We Yearn for a Dynamic Landscape Where Art is Integral and Valued: A Q&A with Theresa Rebeck
Praised by Kirkus Reviews as "a rare honest story about love, ambition, and compromise," Theresa Rebeck's new novel, I'm Glad About You, follows the lives of two former high school sweethearts — one, an aspiring actress determined to make it big in New York; the other, a deeply religious doctor who never left the Midwest. People calls it "a pleasurable blur of inside dish, major erotic energy and refreshing realism about love and destiny," and the New York Times Book Review's Elisabeth Egan promises that "people will be talking about this one."
Rebeck, also a successful playwright and television producer, took time to talk with me about theater, celebrity encounters, and her artistic home here in Boston.
After such a successful career in drama, you published your first novel, Three Girls and Their Brother, in 2008. What drew you to the novel form? And what compels you to keep writing fiction?
It’s hard to answer this question.
I had always wanted to be a fiction writer, from when I was very young. I have a Ph.D. in the Victorian novel from Brandeis University but I had started acting in high school, so that had already taken hold of my imagination as well. Somehow the two interests merged. But when you’re a playwright you’re also automatically a screenwriter these days. Moving into film and television work was something that came inevitably, because of the hope that I might be able to support myself as a writer. This is such a natural dream for people—to make money, as a writer—but it’s also enormously complicated. It would be so great to separate those two events, writing and making money, but in America we’ve become convinced that making money writing is a sign of your success as a writer. So, for a while I went down that road.
But the idea of writing a novel really had never left me; it haunted me. I hit a major roadblock in the theater which was kind of devastating at one point and I thought, I have to try to write a novel—it was something I had always dreamed of doing in a wide spiritual way, and I literally thought, “you’re going to be mad if you find yourself on your deathbed and you never tried to do it.” I feel like my whole being was telling me, you need to take a step toward this, and if you fail, you fail, but it would be truly terrible to have never tried. It took me four years to write the first novel, and then another year to find an agent, the great Loretta Barrett. She took me to her friend, the truly wonderful editor Shaye Areheart and Shaye gave me a two book deal—she loved the first book but felt (and still feels) that writers have to be encouraged to write multiple novels; her position is that you just don’t know who you are as a novelist until you’ve done it four, five, six times. Both Loretta and Shaye kept telling me I was a novelist. I had two great women encouraging me and helping me get here. Then Shaye moved on from Random House, and I eventually moved on to Putnam where the great Amy Einhorn took care of me for a little while, and then Liz Stein, and now Tara Singh Carlson. There are a lot of women who stood with me and encouraged me to do this. It’s been an extraordinary blessing.
How does writing fiction compare to writing for TV, say, or for the stage? Do you choose the form that best fits the story you want to tell? Or do you think any form is adaptive to content?
Writing fiction is significantly more terrifying than anything else. It feels like every sentence is a whole world. So it feels like I have to be very careful when I’m starting. It gets easier as I continue.
In the theater there is always the awareness that this is a public kind of storytelling but it is guided by the singular voice of the playwright. I don’t have to think about the narrative voice; I can just commit to characters and follow them around. I’ve been doing it longer so I also have a kind of comfort level there. When I started writing novels, I relied on the first person narrator because then I always knew who was talking. But that was a crutch; it was like a way in to fiction writing. The narrative voice is still mysterious to me, but in a way that fascinates me now. The fear and the fascination are of a piece.
With television and film there’s more of a skimming quality, you sort of know from the start that this is a blueprint for whatever the thing itself is going to be. I think that’s because so many people are eventually going to be involved in the storytelling; I never forget that, and it makes the beginning of the writing more casual somehow. I don’t sweat every word as much. On the other hand, now that I’m working in independent features, the novelist’s sense of ownership has crept back into the writing. When you’re making your own movie, you really do have a lot of control and you get to stand by all your choices—you get to be the general in terms of how the story is going to come together, even with so many people involved. It really is a privilege.
In film and television there are so many people involved from the jump and it doesn’t allow for the writer to breathe with the internal spaces of the storytelling as intimately. I think the public nature of those forms takes over too quickly. But I’m not generally someone who believes that putting a lot of writers on one project is the smartest thing out there. I think that’s a corporate construction, and it’s more in the service of power structures than it is in service to the story itself.
I love looking at writing from a lot of different angles—it is interesting to think of all these forms—but it also is starting to make me anxious. I think I’ve had enough of this question.
