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A master at spinning bright, highly readable comic novels out of suburban life, Tom Perrotta published his short-story collection Bad Haircut: Stories Of The Seventies in 1994, but it was his first novel, 1997's The Wishbones, about the long-in-the-tooth frontman of a wedding band, that put him on the map. Alexander Payne's film adaptation of Perrotta's then-unpublished manuscript for the political satire Election led to broader recognition, and was the first suggestion of how smoothly his work could survive the translation to the screen. Perrotta followed it up with the semi-autobiographical Joe College, but his critical reputation really took off with 2004's Little Children, a broadly ambitious comedy-drama about suburban malaise that he and co-writer/director Todd Field converted into an Oscar-nominated movie.
Perrotta's latest book, The Abstinence Teacher, delves further into the culture wars of the George W. Bush era, following Ruth, a high-school health instructor forced to change her curriculum, and Tim, a former addict who's found a home in the town's rapidly expanding evangelical church. The book is already well into the film-adaptation process, with Little Miss Sunshine duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris slated to direct. Perrotta recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the adventure of writing without a road map, how to engage the culture without getting preachy, and the relationship between his novels and their screen incarnations.
The A.V. Club: How did the idea for The Abstinence Teacher develop?
Tom Perrotta: Like a lot of people, I was a little perplexed and distressed by the 2004 election, particularly by the sense—which was very clear at that time, and has since subsided a bit—that the Christian right was really on the march, and that they had a political majority. You knew things were going to change in their favor, and I really felt, like a lot of people, that I had perhaps not taken them seriously enough, not just as a political movement, but as an American phenomenon. Like a lot of liberal secular people, I tend not to pay close attention to who they are, what they're thinking, and what they want, and in the course of that, I felt like as a novelist, I had a kind of responsibility in getting inside that world and representing the culture war from both sides.
AVC: Is it hard to "get" that other side, the side you don't agree with? Is it tough as a novelist not to make them seem cartoonish?
TP: Yeah, that's the real risk. I think there are characters like Pastor Dennis [the head of a local evangelical church] and JoAnn [a virginal pro-abstinence leader] who are hard-line, right-wing Christians with a real satirical point to their portrayals. But Tim, I really tried to take seriously as a realistic character. One thing I did was think of people who surprised me by turning out to be Christians, who had problems with drugs and alcohol, and who in the course of sobering up, found their way into the church. I tried to make Tim noble right from the start. I understood who he was and where he was coming from. The imaginative work was to figure out how he found his way into a church, and what he'd make of it. The story is as much about him wrestling with doubt as it is about him being full of certainty.
AVC: So it wouldn't have been as interesting for you to write about someone you couldn't connect with in some way? Under different circumstances, Tim could be Dave Raymond in The Wishbones.
TP: That was important to me. I think I always try to find some kind of common ground with the all the important characters in my work. And in many ways, Tim—as the story goes on, anyway—hijacked the book for me. I got very interested in him. Finally, the book shapes up as a struggle for Tim's soul. Between Ruth and the pastor. So he is sort of the changeable character whose heart is up for grabs. In the second half of the novel, there's just a lot of energy around him, and Ruth is kind of the stable character.
AVC: Does the title become misleading, then? Did you plan on the book being hijacked?
TP: No, I didn't plan it. The interesting part about the writing process is that you can never see all the way to the end, not if something is happening over the course of a year and a half, or two years. What happened was, I started talking about Ruth and then got very interested by the church. I knew there was going to be this prayer, and that the soccer coach was going to be involved. And suddenly, it seemed clear that the book had to answer, "Who is this guy? How did he get there? What does he think?" In the course of exploring that, I think I became extremely interested in him. But I wouldn't have predicted that, the day I started writing the book.
AVC: Does that give you any issues in terms of structure? When the book was finally complete, did you feel like it was balanced?
TP: I think the issue for me was that I start the book off with Ruth's point of view, give 100 pages to her, and really launch the main point of the story, which happens in the wake of this prayer which Tim leads the girls in, and then the novel sort of stops. And there are 100 pages, more or less, that feel like a backstory for Tim. That's a risky thing to do when you've launched the story and people are caught up in the plot. Once I had answered, to my satisfaction and my readers' satisfaction, "Who is Tim and what is he up to?", then the story kicks back in, and the book moves straightforwardly to its conclusion. So it was definitely a structural challenge for me. I just had to try to make sure that the 100-page section about Tim, which especially stalls the narrative for a bit, wasn't something the reader was going to resent.
