When the bestselling author Erik Tarloff turned up for an interview at Berkeley’s Elmwood Café in July, he had left an empty house. His wife, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, the former economic advisor to President Bill Clinton and a professor at the Haas School of Business, was in Aspen consulting with U.S. leaders. Tarloff had remained behind at their Berkeley home as he prepared to depart for Stockbridge, Mass., where the Berkshire Theater Group was gearing up to perform his new play, “Cedars.”
This interplay between writing and politics has been a constant in Tarloff’s life, and one that seems to inform his writing. He was born in Los Angeles to screenwriting parents who were blacklisted in 1953 because of their affiliation with Communism. The family had to move to England so his father could find work.
When Tarloff and Tyson relocated to Washington so she could become the chair of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, Tarloff wrote a series of articles about being a “Cabinet husband.” President and Mrs. Clinton liked the work so much they asked Tarloff to become a speechwriter.
The president was less chummy when Tarloff’s first book, Face-Time, came out in late 1998. It told the story of a presidential speechwriter whose girlfriend was having an affair with the president. And, while Tarloff insists he started the book long before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, he admits that impeachment proceedings against Clinton helped make Face-Time a New York Times bestseller.
Politics have always fascinated Tarloff, 66. While his wife has played a more direct role in the political realm, she is more of a technocrat, a policy wonk. Tarloff, in contrast, loves the nitty-gritty of the political world.
“She is interested in policy, not politics,” he said. “Where for me it’s kind of what football is for most guys. I like the game.”
Politics don’t play a large role in the plot of Tarloff’s newest book, All Our Yesterdays, but they hover in the background. The book is set in Berkeley in 1968 and the present day and tells the tale of six friends whose lives are intertwined. Set against the backdrop of the protests around People’s Park, tear-gassing on Telegraph Avenue, and marches against the Vietnam War, as well as today’s less political, Facebook-oriented world, the characters include a psychologist in private practice, his first college love (and now wife), a UC Berkeley English professor, a leftist lawyer, a cultural critic, and an activist who went underground years earlier and who has suddenly reappeared.
Tarloff entered UC Berkeley in 1967, so he lived those days, although the novel is not autobiographical. Like the characters in All Our Yesterdays, the author was influenced by the generational upheavals that played out on the streets of Berkeley.
“It was a very political era,” said Tarloff. “It was impossible not to be political if you were that age, particularly if you were male, because of the draft. The Vietnam War wasn’t just an abstraction. It was an actual threat.”
Tarloff will be talking about his work with Andy Ross, a literary agent and the former owner of Cody’s Books, at 1 p.m. Sunday Sept. 14 at Book Passage in Corte Madera. He will also appear at Pegasus on Solano Avenue at 7:30 pm on Sept. 23, and Books, Inc on Fourth St. on Oct. 16.
By 2014, the characters in All Our Yesterdays have mostly settled into the establishment. The book explores the notion of identity. Does a kernel of self evolve over time? Or is there an essential you that always remains the same?
“My oldest friend, Stanley Pilnik, insists he feels no connection with his younger self, denies any continuity between the Stan he was and the Stan he is,” are the sentences that begin the book. “We disagree about this.”
Mal Warwick, who reviewed the book for his books blog and Berkeleyside, called All Our Yesterdays, “a brilliant chronicle of life among the chosen few in Berkeley over the past four decades.”
For people living in Berkeley or those familiar with the city, the book is an incisive critique of its culture and mores. Here is Tarloff’s observation about the way people in Berkeley dress: his main character, Zeke Stern, a psychologist, is going to an event that requires him to don a jacket and tie, not something he usually does…
“But he felt an obscure desire to look good tonight. One of the things he liked about Berkeley was how irrelevant personal vanity, or at least personal adornment, was. He dressed casually when he saw his clients, in khaki or cords or jeans, and usually dressed similarly when he and Molly went out to dinner with friends. Tonight, though, he found himself examining the paltry contents of his close with serious attention.”
There are other passages that show Tarloff’s deep familiarity with Berkeley’s history. He sets one scene in Spenger’s restaurant on Fourth Street, long before it was part of the upscale district. He describes it as “a family-owned, old-timey fish-shack-plus-bar in an almost barren section of town, an area in the flats near the water that’s been lavishly re-developed in the intervening years, but at the time boasted abandoned railroad tracks and an abandoned railroad station and a seedy bar and gay bath house and that was about it.”
Tarloff started All Our Yesterdays in the spring of 2005 when he was feeling an intense homesickness for Berkeley. He had moved to London so Tyson could work as the dean of London Business School. One day he sat down at his computer and a scene flowed out from him. It was about Zeke’s mind wandering when he listened to clients (now on page 24 in the book). Tarloff didn’t know initially it was the seed for a book, but found himself back with the same character as the center of the novel about a year later.
Tarloff has enjoyed remarkable professional success. The New York Times named his second novel, The Man Who Wrote the Book, a notable book of the year. He has written more than 100 TV scripts for comedies such as M*A*S*H, All in the Family, and The Bob Newhart Show. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, and The Atlantic online. Three of his plays have been produced. But when it came time to sell All Our Yesterdays, Crown and other New York publishers turned it down.
So Tarloff published his book through the “Path to Publishing Program,” run by Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera and author and publishing consultant Sam Barry. The program is designed to help writers narrow in on a book topic, write a book proposal, and determine whether traditional publishing or self-publishing is the better way to go.
Self-publishing used to be regarded as vanity publishing, but not anymore. The rise of the Internet and Amazon’s foray into publishing has disrupted what was once a closed and staid world of literary agents and New York publishers. Now many authors choose to self-publish because they can bypass those gatekeepers and earn more money (most authors only get 15% to 25% in royalties when working with a traditional publisher). There is no need to wait for the imprimatur of a corporation, either.
Self-publishing does have its drawbacks, of course. Many bookstores won’t carry self-published books. In fact, one prominent Berkeley bookstore declined to bring Tarloff in for a reading and book signing for that reason. Many newspapers won’t review the books, either. An author must arrange for his or her own distribution and publicity.
“It was a leap of faith,” said Tarloff. “I had some notion of the difficulty I would be facing but I didn’t quite realize what an uphill battle it is.”
Tarloff has been luckier than most. The San Francisco Chronicle gave All Our Yesterdays a glowing review, writing “his special gift is dialogue, real people speaking like adults to one another.” But that paper, Berkeleyside, and a few blogs have been the only news outlets to write about the book, despite great reader reviews on Amazon.
“Without (reviews) it is very hard to get people to pay attention,” he said. “By the nature of the subject matter I do think there is a natural audience for the book, but I don’t know how to tell them it’s out there.”
Given Tarloff’s background, it is not surprising that he is willing to take writing risks when he has to. Because his father was blacklisted, Tarloff said he has seen the “limit of the orthodoxy.” He learned early on that there isn’t one prescribed, well-worn path to success. Living in Berkeley has only reinforced that attitude.
“Here is a place you wake up and say, ‘How can I delight myself?’ The pleasures of the flesh are not sneered at like they are on the East Coast. The idea of eating a meal – it’s important. It can nourish your life. Being able to take a little time and savor things matters. A place like New York or Chicago — if you are not accomplishing something you are wasting your time.”
Read about Tarloff’s upcoming readings.
10 great recent books by Berkeley writers (09.09.14)
Review: All our Yesterdays, by Erik Tarloff (08.20.15)
To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar and submit your own events there — the calendar is free and self-serve.