Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Tom Perrotta: The “Dark and Messy Material of Life” Seen Through a Comedic Lens

BY SAL PANE

Interview by Sal Pane

Since his arrival on the American literary scene in 1994, Tom Perrotta has been known for his innate ability to mix the absurdly funny with the grim realities of everyday life. In his latest book, The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta explores the ramifications of a suburban conflict over whether or not sex education should be abstinence-only. With that in mind, we sat down with Tom Perrotta to discuss everything from the film adaptation of his novel Little Children to advice for young writers hoping to break into the major leagues.

Hot Metal Bridge: Much of your work is situated in the suburbs or in suburban high schools. What is it about these locations that are so important to you? What is it about place that is so important to your writing?

Tom Perrotta: As with most important things in life, it feels like the subject chose me rather than vice versa. My imagination just naturally seems to move toward certain settings and topics. I could say in retrospect that I’m interested in youth culture, education, the transmission of values from adults to kids, early sexual experiences, etc., and that would all be true, but my decisions as a writer are much more intuitive. For example, I read a newspaper story about a high school principal who interfered in an election for prom queen at his school, and I immediately thought, “There’s a story!” And that story became Election. A writer needs to trust his or her gut in terms of picking a subject.

Another thing I’ve noticed over time is that I’m very interested in the discreet phases of life we seem to live in America. I’ve written entire books about high school, about college, about people in their twenties, about young parents, and about middle-aged parents. Maybe one day I’ll write a novel about a retirement community.

HMB: What is your writing process like? Do you write every day? Is there any aspect of your writing that comes naturally or that is especially difficult?

TP: When I’m working on a novel I write every day, not counting weekends. Beginnings are hard for me, which is one reason I’m drawn to the novel as a form. There’s a lot of middle to work with. I like that sense of moving deeper into a story, of having new aspects of it reveal themselves. In general, I find that dialogue comes naturally to me, while I have to labor a bit over long prose descriptions. (This is probably one reason why I’ve made a pretty easy transition to screenwriting in recent years.)

HMB: In your novel Little Children, you treat each character with a huge amount of sympathy. You manage to remain neutral while dealing with everyone from the disturbed child molester to the unfaithful businessman addicted to internet porn. This empathy for characters seems to exist in all of your works. Why do you think it’s important for a writer to treat his characters sympathetically and is this way of writing something you transpose to your everyday life?

TP: I’m not particularly religious, but one thing I realized while writing The Abstinence Teacher was that the novelist and the Christian both have to labor under the impossible commandment not to judge. I’m sure some writers would disagree (John Steinbeck, for example, or Flannery O’Connor), but I feel like we need to know our characters from the inside out, that the essential act of imagination is to inhabit, not to judge. I love the story about Tolstoy and Anna Karenina–i.e., that he set out to write a harsh condemnation of an adulterous woman and ended up falling in love with her himself. I would also point to Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” as a source of inspiration. I believe strongly that good writing will challenge even the writer’s beliefs, and that a novel that simply reproduces what we already know will feel dead on the page.

HMB: High school politics is something that comes up again and again in books like Election and in your most recent novel The Abstinence Teacher. In that book, it’s obvious that you have certain viewpoints on the topic at hand- sex education- but the narrative never seems prescriptive and you go to great lengths to keep the discussion grounded in the characters’ reality. Is this difficult for you and do you ever have to reel yourself back in fear of becoming didactic?

TP: As I said in the response to the previous question, the novelist has to be willing to at least examine his or her own most cherished beliefs. I’m a liberal, and a believer in comprehensive sex education–and any kind of teaching that requires the suppression of crucial information is anathema to me–but I tried to look closely at the arguments made by advocates of abstinence, and I tried to look at the limits of 60’s style sexual liberation. One of the great things about fiction is that it allows you to illuminate the problematic relationship between the political and the personal, the public and the private. In The Abstinence Teacher, one of the main characters is a feminist sex educator and sex advocate whose own sex life has been deeply unsatisfactory, and the other is married Christian man whose sex life is way more interesting than the Bible would recommend. As a novelist, I’m more interested in trying to see what kind of role sex plays in the lives of my characters than I am in taking a position on the public debate about sex education.

HMB: Little Children is told through multiple characters’ points of view, while The Abstinence Teacher is told through two primary characters. While working on your latest novel did you ever include other people’s voices? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of working with a larger cast of voices?

TP: I’ve written books like Bad Haircut and Joe College that use a single first-person narrator, and I’ve written Election, with multiple first-person narrators, as well as books like Little Children, and The Abstinence Teacher that use third-person POVs. Once again, these decisions are intuitive when I sit down to write. Somehow a certain method seems suited to particular story–in Election, for example, I wanted to write a story where no one knows what really happened except the reader–the story is, in effect, composed of fragments that the reader has to assemble. In Little Children, I was trying to examine a whole community, so the multiple perspectives felt like a good way to do that. In The Abstinence Teacher, I was trying to recreate the dynamic of the wider American “culture war,” where two distinct world views oppose one another–hence the two points of view in the novel, which begin as completely separate entities, and gradually move closer together as the characters begin to interact.