AVC: It seems also that you didn't press too hard with the romantic undercurrents of the story, either. You're not really forcing these characters together in an unnatural way.
TP: No. If you look at the book, their encounters are pretty few and far between. But it's just the fact that the story is so clearly focused on the two of them that it focuses a lot of weight on those moments they are together.
AVC: Was the book intended as a companion of sorts to Little Children? It seemed that way.
TP: I know what you're saying. To me, it feels like it's of a piece with Little Children. I'm beginning to be aware of a break between Little Children and particularly Bad Haircut, Joe College, The Wishbones—the books I set in New Jersey, that were very closely based on that particular world and the people I grew up with in it. I think I've been trying to move out of my own experience and write a little more about American culture in a broader sense. I definitely feel the connection you're talking about. And I guess that they're both about parenthood, which is part of my life right now. All of the soccer stuff, I didn't have to research, because I have spent the last eight years of my life watching my kids play soccer, and doing some coaching. I guess what's autobiographical about these more public books is just that they're about parenthood, and that is something that concerns me right now.
AVC: You mentioned, with Little Children and with this book, that you were gauging the culture in a much more direct way than you were in the past. Is it the political climate that causes you to do that? Election was that way as well.
TP: That's one I left out there, because I do think if you were to split the books into two groups, Election would fit in with these two more.
AVC: When you engage the culture directly, is there is a danger of being too preachy? How do you get across a point of view more subtly?
TP: That's an interesting thing. I don't think you write novels to score points in the culture wars. I think this book is very different than the [Christopher] Hitchens book [God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything], on the one hand, or a right-wing non-fiction book. Philip Roth did this interview a few weeks ago in The New Yorker with Hermione Lee where he talked about exactly this issue, and he said, "My job isn't simply to reproduce the strong opinions of a particular moment in history. It's to illuminate the lives of the people who hold these opinions." And that seemed to me to be a really eloquent distinction. It's really about the private context for these public struggles. That's what the novel does best: illuminate the connection between the public and the private. So it's got to work as a story about individuals and their emotions before it can work as story about a political controversy.
AVC: As a father of two school-aged children living in a Boston suburb, have you had to do much fighting in the culture wars described in the book?
TP: No. I really try to obscure the location of the town in both Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher, and it's partly because where I live, right outside Cambridge, is a liberal, academic part of the world. And I think there is kind of a consensus. You won't find too much controversy in regards to how to teach sex education, or how to teach evolution. Though even in Lexington—which is a town very similar to the one I live in—there was a father who sued the school district because his elementary-school kids were exposed to books that pointed out that there were all kinds of families, and some families were headed by same-sex partners. Which in Massachusetts, where gay marriages are legal, is an absolute fact. But he really felt that the school system had overstepped its bounds, and he was objecting as a Christian. Even where we live, it does bubble up occasionally. But it's pretty rare when it does.
AVC: So how do you get into the suburban spaces in this book and Little Children, which are considerably more conservative environments?
TP: I grew up in a working-class environment, which even though in the '60s and '70s, when the culture was more to the left than it is now, the people around me were traditionalists who really were not that happy. The conservative view of social values is something I grew up with, and at times I find persuasive. In the particular culture war I describe in [The Abstinence Teacher], I was very interested in reading what conservatives were thinking. I was surprised at how effective they were; I just thought that abstinence would be a really tough sell, because this culture is so sexualized, and people talk about these things. If you just think about what's on TV at 8 o'clock, and how these things are spoken about, it seems like it would be really hard to get American teenagers to buy into abstinence education. But there has been a fair amount of success. We've experienced a very strong conservative counterculture.
AVC: It's not that they're a majority, either, but they're a vocal enough minority to get an agenda across.
TP: And the other thing is that they are very resistant. There are studies that have just come out that kids given an abstinence-only education are no more likely to delay sex than kids who are given comprehensive sex education. It seems like it is not doing what it is supposed to do. And yet, because it's all about values, I don't think they care what the results are. What's important to them is that there is a constant expression of value. And you see this in the persistent attempts to debunk evolution, even though there is a scientific consensus. They don't particularly care that science isn't on their side, because to them, it doesn't have to do with facts. It has to do with values.
