Robert Kerbeck, C’85

Author of Ruse: Lying the American Dream from Hollywood to Wall Street and Malibu Burning: The Real Story Behind LA’s Most Devastating Wildfire

Los Angeles, CA

English Major

I was an English major, but I got bitten by the acting bug. The first play I was in, Electra, was the very first play of Penn’s Theatre Arts Program. I did a lot of plays with Penn Players and an experimental group called iNtuitons, which I hope still survives (editor’s note: it does).

When I wrote Malibu Burning, it was a real labor of love, because I fought that fire.

My family is well known in Philadelphia and South Jersey for automobiles. I was supposed to take over that business, but it wasn’t for me. I finally got up the courage to move to New York and became a professional actor. I did all this amazing theater—got a rave review in The New Yorker and was on the front page of The New York Times arts section from the Sunday paper. Then I moved to Los Angeles.

I booked a number of TV pilots, but none got picked up. Suddenly, I wasn’t a kid anymore, and I thought, “Wow, I’m not going to have the career that I’ve put my heart and soul into for a long time.” So I switched into this crazy job—I didn’t understand what it was at first, which turned out to be corporate spying, and that’s what my second book is about.

I’m a full-time writer now. I’ve written two books. I’ve had 30 short stories and 10 essays published, a play done in New York, and I’ve written a screenplay. My first book was about this terrible wildfire that burned down half of Malibu in 2018. Seventeen of 19 homes on my street burned to the ground. I wrote the book not only to document what happened, but also to help prevent and mitigate wildfires in the future. We’re dealing with climate change; we’ve been in and out of drought here in California for so long. And so these fires have gotten larger, more ferocious, more dangerous. When I wrote Malibu Burning, it was a real labor of love, because I fought that fire.

I’ve had so many careers and all of them have a basis in that English degree. What do we do more than maybe anything? Write. Every email you send, every tweet, every Instagram post. Those are letters. You’re writing. If you’re good at that, it can take you very far in the world. — March 21, 2022 • Photo by Brooke Sietinsons