Post Road Magazine #10

Twenty Questions with Tom Perrotta

Q: What was the first thing you ever wrote?

Peter Abrams, Allston, MA

A: The first thing I ever wrote that got the attention of the adults in my life was a short illustrated essay I composed in the third grade, from the perspective of the Apollo Thirteen astronauts, during the time when it was unclear whether they’d be able to make it back to earth alive. My essay called for optimism and determination in the face of danger, though I’m sorry to report that it was not the basis for the popular Tom Hanks movie that came out about twenty-five years later. My teacher, Miss Baker, liked it enough to show it to her sister in Japan (this felt like a huge honor at the time, and probably had a lot to do with my deciding to be a writer later in life).

Q: Who were some of your early influences?

Christine Apodaca, Boston, MA

A: When I was in high school during the pot-addled late seventies, I read the usual suspects: Vonnegut, Brautigan, Tolkien, Rod Serling, the guy who wrote Watership Down, whose name is escaping me at the moment. Sophomore year, though, we were assigned a book called Nine Modern Short Novels, which included Heart of Darkness, The Metamorphosis, The Stranger, and The Beast in the Jungle, among others, and those stories made an enormous impression on me. Senior year, a teacher introduced me to Chandler and Hammett, and for a while I only read hard-boiled detective fiction. In college, I immersed myself in nineteenth-century realistic fiction, and then had a brief but intense fascination with Latin American literature. In graduate school I wholeheartedly embraced the tradition of plainspoken American fiction, which stretches from Stephen Crane and Willa Cather to Hemingway to great contemporary writers like Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. I can see Carver’s influence quite clearly in my first book Bad Haircut, though it’s less apparent in my last couple of books. On the other hand, I don’t think I could’ve written the ending of Little Children if I hadn’t read stories like “A Small, Good Thing.”

Q: What has your experience with writing workshops been like? What do you think are the inherent values of taking a writing workshop? The limitations?

Natalie Hindall, Providence, RI

A: Like many writers of my generation, I went to a graduate creative program—in my case, Syracuse, where I was lucky enough to study with Tobias Wolff and Douglas Unger. I put in my time as a student in workshops, and went on teach them for a number of years. There’s a lot you can learn from workshops—how to edit other people’s work, how to accept criticism, how to gain some distance on your work. It’s great to have an audience when you’re starting out, and you probably won’t ever get a more attentive group of readers than your workshop colleagues. Some of the best friends I've had are people I've met in the hothouse of fiction workshops. But like anything else, workshops become frustrating and repetitive after a while; there comes a point when you’re able to internalize the voice of your colleagues, and anticipate their reactions in advance. At that point, you're better off on your own.

Q: Both Election and Little Children are told through multiple characters’ points of view. How do you decide whose voice gets heard and where, and how do you make the narrative fall into place?

Paul Cooper, Virginia Beach, VA

A: That’s a complicated question, but the simplest way to answer it is to say that all writing is trial and error. If the multiple narrator form didn’t work for Election, I would have happily tried something else. But one of the reasons I think it did work so well for that particular story is that Election is all about secrets, and the gap between people’s public personas and their inner lives. It’s clear from the narration that none of the individual characters knows the full story of what happened during the election for school president. Only the reader knows, because he or she has access to all the fragmentary reports, and I think that superior knowledge leads the reader to feel a kind of pity for the various characters, all of them stumbling through their lives without really knowing what’s going on.

Little Children did something similar, but I used a close third-person narration instead of first person. I think of Election and Little Children as being closely related—they’re both “public” novels, far less autobiographical than my other books, and neither one of them has an obvious “main” character. They’re both portraits of small communities that are offered as microcosms of the larger culture, and I think the ensemble quality of both books contributes to that effect.

I don’t outline or begin with some principle that determines who gets to speak when. I try to feel my way through, always keeping in mind what the reader wants or needs to know at this particular point in the story. Sometimes I answer that question head on, and sometimes I withhold the answer until later, but I’m always aware of what I’m doing on that count.

