Tom Perrotta ’83 is a novelist, screenwriter and JE alum. With a BA in creative writing, he is a beacon of hope: living proof that those with liberal arts degrees don’t always end up wishing they’d stuck to Econ 115. He did, however, teach at Harvard. (Nobody’s perfect.) His first work of length, ‘Bad Haircut,’ was born out of his childhood in New Jersey, and his meticulous eye for the workings of American society has been at work ever since — from his high school black comedy “Election” to his anatomy of modern life in the suburbs, “Little Children,” both of which he helped adapt into critically acclaimed films. WKND spoke to literature’s equivalent of “Arcade Fire” over the phone, hoping to tease out a dissertation on dysfunctional America.
Q: Your most recent publication, ‘Nine Inches,’ is your first collection of short stories. Do you find the short story form more difficult than the novel?
A: Not exactly the first — ‘Bad Haircut’ was stories as well, but with a consistent narrator. In that sense it wasn’t a short story collection. There’s a higher degree of difficulty because story form demands a sort of perfection; everybody presumes the novel is an inherently flawed form. Nobody writes a perfect novel — it’s not what the novel is set up for. John Cheever: his novels just are not at the same stature as his stories. Alice Munro doesn’t even write novels.
I enjoy the middle of a novel, where you’re living with characters. With a short story, as soon as you get it running, you have to shut it down. That’s the challenge.
Q: “The novel is an inherently flawed form.” Could you elaborate on that?
A: There’s a famous jokey definition: The novel is a work of prose of a certain length with a serious flaw. Think of the novels that are widely considered as candidates for the Great American Novel: “Huck Finn” is a great novel but it has a very strange ending, “Moby Dick” is a fantastic novel but there’s this ungainly, essayistic section about The Whale. [These books] don’t feel like perfect artifacts.
Q: In reviews, “Nine Inches” has been compared to Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ and Raymond Carver’s collections. Do you feel any pressure from great past authors?
A: Less than I did when I was young. Part of doing this for a long time is understanding and accepting your limitations: what it is that you do well, what you don’t do well. Carver was a writer that meant a huge amount to me when I was young, and I learned from him a simplicity in sentences. When I read him now I realize how literary his sentences were, how he hid that behind some simplicity. What I admire about Joyce is how he went from ‘Dubliners’ to … [long pause] the awe of his later stuff, how different it was.
Q: You’re often described as a “suburban” writer. What is it about suburbia that interests you?
A: I almost feel like I blended into my identity as a suburban writer with “Little Children.” Before, I was considered a New Jersey writer, a guy writer. I wrote about rock ’n’ roll, the working class.
“Little Children” was about sexual transgression. I didn’t realize I was fitting into a generation of social novelists: Richard Yates, John Updike. That’s probably where my publisher wanted to place me.
The drama of child-rearing, of education, of how values get passed down from one generation to the next — that’s what most interests me. It just so happens that that fits nicely into suburbia.
Q: You adapted “Little Children” for the screen yourself. What does the page-to-screen process entail? What do you keep and what do you cut?
A: That was a very interesting process. I adapted it with the director, Todd Field. He was trying very hard not to lose the feeling. There’s a narrator not connected to any of the characters, commenting on the action, and in the film a lot of the commenting comes straight from the book. Most of what I lose is tonal. A lot of the action in “Little Children” is comic, and the film is darker. In the movie adaptation of “Election,” there was a lot of comedy, but the novel itself has a lot of menace.
Q: TV shows are getting better and better. What do you think about the rise of serious television?
A: For me, as a viewer, it began with “The Sopranos.” I was watching something with exhilaration and geek connection to what was going on. I was heartbroken when some of those episodes ended. Why wouldn’t a novelist feel like this new form — long-form TV — is so closely connected to the novel? You’re watching a character unfold for five, six, seven years sometimes. I noticed people were feeling a connection to these characters on TV — at a party or a barbeque, this collective enthusiasm that was really exciting. If you want to join a cultural conversation now, the most obvious entryway is television.
Q: There’s an arresting sentence in “Little Children”: “There was no higher praise at the playground than cute.” What is ‘cute’ art and how, as a writer, do you avoid cuteness?
A: [Laughs] This is actually very close to my heart. I’ve always believed one of the functions of art is to disturb, challenge, provoke — [to] make people uncomfortable. There are other things of course: to move you, to make you appreciate your life, the more positive things. But to provoke can be positive. There’s a tendency in school for people to cut off things that make you uncomfortable. When the movie of “Election” came out, I went and watched a screening with my parents. It’s a dark movie; people behave in pretty horrible ways. I saw my mother slinking down and slinking down. She watches Hallmark and Lifetime. This wasn’t what she’s used to. A woman behind her, at the end of the movie said, “Oh, that was cute.” My mother looked relieved: someone at least found it acceptable, not nasty or challenging.
Q: One of the markers of modern suburbia, of modern life, is social media. Do you think it affects what fiction looks like?
A: It has been the most remarkable phenomenon in everyday life in the past five years. I’ll give you a very personal line. In “Bad Haircut,” I was writing about the world and my childhood. I was infused with a sense of mission: If I don’t write about this world, nobody will. I was the only person in that world that wanted to be a writer. It was a very working-class world. People were shocked that I read fiction. I felt that I had an ownership, then, on this piece of the past.
Then … Facebook came out, and people have these pages on the past. Hundreds of people weigh in on their memories. There’s a place where this collective memory is preserved. I wouldn’t be able to write that book if I tried now. I don’t know if something’s been lost from the world; I think something’s probably been gained. But when the past is always present, the role of the fiction writer, to preserve the past, is changed. People in your generation keep in touch with their high school friends. I think I would have been a very different writer if I were twenty years old now.
Q: In ‘Little Children,’ there’s a very memorable incident about pornography. Do you think the digital growth of pornography has changed us at all?
A: When I was at Yale in the early ’80s there was a very sort-of-unified feminist resistance to pornography. You had to make a real effort to acquire pornography. It was this physical object you had to carry around. It was an anti-porn time. I remember being surprised by how feminists seemed to split: pro-porn, anti-porn. I know in the U.K. they’re trying to legislate porn. I think there’s a lot of destructive, harmful stuff that goes into the production of it. Maybe they will be able to regulate internet porn, but maybe it’s too tightly woven into society now.
Q: One last question about your craft: do you find that writing is a compulsion?
Yes, but I don’t know if it’s a daily compulsion. I’ve gone weeks without writing, but I’m not one of these compulsive journal writers or scribblers — when I’m not writing, it’s when I don’t have an idea. When I don’t have that, I feel unmoored, I feel anxious, I feel [laughs] like my life has no meaning. Sometimes I’m not writing, and it makes me feel unhappy, but it happens.