one of those lovely it’s-a-small-world serendipities,
one of my dearest friends is married to an old college
friend of the author Tom Perrotta, whose works include
"The Leftovers," "Election,"
"Little Children," and his latest novel
"Mrs. Fletcher." My friend’s husband
recently shared memories with me of a long-ago visit to
Perrotta’s New Jersey home:
went to the local cafe, where I think we talked about
how he talked with and understood the characters in his
life; saw the softball fields where a good part of
socialization took place. I remember a warm, but not
oppressive summer night, meeting his family. When
reading his works, I go back to the feel, the light, the
calm, and the knowledge that everyone in those scenes
had a story."
can’t think of a better way to describe how Perrotta’s
books affect me, too: how every character has their own
story, and how Perrotta, a writer of an unusually
generous spirit, lets each person in his books shine in
their own light. Their actions may not always be
admirable, but we’re given the tools to understand
them; they seem complex and well-meaning and utterly
seventh and latest novel, "Mrs. Fletcher" is
about a divorced mother named Eve whose life — social,
emotional, sexual — begins to expand in unexpected
ways after her only son leaves for college. In a warm
telephone interview last week (yes, he remembered my
friend, and had kept up with their family), he said that
the book had a somewhat autobiographical element, as do
many of his novels.
Wishbones," written when a thirtysomething Perrotta
was pondering whether to quit writing (he hadn’t yet
published any of his work) and go to law school, follows
a sunny New Jersey 30-year-old named Dave, who’s still
following his dream of playing in a band. (That charming
1997 novel, by the way, is one of my nominees for Best
Book You’ve Never Read; check it out.) "Little
Children," written when Perrotta’s children were
small, followed the lives of young suburban parents.
"The Abstinence Teacher," the title character
of which is a soccer mom, came about when his children
were active in youth soccer. "The Leftovers,"
the 2011 novel about a Rapture-like occurrence in a
suburban community (and eventually a hit HBO series),
was inspired by the death of Perrotta’s father.
"Mrs. Fletcher" is about, Perrotta said,
"that moment when your kids grow up and move away,
and you have to take stock of who you are and what you
want to do with the rest of your life. I could have
written about that from the perspective of a married
couple, but there seemed to be something more poignant
and more pure about the idea of somebody whose nest
actually was completely empty. She was looking at kind
of a blank page, for the rest of her life."
with "The Leftovers" (for which he was
co-creator, writer and executive producer) and with
little time for new work, Perrotta said he was inspired
by Elena Ferrante’s brief 2005 novel "The Days of
Abandonment," in which a young mother, left by her
husband, becomes unhinged. He’d planned "Mrs.
Fletcher" to be quite short, and from a single
point of view, but things changed.
wanted it to be kind of an erotic fugue state that (Eve)
got into, involving porn and sexual acting out. That
part is still there. But I wrote the first chapter and I
was so curious about the son that I thought, I had to
see what he’s up to. And then I wrote about her
workplace, and I was interested in (another) person, and
so I thought … It’s just the way I work. The book
that actually helped launch me is so different from the
book I ended up with."
Perrotta’s career is a little different from the one
he originally envisioned; he now divides his time
between books and screenwriting. But he didn’t write
the first movie based on one of his novels:
"Election," released in 1999. "It felt
like a miracle to me," Perrotta remembered. "I
sent off this book that I couldn’t get published and
it seemed like a only a couple of months later,
(Hollywood producers) optioned the book. They offered
what to them seemed like a nominal fee but it was like a
year’s salary to me." He said he didn’t
consider writing the screenplay: "The MTV Films
executive said, ‘You don’t want to write the
screenplay, do you?’ The correct answer was, ‘no, of
course not.’" (And, eventually, the book got
published, though "the movie almost beat the book
the attention from "Election" brought more
screen opportunities his way. Perrotta was an executive
producer of the 2001 TV movie of "Bad
Haircut," co-wrote the screenplay for 2006’s
"Little Children" — and, for "The
Leftovers," took a leading role in its creation.
"I was part of the team for the entire life of the
show," he said. "It was really a wonderful
time with TV may well continue; Perrotta said that he’s
currently in talks with HBO to develop "Mrs.
Fletcher" as a possible half-hour comedy series.
"I was intrigued by the way ‘The Leftovers’
outgrew the world of the book, and the characters sort
of lived on and had other experiences. I love this about
TV — viewers can have a relationship with these
characters over a long period of time. It’s a
fundamentally new thing — how many years did I watch
Don Draper or Walter White? The stories just become a
big part of people’s lives."
as Perrotta’s books and characters have been, for 20
years now, part of mine; filled with friends, old and