The Tom Perrotta Interview

Today is the day to escape your kidnappers.

Are you a Chicagoan looking for something to do tonight? You totally are. Short films of Steve Delahoyde's, absolutely no relation to Steve D., will be shown as part of a comedy showcase at the Lincoln Lodge. Check it!

If you're a reader, you're probably aware of books by today's interviewee such as his most recent New York Times bestseller Little Children, as well as The Wishbones, Bad Haircut and Joe College. If you're not so much a reader but a movie-watcher, you'll know him as the guy who wrote the book that the film Election was adapted from. Oh, but he is so much more!

The Tom Perrotta Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

Will we be seeing an adaptation of Little Children on movie screens in the future?
I hope so. I've been working on a script with Todd Field, the writer/director who made In the Bedroom, and we're pretty optimistic that it will get made. But you never know until the camera actually starts rolling.

Were you pleased with the screen adaptation of Election? Do you think it was faithful enough to the book?
I loved the movie version of Election-it was one of the funniest and most memorable American movies of the past twenty years. It was broadly faithful to the plot of the book, with the exception of the ending, which had to be rewritten and reshot when the original ending fell a bit flat on screen. But what really makes the movie terrific isn't that it's particularly faithful to my book. It's that the director, Alexander Payne (who also wrote the script, along with Jim Taylor) was able to bring his own inimitable sensibility-which is much more satiric and hard-edged than my own-to the material, and transform it in unexpected ways. That was the really exciting part of the translation from one medium to another-watching another artist breathe new life into the work.

It seems like you are one of those writers who works for years and then becomes "famous overnight" (with the film adaptation of "Election.") Is this accurate? When this happens, is it upsetting, or are you just glad it's happening?
I'm not sure I agree with you about the "famous overnight" part. Even now, a lot of people are surprised to discover that the movie Election was based on a book (this makes perfect sense-the book was unpublished when it was optioned, and didn't have a strong presence in the world outside of the movie even after it was published). The other thing to remember is that the movie didn't do very well in the box office, despite the praise lavished on it by the critics. It's a movie that's become better-known and more appreciated over the past few years (partly because it introduced Reese Witherspoon to America), and what's happened, I think, is that I've received a kind of retroactive recognition. While the book Election was pretty much ignored by the critics and the media, my next book Joe College marked a quantum leap for me in terms of recognition, reviews, and sales, and Little Children intensified that process. To the degree that I've achieved any kind of literary "fame," it's happened over the course of the past five years (and three books), rather than overnight. And for that reason, it hasn't been a dizzying, unpleasant experience, but a gradual and completely welcome evolution.

How did you come to write the introduction to my friend Will Leitch's book, Life as a Loser?
I met a guy named R.A. Miller, the founder of the excellent website Arriviste Press, a man brave (or foolhardy) enough to enter the corpse-strewn world of independent publishing. Miller told me about Life as a Loser-it was his kickoff title-and asked if I'd take a look. I did and was immediately taken by Will Leitch's voice-it's funny, self-deprecating, and oddly moving. I wholeheartedly recommend the book.

You have taught writing at Harvard and Yale. Based on my graduate school experiences so far, it seems extremely difficult to teach writing. What do you try to impart upon your students?
I was lucky enough to have excellent writing teachers in college and graduate school-among them Thomas Berger, Douglas Unger, and Tobias Wolff. Some of what you learn from your writing teachers can be very specific-Wolff, as you might imagine, pushed his students to write as crisply and economically as possible; Thomas Berger explained how he integrated historical research into a novel like Little Big Man. Other lessons are a little broader--you learn what your teachers like to read, and how passionately they've connected with particular works, and how they think about their craft.

What I learned from my time as a creative writing student is that the best teachers teach by being themselves. If the students are serious, they'll learn a lot, both by what you tell them directly, and by what they pick up through osmosis, just from watching another writer's mind at work. Ultimately, though, a teacher can only take you so far-every writer has to find his or her own voice, and that's a project that take years of trial and error.

Was there any particular reason you chose my alma mater, Georgetown, as Tracy Flick's first choice college?
The novel Election was written in 1993, in the wake of the wonderful and slightly wacky 1992 presidential campaign, on which it is in fact modeled (Tammy is Ross Perot; Paul and Tracy are the major party candidates). Georgetown happened to be Bill Clinton's alma mater, as well as Claire Zulkey's, and it seemed like the perfect place to send a character who understood, even in high school, that she was destined for a life in politics.

How do you like screenwriting compared to prose writing?
Screenwriting feels like a bit of a vacation after the long grind of writing a novel. It takes less time to write a script, and you get to cheat on the descriptions. If you're writing a novel or a story, you have some obligation to write fresh vivid sentences that evoke a specific time and place, and for me, at least, it's always a struggle. In a screenplay, you just say-"New York City - Night" and leave it at that.