Q: How do you go about creating a character like Ronald McGorvey in Little Children, a convicted sex offender and suspected child molester/murderer, without making him a demon or a caricature?

Jason Busanni, Portland, ME

A: When I realized that there was going to be a pedophile character in Little Children, I was pretty worried. There are some writers who really like getting into the heads of extreme or repulsive characters, but I’m not one of them. I told myself that Ronnie McGorvey would be present, but that the story would never delve into his point of view (in other words, I wouldn’t have to go there). For most of the novel, I stuck to this plan. We see McGorvey mainly through the eyes of his loving, long-suffering mother —which is probably why he strikes some readers as oddly sympathetic— and through the eyes of the frightened townspeople. When I got to the end of the book, and actually had to go into Ronnie's head to complete the story, it turned out to be neither as hard nor unpleasant as I'd thought. By that point, he was just another one of the characters in the novel, and I treated him as such.

Q: There’s a scene in Little Children where Sarah, to avoid trying on bathing suits in department store dressing rooms, orders a bunch of bikinis from J.Crew to test them out in the privacy of her bedroom. The scene is so filled with feminine angst that it’s difficult to imagine it written by a male author. How is it that you manage to capture so accurately the female voice? How does writing from a female point of view compare to writing from a male point of view for you? Barbara Sawicki, Boston, MA

A: After I wrote my first book, Bad Haircut, which is very much about the male experience of growing up, I knew I needed to figure out a way to write convincingly about female characters. Election was my breakthrough in this regard—Tracy and Tammy tell their stories in first person, and if those voices didn’t work, the book would have felt off-balance and unpersuasive. What I discovered in writing Election was that I could draw on my own experience even when writing characters very different from myself—Tammy’s a lesbian, but in some ways she's very close to my adolescent self. A lot of her feelings of alienation could have been taken from my teenage diary, as well as her sarcastic voice. For Tracy, I had to look no further than my own ambition, which was never as burning as hers, but was nonetheless just as real. By the time I came to the character of Sarah in Little Children, I felt pretty confident about my ability to “get inside”the heads of my female characters. In a sense, Sarah is a lot like a grown-up Tammy (she’s even got a lesbian past), and I felt very close to her. That said, one of the great revelations that men have as they grow older is that even the most beautiful women feel insecure about their bodies. So it was just a matter of finding the right details and situations to bring out Sarah’s anxieties.

Q: When an idea comes to you, do you know immediately if it’s a short story or novel? What made you write Bad Haircut as a collection of related stories instead of a novel?

Saralyn Chittester, Newton, MA

A: I’m not always sure whether I'm writing a story or a novel. Little Children had its beginnings as a short story, written about four years before I started the book. The story, “This Thing on My Back,” is about a stay-at-home Dad, much like Todd, who snaps after a day at home alone with his kid. When I began my novel about a playground affair and needed a male character for my female protagonist to fall in love with, I drew on the story, which remained unpublished at that point (it can now be read on the excellent website, www.arrivistepress.com). Bad Haircut worked the other way around—I wrote a story for my graduate school thesis, and it received such an enthusiastic response from my classmates and teachers that I decided to write another one with the same narrator. It was only after I’d written three or four that I began to see the skeleton of a book beginning to form. I guess what I’m saying is that you don’t know exactly what you’re writing at the beginning of a project—you write to find out, and that process of evolution and revelation is really the best part of the whole experience.

Q: What did you want to be before you wanted to be a writer?

Everett Fletcher, Albuquerque, NM

A: As a young kid, I wanted to be a professional athlete. When I hit puberty and realized I wasn’t big enough to play sports at a really high level, I gravitated toward rock ’n roll, and spent my high school years trying to master the guitar. When I discovered that I had almost no musical talent, I began thinking more seriously about writing, which was the one area where I actually felt a sense, if not of mastery, at least of confidence. As a musician, I always had to be shown, in a very mechanical way, what to do. As a writer, though, I had an intuitive sense of how to proceed. I felt like I had an “ear” for language and narrative, and it was a great relief to suddenly feel like I knew what I was doing.

