“The Important Thing Is to Keep Moving”: A Conversation with Tom Perrotta




TOM PERROTTA WAS born in 1961 in Union County in northeastern New Jersey. He took degrees from Yale and Syracuse in English and creative writing. Since the 1990s, he has carved out a niche as a bestselling chronicler of the ever-changing values of an evolving (or devolving) world. Author of 10 books of fiction, he’s recently published Tracy Flick Can’t Win, which is structured around the iconic character from his 1998 novel Election (adapted by Alexander Payne in 1999 as a film, featuring Reese Witherspoon as Flick).

In this discussion, we cover his work as a whole and delve into the multifarious aspects of American life his books touch upon. Whether characterized as darkly comic or socially satiric, his is a distinctive voice in contemporary literature. Perrotta has crossed over into filmed narratives as well, with the 2006 movie Little Children (which he adapted from his 2004 novel), the 2014 HBO series The Leftovers (an adaptation of his 2011 novel that he co-created and produced, and which won a Peabody Award), and the 2019 HBO series Mrs. Fletcher (adapted from his 2017 novel, and on which he served as showrunner).

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SEAN HOOKS: Like its predecessor Election, your new novel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, is set partially in an American public high school in New Jersey. You’ve stated that “[h]igh school is the crucible where most of us form our basic selves.” Today, with bullying a national conversation and 20 percent of Gen Z coming out as LGBTQ, high school would appear to be less of the sadistic crucible or Darwinian gauntlet it once was. Americans, however, seem like extended adolescents now, non-adults who constantly bicker and fight and try to get people with whom they disagree cancelled, fired, or worse. Thirty years ago, around the time Election was published, fewer than 5 percent of Americans claimed to have an anxiety disorder, and now some studies put that number at 50 percent. I think the internet’s a major factor in both the good and the bad. What do you think?

TOM PERROTTA: There’s a lot to chew on in that question. I agree that, in some big ways, the culture of high school has improved since I was a student in the late 1970s — for example, the homophobia was so extreme back then that I used to confidently tell my college friends that there were no gay people in my high school. Well, it turns out there were a fair number of gay people in my high school — some of them were good friends of mine — they were just all in the closet. It was unthinkable for them to come out in that environment, where they would have been mocked and bullied without mercy.

On the other hand, I would also say that I’m sometimes nostalgic for the relatively relaxed atmosphere of those days — in general, we weren’t as obsessed by achievement and competition as a lot of teenagers are now, and we didn’t feel so relentlessly scrutinized and judged and ranked. Nobody was competing for likes and followers on social media, or obsessively curating their public image. And we weren’t quite so anxious about our economic futures, either.

So, yes, there have been significant changes over the past few decades, but high school — at least public high school — is still one of the best metaphors I can think of for American society writ large, because it’s one of the few truly communal spaces that we move through. And the hierarchies that ruled high school back when I was a kid still permeate the culture as a whole, if not as decisively as they used to. It’s no accident that football heroes like Herschel Walker and Tommy Tuberville are running for office on the Republican side. In a way, the whole MAGA project can be seen as an attempt to recreate the culture of a ’70s high school on a national scale, with the jocks and bullies back on top, and a certain amount of cruelty accepted as natural and even desirable.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons why Tracy Flick is so hard to pin down politically. Tracy is conservative by nature — she’s an individualist, and a rule follower with a somewhat rigid personality — but she can’t stand the jocks and alpha males, whose power she sees as completely arbitrary and unjust. She knows she can beat them in a fair competition, but the competition is never fair. It’s always rigged, to use a charged word in the contemporary political lexicon, and Tracy’s always on the losing end.

Dreiser wrote that “Americanism […] resists facts and reveres illusion.” Your new book plumbs the depths of disillusionment and tussles with Americanism, from the politics of race and gender to the decline of the middle class to the bureaucracy of a compromised public education system, from class consciousness and police relations to bullying and gun violence. I mention Dreiser because there is a discernible component of naturalism in your new book, is there not?

I’m a big Dreiser fan — I think Sister Carrie is one of the great American novels — and a devoted realist in most of my work (The Leftovers is the main exception), but I’ve never thought of myself as practicing “literary naturalism,” which seems more or less synonymous with “grim and humorless.” There’s always a comic element in my work, no matter how dark it gets, and always room for some hope and human agency. My characters don’t always get crushed by large social forces. For example, Tracy ends up becoming president at the end of Election, despite Mr. M’s machinations.

If we’re thinking about writers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I’d like to believe I have more in common with Twain than with Dreiser. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain is both representing/replicating the racism of his era — maybe a little too well by our current standards — and also challenging it, creating a microcosm on the raft that’s a little freer and more forgiving than the surrounding world. I prefer that approach to Dreiser’s relentless naturalism.

