In New Novel, Tom Perrotta Shares ‘Post-Parental’ Reflections From An Empty Nest

Tom Perrotta is the author of several novels, including Election and The Leftovers.
Tom Perrotta is the author of several novels, including "Election" and "The Leftovers." Ben King/HBO
Tom Perrotta is the author of several novels, including Election and The Leftovers.
Tom Perrotta is the author of several novels, including "Election" and "The Leftovers." Ben King/HBO

In New Novel, Tom Perrotta Shares ‘Post-Parental’ Reflections From An Empty Nest

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It’s a time-honored tradition for novelists to draw material from their own lives, and author Tom Perrotta is no exception. His 2004 book, Little Children, sprang from his experience as the parent of young kids. Three years later, he published The Abstinence Teacher, which was inspired, in part, by the junior-high and high-school sports his children played at the time.

Now, Perrotta’s kids are grown and he’s turned his attention to the empty nest. His latest novel, Mrs. Fletcher, chronicles what he calls the “post-parental moment of reflection” that comes with the kids moving out. “This huge project of raising kids is over,” Perrotta says. “What does my life look like now? What does my [wife’s] life look like?”

Mrs. Fletcher explores those questions through the story of Eve, a single mother whose only child, Brendan, has left for college. Eve wants to shake up her life, and starts watching a lot of porn. Brendan, meanwhile, is taken by surprise when a fellow student calls him out for sexist behavior.

Though Perrotta originally envisioned the novel as centering on Eve, writing the first chapter helped him realize that the story also belonged to her son. “I realized that the counterpoint of the two of them on these journeys of transformation was really interesting,” he says. “I guess it’s just become my way of writing: A single point of view doesn’t seem enough for me in a novel.”

Interview Highlights

On how watching porn changes Eve

It really was coming from that sense that once she starts looking at porn, certain things in real life look different to her. So she’s watching all this porn where a confident, experienced woman is seducing a woman who is sort of reluctant … and she’s having this wonderful dinner with her employee and it’s kind of flirtatious and they’re discussing sex and they’re discussing gender and she keeps feeling, like, the gravity of this porn scenario. Oh, which one of us is the confident one? Which one of us is the reluctant one? And this is really what the book is about.

During this fall that most of the action takes place in, Eve is feeling her life becoming a kind of a porn scenario, or a series of porn scenarios. And they do cause her to act in ways that she never would’ve acted before, and ways that go against her principles. … I am very interested in those moments when people do things that run contrary to their deepest principles, to their sense of right and wrong. Those are the moments, I think, when we find out who we really are.

On Brendan’s male entitlement

When you read stories about sexual assault on campus and frat parties, it does seem that there’s some kind of stubborn culture of male entitlement that is somehow resistant to all of these pushes to change it. As a writer, I just thought it would be really interesting to try and get into the mind of a kid like this.

I will say, he’s oblivious, but he does find himself attracted to a young woman who is very much on the other side of the divide. She’s an activist, she sees herself as being very involved in social justice. They connect because they have autistic siblings and he goes to a group that she leads to talk about the challenges of people with autistic siblings. But he goes there mainly because he’s interested in her.

I will say, over the course of the book, in some ways she illuminates him. I don’t know that she brings him into full consciousness — he’s a very flawed and oblivious guy throughout — but she does challenge some of his assumptions, and college challenges some of his assumptions. He’s resistant to those challenges, but I will say he gets some little bit of education over the course of the book.

On one of the biggest turning points in his own life

Going to college at Yale, specifically after growing up where I did in New Jersey. At the time, I was really adamant with myself that I was not going to let this snobby, Ivy League world change who I was; that I could go there, take what it had to offer and emerge kind of unscathed. … I really tried that. I had a girlfriend at home. I came home a lot on weekends. I always came home for the summers. I always had blue-collar jobs during those summers.

But at a certain point in my late 20s, I suddenly realized I don’t eat the same food as my parents anymore. I don’t watch the same TV shows as them. I don’t read the same books. I feel like there’s this distance between me and older friends. In spite of all of my determination, I had been really transformed by the experience of going to this elite, Ivy League college at that particular point in my life.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

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