Tom Perrotta head shot

Tom Perrotta On Choices, Changes, and the Holes Where People Used to Be

Q: How have changes in technology and the publishing industry impacted you as a writer and the way you do your work.

A: It’s something I think about all the time. I would say in the most concrete sense, this move toward film and TV is partly me kind of hedging my bets, feeling like, just as a practical matter, there aren’t as many readers as there used to be. And if I want to reach a wide audience, it makes a lot of sense to work in this other genre. This cable TV genre also feels quite fresh to me. It’s not the network sitcom, the network drama, it’s something new. It feels very novelistic. It has that feeling, like when you watch Madmen or something, a Victorian audience must have felt –

Q: It’s story telling.

A: Yeah, it really is. And feature film just wasn’t doing a whole lot of that in a novelistic sense, and they’ve moved further and further away from adapting literary works. So it’s been really interesting to see this new format. And so I felt like in that sense I’ve been pretty flexible, because I know a lot of writers of literary fiction just feel like TV and film– it’s such an old debate in my mind, but people still feel that way — that it’s commercial, that it’s selling out in some way, that it’s not literary. I feel just the opposite. I feel like it’s really an interesting kind of new literary format, and obviously it’s cinematic and commercial but not nearly as commercial as Hollywood filmmaking. So in that sense I feel like I’ve been able to kind of ride the changing moment. Whereas I feel like this other move towards Twitter and blogging, this idea that you as an artist could be in constant touch with your audience, that you’re always fighting for a few seconds of somebody’s consciousness, that’s not interesting me that much and I feel like I’m playing a very defensive game. I’m not trying to get ahead of it, I’m just trying not to be so far behind. I guess I can see the point of constantly entertaining people, it just doesn’t feel like what I set out to do. It’s certainly not storytelling.

Q: It’s promotion. I mean, I think that’s what it comes down to. Hello, I’m here, look at me.

A: I have a limited appetite for that. I know I need to do it. But on the other hand, some people have turned it into an art form. You can be very funny. If I could say ten really funny things in the course of the day reacting to the flow of information in the world that people found illuminating or funny, I guess that could be a new art form.

Q: But it’s not what you do.

A: It’s not what I do and it seems like the opposite of the sort of sustained focus that I need to do the work that I do.

Q: That’s a good point. I mean, there are some people who seem to be able to encompass the serious creative life and everything else, somebody like Neil Gaiman who is in an incredible tweeter.

A: Well, I say he’s probably just one of those people who is just brimming with energy and stuff to say and his mind’s on fire. And this isn’t even a sort of middle-aged thing, because even when I was younger, I felt like I had to protect myself from the world to a certain extent and that what I need are a few peaceful hours. I’ve always just wanted to be left alone. That was one of the things about the writing life that seemed appealing. You could be a recluse, but then have a sort of public life, and that seemed fine to me. It’s a little bit lonely now, and that’s one of the reasons, also, that TV and film have appealed to me, because they’re kind of collaborative and social. I’ve been more drawn to that. But yeah, this idea of just constant social contact, even with sympathetic souls, I don’t need it.

Q: Speaking of the writer’s life, I want to ask if the way you work has changed over time?

A: No, I’m such a habitual person and I’ve been that way for a long time. In fact, the only real challenge to it is this weird feeling of I don’t want to get stale. It’s one thing to do something for ten years and it’s another thing to do it for twenty. It’s another thing to do it for thirty. Do you know the painter Philip Pearlstein?

Q: No.

A: An amazing sort of hyperrealist figurative painter. A friend of mine was his assistant years ago, and he got to this point where he was going to his studio every day and painting, like, two nude female models against a backdrop of southwestern rugs, you know?

And you could see hundreds and hundreds of paintings that are basically variations on this theme. There are a lot of artists that did that sort of thing, homage to the square, or whatever. I mean, I guess there’s a way of being an artist that just involves finding your subject and exploring it exhaustively.

Q: I think that speaks to another interesting question, which is whether one’s art form is primarily a way of expressing oneself or primarily a way of connecting with other people. Because I think those are two really different impulses and artists like Pearlstein are obviously driven to explore this one thing again and again and again and again.

A: And it’s a technical challenge that is consuming.

Q: That’s right. And if it floats his boat that’s fine.

A: No, it’s great. It does seem like it becomes a kind of, you know, weird loop. It’s just a self-enclosed system. As a writer I’m very conscious of the people on the other end and just because something’s interesting to me doesn’t mean it’s going to be interesting to other people. I’m struck by people that just have that confidence, “If it’s interesting to me, it’s going to be interesting to other people.” And, you know, I find it’s worth thinking about for me, and it must be some sort of filtering mechanism that makes you go to certain ideas as opposed to other ones. It’s not like I have tons of ideas and then get to pick the one that I think is going to be most interesting to other people. Usually I have one idea in my head. And so, for instance, this idea of the post-apocalyptic novel, I was kind of aware on the one hand that people were drawn to those stories and on the other hand that a lot of my readers might resist it. The idea just stuck with me.

Q: Do you worry that your readers will resist because it’s so different from what you’ve done?

A: Yeah. Because I think I was considered a realist, somebody who sort of comments on the world as we’re living it right this moment. And this is a little bit futuristic, in a sense, and a little bit moving away from psychological realism towards a certain kind of genre fiction. So I’m aware of that stuff, but then the idea just sticks with me to the point where that’s what I have to write.

Q: Do you think that’s part of the reason it appealed to you, this idea, because it is different and it represents a change? You mentioned earlier this gnawing awareness of wanting to not become stale.

A: I mean, I certainly was aware that to the extent that people cared about my work they’d compare other writers to me and say, “Oh, this is like that.” There is some sense that I had a little bit of a trademark, you know, which is a great thing for a writer. But then it also could be an albatross. You see it with all kinds of artists. I mean, I was so fascinated with Dylan’s memoir because you just saw him talk about different phases of his career and moments when he felt great certainty about what he was supposed to do and moments that he had no idea about what he was supposed to do, moments when he rebelled against expectations. I do think that’s a part of any long career.

Q: And I think it can cut in so many different ways. For a lot of reasons I think it’s tougher for musicians than writers to stay relevant and popular.  How do you assess your own trajectory in terms of the young writer versus the mid-career writer?

A: It’s always hard for the artist, him or herself, to know these things. I feel like I can do a lot more than I could back then. There are definitely people who like my early, funny stuff. But I think my work’s gotten more ambitious and I think fiction writers, in particular, can get better and better. There’s not anything inherent, I think, in the challenges of the work that require a really youthful mind.

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