Tech, Sex, and Mrs. Fletcher: A Conversation With Tom Perrotta
Tom Perrotta has perfected the art of transforming the everyday into something spectacular. Nobody is able to make a mundane argument or festering secret into a page-turner quite like him, and his books speak to the larger societal issues of the day while retaining a focus on protagonists who feel like our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends. As a result, Perrotta's portrayal of life's lessons are often uncomfortable, are always intricate, and frequently bring the reader back to their own successes and shortcomings. And it should come as no surprise that his works have served as source material for some of the most critically acclaimed adaptations, films such as Election and Little Children as well as The Leftovers, which ended its run on HBO earlier this Summer.
For his latest novel, Mrs. Fletcher, Perrotta hones in on two specific characters: Eve, a recent empty-nester and divorcée who is experiencing a sexual revolution as a result of technological advances, and Brendan, her son, who's just begun college and is forced to reconcile his feelings of entitlement with the cold, hard reality of life in 2017. While other voices are heard throughout, it's these two individuals who take us through what it means to be mother and son in an era where anything is possible but nothing comes without consequences. And as we follow their journey through that first separated year, Brendan and Eve attempt to understand from two unique generational perspectives the most difficult issues out there — from autism to sexual assault on campus to transgender rights to internet porn — and, as to be expected, neither one emerges unscathed.
Perrotta spoke with POPSUGAR by phone on Aug. 14, and below is a lightly edited transcript of the wide-ranging conversation.
POPSUGAR: What was the inspiration behind the book?
Tom Perrotta: My kids have gone to college recently — I have a daughter who's 23, and a son who's 20 — and in bringing them back to college, I had this flashback to my own college days. I was also just pondering what this time of life means; when you're effectively done raising your kids, and the possibilities that are opened up by that — and somehow the two things came together. I'm sort of jealous of my kids in college, and I imagine that Mrs. Fletcher, too, is feeling like, "Where's the fun for me?"
PS: What made you hone in on technology and how it affects culture in such a big way throughout the book?
TP: I was just thinking about the world that was right in front of me. And certainly when people my age think about the sex lives of their kids, or their kids' peers — they're always imagining they're filming themselves with their phones, or sending dirty pictures or, you know, swiping right. And that's the big difference between then and now, and the real question is whether that's a superficial difference or a profound one.
PS: And what did you ultimately think the answer was, after working on the book?
TP: For Mrs. Fletcher, it was highly profound. Part of the fun of the book is that she becomes a college student, to some effect. She takes a class, she starts meeting all these people — but she also has a kind of erotic life that's mediated by her laptop, and it's her phone that gets her in touch with her sexuality in a way that she might not have been in touch with it before. Human longing is a constant, but the way that we're able to deal with it is really contingent on the time that we live in, and with the technology available to us.
PS: For the most part, I felt like Eve was liberated by technology whereas Brendan felt baffled by it. Do you think that these are the two binary effects, which two generations feel in different ways, or was it a product of the characters themselves?
"I feel the same way about technology that I do about capitalism, or cars. It's such a big phenomenon that it's almost impossible to put a single judgment on it."
TP: I feel the same way about technology that I do about capitalism, or cars. It's such a big phenomenon that it's almost impossible to put a single judgment on it. For some people, capitalism works great. For lots of other people, it works terribly. And for some people, pornography is liberating — for others, it limits them and gives them a wrong-headed idea about what sex is. As a writer, I'm more interested in trying to fairly observe the effects on different characters, rather than trying to come up with it with a single judgment on the subject.
PS: On the subject of different characters: I know you've written novels with multiple narrators in the past; what made you decide to do that again with Mrs. Fletcher?
TP: That was an accident, really. I wanted to write a very short novel about Eve, a woman who goes into this erotic reverie when her kid leaves for college and she's alone for the first time. A porn-fueled reverie, where her fantasy takes over her reality. It's still in the book, but the second I wrote that I was like, actually, I'm really interested in her son — and they are both involved in the same story. They're both trying to create new lives, and they're both encountering new people, and they both have an identity that's in flux. And those two stories just started to speak to each other.
As a writer, when important characters enter the story and they're going to affect my main characters . . . I want to get to know them too. So every now and then I'm like, "Oh man, that Amanda girl, what's she up to?" From there I decide I'm going to spend some time on Amanda, or Amber, or Margot. It's just the way my stories seem to build themselves.
PS: Did you notice any difference when tackling the same events from both a male and female perspective?
TP: What I was so conscious of — and it's one of the reasons I used first person for Brendan and third person for Eve — was just how different their worlds were. Even though they're mother and son and they should know each other really well, in the book it feels like their worlds barely intersect. They just exist in entirely different realities. And I think that goes into gender, as well as age. So the short answer is yes.
PS: On the subject of age: it seemed like person-to-person conversations were much easier for Eve after she found the internet, whereas it made it so that Brendan couldn't really interact with people face to face without things falling apart. Do you think the same is true for people of different ages in real life?
"If you ask people my age, what they find super shocking is that when there's a group of kids at a table, they all seem more interested in their phones than the people right in front of them."