HMB: You co-adapted the screenplay for the film version of your novel Little Children. What was the collaborative process like, and how did writing a script differ from writing prose?

TP: I’ve been writing screenplays for about five years now–Little Children just happened to be the first one that got produced. I was lucky enough to co-write the script with the director Todd Field, who co-wrote and directed “In the Bedroom.” Todd is an enormously talented director with a very clear vision who really responded to the novel, so the collaborative process went very smoothly. I obviously had to be willing to surrender a certain amount of control during that process, but there’s no getting around that. If you want to retain complete control over your novel, you either have to become a director yourself or not allow the book to be adapted. But I feel as a novelist that my version of Little Children exists–you can buy it in the bookstore and read it. The film is the result of a collaborative process in which all kinds of amazingly talented people participated–not just Todd Field, but Kate Winslet, Jackie Earle Haley, and the rest of the cast, as well as the producers and the crew. The novelist’s life is fairly solitary, and I really do enjoy working with other people, despite the occasional headaches that are inevitable when different people try to create a common vision.

HMB: You still publish short stories and even landed one in The Best American Short Stories 2005. Would you ever consider compiling another short story collection, and what’s your opinion on the state of the short story? It seems nowadays that it’s more and more likely that a mainstream publisher won’t take a book of short fiction unless it’s packaged as a novel in short stories. Why do you think that’s the case?

TP: Over the past twenty years, I’ve written enough stories to make a collection, but I don’t have any plans to publish one anytime soon. I think some of the older stories aren’t quite as strong as the ones I’ve been writing in recent years, so I think they’ll go uncollected. My problem is that I don’t have many ideas for stories, or time to write them. When I’m in between novels, I tend to be working on screenplays. But I do love the story form, and hope to write more of them in the future.

I think publishers are simply reacting to marketplace realities–though there are exceptions (Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz), most story collections don’t sell very well. So publishers try to package them as novels even when that doesn’t make a lot of sense. On the other hand, it still seems to me that publishers are willing to take a chance on story collections by unknown writers. It’s just that they expect the second book to be a novel, except in very rare cases. It’s worth noting that writers like Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro, George Saunders, and Lee K. Abbott built their careers primarily or completely on story collections, so it can still be done.

HMB: Can you talk a little bit about who some of your influences were as a young writer? Has that list changed?

TP: When I was young I read sports books and science fiction/fantasy–like many people of my generation I was a big fan of Serling, Vonnegut, and Tolkien. Then, in high school, I discovered John Irving, and began to read more “serious” fiction. In college, I read a lot of 19th century novels, and still see myself as working in the basic realist tradition of Balzac, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dreiser, and Cather. Hemingway was a huge inspiration for me in my early twenties, as were hard-boiled writers like Chandler and Hammett. I went through a Latin American Magical Realist phase that wasn’t very good for my own writing, before being inspired by contemporary American writers like Carver and Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford in the 80’s.

HMB: Since your first stories were published in the 80s, your work has always been consistently funny. Is this an effect that you strive for, or does it just come naturally from your personality? In The Abstinence Teacher there’s a powerful scene where Pastor Dennis chucks a printer through an HD television running the movie “Tomb Raider.” This is a hilarious scene but it also packs an emotional punch. How do you see humor working as a positive in your narratives and does it ever become difficult to strike a balance between the amusing and the heartfelt?

TP: I don’t think I’m as funny in real life as I am on the page–something just comes out when I write. You can work on making things funny when you write, but generally speaking, you’re either funny or you’re not. People who aren’t funny shouldn’t try to write comic novels–I’ve read some of them, and it’s not pretty.

Ever since Bad Haircut, I’ve been interested in trying to figure out a way to write comic fiction that can deal with as much of the dark and messy material of life as possible, and I think with Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher I’ve managed to explore a lot of stuff that usually isn’t treated comically. For instance, one of my favorite scenes in Little Children is the one in which Ronnie McGorvey, the paroled sex offender, places a personal ad in the newspaper. It’s a funny idea, I think–his ad leaves out the one bit of essential information a prospective date would like to have–but because the scene comes through the eyes of his mother, who’s desperate for her son to “get better” and have a normal life, it’s also quite poignant. There’s also a scene in The Abstinence Teacher where a bunch of sex education teachers talk about sexual experiences they regret that strikes a similar balance between comedy and pathos, or at least I hope it does.

HMB: You were an MFA student in the creative writing program at Syracuse University. If you could do it over again, is there anything you would do differently, and do you have any advice for young writers just starting out?

TP: I think I would’ve taken more time off before entering the program. I had been out of college for only two years when I got to grad school, and had just begun to get some interesting glimpses of the adult world. I wish I’d traveled more in my twenties and taken a few more unlikely jobs, but I really did want to focus on my writing at that point in my life, and graduate school gave me the opportunity, so I probably shouldn’t second guess myself.

But my advice to writers just starting out is to explore the world and not get trapped in an academic community too early in life.