Kaitlin Fontana: You’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. I’m Kaitlin Fontana. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media discussing everything from pitching to production, from process to favorite line and jokes and everything in between.
Tom Perrotta is the bestselling author of nine works of fiction, including Election and Little Children, both of which were made into Oscar-nominated films, and The Leftovers, which he and Damon Lindelof adapted into a Peabody-award-winning HBO series. His new series, based on his latest novel, is HBO’s Mrs. Fletcher, which tells the story of a single mom who attempts to start a new life after her son heads off to college. Tom is joining us remotely from his home in Boston. Hi, Tom, thank you so much for being here.
Tom Perrotta: Oh, it’s my pleasure.
Kaitlin Fontana: Congratulations, first of all, on Mrs. Fletcher. It’s an amazing show. I just binged the whole screener and enjoyed it immensely. So thank you.
Tom Perrotta: Oh, great. I’m so happy… I’m happy to hear that. Thank you.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, and I wanted to know first of all, obviously, you’re a novelist first, but your novels have been made into films and TV at an astonishing, Stephen King-esque rate at this point. Election…
Tom Perrotta: Hardly.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, well, I mean, we’re getting there. We’re getting there, Election, Little Children, The Leftovers, now Mrs. Fletcher. Can you tell me a little bit about crafting the world of a novel versus a TV series or a film?
Tom Perrotta: You know, I think one of the things I can note is that I went from having basically no input on Election. I turned over my manuscript, and Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor wrote this amazing script, and it became a wonderful movie. And it did, it got me really excited about the idea of making film and TV. So I started to try and learn the craft of screenwriting, and from that point on, I would attach myself as the writer of the first draft of the screenplay.
So, with Little Children, Todd Field and I wrote the screenplay together, and we stuck very closely to the book. I even remember sitting with Todd the first time we met, and like, “Where are we going to start?” He’s like, “Let’s start with the beginning,” which actually turns out not to be the case in the way the movie was edited. But in our script, we really did start from the beginning, and we followed through very faithfully. That was a really interesting experience, but then, as is typical of a feature screenwriter, my involvement ended with the script. So when the movie came back, it was very much Todd’s movie. I love it, but I did feel like, oh, I wish that I had been able to kind of follow it through.
At that point, TV was really becoming this writer’s medium, and I was really excited about TV. So then I did The Leftovers, and I partnered with Damon Lindelof and was an executive producer and was in the room and, again, felt very involved, but it was Damon’s show, and he’s an amazing showrunner. So I was always aware of my complete autonomy as a novelist. I was a collaborator on the adaptations but not fully in charge of them. So, with Mrs. Fletcher, I really tried to take that next step. But this is my long-winded answer to your question, which is, even in the case of being a showrunner on Mrs. Fletcher, I’m so aware of this being a collaborative process and feeling like… fully accepting now that there is no filmic equivalent of the novelist’s supreme autonomy.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I mean, to me, I feel like that’s a very interesting toggle that you must have to do because I think a lot of people would find that difficult to toggle between, like you say, the autonomy of the novel, the very intense, intimate relationship that you have a novelist with your work, and then to be able to kind of turn around not only with different projects but in some cases, many cases for you, the same project, to be able to flip over to the collaborative process of television making. That must be a bit of a shift for you to make mentally.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, it’s always… If I could graph my emotions, there’s always that wonderful openhearted feeling when you meet your collaborator and get ready to dive in, and then there’s just that moment when you have your first disagreement. It really is like, “Oh, god, we’re into this. It’s going to be a struggle now.” I think it really is such an interesting emotional journey for me, and there’s always kind of a love/hate things with collaborators, and I’m sure they feel it for me, as well. There are moments when you’re in sync, and it really is kind of an amazing thing, but by the end of The Leftovers, I think both Damon and I felt like we were telling this story together that neither one of us could’ve told in the same way on our own. There was just some interpersonal pleasure that isn’t there when you’re working on something by yourself. By that same token, when you’re fighting with a collaborator, that psychic space can get pretty charged.
Kaitlin Fontana: So, when you’re… Now, given that the majority of your novels make that transition from novel to TV or film, when you’re sitting to write a novel, how much does that enter your head as you’re sitting down to write the novel?