Nearly all workers think they do a good job, even the most incompetent. American Idol and its ilk consistently remind us that some people make it well into their twenties, or even thirties, without being told they lack a talent for the aim they’re trying to pursue. And the scientific data shows that, if you ask people to rate themselves at almost any task, they will rate themselves “above average” or higher. Many works of fiction and film today seem well below the standards of even 10 or 20 years ago. Identity politics and the new religions of self-esteem certainly contribute to this, as does a lack of agreed-upon objective standards, and also the notion of treating critique as destructive, as “trolling” or “hating on.” Your novels continually resist this trend, relentlessly exposing our faults, flaws, and shortcomings. Is an unblinking honesty and truth-seeking, as archaic as those values may seem, still something best achieved by the social-realist novel with satirical undertones (a genre that applies to many of your works)?

I’m not sure I agree with your premise about the declining quality of novels and film over the last decade or two — every era produces its share of mediocre art — though I do think there’s been a populist, internet-fueled reaction against elitist critics, the gatekeepers and canon-makers who used to have a lot more cultural power than they do now. Some of that reaction is the product of identity politics (the voices in the conversation are a lot more varied than they used to be), some of it is the product of changing technology (everybody can weigh in, not just the privileged few), and some of it is the result of genuine aesthetic confusion. We don’t have a shared standard for what art is, or the role it’s supposed to play in society, so who’s to say what’s good or bad or great? It’s a legitimate question.

Right now, there are loud voices on both the right and the left that want to judge art primarily on its ability to validate and reinforce their political positions. Should Beloved be taught in high school because kids need to learn about the brutal realities of slavery? Or should it be suppressed because of its disturbing sexual content? It’s not an argument about the beauty of Toni Morrison’s sentences, or the way she borrows and subverts the conventions of the ghost story. For culture warriors, these “purely literary” questions are beside the point.

About a decade ago in The New York Times, you stated that you “prefer storytellers to virtuoso stylists” and expressed a love of populist writers like John Irving, whom you clearly viewed as a hero of sorts. You praised the influence of his novel The World According to Garp while admitting to a skepticism of acknowledged masterworks like Nabokov’s Lolita, where the “sparkling wordplay just got exhausting after a while.” I guess I’ll try to invert things then and ask if there is an experimental or avant-garde text that you found you couldn’t put down? And/or an Irving-esque writer/book (in that NYT piece you referenced To Kill a Mockingbird as an example) that seemed like a perfect fit for your taste but left you disappointed and unengaged?

I grew up in a blue-collar world — my father was a postal worker, and my mother was a secretary — and then attended an Ivy League college, so I’m pretty sensitive about issues of class and elitism. One of the things I love about the novel is that it started out as a popular art form, accessible to almost everyone. And I’ve tried to situate myself within what I think of as a “plain-language” tradition in American writing — Hemingway, Crane, Cather, Carver, among others. I don’t want to write something that scares people away or makes them think, I didn’t go to college, so I won’t be able to understand this. To the extent that literature can actually be part of a cultural conversation right now, I’d like that conversation to be as inclusive as possible.

On the other hand, I revere Ulysses — it’s an awe-inspiring achievement that I’ve been thinking about for decades — but there’s something a little heartbreaking about the idea of a novel that celebrates ordinary people in language that many of them find impenetrable. Even Nora Joyce, who was the inspiration for Molly Bloom, couldn’t finish her husband’s book.

That’s not to say that Joyce shouldn’t have written it the way he did. It’s just to say that writers create their works for an imaginary audience — Joyce famously bragged that he would “keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what [he] meant.” I guess I’d say that the people in my imaginary audience aren’t professors, and they didn’t necessarily major in English, or even go to college. That’s probably not how it works in real life, but that’s how it works in my head.

I need to ask about the much-discussed white working class. It’s at the core of Tracy’s resentment of spoiled rich kids in the film adaptation of Election and looms over the novel even more tremulously. Economic insecurity pervades your early works Bad Haircut (1994), The Wishbones (1997), and Joe College (2000). The father of the titular protagonist of Joe College owns a lunch truck, and I remember clearly the scene where the dad grows very serious and respectful when the topic of small business owners comes up. He speaks of the independent entrepreneur as the engine of capitalism, while his son is more skeptical of his pop’s bootstrapper immigrant values, viewing them maybe as a previous generation’s antiquated credo. Twenty years later, corporations and uber-entrepreneurs (like the tech billionaire character Kyle Dorfman in your new book) have grown more dominant and influential. And the white working class is surely both overly lionized and overly vilified, depending on what type of company you keep or where you get your “news.” Are the imperfect but lovable members of this tribe still your primary focus as an author?

This is such a central and thorny question for me. I grew up in a working-class factory town in suburban New Jersey — we were known as the “Industrial Center of Union County” — and I wrote about that world in my first four books. Since Little Children (2004), though, I’ve been writing about a more upscale sort of Northeastern suburbia, an amalgam of Boston and Westchester County and the leafier parts of New Jersey. In one sense, this is my own life catching up with me — I live outside of Boston in a town full of professors and scientists — but it’s also a result of my increasing alienation from white working-class culture, or at least the substantial part of it that’s decided to worship Donald Trump. I understand some of the sources of populist resentment — the obscene inequality of our society, a sense that things are changing too fast, the feeling of being patronized or ridiculed by so-called elites — but the racism and cruelty of Trumpism, along with the willful ignorance, fake Christianity, and dangerous contempt for democracy, have created a huge gulf between me and some of the people I grew up with.

