Best-selling novelist Tom Perrotta, 56, was born and raised in Garwood, New Jersey, and graduated from Yale before receiving a master’s degree from Syracuse. He is the author of nine books, including Bad Haircut, Election, Little Children and The Leftovers, which have all been adapted for film or television. The Leftovers, an HBO cult hit, completed its third and final season in June, and his latest novel, Mrs. Fletcher, about an empty-nester divorcee who becomes involved in online porn, was released in August. He appears at the Boston Book Festival in October. He lives in Belmont with his wife and children.
Jonathan Soroff: Do you have a writing ritual?
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, but it’s a boring one. I get up. I drink my coffee. I read the paper. I go upstairs at about 10. The only rule I make for myself is that I can’t leave until I write something new. What that means is that by the time I sit around for hours, go down and have lunch, it’s around 1 in the afternoon, and I’m so disgusted with myself that I force myself to write something.
Any superstitions around writing? I just need to have some kind of liquid nearby. I can’t write without coffee or tea.
Biggest thing your book Election had in common with the 2016 presidential election? [Laughs.] I’d have to say that in both, the asshole won.
What’s the weirdest thing about seeing a story you’ve created then adapted into a movie or TV show? It’s just a completely uncanny feeling. It’s pretty much exactly what I’d imagined, but the people are much better looking.
Which of the movies or TV shows that have been made out of your books do you think is the best? That’s like picking your favorite kid. I’m really proud of all of them. I definitely put the most blood and sweat into The Leftovers, though, so I guess I’m closest to it.
What did you think of Justin Theroux’s promise about doing full frontal if the show got an Emmy? Too little, too late.
In The Leftovers, do you see parallels with the disaffected, disenfranchised Americans who are in the headlines so much these days? I didn’t at first. At first, I thought I was writing about 9/11 or other events that kind of divide history into before and after. But I remember starting the book right after the 2008 financial collapse, and thinking, “Wow! This world I thought was so stable could just melt away.” Then Obama came in, and things got stabilized for people like me, but what I’ve realized is that for the Trump voters, the world really did sorta end for them. So yes, there are people who feel like they’ve got nothing to lose, and it’s a scary situation.
Book you’re currently writing? None. I often need a little recovery time and I’m touring right now. This break is a bit longer than usual, because I wrote Mrs. Fletcher while I was also working on The Leftovers, and they just ended at the same time. I haven’t started on anything big since.
Book you’re currently reading? Killers of the Flower Moon, about the Osage murders.
Book you’ve had on your nightstand forever but have never even cracked? Like everybody else, I have that translation of Proust and I keep thinking, “Someday, I’ll get to it.” It’s Lydia Davis’ translation, and I’ve heard it’s great, but I just haven’t gotten there yet.
Author you are most flattered by, or welcome comparisons to? Years ago, Will Blythe, bless his heart, compared Little Children to Chekhov, and that’s the ultimate compliment. Chekhov’s a saintly figure to writers, the embodiment of a kind of literary decency. So that meant a lot to me.
Favorite author of all time? At times, I would have to say Honoré de Balzac, just because he wrote so many books. It was almost like he was trying to get his whole world onto the page, and I almost admire the idea of that more than I do the books themselves.
Are any of your fictional towns based on Belmont? Not really. It’s a funny thing. I feel like Belmont is so specific, with its mix of people and its closeness to Cambridge. If you look at the towns I write about, I think they might be a little bit farther away from the city. They’re more anonymous and middle-of-the-road. Belmont is too specific for my purposes.
So is your neighborhood full of MILFs? [Laughs.] On my computer, yes.
Did you do a lot of research into porn sites to write Mrs. Fletcher? You know, I unwittingly did, over a long period of time. I’d been interested in porn as a kind of form of human information and interaction for a long time. I didn’t specifically look into this MILF stuff until I was working on the book, but just the idea of how technology has changed sexuality is something I’ve been thinking about a lot for a long time.
Does it scare you, the way the internet has made pornography available even to your teenage kids? Yeah, in a way, it’s more shocking to me than it is to them. It’s just a fact of their lives. I keep thinking, “If I had access to this when I was 15, God knows when I would have come out of my room.” But my son seems to take it in stride. As far as I can tell, he’s not that interested. But it should be concerning to all of us.
One book you wish you wrote? Any story by Flannery O’Connor I’d put in that corner. I read her with a sense of awe.
Any literary guilty pleasures? I never feel guilty about them. I read a lot of crime fiction, but I think some crime writers, like Dennis Lehane and Megan Abbott, are some of the best writers we have. To me, that’s just a very vibrant corner of American literature.
One word you overuse? “Just” and “really.” It started in conversation, I think, but it’s slipped into my writing. My editor was circling the word “just” all over my prose, and I don’t know when that started.
Any time a celebrity who was a fan of your work had you star-struck? Well, one time I was doing a reading in Seattle. Afterward, they bring you books belonging to people who wanted to come but couldn’t, and one of them was from Peter Buck of R.E.M. I am the hugest fan of R.E.M. ever, and so the fact that he was going to read my book was a very proud moment for me.
Your idea of perfect happiness? I don’t think it’s possible. ◆