Tom Perrotta: Very little, and I know maybe people find this hard to believe, but only because on some level, I’ll think, “Okay, if I can write this novel, then probably I’ll be able to sell it, and probably I’ll be able to adapt it… That’s not in question for me, but that first if is overwhelming. Am I going to be able to write this? Even at this stage in my career, every time I sit down to write a novel, it’s a huge struggle, and the struggle is often just, What is the next sentence? How do I get out of this scene? It’s not like I’m sitting there with a feeling of confidence that allows me to project two years into the future and say, “Okay, when I finish this book, I’ll cast so-and-so,” or, “This is a half-hour show rather than an hour show.” Any of those considerations are just… That future feels infinitely far away for, I would say, the entire writing process because that is its own beast, and the problems are so specific to just the problems of writing a novel.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, and is there a point where you know you’re ready to sit down and write a new novel? Is it when you’re done with a TV or film project, or is there some other nagging thing that knocks on your door, as it were?
Tom Perrotta: Well, actually, so when I was working primarily in feature film… because I’ve only had one credit, which is Little Children, but I had adapted The Wishbones. I had adapted Joe College, and I had adapted The Abstinence Teacher. But as everybody who has written feature scripts knows, it’s like, most of the time, things don’t get off the ground. But in that case, I would have a kind of rhythm of I’d finish a novel, and I’d spend maybe a year working on an adaptation, at which point I would start a new novel, and there was a kind of a logic to that.
Then it hit a roadblock when we started doing The Leftovers because that show went for three seasons, and it took up maybe eight months of the year for me. So I was having that feeling of, “Oh, no. Am I not going to write another novel?” And I did something that I had never done before, which was to juggle two projects at once. I know there are some people who do this regularly, and a lot of screenwriters are used to it, but I was monogamous as a novelist. So I was trying, whenever I wasn’t working on The Leftovers, to get Mrs. Fletcher going. It took a long time, for that reason, to write the book because my attention was divided, and that third season of The Leftovers, we were working like crazy to finish the show, and I also had a book under contract that was calling to me a lot. So that was kind of a crazy year.
Kaitlin Fontana: I’m sure. Just the idea of toggling between those two very different stories seems like it would be a lot of headspace.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, though I think, in a way, that was very helpful because they did feel so different, and I think Mrs. Fletcher felt to me like reclamation of my novelist identity because The Leftovers had carried me into territory that was pretty unusual for me. Then the Damon Lindelof version of The Leftovers was so much bolder and weirder than the kind of work that I normally do. So it was almost like I was remembering, “Oh, yeah, I’m the guy who writes about sex in the suburbs.” It was almost reassuring, like, “I can still do that,” that this really exciting and strange journey of The Leftovers hadn’t fundamentally changed who I was as a novelist.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right. Well, let’s talk about that because, I mean, as I said earlier, I love Mrs. Fletcher. It feels tailor-made for Kathryn Hahn, which I love Kathryn Hahn. Who doesn’t love Kathryn Hahn?
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, I know. I know.
Kaitlin Fontana: She’s amazing. But also, it deals with, like you say, sex in the suburbs and, in my mind, the humanity of being a sexual person at different stages in your life and what that means, primarily reflected through Mrs. Fletcher, the mom, but also through her son, who’s going through his own sort of sexual evolution. These are themes that come up in your work. They came up in Little Children, obviously. I’m wondering what brings you back to those themes and why you keep revisiting this idea of, as you put it, sex in the suburbs.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, I was sort of jokingly saying that. I mean, I’m much more interested in sex than I am in the suburbs, and really, I think with Mrs. Fletcher, I was trying to get at sex as we live it now, or at least over the last five years or so. My kids went off to college at a time when all these things that have now exploded into… the Me Too movement, but also the growing acceptance of trans people. All that was bubbling under the surface of the culture, and I could just feel like this was some very new chapter in the sexual revolution that was starting up and that… It just seemed so ripe to talk about all these crosscurrents that were changing sex so that you have a world where porn is saying, “Anything you can dream of, go do it,” and a lot of people… A lot of feminists, in particular, but also people on campus… There was a sense that sex had gotten out of hand, in a sense, and that a new set of rules needed to be imposed.
