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

Q: It sounds like this new book took you out of your comfort zone.

A: Yeah, I definitely felt a little bit of the risk of being a young writer. I already had a deal, the book was going to be published, so that anxiety was gone. Whereas for most of my 20s I wrote three books on spec that I couldn’t get published. And writing in that way was terrifying. But I was also wanting to find my place in this world. So I’m writing now from a little bit of a sense of safety, I’m getting paid for it, I have an audience, but this was a way of reminding myself that making the tightrope a little higher off the ground, I could fall and something bad could happen.

Q: Well, you asked something of yourself that I imagine you’re not 100 percent convinced that you could actually do, and I think that’s kind of the point of it, right? To stretch?

A: It’s true, and I think it’s the only way I can imagine going on. Because I was feeling a little bit depleted, like I had these subjects that had fascinated me for years and years and I had sort of done with them what I could. And I was definitely a little bit adrift. So, part of what, I think, drew me to this subject was a sense of I’m not supposed to write this. And that was a good thing to do.

Q: Oh yes.

A: And I think this goes with any endeavor. I’m sure what you’re doing right now, in the sense of you had a successful run doing this thing that you knew how to do and now you’re trying something new and you could fail and have to be open to the idea of failing, or succeeding in some new way. There’s a sense of hope. I do think that does make you feel alive.

Q: I know so. In good and bad ways.

A: That’s a really good point. I think the anxiety, the little bit of insomnia, that’s not so bad.

Q: It’s actually been an interesting process for me because I’m not a person who is drawn to edgy, uncomfortable feelings. I like things to be kind of placid and going my way and I have to remind myself when I’m feeling agitated that I must feel agitated because nothing’s going to happen otherwise, that it’s a good thing because it leads you somewhere. Can I ask you about growing older, generally? How has it been for you?

A: You know, I’m going to be 50 this summer and I would say even until about 45, I always felt kind of like a young person and a young writer. Just in the past few years, I look in the mirror and I’m like, “Oh, who’s that guy?” And for some reason I came down with asthma recently and it’s okay, it’s totally under control. But when it first happened it was the first kind of seriously scary and debilitating thing that had ever happened and that was like a jolt. It just had all these little intonations of mortality, you know?  When things go wrong with your body that freaks you out in a certain way. My father died. My kids are getting older. My son’s taller than I am. There’s just all these things.

Q: How old are your kids?

A: My daughter is 17 and my son is 14. I think these are just little things, but they have a funny cumulative effect and it was a little bit of a jolt to my self-image and my identity. You know, when I taught in college I always felt like I was the young, fun teacher and now if I walk through a college campus I realize I’m just a middle-aged guy walking through a college campus and that was never who I was. I would always go to college campuses to feel young and remember college myself. So I guess your first impulse is to fight it and your second impulse is to just accept it. I’m kind of in between those two.

Q: What’s good about getting older?

A: Well, you know, in my case I think there’s a lot that’s good and I feel like I’ve managed to make a life that in many ways I really like. It’s up and running and in many ways, I have so few complaints. It’s a good marriage, good job, great kids. I think there’s always just that sense, and I’ve always been aware of it, my whole life, it’s part of what made me want to be a novelist, that if you commit to one life there are many lives that fall away. And I’m always aware of those.

Q: I’ve never heard anybody articulate it that way and it really resonates because I listen to you say all these things and I’m like check, check, check. And yet there is this poignancy about getting older that’s not just about looking in the mirror and wondering who that person is or the physical frailties that visit us. It’s that we’ve made our choices and we’re probably not going to make a lot of other big choices. So maybe it’s like a narrowing of the spectrum of possibilities.

A: I think that’s very much the case. People often ask me, “Why do you write so much about adultery?” One of the things that I’m trying to explain is that from a narrative sense, and especially a novelistic sense, there’s always the story of love and marriage. The story of “Reader, I married him.” The place where you’re creating yourself is in that big choice, you know? And so if you’re talking about a middle-aged person and you’re trying to find a metaphor for change and movement, it’s almost like you need to get a character back in the love game. So adultery becomes a kind of destabilizing thing. And with instability comes possibility. Too much stability is a kind of a stasis. There’s all kinds of bad, getting sick for instance, and I think there is also possibility that comes with that. Some people, they get healthy and they realize that their life looks different to them and they do things differently. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, and I’m not talking about that right now. But there aren’t that many things that create instability and possibility.

Q: That’s right, the nature of drama changes really radically, I think, over time.

A: It gets harder and harder to think about what a middle aged person’s drama is, you know?

Q: That’s actually an interesting challenge for a storyteller. Where do stories come from? I mean, you have to look in different places for your story if you’re not going to just keep going back to what you drew on as a youth.

A: It’s one thing I totally admire about Roth lately, is that he’s been writing about aging and mortality and finding stories in it.

Q: Do you find it harder to find the story in being older? Is it by definition less fertile ground?

A: It’s been a challenge for me just because I think I’ve focused so intensely on love and sex and adultery. Obviously, I’ve tried to find parents and kids and institutional settings and I think I feel like I need to look more at the world of work. I’ve been very lucky in that I haven’t had to hold a real job, but I also think it means that I’m a bit of a stranger. I had my share of work experience, but not lately. So I feel like that’s a place to look.

Q: Have you ever lost interest in writing?

A: You know, oddly not. That’s been a real constant. I think that what I’ve tried to do recently with the screenwriting is give myself a jolt and also give some break because there’s something about the fiction writing that can be a little bit plodding. It’s really slow. It takes a long time to get from here to there. You’ve got to slave over every sentence, whereas in screenwriting, it feels like you can move in bolder strokes and finish something in a matter of months rather than years.

Q: Have you needed to develop different parts of yourself as a writer? Have you had to learn new things?

A: Yeah. I mean, with The Abstinence Teacher, I really immersed myself in a kind of sociological research about religion that I hadn’t done before and I found it really exciting to do. So I think I try to find some new ground each time because there’s got to be something that feels new. Otherwise, it’s a little bit like those writers who write mystery series. How do they keep that exciting? How do you breathe life into that? I don’t have quite that issue, but I do want to feel like I’m doing something new, that I’m exciting myself and I’m surprising my audience, even while I’m somehow or other delivering them something that’s familiar to them as my work.

Q: I’m guessing the structure of television calls upon you to think differently about storytelling.

A: Oh, yeah. And that part of it, again, it’s like I don’t know that much about how you put it together. I’m waiting for Showtime to say whether or not they’ll film the pilot but if they do, then I will be working with people who know a lot more about that part of it. I’ve been around movie sets a bit, but I haven’t had responsibility there. I’ve been a tourist. So I get to be a bit of a beginner.



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