Theresa Rebeck on writing novels, plays, and TV shows
Theresa Rebeck, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the 2003 play Omnium Gatherum, is both the author and subject of new books. As author, she’s published her second novel, Twelve Rooms With a View. The Manhattan-set story is narrated by Tina, a drifter who reconciles with her semi-estranged sisters after the death of their mother, who may or may not have left them a huge, historic co-op apartment where she’d lived with her second husband. Facing an inheritance battle against her stepbrothers, Tina tries to befriend the co-op’s residents, an assortment of snooty, eccentric, and pretentious types.
Meanwhile, Rebeck is featured in Smith & Kraus’ new “Playwrights in an Hour” series of guides to writers for the stage, ranging from Aristophanes to Sam Shepard. Each pocket-size book encapsulates the life and work of a playwright through lists, summaries, and scene excerpts. Rebeck’s play Mauritius ran on Broadway in 2007, and last year she had two plays off-Broadway, Our House and The Understudy. Roundabout Theatre Company, which produced The Understudy, recently named Rebeck an Associate Artist, helping to guide the company’s initiatives to develop new work. Her frequently produced canon also includes Spike Heels and Bad Dates.
Rebeck made her debut as a novelist with 2008’s Three Girls and Their Brother. She also has written for such TV series as NYPD Blue and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Rebeck spoke with EW about the new book she wrote, the new book she’s in, and her experiences writing for various media.
Entertainment Weekly: Was Twelve Rooms With a View inspired by an experience with a New York City co-op, or with your siblings?
Theresa Rebeck: Both. I’m from the Midwest and I moved to New York and fell in love with the city and always felt like a bit of an outsider—someone peering in on the wonders of it all. There was one time when a friend of mine was visiting her aunt, who lived in one of those apartments overlooking Central Park. This was 10, 15 years ago, and the staggering feeling I had of being allowed into one of those apartments has stayed with me. The heart of the magic of New York for me is in those apartments.
And how did your relationship with your siblings figure into it?
I have five brothers and sisters. We grew up in a world of each other. There was something about writing fiction that opened up a much more private space in me that allowed me to hear the nuances, the cadences of how we all relate to each other—the deep resentments and annoyances as well as the loyalty.
Unlike many of your plays, this novel is not about showbiz folk. Did you need a break?
I do write about the world I live in a lot. A lot of my material is about the perplexities and the violences and the comedy of show business. I felt tonally this book just wanted to take me in a different place, a more interior and mysterious place.
One character in the book is an obsessive botanist. Is it true you got some ideas for him from your husband?
My husband is a great gardener. We have a solarium in our house that’s just dripping with plants, and then you walk out into our backyard that’s one huge garden. He really does live with plants in a very peculiar way, the way that plant people do. You feel like they’re a totally different tribe of people. My husband, when he is in a room with all his plants, it’s almost like he’s a plant himself, the way he turns the pot and checks the leaves, he’s like a magician with them. He’s from Kansas. I thought I was marrying a writer, but it turns out he’s a farmer.
Tina, the novel’s heroine, has some foibles of her own—a history of lying, arrests, bad relationships…
These people are very broken, and what our Tina finally discovers about herself, in her own broken state, is that the way to heal herself is to move through the world attempting to help people come to a fuller understanding of themselves. To claim a future for herself, she has to move through these other stories and learn how to be a healer. The turning point is when she does start to help people. Rather than wallowing in selfishness and brokenness, what she learns to do is help this person this way, help that person that way. And that journey leads to her a life she can sustain.
Did writing novels come easy to you, or did it take a lot of adjustment since you were used to writing plays?
There’s a scope to it that I’m still discovering. On the stage, you know what the parameters are, and language always appears through character. You think in spatial dimensions. A play cannot fulfill itself until other human beings gather around it and make it happen. A novel is its own fulfillment, which means that the language needs to do everything. Because language is doing so much, so much more is possible. You can start a page in New York and end it in Paris 200 years ago. The range is very mysterious and powerful to me.
I find it very difficult. There was one point where I was struggling with it a lot, and I said to my husband, “I don’t understand this. I could fall out of a tree and write a play before I hit the ground.” I don’t understand why it’s so difficult to write fiction. He pointed out that I had written so many plays, the muscle’s strong with me. I’m compelled to tell stories that way. Fiction writing is more of a discovery. I read that book Outliers, [which says] if you do anything for 10,000 hours, you’ll get good at it. I think I’ve done that. Writing is a little bit like practicing the piano: If you practice, you get good. It’s technique.
You’ve written novels, plays, and television. Are the movies next?
I’m always tempted. Someone did just make a low-budget movie out of The Scene. It’s called Seducing Charlie Barker. So I am intrigued. My friends are like the best actors in America, and they would do it with me. We’ve been talking about going up to my house in Vermont and doing a Cassavetes movie—see what we come up with if we shoot a story for three weeks.
Are you currently developing a TV project?
I’m working on a series with Steven Spielberg, about backstage at a Broadway musical. Hopefully it’s going to end up on Showtime. We have Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman writing songs. We have to create the musical, and we have to create the television show to contain the musical. We’re starting with the germination of the idea and following it through every step: to the songwriting, to adding a director, to finding a star, to firing the star—or not firing the star—to having a workshop, to word of it leaking online and people getting upset about what’s out there in the blogosphere, to the out-of-town tryout, to what goes on in the [orchestra] pit, to dealing with the unions… So you can get a real look at the complexity and the class structure, and the way that people involved in these enterprises clash. It’s a little bit of Upstairs, Downstairs backstage at a Broadway musical. There’ll be lots of music, and lots of people having sex with inappropriate partners.
You’ve been a vocal advocate for getting more women playwrights produced. Is the situation the same for women writers in film and TV?
I feel like there is a distortion at all levels of culture—film, television, and theater—that’s not only a privileging of the male version of the story but also a fascination with the male story. Women hold half the stories of the culture, and those stories must be allowed to rise up.
I do feel that the yin/yang of the planet is off, that there’s a kind of gender hostility that’s not useful and not going to get us anywhere. I believe there is a way to get us onto another track. And that’s not an aggressive statement. Sometimes, women—and men—who are trying to reclaim a more vital place for us to tell stories from are perceived with hostility, and I think that’s inappropriate. It’s a really valid discussion that we’re trying to engage in.
Do women novelists face such discrimination?
It’s much different. It’s vastly less controversial, it’s accepted, you don’t feel like people are coming at you and asking you to prove yourself all the time. There’s no sense ever that there’s a question about the quality of work because you’re a woman. It’s much more friendly toward women. And I have to say, I haven’t even ever met a man in fiction: My agent, my publisher, all the people in marketing—it’s a world of women. And it’s been a really sort of relaxing experience! I know show business is famously rough-and-tumble; I just wish it hasn’t been so hard.
You have a Ph.D. Did you originally plan to be a professor?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid of it, so I started the Ph.D. It was an avoidance tactic. Then, I don’t like having things unfinished. I thought: Anytime your life is not going so well, you will think, Maybe I should go back and finish that Ph.D. So I did it partially to just get it done.
If we don’t have time to read Rebeck in an Hour, can you give us “Rebeck in a Minute”?
A playwright who writes novels now. They’re comedic, edgy, contemporary, and relevant, and probing about culture. That’s my hope. What I’m trying to do is understand America.