Tom Perrotta head shot

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

Q: I agree.

A: On the contrary, though, there have been people who — The Great Gatsby was a young book, and there have been a number of writers who wrote their young book and they never reached those heights again. On the other hand, there are people like Roth who have this late flowering and it’s very different from the early work. In some ways, it’s a kind of rejection of the early work, but is every bit as substantial and probably more important than the early work. So, you look at people like that, I certainly look at him as a kind of inspirational figure, and there have been others. But then you have the Updikes who seemed stronger when they were younger and there was a kind of almost wild erotic energy running through the work. And I think Roth has figured out how to live without that. I think Updike never really did. And it does leave your work, I think. I must say when you’re young, or when I was young, love and sex seemed to be the only stories worth telling, you know? And now it’s like they’re certainly stories worth telling, but they’re not the only stories to tell.

Q: And I think that fiction writers are given almost complete latitude in that way in a way that a lot of other artists are not.

A: I do feel like it’s one of the compensations for doing a somewhat unglamorous job. I mean, there’s a certain glamour in literature, but it’s not music and it’s not the movie business. But you can be middle-aged and older, although celebrity culture has affected even this. It’s really great if you are a really attractive woman in her late 20s publishing her first novel because people want to post your picture everywhere. If you’re a middle-aged person that’s publishing your first book, it might well get read, but you’ll probably get less publicity because your picture isn’t as appealing to look at, you know? I mean, there are stories to be told, particularly about older women writers. I talk to enough photographers who do author photos and there’s so much anxiety around them because publishers will just tell you, “We don’t like your picture. You need to look younger. You need to look prettier.”

Q: Wow.

A: You can’t imagine. I mean, Eudora Welty or someone, part of the greatness of these Eudora Welty photos is you see her aging face, you know? And it’s just a sense of who she is.

Q: Has the sense of satisfaction you get from your work, the nature of the gratification, shifted over time?

A: Well, I think what shifts is your expectations. So, there was a time when I would have been completely thrilled to get published by a small magazine that a couple hundred people read. And now, the bar just keeps getting raised. That’s different from the satisfaction of work. That’s the pleasure of getting your work recognized. On a day to day level, writing’s a very odd thing. I mean, this week’s been a very frustrating week for me. I’ve been working on a short story and I’m not getting anywhere. But it’s sort of engrossing to keep knocking your head against the wall. I have a certain calm sense that I’ll figure something out down the road.

Q: Because you’ve done it enough times in the past?

A: Because I’ve done it enough times in the past. So there’s the double edge. It’s like, doing something that you’ve done before, you can be calm about it. But I think even the sense of satisfaction is a little more muted than that feeling of being young and writing something that you didn’t know you could do, of surprising yourself, feeling like the world’s cracking open. I think it’s a quieter satisfaction. But even when I was even young I was sort of like, “I just want to be really good at something.” I would see people who, whatever it was, whether it was playing a musical instrument or building things, or people who I thought had kind of mastered something worth doing, that seemed to me like a really good life goal. I don’t know that I’ve mastered what I do, but I feel like I’ve devoted myself to it. I like that idea of the daily devotion to a particular practice.

Q: Do you have a writing schedule, a daily writing schedule?

A: I don’t think of it that way, but that’s what I do. I go up to my room and I work on whatever it is that I’m working on. That’s five days a week just because my kids are still at home and it feels like it’s better to spend the weekends with them.

Q: So you write when they’re at school?

A: Yeah. Which is not a bad way to go.

Q: It’s a nice chunk of time, nine to three, right?

A: Yeah. And I’m wiped out when it’s done. Again, this is the difference between me and some other writer who has just boundless energy for writing in all its forms. John Updike would write his novels in the morning and then his criticism in the afternoon and probably went back to his novels at night, you know? Four or five hours and I’m pretty wiped out.

Q: Are those few hours usually focused and productive?

A: I wish they were. I mean, I always feel like even in that period you’re sort of sitting at the desk and you’re editing and you’re reading and sometimes you’re actually composing sentences but you’re almost waiting for that half hour where you’re just there and it comes out.

Q: Has it always been that way?

A: I had to force myself early on when I was writing short stories. I’d sometimes let whole days go by where I was just sort of rewriting the page that I wrote yesterday. It was okay with stories, but once I started to write a novel, I realized it’s going to take forever.

Q: Literally.

A: Yeah. So I just said every day something new. I didn’t say 500 words or 1,000 words but just every day, something new, meaning I’ve broken new ground. Sometimes, it was just a paragraph, sometimes it was a half page, sometimes it was two pages. But it was just that I wouldn’t stop until there was something new. And so often that something new would be just a little burst at the end of the day. It wouldn’t be polished, but it would be new. And then the next morning, I would go back and work that over and then at the end of the session, push through for something new.

Q: I was talking to Bill Janovitz and your name came up and he relayed an anecdote about you. I guess you’d mentioned to him that you had finished your book and he said something along the lines of, “Oh, I guess now you’re going to edit it.” And you said, “Well no, I edit as I go.”

A: Right. The metaphor I was using is I’m like one of those sea creatures that builds his own shell. But, you know what? I turned out to have been a little too optimistic when I told him that because I ended up editing this book quite a bit and my editor, who I think was very surprised by it, ended up really reading it very carefully and giving me a lot more feedback than normal. I think we were both in sort of uncharted territory, and it was probably good for both of us in that sense. I ended up doing a lot more rewriting than my confident comment to Bill would have indicated. And the book’s better for it. So that’s an interesting thing, too. I have these habits that I’ve developed over literally decades, but they do change in a case by case basis.

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