Q: What are your writing habits? Do you work on several different projects at once?

Maryanne Lavely, Seattle, WA

A: My habits vary depending upon what I'm working on. When I write a novel, I'm pretty steady—it’s a job suited for a tortoise. A little bit today, a little more tomorrow. Usually I have more endurance later in the process, when the novel has begun generating its own momentum. Early on, it's a struggle to put in three hours a day.

I’ve been writing screenplays for the past year, and those are more of a sprint. You can always see the finish line, and you usually have a deadline. I tend to put in long days for several weeks, and it can get kind of exhausting. But then you're allowed to rest while the script goes out to the producer or studio or whoever. There’s a lot more downtime compared to the everyday grind of a novel.

Q: What is your opinion about the function of novels in society today?

Benjamin Maltby, New York City

A: This question deserves a book instead of a couple of paragraphs, and the answer should be written by someone a little more knowledgeable than me. But my sense is that the novel's status in American culture is a bit precarious at the moment. On the one hand, the novel has been superseded by movies and TV shows (and perhaps soon by computer games) as our preeminent popular narrative art form. On the other hand, there isn’t much of an audience left for the elitist, high modernist (or postmodernist) novel—there are apparently fewer and fewer readers of “serious” or “literary” fiction than there used to be. So it’s possible to look at the demographics and economics of reading in this country and feel kind of gloomy about the future of the novel. Maybe the novel is heading for the ghetto of once-flourishing mainstream art forms—like poetry and jazz—that now are lucky to reach a niche audience.

That said, there are also reasons for optimism. The novel has always occupied a murky zone between “high” literary culture and “low” mass culture, so its place in society right now isn't necessarily that depressing or unfamiliar to its practitioners. And the fact is, the novel as an art form is flourishing—as far as I can tell, there are far more good novels being created right now than there are good movies or TV shows. And the novel remains the single best and most flexible art form for examining the individual in a social context, and exploring the inner lives of human beings. Those of us who love novels have no choice but to go on reading and writing them. Whether we can replenish the ranks of hungry readers in the decades to come will determine whether the form continues to thrive, or slowly fades away.

Q: Your novel Election has been made into a highly acclaimed movie. Can you talk about your experience having a piece of your writing transformed into a motion picture? Are there plans to turn any of your other works into films?

Ron Mondragon, New Orleans, LA

A: The fact that Election was made into a movie at all was pretty amazing —at the time, I was an unknown writer, and the book itself was unpublished, gathering dust on my shelf—let alone that it was such a terrific one. Some producers got in touch with me after hearing about The Wishbones (a friend of theirs had heard me read from it at Bread Loaf), and I mentioned a novel I had written about a high school election that goes haywire. They asked to see it, and got it in the hands of Alexander Payne, who at the time had only one independent movie under his belt. The whole thing happened pretty quickly, which I’ve since learned is highly unusual in Hollywood. In fact, the published book only beat the movie into the world by a few months.

Since then, all of my books have been optioned, but none of them have made it to the screen, for all the variety of reasons why most projects developed in Hollywood don’t end up getting made. Right now, the one with the best chance is Little Children (I just completed the first draft of a script with Todd Field, director of In the Bedroom), but there are scripts for Joe College and The Wishbones floating around as well.

Q: In The Wishbones, Dave is a thirty-one-year-old guitar player who lives at home and dreads his impending marriage to his girlfriend of fifteen years, to whom he proposed in a moment of weakness. In Little Children, Todd is a thirty-ish man who plays midnight football with a bunch of middle-aged guys and obsessively watches the local teenagers skateboard instead of studying for his bar exam. He and Sarah seem to revel in their affair in part because it is a denial of their adult responsibilities. Are you drawn to characters who resist becoming what society deems “adult?” Or is it something else they are resisting?