TP: If you ask people my age, what they find super shocking is that when there's a group of kids at a table, they all seem more interested in their phones than the people right in front of them. I know that I've started to do that, too, and I feel terrible about it. I'll be looking at my laptop and people in my family will be talking to me, and I'll be half here and half there. So I don't know that it's an age thing, but maybe people that are the same age as my kids take things for granted and don't feel guilty about it, whereas I at least feel guilty about it.
PS: Do you think that the characters ultimately benefit from having this rabbit hole of information on the internet, or do you think that they're stunted because they're finding this on the internet as opposed to finding it in real life?
TP: I think that the internet has evolved the way it has because, at least superficially, it meets a lot of our needs. So the problem may be that it meets our needs so successfully that it's kind of expanded to take over the space that used to be given to other people. I also wonder if we're just in a transitional phase, and ultimately we'll figure out how to not be completely absorbed by our technology. Right now, I do feel like it's taking up huge parts of our mental energy, and it's a little scary. But in terms of getting people connected, it's kind of amazing. It's just such a huge phenomenon that I don't know if it's good or bad — I see some effects that are good, and some that are bad. It also feels transformative, like people are just becoming different, and society is becoming different.
PS: You touch on a lot of really hot-button issues in society right now, from autism to sexual assault to internet porn and shaming. Which one was the most difficult to tackle when writing the book?
TP: When you talk about shaming, and call-out walls, and sexual assault . . . there's a cluster of issues there that are just so powerful. There have been attempts to create a more just system, to have people take responsibility of their sexual behavior, and to punish sexual assault — especially because so many rapes and assaults go unreported and unpunished. And there can also sometimes be a rush to judgment, or an unfair accusation — it's just this really complicated, messy situation right now and I was trying to write about it and do justice to as much of it as I could.
I definitely felt that when I was writing, like, boy, this is a territory that is just filled with landmines. It should just be a very simple morality, that no means no, and people should be held responsible for their sexual misdeeds. But on the other hand, hookup culture is so complicated and often it's the story of two people who are both really drunk, and in writing about it I felt sort of in the mess — in the way that college students feel that they're in the mess.
I was just so interested in trying to look at that night [in the book] that it happens between them. When they go to a documentary about social injustice, and then they go to a party where they're in their underwear, and then Brendan has this weird encounter with his roommate — it was a really complicated section to write, you know, because it all seems to be happening in some weird gray area.
PS: It's often hard to swallow Brendan's sense of self-entitlement, but I think there's also this sweet, misguided kid under all of that. I'm curious as to what you were trying to achieve with his character.
TP: I think a lot of the debate around sexual assault ultimately does involve guys like Brendan. And they're easy to vilify, because they often do behave badly. But I'm just curious as to who these guys are, because our society seems to produce them at a very high volume. And weirdly, they're often the sons of moms like Eve who consider themselves feminists and want their sons to be decent and be respectful of women. And it is sort of a question of "Where do they come from?" and "Why do they think this way?" and "Why do they think they can get away with the stuff they get away with?" Guys like that are often written off as a type; if you say he's a "frat boy" or "bro," we all think we know who they are. But the fiction writer in me is like, wait a minute, it's got to be more complicated than that, they're individuals.
The other part of it is that we're seeing him through his mother's eyes. It's harder to write him off when we're looking at him through Eve's eyes — she wants him to grow up and be a decent man, she wants him to be happy, and she wants him to succeed. So we have a stake in him through her.
PS: As a writer, what was the most interesting or enlightening thing you learned when doing your research for writing this book?
"One of the inspirations for the book was the explosion of consciousness about transgender people during the past five years."
TP: One of the inspirations for the book was the explosion of consciousness about transgender people during the past five years. Obviously, transgender people and gender studies have been around for a long time, but what had once been an academic subject has entered more into the mainstream. I felt a lot of responsibility when writing Margot's character; describing her class, trying to understand who she was, where she came from, what her life was like to the best of my ability.
PS: I was also fascinated by the relationship between Brendan, Eve, and Margot, the transgender professor in the book. What were you thinking with that dynamic?
TP: Eve is having the college experience she wishes her son could have. She's got this amazing teacher who is presenting her with new ideas and new ways of thinking, and she's meeting cool people in the class , she's going out and having fun with them, and it's transforming her sense of her own sexuality in some interesting way. What Brendan has is Amber, and she's trying to be the same for him — but he's just not ready somehow. He's not ready for all of it, but she does at least expose him to things, and make him think about things, and as a result the guy he is when he leaves college is a slightly deeper person than the one who first went there. But he's not a willing student in the way that Eve is a willing student.
PS: So, to switch topics a bit: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about the ending of The Leftovers. How does it feel now that the show has come to an end?
TP: I'm just so proud of the show. It was a difficult show to make, because it wasn't really like anything else and we had to figure out what it was on the fly. Anybody who watches it can see that at the beginning we're not completely sure what the show is. But then we slowly start to pinpoint, "Oh, this is the tone," or "This show can be funny," or "This character is important," or even "This is a Leftovers moment." That's what we would often say in the writer's room, "This is a Leftovers moment, this is so Leftovers." It was obvious to us in the beginning, but by the end of it we were were really sort of fully in it, and I just love the way it ended. It felt just right. It was an intense and wonderful creative experience for me.