AVC: Then the question becomes "What effect, if any, does high-school health instruction have on students?"
TP: I think the answer is "Not much." The debate comes down to what our official line is with kids about sex. And one of the points of the book is that people's private sex lives are way more complicated than any official line about what sex is for, and the good and the bad of it. So as a novelist, it seemed like a really nice subject. Here you have Ruth, proposing a gospel of pleasure and rejecting shame, where sex is a kind of liberation. But in her own life, sex is a kind of problem. And you see Tim, who is trying to be good, whose sex life is checkered and way too interesting if you're trying to lead a Christian life.
AVC: Have you ever been inclined to write about characters in worlds that are dramatically different than the ones you know? There is a point of connection with Tim that involves characters from your other works—Dave Raymond, for example. Have you been inclined to go further from home in your work?
TP: I feel like I'm trying to widen my lens in these last two books. And I think that with Ronnie in Little Children, and Richard, the husband who gets addicted to Internet porn, I've been trying to encompass more than I have in the past. But it is hard. You have to be careful as a novelist to make sure you can pull it off. And I hope, as I continue to write novels, that I can include more and more of the world around me. But until now, my way into these characters has been trying to figure out what is familiar about them so I could get to know them and imagine them in dilemmas that I don't know about. For instance, with Ronnie, I was really hesitant to get into the mind of a pedophile. It wasn't a place I wanted to be. So what I really tried to do is write about a grown man who was living with his mother. And in doing that, I thought I could get close to him, and it allowed me to at least illuminate some of the darker stuff.
AVC: With regard to Ronnie, you're still uncompromising when it comes to dealing with some of that darker stuff. You feel like you know him, but at the same time, his impulses are monstrous, and are presented starkly as such.
TP: I think it's kind of funny that people often say, "Oh, you create some sympathy for this guy." And I say, "I don't know what book you're reading." [Laughs.] I felt sorry for his mom, but he himself is pretty awful.
AVC: What is your writing process like? Do you start with an idea of its destination? How do you begin?
TP: No, I don't. I was a little clearer about Little Children. There, I knew I was writing about this romance that begins on the playground and ends there, too. I always write with a question in mind. For example, in Little Children, this woman is going to be on a playground waiting for her lover to come, and the question the book is going to answer is, "Does he come or doesn't he?" So that was where I started. That was the outline of the book, and that is all there. But what I didn't know was this subplot with Ronnie, and the stuff with Richard that was created by the atmosphere of the book. There is some way in which you're reading the book while you're writing it. And while you are writing it, you begin to sense—and I'll try not to be too mystical about this—these little force fields. At some point, the book was clearly about sexual transgressions to me, and I started to think about it in relation to many of the characters. But I hadn't started out with that. I had started with a very simple love story.
AVC: Is there something scary about not knowing where you're going to go from the start? Do you ever write yourself into corners?
TP: Yeah, that's the danger of it. On the other hand, I know very few writers who outline fully before they start. It just doesn't seem possible to do, because so many things don't come out until you're absolutely knee-deep in the world. So it seems to me that all you need is enough to get going. And then you've got to trust the process, which is scary, because you don't know where you're going, and can make terrible mistakes. Sometimes you can see in a book where it all goes wrong. At least, when you're reading someone else's; it's tougher on your own. For me, when Ronnie emerged as a character in that book, I didn't want him there. But it got electric whenever he was around. So I decided to trust it, and reasoned that if I felt excited, other people might.
AVC: Also in terms of plotting, you aren't writing a Michael Crichton book, so you might be more free to go where you want to.
TP: Perhaps, but for the kind of novelist I am, I have more elaborate plots than writers who write this sort of thing. Maybe not so much in The Abstinence Teacher, but even there, a lot of things have to come together. That's my problem. I throw a lot of balls up in the air, and I have to get them to fall at the right time. [Laughs.]
AVC: Election and Little Children have been made into movies, and your new novel looks like it will be as well. Does the fact that a book of yours may well be adapted into a movie get into your head? Are you ever tempted to make a book more or less adaptable as a result?