Alicia O’Hanlon, Boston, MA

A It’s true that I write fairly often about characters who resist their adult responsibilities—it’s not an uncommon theme for writers of my generation, as Nick Hornby would be happy to remind you. I think it has something to do with growing up in a culture that idealizes youth and equates growing older not with achieving wisdom, but with the gradual loss of all the things we value—freedom, energy, beauty, coolness. More importantly, becoming an adult means choosing—trading in possibility for reality, and accepting the consequences of your choice. This is a theme that novelists have been exploring for a long time (in Middlemarch or Portrait of a Lady, to name just two examples). There may also be a demographic truth under all this—if we live longer, it stands to reason that adulthood and middle age start later than they used to—a lot of people are postponing marriage and family and real jobs for as long as possible, so there’s this new period of a life between adolescence and adulthood that is ripe for novelistic examination.

Q: If you could go out and have a drink with one of your characters, who would it be?

Chris Sieveres, Los Angeles, CA

A: That’s a funny question. I can go out for a drink with any of my characters any time I want to.

Q: How did you begin your journalism career?

Ray Tuohy, Orlando, FL

A: I haven’t done a whole lot of journalism—a handful of reviews, a few short memoirs, a couple of pieces of cultural criticism for GQ, and one big piece of reporting on Ozzfest for Rolling Stone. All of this came after my fiction writing career was up and running—the editors of the various publications came to me with assignments. So I didn’t have to go through the dues-paying part of finding work as a journalist, which I know is a pretty tough thing.

Q: Could you share with us a writing technique that you discovered, or were taught, that raised the quality of your writing to the next level?

John Kemmerly, Lake Charles, LA

A: At some point, I came across a piece of writing advice from Elmore Leonard: “Skip the boring parts.” This really resonated with me, because I’m always painfully aware of those times when I've hit a dull patch, and the sentences are lying dead on the page. The thing to do, I've discovered, is not to slog through these literary swamps, but to jump over them. Skip ahead in your narrative, switch point of view, do something crazy—any- thing to keep from sinking deeper into the literary muck. If it's killing you to write something, imagine what it’s going to feel like for someone else to read it.

Q: Where do your stories generally start? With an event? A character? An image?

Michael Walsh, Cambridge, MA

A: I usually start with a situation or a setting. For months before I begin writing, I’ll think to myself, I’m going to write a novel about a wedding band or about young parents on the playground, or about a high school election. The characters come next, and the plot comes after that.

Q: What are you reading now? Sam Wing, Cambridge, MA

A I’ve just discovered Charles Portis, who is a Southern novelist with something of a cult following. I read his book Dog of the South on a plane ride recently, and it was an excellent companion. He’s an absurdist who reminds me a bit of Thomas Berger, one of my favorite comic writers. Right now, I’m reading a nonfiction book about NASCAR called Sunday Money, written by an excellent journalist named Jeff MacGregor. My hope is that I’ll soon read the new translation of Don Quixote by Edith Grossman.

Q: Will Blythe asked in his New York Times Book Review of Little Children, “What is Tom Perrotta but an American Chekov whose characters even at their most ridiculous seem blessed and enobled by a luminous human aura?” How do you feel about that comparison?

Robert Kaplan, Newton, MA

A: I’d like to take Will Blythe out for a nice dinner. That was a lovely thing for him to say, even though I know in my heart of hearts that I’m not worthy.

Q: Do you read what people write about your books?

Stacey Parsons, Brooklyn, NY

A: Sure. I read what the critics say with great interest, and I even read the reviews posted on Amazon.com, some of which are amazingly thoughtful and serious, and others of which are hostile in a way that professional reviewers rarely are. One of the good things about publishing several books is that you do start to build some immunity to criticism. A bad review that would have once ruined my week now just ruins my breakfast.

Q: Is there a piece of writing advice you wish you would have had before you started out?

Jill Balboa, New York City

A: I’m tempted to say that I wish someone had told me how hard it would be to get published and make a living before I decided to become a writer, but if someone had done that, I might not have ever started. 2

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