Tarloff talks Berkeley in the Berkshires


LENOX -- Erik Tarloff, a bestselling writer based in Berkeley, Calif., has both a play premiering at Berkshire Theatre Group and a reading from his new novel at Lenox's independent bookstore. He sat down at The Bookstore to talk about both of his new writings.

"All Our Yesterdays," published July 1, tells the story of a group of friends in Berkeley in 1968 and today. "Cedars," Tarloff's play premiering in Stockbridge on July 26, follows a son talking to his comatose father, unsure whether he is beng heard. Tarloff has written broadly, including multiple plays and books, a wide range of commentary on classical music for Slate and politics for The Atlantic, and even several speeches for President Clinton. Before all that, he wrote screenplays, including episodes of "M*A*S*H*" and "All in the Family." He was nominated for an Emmy, but he said, "screen-writing always felt like a waystation to the writing I wanted to do."

Tarloff lived through Berkeley's time as the focal point of the ‘60s, and he lives there today, but he wrote the book in London.

He wrote it, he says, because he was "feeling homesick," and you can tell how much Berkeley really is home to him.

"She was almost at Derby. With luck, after she made the left turn, traffic would ease up. There was one annoying, and equally pointless, traffic light to contend with after the series of stop signs, but that was the last serious impediment," he writes at one point, demonstrating both his knowledge of the area and the quintessentially Californian tendency to give directions and talk about traffic.

That familarity with the area is vital to the way the book captures Berkeley in both periods. 1960s Berkeley, in particular, may interest both nostalgic baby boomers and their curious children.

Tarloff said there is nowhere today that is anything like what Berkeley was in 1968. Of course, there are places like Cambridge, and Madison, Wisc., that retain some of the counterculture, he said, but no place so central and no counterculture so powerful.

His feelings about it are very mixed but it was "very intense," he said -- and, he underscored, "really fun."

"It was like ground zero for every counter-cultural, youth culture movement that was happening ... During the People's Park Crisis, Berkeley was briefly an occupied city," he said. "Of course we were self-dramatizing when we said this was like being in Prague, but it was really extraordinary."

And, he said, it got results.

"So much of it was crackpot," he said, but "I can't imagine Obama being president or marijuana being legalized" without the ‘60s counterculture. In the book, Tarloff repeatedly both ridicules "bearded political schmucks" and the glory and fun of it all, calling the People's Park Crisis a "wild, romantic brush with guerilla warfare."

The People's Park Crisis appears only briefly in the book, but it is that sort of feeling the book attempts to reproduce, including both the fun and the crackpot

Tarloff views the book as a serious, literary novel, but still "suffused with light."

Alongside the image of Berkeley, the primary theme of the novel, he said, is "what maturation means ... What mellows, what ripens, what rots?" The book opens with the line, "My oldest friend, Stanley Pilnik, insists he feels no connection with his younger self, denies any continuity between the Stan that was and the Stan that is."

He also emphasizes plot, arguing that too much literary fiction today forgets about plot in its quest for complexity. For Tarloff, the most difficult part of the writing process, after starting "at the foot of Everest" and beginning to climb, is "second act plotting," when he has to keep track of every strand from the first act.

In "All Our Yesterdays," which alternates each chapter between the 1960s timeline and the present, the plot became especially complicated. The past timeline eventually catches up with the present, and they're written from different points of view about the same characters, so tying it all together in the third act took finesse.

Tarloff cited books like Updike's "Rabbit Is Rich" and Flaubert's "Sentimental Education" as examples of the type of plot-driven literary novel he sought to write. For this one, he credited his wife, the economist Laura Tyson for bringing him to London for her job as Dean of London Business School and thus making him homesick, and his college professor Robert Littlejohn, for convincing him not to go to law school.

Tarloff will give a reading from "All Our Yesterdays" at The Bookstore on Wednesday, July 30. He said readings are useful as a way to find new audiences, and that readers tend to like them. Colin Harrington, events manager at the Bookstore, said they decided to bring Tarloff to the Bookstore "because of his excellence as a playwright and reputation as a true master of dramatic writing."

"All Our Yesterdays," he said, "is a wonderful novel of great depth and clarity [regarding] the human heart and relationships.

Tarloff has mainly come to the area though for his play. "Cedars" starring the Tony award-winning actor James Naughton as the only character, a man talking to his comatose father to fill the silence -- and eventually saying things he had never said before.

Tarloff wrote the play with Naughton in mind, having seen him act several times and knowing him personally.

"He's performed it better than I imagined it," Tarloff said.

The play is directed by Naughton's daughter, Keira Naughton, and Tarloff said it's clear that he's "witnessing a dynamic with a lot of emotional resonance" as they work on the play.

The three of them are working together collaboratively, Tarloff said, and Naughton is extraordinary for his ability to "own anything you ask of him."

"President Clinton used to do that," he said.

If you go ...

What: Reading, ‘All Our Yesterdays'

When: 7 p.m., Wednesday, July 30

Where: The Bookstore,
11 Housatonic St., Lenox

Admission: Free

What: James Naughton in ‘Cedars'

Where: The Fitzpatrick Mainstage,
6 East St., Stockbridge

When: Previews July 23 to July 25 Opening Night 8 p.m., July 26

Talkback: July 28, Closing Aug. 9

Admission: $42-62


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