Tom Perrotta in Seattle

Tom Perrotta struck me more of an observer more than any of the other writers I’ve seen recently: he had an almost shy demeanor, and I could imagine him as one of the teenage wallflowers who are often his characters. He wasn’t like Richard Russo, whose years in a classroom show familiarity with the stage, or Martin Amis, who, though less bombastic in real life than in interviews or writings, still retained more swagger than other authors. Michael Chabon had the professorial air. I want to see a connection between Perrotta’s demeanor and his writing, as my comparison between him and his characters shows, although I know it’s like trying to read autobiographically. Still, I can say with confidence that Perrotta’s writing is the least writerly in the sense of being self-conscious and wordy, and of the above writers his is the closest to the spareness of Elmore Leonard, almost as though Perrotta operates within the societal constraints his characters beat against and try to break out of.

My question to Perrotta last night was about those constraints, since he writes so often about people trapped in one way or another, especially in high schools—a librarian is described on page five of The Abstinence Teacher “a cultured gay man, an opera-loving dandy with a fetish for Italian designer eyewear, trapped all day in a suburban public high school.” The characters in Election are also stuck in high school without having read Paul Graham’s thoughts on the system, while the protagonist in Joe College is trapped by his lower-middle class upbringing and the need to pay for an Ivy League education while his classmates coast on their parents’ money, and in Little Children the characters are in unhappy marriages with the burden of their offspring.

He responded by saying that the trapped feeling is part of the “American dilemma” because he says most of us aren’t really free, and that we don’t realize how unfree we are. Most people feel constrained, although they won’t admit it. We’re all trapped, which he admits might be a “grim” thing to say, but we are, whether by work, or school, or whatever.

I see the issue as one more of trade-offs, and if Perrotta were to expand on what he said, I don’t think he would argue that we are utterly without political freedom, or the ability to go where we want if we want to, but rather that we don’t feel free. We mentally corral ourselves, in part due to past choices, but also in part due to society. I’m stuck by the idea that as often as not we’re trapped as a result of previous choices—an idea that will arise again in my post about Richard Russo, who made a not dissimilar point when he was in Seattle recently.

A few other people asked good questions; one led to him saying that he wanted to write a culture war novel, and that sex education was nearer to his heart than subjects like evolution or abortion, and that he was interested in people on both (or all) sides of the issue. “Nobody quite lives up to their own standards—unless you’re better people than me,” he said, and the wry joke at the end was typical of his responses and of his writing.

(Another thought of my own: does anyone outside of newspapers and magazines and confrontational idiot cable TV even fight culture wars? And if so, are they over?)

He fired back nice answers to the silly question flood that came as soon as someone asked about advice for young writers. Then came “did you put Real People™ in your novel?”, and then a less mundane but no less inane question when another person asked if he felt pressure because his books had been made into movies. I suppose I’m too hard on the questioners, since most probably don’t read the writers’ later criticism in essays, but the questions still annoy. I would’ve liked to assign this. Maybe the other questioners, like me, have not yet finished The Abstinence Teacher; I’m still chewing through Bridge of Sighs and read the first 70 or so pages of Perrotta.

A movie question did lead to a point about the way movies are created. Perrotta said he wrote the Little Children script with director Todd Field and that the ending originally conformed more with the book, but that it didn’t seem sufficiently cinematic or resolute. Field called one day with the different—and, in my view, awful—ending that the movie now has. Likewise, in Election, the movie first used an ending similar to the book, but it apparently didn’t “test” well. No wonder Elmore Leonard said, “I don’t like screenplays at all. You’re not writing for yourself; you’re writing for a committee. They’re throwing ideas in, then the producer gets involved, saying you need to add this character or that character.”

I know what Perrotta means about movies and changes—endings are a pain.

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