Your latest book, I’m Glad About You, features a young female protagonist who moves to New York City from the Midwest to pursue an acting career. Why do you think so many writers are moved to depict New York City? And how did you find a fresh angle on a place so often represented?
New York is a dreamscape as well as a real place. For everyone who yearns to be an artist, the history of the city is a lure and a promise. What we have been told, what we yearn toward, is a dynamic landscape where art is integral and valued, and that there is some kind of excitement and validation that awaits you. There’s also the famous lyric, “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere” in that iconic song. So there’s a kind of American testing that is promised by New York: This is the place you prove yourself, in a sort of fierce competitive way. New York promises you fame and glory and artistic fulfillment and the fun of staying up till three in the morning having exciting drunken dinner parties with the most exciting people in the world. It’s a total fantasy, obviously, but who thinks about that? You don’t understand the truth and the grueling cost of the place until you stand in the middle of it. And that’s not to say that New York never fulfill those promises. Sometimes it does.
That, honestly, was what I was trying to capture, the tension between the dream and the reality. If there is a fresh angle to my version, I hope it is in the respect I have for the dreamers. Alison is bruised, but she is not cynical—or maybe, not too cynical.
You've said that Boston is your artistic home. What do you think that is? Would you ever write a Boston novel?
I think of Boston as my artistic home because that city and the people I know there, who knew and loved me, pushed me to claim my identity as an artist. I was so timid at first, to call myself a writer. In Cincinnati, when I would try that on, it was really routinely mocked. It just wasn’t something you did. Boston saw me as a writer, and that enabled me to become one.
I would love to write a Boston novel. I was just there and I was struck again by its tremendous beauty. I’m also always moved by the history of the place. I like the duck boats. It seems to me like a most livable city. But I do think that I would have to come up and stay for a while, to relearn where the broken heart is, the shadow, the disappointment. I was happy there, so those aspects of the place don’t immediately present themselves to me.
Do you ever get starstruck? Like when Alan Rickman was cast in Seminar?
I was completely starstruck by Alan Rickman long before Seminar. He really was just an extraordinary man and an utterly spectacular talent, and the fact is, our friendship went on for years before I felt like I could relax in front of him. So being “starstruck,” which I most certainly was, was not a good thing until it evaporated enough for me to be in dialogue with his enormous talent and generosity and insight.
I am about to direct a movie starring Anjelica Huston, Bill Pullman, David Morse and Brian D’arcy James. To say that I am “starstruck” would not be completely accurate because I do feel that as a director I can’t be frozen into silence by my wonder at what they do. I think there is not a better quartet of actors in America; I have admired them all for years and I am astonished that I get to do this. But I can’t afford to be starstruck because we have work to do.
You’re a celebrated playwright and professor, yet your TV show Smash has a lot of popular appeal. How does the ivory tower interact with popular culture in your work? Do you make a distinction between what is art and what is pop culture?
I actually do understand when people make a distinction between “art” and “pop culture” and I often am fascinated and inspired by both ends of that spectrum. Sometimes I am not fascinated by the ends of the spectrum. But I am always deeply engaged in the storytelling that engages both those definitions. I think Dickens and Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles and Moliere and Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen all worked in an idiom that engaged the heart and mind and also entertained. It seems the highest form of art to me. I’m a big fan of Caravaggio, that mad criminal who used whores as models for his paintings of the saints. I love the dirty feet he put in those brilliantly structured paintings. I wanted to write a page-turner that added up to something.
What are you reading?
I like to read several books at once. I am reading The Deptford Trilogy, by Robertson Davies and Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, who wrote one my favorite books, Stoner. I am also reading Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo in Spanish. I’m also reading Leviathan Wakes by James Corey.
Theresa Rebeck was named one of the 150 Fearless Women in the World by Newsweek in 2011. She has had more than a dozen plays produced in New York, including Seminar and Omnium Gatherum (cowriter), for which she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Referred to by The New York Times as “one of her generation’s major talents,” she was the creator of the NBC drama Smash and has a long history of producing and writing for major television and film successes. She is the author of Three Girls and Their Brother (2008) and Twelve Rooms with a View (2010). She has taught at Brandies University and Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family. For more information on I'm Glad About You and Theresa Rebeck, please visit www.TheresaRebeck.com
Author photo by Monique Carboni
Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown