea that would hold all of what I wanted to say about, essentially about the world of the East Village. The book gave me a forum for that.
This is your first published book—have you written others?
This is my first book. No, I have not written others, although I did try to write a YA novel in 2001—it’s based on one of my plays (The Liddy Play) and on a fictional high school girl narrator’s relationship with the character of “Sam” in my memoir, a friend who checks himself into a psych ward. I set the YA novel in high school because I wanted to talk about a specific kind of codependency, the kind where we attach to someone else’s suffering as a way to avoid ourselves. And those patterns begin early. Like, with high school girls. The problem with the book was, I never found a believable climax. I wrote it much the way I’d write a play, as an extended monologue. The character work is good, the plot ... not so much.
There’s very little dialogue in this book. As a playwright, was this hard to do?
I had to work on bringing dialogue in! I started my playwriting career as a monologuist, writing Spalding Gray-esque personal prose, so that part was easy. My husband (then boyfriend) was the one who urged me to put more dialogue in. But once I did, it was fun, remembering things that people around me had actually said (My favorite: when Chernus unpacks my dishes and says, “These are like ... I feel like we’re in Vermont, or something.”)
You include lots of detail over many years. Did you keep a journal?
I do keep journals, but I didn’t use them in the first draft of the book. I wanted to reconstruct as much as I could from memory in order to see what really stood out. Later, when I was fact-checking the second draft, I’d consult the journals just to make sure I was getting certain things right. But I have one of those freakish memories— I remember everything. So the detail was not hard. In fact, I’d been dying to describe some of those very places and moments for years, waiting for the right project.
In grad school, one of your professors tells you to write a play about “where you come from.” How much of that is reflected in this book?
Very little of the play I wrote in grad school is reflected in this book. Marsha (Norman) urged me to “write a play about where you come from” which I took to mean, my family. The play that resulted was about my mother—entirely about her—and her two marriages. I wrote about my mom’s marriage to the Archduke, who I talk about in the book, but in a different time frame. In the play, I wanted to get at the absurdity of a Midwestern childhood in which my stepfather was Austrian royalty—and acted like it, taking his coffee in the tub each morning and entertaining my mother’s friends with stories of his illustrious family. (He liked the one about his father playing chess with Charles De Gaulle at their house in the French countryside.) He couldn’t hold a conversation about mundane things, he couldn’t just ... be present with people. And it was all very confusing to me as a child. Not to mention the fact that my parents acted like they had money when they didn’t. Also very confusing. The play focused on the circus-like atmosphere of that. And while it didn’t inform the book, it did inform my later play Sam and Lucy. If only in the character work on the mother—my real mother—who appears in both.
The book starts, really, in the period in which I left home. I give a little bit of background about my home, but I’m in New York, alone, in the first 15 pages.
What can you accomplish in a memoir that you cannot in a play?
In a memoir, you can tell your story. In a play, I think you have to be sensitive to the character’s story and how that might diverge from your own experience and from your own biases. I used to teach with this brilliant playwright Dominic Taylor, and Dominic would always urge our students to investigate both sides of any argument that might be inside your play. For instance, if you are vehemently pro-choice and writing about it, you may need to have a character who can represent the opposite point of view, so that the play itself presents all of the information and is balanced. Even if, maybe especially if, you’re writing with an agenda, to prove your own point. What makes for a good play is the argument inside the play, the discussion of opposite points of view. When I was working on my play A Perfect Couple the dramaturg (also a brilliant playwright and friend, Francine Volpe) kept insisting that I flesh out the argument of the character that I related to the least. I was too much “on the side of” the single woman—and fleshing out her married counterpart’s argument enabled the character I identified with to make better points. With a more balanced argument, both characters have to work harder to be heard, and this again makes for a better play.
With a memoir, I think it’s a less argumentative form. There’s no one to argue back! You get to tell your story your way. I felt like a documentary filmmaker. Because the real art lies in how you present the “facts”, how you remember them, how they stack up against each other. I loved writing it.
You mention that some of this material is included in your plays. Did you look at your own work as a resource while writing?
I didn’t look at my work, per se. But I did find myself repeating a phrase here or there, particularly when it came to describing the rape. (the play is Dancing with a Devil, a short produced by Actors Theater of Louisville in the 1999 Humana Festival).