TP: I don't know. I think I was always writing books that had very clear scenic structures. I do tend to write in scenes. I do tend to have a fair amount of dialogue. And I do tend to use stories that don't sprawl all over the place, that have a very sharp focus in terms of how they unfold in time. Those things have made filmmakers look at the books with interest. I think you can see the movie more clearly than with novels that have a more epic sweep, or have more characters, or move through history in a certain way. I think I have more tendencies that made the books adaptable. I hope that I don't stick to those tendencies just because they make them more likely to be turned into movies. For instance, I feel like, with Little Children and especially with The Abstinence Teacher, one thing that's in the books is that the story moves through time and gives really extended flashbacks. There's a chapter where Ruth is in this "Wise Choices" refresher and Tim is coaching soccer, and there's a flashback to her date with another man the night before. It's really complicated, and in terms of doing the adaptation, we found we couldn't at all mimic the way those three strands are woven together. It just was going to be too confusing, so we had to straighten out the timeline. In any case, I'd rather exploit the possibilities of fiction in the book, and worry about the adaptation later.
AVC: For the film adaptation of The Abstinence Teacher, have you straightened it out entirely, or is there some freedom of movement in terms of time?
TP: It's not straightened out entirely, but I'm working with [Little Miss Sunshine directors] Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and they're wonderful filmmakers, and they really like a naturalistic feel to the script. So they were concerned with voiceover and flashbacks, and wanted to tell the story as straightforwardly as possible. There was a certain amount of untangling the events of the book, whereas Todd Field, in Little Children, was using a lot of voiceover, which allowed for some flashback possibilities and for some out-of-time moments in the film. Alexander Payne, too, with the multiple voiceovers [in Election] tried to mimic the structure of the book with the different narrators.
AVC: Both Little Children and Election used voiceovers in extremely unconventional ways.
TP: I really like what they did. In Hollywood, it's considered a sign of weakness to have voiceovers, but in both cases, they were doing it as a dynamic element in the film; it's not just there to explain what's happening, but to create ironies and complexities.
AVC: Do you insist on an active role in shepherding your novels to the screen?
TP: I don't insist. There are circumstances where I would definitely step aside. But I really like doing it. I've been working on screenwriting for around seven years, and I feel I can do it now and not compromise the movie. But I've also been trying really hard to collaborate with good people, like Todd Field, Jonathan Dayton, and Valerie Faris. So there's a learning curve for me, to be around these people who really know how to think in pictures, which is something I'm still kind of learning.
AVC: Do you find it more difficult to write screenplays than books?
TP: I do. I was an English major in college, I went to a creative-writing program, and all my life, I really read and thought about fiction as a craft and an art form. I feel like I know a lot about it, and can trust my instincts. Whereas with film, there are all these people who really know what they're doing, and constantly say simple things that make me say "Oh, yeah, yeah, of course I should know that."
AVC: Do you consider yourself an avid film watcher?
TP: Definitely. It's always been a love of mine. In fact, when I went to the set of Election, it was the first time I set foot on a movie set, and I really had that epiphany that if I had known about this when I was 22 years old, my life might have gone in a different direction. I felt really comfortable on the set; there was something about the communal effort that was really exciting to me. It's very different than the solitary effort of the novel.
AVC: But then there's a matter of possession, too, of having to share work with various people who may or may not carry out a certain vision the way you would.
TP: I know, I know. I think that is, in a way, what is good about adapting my own work. The novel exists and I do own that. Once that happens, it seems easier to surrender it than never have it at all.
AVC: At one point, there was some talk about Noah Baumbach adapting The Wishbones. Is that ever going to happen?
TP: No. I think that he wrote a script some years ago, and it never got made. I hear it was a great script. I don't really know what happened. But I hadn't read it, because I then adapted it myself, and my script is still out there in the world. I was advised not to read other people's scripts when I took on my own. Sad to say, I've never read his script.
AVC: It always seemed like the most adaptable of your books. But how long a shadow could The Wedding Singer cast over it?
TP: When the film project had the most momentum, The Wedding Singer cast a long shadow. Even now, people will bring it up. Yeah, clearly it would be in the same ballpark. But the tones would be totally different. They would just be two entirely different movies, if you put them side-by-side.
AVC: No rapping granny?
TP: [Laughs.] I just saw The Wedding Singer. I was, needless to say, pretty irritated.
AVC: What's next for you?
TP: I don't know. I've been working on the script [for The Abstinence Teacher] all summer and fall, and we're pushing right up to the deadline of the writer's strike. I haven't really been able to see beyond it, because I'm also beginning this tour, so I think somewhere around December, January, I am going to have to sit down in a quiet room and figure out what's next.