What I've really enjoyed about screenwriting is collborating with other writers. My main writing partner is a guy named Rob Greenberg, who used to work on Frasier during the glory days of that show. We sit in a room and bounce lines off on one another; it's a lot of fun, and completely different from the solitude of novel writing. I'm having a similar good time with Todd Field on Little Children. But now that I've been concentrating on scripts for the past year, I'm eager to start a new novel. The form is so much less restrictive, and the novelist's creative freedom is so much broader than the screenwriter's.

What do you find so compelling about youth that you write about it so often?
It's not just me, you know. The whole culture's obsessed with youth, which makes it a little painful to grow up, something of an exile from the center of things. Two of my novels-The Wishbones and Little Children, in particular-aren't really about kids, they're about nominal adults who cling to the idea that they're still spiritual teenagers. Bad Haircut and Joe College are more traditional coming-of-age narratives, based on my own experiences growing up. Election is the trickiest in this regard-it's set in high school, but I like to think of it as a grown-up political allegory.

Is it hard to stay connected to children and adolescents or are you able to tap into their mentality well?
I remember high school like it was yesterday. Those were good times, man. Except when they sucked.

Several of your books have been recorded for books on tape (cd?) Do you read it your own? Is the process tedious?
Only The Wishbones and Little Children have been recorded, and both were read by professionals. I'd like to try recording one myself one of these days, but I bet you're right-it's probably incredibly tedious. The Wishbones, I'm sorry to say, was brutally abridged, and I can't bear to listen to it, though my eighty-five year old (very Catholic) great-aunt appreciated the absence of profanity.

How much of your writing is taken from your own life?
Some of my characters are direct autobiographical surrogates-Buddy in Bad Haircut, Danny in Joe College. Others, like Dave in The Wishbones, are based pretty closely on people I know well. I tend to think of Election and Little Children as the least autobiographical and most public of my books, in which I'm trying to comment on American culture rather than reflect on my own life. But even in those novels, there are characters who I feel very close to-Sarah in Little Children, and Tammy in Election-despite the fact that I have very little in common with them in a superficial sense. In a deeper sense, I'd say that they are as autobiographical as Buddy and Danny. I guess what I'm really saying is that I experimented with lesbianism in high school and college.

Often when I read a book that involves a character coming of age, the loss of innocence as they leave childhood is a sad one. Do you view that process as a depressing one, or an exciting, or just strictly biological one?
I guess it depends upon how you saw your own adolescence. When I wrote my own coming-of-age book, Bad Haircut, I tried to capture a range of mythic experiences that mark that time of life-the new awareness that comes with our first fragmentary glimpses of sex, death, the fallibility of our parents and teachers, a realistic sense of our own strengths and weaknesses. Awful as it can be, adolescence is probably the most emotionally intense and illuminating and personally defining period we live through-sadness is part of it, but it's not the whole thing.

I read an essay recently by a young woman listing her writing career as one of the reasons why she does not want to have children. Does starting a family severely inhibit the writing process, or does it give you more fodder?
It's probably different for women than for men. Talking to my wife and other women friends, I've come to see that motherhood can be an all-consuming experience. On the other hand, lots of men and women writers somehow manage to combine work and family, so it's obviously a personal equation-how much energy you have, how well you can compartmentalize, how much child care you can afford, etc. Since my last book was about an adulterous love affair between young parents that begins and ends on the playground, I'm sure you can guess my answer to the second part of the question.

What was the inspiration for The Wishbones? Have you ever been in a band?
I am a bad but enthusiastic guitar player. I never played in a band as a teenager, but I did as act a roadie on occasion for my cousin Mike, a talented musician who now plays in a wedding band, as do a number of guys I grew up with. I wrote the Wishbones when I was in my early thirties, and thinking a lot about the onset of "responsible adulthood," and how that sometimes forced people to abandon the dreams that had been at the center of their lives. Rock musicians playing in wedding band seemed like a great vehicle for exploring that subject.

What's been the last good book you've read?
I'm in the middle of Willa Cather's My Antonia, which I'd managed somehow never to have read, even though Cather's one of my favorite writers. It's a beautiful book, one of those novels you savor line by line. As for mor contemporary works, I'd like to put in a plug for Kate Walbert's Our Kind, which is up for the National Book Award, and Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, an excellent first novel that will be published in the spring.

How does it feel to be the 109th person interviewed for
On the spectrum of honors, it falls somewhere between Employee of the Month and the Nobel Prize.

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