One of the interesting things about writing Tracy Flick Can’t Win was returning to that specific New Jersey world of my earlier books. That world has changed a lot in the intervening years — it’s postindustrial now and pretty prosperous — and so has Tracy. Out of sheer determination, she’s managed to ascend into the professional class, but everything still feels a little precarious to her, and a little disappointing. She had such big dreams for herself, but none of them came true. Her family suffered bad luck at a crucial moment, and her rise to the top got permanently derailed. Sometimes even the most talented and ambitious working-class people don’t have the support system they need to reach their true potential.

Your ascent from literary short-story writer to bestselling novelist with multiple film adaptations to HBO darling is well chronicled. I’ve interviewed other authors who’ve followed a similarly explosive rise — George Saunders and Anthony Doerr seem worth mentioning — so I just want to ask about “stardom” or “fame” or “success” and how you process all that stuff.

I feel lucky every day. There was a long time when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make a living from my writing — I wrote three books before Bad Haircut was published by a start-up small press called Bridge Works — and I never expected that a big part of my career would ultimately be in TV and film. So, I’m grateful for all of that, mainly because it gives me the freedom to focus on my work. That’s a huge gift for a writer.

You’ve written about mass death in The Leftovers and worked on the TV adaptation as well, so I’m sure you’ve been asked incessantly about the COVID-19 pandemic. You have stated, “I believe that the basic human condition is to be bystanders of disaster.” This belief serves as a mission statement for much of your oeuvre, and it’s on display in Tracy Flick Can’t Win as well. So, where’s your head at right now regarding this whole shebang? Are we on the road to a “return to normalcy”?

There’s a definition of privilege for you — the idea that we get to be bystanders of disaster, rather than victims. But that’s a daily reality in a media-saturated world. We spend a lot of time scrolling through tragedies that happen to other people in faraway places — we’re doing it right now with Ukraine — and we can get a little numb to other people’s pain. I remember seeing nightmarish pictures of overcrowded hospitals in Wuhan in early 2020, and the disbelief I felt when people started getting sick here. Suddenly we weren’t bystanders anymore. It’s been a profound shock to our system.

I deliberately set The Leftovers three years after the Sudden Departure, the Rapture-like event in which two percent of the human population disappears into thin air, when things are more or less “back to normal.” I wasn’t interested in describing the chaos immediately following the disaster; I wanted to look at the aftermath, the way people process (or deny) trauma on a massive scale. Even after three years, some of them are still mired in grief; others just want to forget and move on. It’s a powerful human urge, to put the past behind us, but it’s never as easy as it looks. As the man said, the past isn’t even past.

The only thing I can say for sure about the pandemic is that it’s not quite over yet, and that we’ll still be processing what just happened to us for many, many years to come.

Tracy Flick has become an icon, a canonical character in pop culture. What a bizarre thing to create. It’s one thing for an author to coin a neologism that enters the lexicon, like “Catch-22” or “Generation X,” but it’s another for a character to become widely known, a stand-in or metonym. You’ve talked about Reese Witherspoon’s significant contribution to that status, but can you speak to how you’ve responded to this phenomenon in your new novel and in your life?

It’s been pretty surreal watching a character become a cultural touchstone. So many different women politicians have been compared to Tracy — from Hillary Clinton to Kirsten Gillibrand to the Trump flunky Elise Stefanik, among others. I think it speaks not just to the scarcity of actual female politicians in American history — at least until very recently — but also to the dearth of powerful female characters in literature who are politically ambitious on their own terms, not just on behalf of their husbands. Basically, feminism created the space for Tracy. She’s a product of the Second Wave, when Madonna and Hillary Clinton and a whole generation of women were redefining what was possible.

I returned to the character after all these years because I was curious about what had become of her. Was she a blond culture warrior on Fox News? A successful politician? A tenacious lawyer? A stay-at-home mom? I thought of her as a sort of test case — she’s smart, she’s ambitious, she’s determined, so how far can she go? And what kinds of forces will be arrayed against her? I was also interested in exploring Tracy’s reaction to the #MeToo movement, given her history of a “consensual” sexual relationship with one of her high school teachers.

Tracy Flick Can’t Win is your 10th book and you’ve just entered your sixties, so allow me to ask a potentially provocative yet reflective question. Does any one volume on your author shelf stand out as something that rankles you at all in retrospect, an effort you wish you’d tweaked or reimagined or taken in a different direction?

Like a lot of writers, I waver between irrational self-confidence and unwarranted self-doubt. There are days when I feel like an artist, and days when I feel like I can’t even write a decent sentence. But these feelings are almost always inspired by work in progress. I really don’t spend a lot of time kicking myself — or congratulating myself — for work I did in the past. The important thing is to keep moving, and to keep trying to make something new.

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Sean Hooks resides in Dallas and his website is www.seanhooks.com.

 

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