That Tom Perrotta struggled into his early 30s to find success should come as no surprise to fans of his work. A Yale grad, Perrotta studied writing under Thomas Berger and Tobias Wolff before moving on to teach creative writing at Yale and Harvard. It was during this period that he began work on the stories that would comprise his first release, Bad Haircut. He had finished two more novels (including Election, which would prove to be his breakthrough book) before Bad Haircut was finally picked up by a publisher in 1994.
It wasn't until a chance introduction with a screenwriter that Perrotta finally moved into the public eye. The result of that encounter was the publication of Election (1998), which was made into the much-beloved film starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. At last, Perrotta was able to call himself a working novelist.
The theme of ordinary people trapped in lives they never imagined runs throughout Perrotta's novels. Success for his characters is always just out of reach, and the world is always just outside of their control. Characters that seem destined for success serve as foils to the true protagonists, constant reminders of the unfairness of life.
Which is not to say that Perrotta's novels are depressing. On the contrary, his razor-sharp observations of the human condition are often side-splittingly funny, and the compassion he exhibits in his writing makes even the most ostensibly unlikable characters sympathetic. Perotta does not create caricatures; his novels work because he has a basic understanding that life is complex, and everyone has a story if you take the time to listen.
Good to Know
Back to Top
Some fun factoids from our interview with Perrotta:
"My mother is Albanian."
"I don't eat eggs."
"My dog lived to the ripe old age of 18."
Back to Top
<In the winter of 2004, Tom Perrotta took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I read The Great Gatsby in high school and was hypnotized by the beauty of the sentences and moved by the story about the irrevocability of lost love. I've reread it several times since then and have discovered lots of other layers -- Nick's idolization of Gatsby, the perverse Horatio Alger narrative of Gatsby's rise in the world, Fitzgerald's keen eye for the hard realities of social class in America -- and I still maintain that even if there's no such thing as a perfect novel, Gatsby's about as close as we're going to get.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy -- A book that is crammed so full of amazing observations about everyday life that it is sometimes overwhelming in its profundity. Tolstoy has the courage to show not just the ecstatic passion of romantic love but the emptiness and despair that can come when it fades.
This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff -- The best coming-of-age book I know, a contemporary work that deserves to stand alongside Huckleberry Finn. It's hilariously funny and deeply sad at the same time -- my favorite combination.
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin -- A highly readable and illuminating biography of the great English diarist and naval bureaucrat, who turns out to have been quite a character -- randy, grasping, opportunistic, charming, politically astute, and endlessly fascinated by his own behavior. Tomalin makes a convincing case for him as a man way ahead of his time, possibly the first modern "self" in our literature. Read it for the hilarious sexual shorthand Pepys invented, if nothing else.
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa -- This is a crazy book, half bildungsroman, half radio soap opera. You have to read it -- my brief description won't do it justice.
The Snapper by Roddy Doyle -- An irreverent comic novel set in Dublin, about an illegitimate pregnancy and what it does to break apart and bring together a family.
Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones -- By the author of The Known World, this collection of linked stories evokes the black working-class neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. Check out the story "The First Day," about an illiterate woman bringing her daughter to kindergarten. If it doesn't break your heart, you probably don't have one.
The Rabbit novels by John Updike -- Four books, each one capturing a decade of American history with uncanny accuracy and a voracious, often lyrical eye for details. A hundred years from now, people could use these novels as textbooks, if they didn't mind the eye-popping sexual descriptions.
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi -- In this charming, inventive, and surprisingly lighthearted memoir, Holocaust chronicler Levi tells the story of his life as a chemist. Each chapter is named after an element in the periodic table and uses that element either as a literal substance or a metaphor for some important episode in Levi's life.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe -- Wolfe's wildly energetic, deeply empathetic account of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters captures the craziness of the '60s in an overheated, hyperbolic, psychedelic language that is perfectly suited to its subject. It's Wolfe at his open-minded, adventurous best.
My Ántonia by Willa Cather -- Cather is the most underrated stylist in American literature, and My Ántonia is her masterpiece -- simplicity itself.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I'm a big fan of the great American movies of the '60s and '70s -- The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, The Last Detail, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, et al. -- the realistic, dark-hued, character-driven movies that were pushed aside by the flashy, soulless blockbusters of the '80s. You can feel their influence in the work of great new filmmakers like Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways), Todd Field (In the Bedroom), and David O. Russell (Three Kings). I also love Truffaut's Jules and Jim, Fellini's Amarcord, and Billy Wilder's The Apartment.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing
My favorite bands these days are Fountains of Wayne, the Old 97s, Bill Janovitz and Crown Victoria, PJ Harvey, the Figgs, and Wilco. I've also been listening to some classic punk rock (if that's not an oxymoron) -- the Ramones and the Clash -- as well as the great new disc from Green Day, American Idiot. My old favorites -- the artists I've turned to over and over again over the years -- are Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, the Pogues, and Aimee Mann. I never listen to music when I write -- music's too damn distracting.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
It's funny -- I'm mainly a reader of fiction, but when it comes to gifts, I'm a big believer in doorstopper biographies. In hardcover, of course.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I switch back and forth between typing directly onto the computer and writing longhand on legal pads with a fountain pen. Sometimes I'll move from my desk to the dining room table. I find that even small changes sometimes jog you out of a mental rut.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I wrote three books before I got one published -- that was Bad Haircut, my debut collection of stories. The second one, Lucky Winners, a pretty good novel about a family that falls apart after winning the lottery, remains unpublished. The third, Election, which I wrote while Lucky Winners was making the rounds, took five years to get published, and its publication was driven by the movie, which came about by pure chance. A screenwriter heard me read from my novel The Wishbones when it was still in progress and mentioned me to some producers in Hollywood. They called, and I told them I had a novel in my drawer about a high school election that goes haywire. They asked to take a look, and my life changed pretty dramatically as a result.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Keep writing. Don't be discouraged by rejection. When things don't go well, it helps to think of yourself as a genius and the rest of the world as a bunch of idiots.
Back to Top