So you have this one force that pushing, I think, in a very chaotic direction and another force trying to impose very clear rules on something that is often a fuzzy area of human behavior. It just seemed like a really rich situation to explore. Basically, the rules were all up for grabs. Nobody knows what a normal sexual life is anymore, I think.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. One of the things I really liked about the novel and the show, not giving anything away but… is the idea that porn is not inherently bad or good or anything. It’s a tool that can be used differently by different people, and I think how it’s reflected through the son’s experience versus his mother’s experience kind of shows you how that comes to be true, that it’s a positive thing for Mrs. Fletcher and perhaps not so positive for her son. And it has to do with how we’re able to kind of filter our own experiences around what porn means and how we take it in and who we are as people when we take it in.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah. No, I think that’s a really great way to put it. I think the way that we kind of shorthanded that in the writers’ room… because we would always get into it immediately because there’s some things about porn that are just hideous. And yet, we’re telling a story at least partly about porn as a liberating agent or an inspiration. The shorthand for me was always porn, as you say, is neither bad nor good, or porn is both bad and good, but all the story’s saying is porn is here in this ubiquitous, powerful, and often unacknowledged way. It shouldn’t be, right? When you look at statistics, basically the internet exists so that people can watch porn, it sometimes seems. But there is still something, a frisson of the unfamiliar when you watch this middle-aged mom look at porn and make a face. It’s a little shocking somehow, and it was really interesting, in the making of it, to figure out how much porn to show and what kind of porn to show and just to trust Kathryn, I think, to show us what that normally very private thing looks like.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, and I love how the show kind of places porn in a very domestic context while she’s watching it. The cookie scene comes to mind, without spoiling anything, but yeah, I think that rang very true to me as someone who watches porn, I’ll say it, that it is… Sometimes you’re just in your house and you’re just hanging out in your sweatpants or whatever, and you’re like, “Hmm, I’m going to watch some porn now.” It’s almost like our contemporary relationship with porn is very casual. It’s not this huge buildup to something as it maybe once was.
Tom Perrotta: Well, I know, and in a way, that’s sort of what has made it, I think, what it is, right? Because when I was a kid, you had to actually figure out a way to buy porn from some other person who was across a counter or go to a theater with other people who were watching porn. That was just a high bar for 90% of the world, but now it’s a constant low-grade temptation. And we had a lot of discussions about this in the writers’ room. Does she watch on her phone? Does she watch at work? And we just sort of felt like she wasn’t there yet. She wasn’t the kind of person who was at that level of obsession, but it was often a way to create a moment of distraction, excitement, connection in some way, or at least fantasy connection when she was home alone because so much of the show is predicated on the fact that she has this space in her life that has just been opened up, and she’s not sure how she’s going to fill it. And until some real people step in, porn is definitely this means to fill that time and create excitement where there’s boredom. And that excitement also leads to a kind of rethinking of her identity or at least her sense of possibilities.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, which leads me to something I think is a really interesting theme that goes through your work. So, for context, when Election came out, I was 16. I was the same age as Tracy, basically, and I was very much a Tracy Flick in my life with one notable exception, which is that I was not having sex with my teacher. But I think that there’s an interesting theme that goes through a lot of your work, which is female desire and the complexity of female desire and how the men around women deal with female desire. And I see that from Tracy all the way through to Mrs. Fletcher. I’m wondering whether that’s something that you cognizantly have threaded into your work, or is it something that you’re also grappling with or dealing with as a male writer or just as a person in the world? I think with Mrs. Fletcher, it’s like, that’s it. That’s the underscored theme… is female desire. So I’m wondering how that comes up in your work and how you deal with it.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, that’s such an interesting way to put it. It’s almost like I’m beginning now to get a sense that that was this overarching subject. I certainly, in my own mind, see Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher, and Mrs. Fletcher as a kind of trilogy of women roughly of my generation trying to find a life that they can live with, and that definitely puts desire in the foreground. I think I’ve just been really interested in women of my generation because I remember very well being in college and there being this brief moment where I think we thought a feminist utopia was at hand and that there would be this world where women could work, and they could have families, and that men would do half the childcare. Everybody had good intentions, and then when I would go to a college reunion 20 years later, it was like, wow, it wasn’t… Obviously, we had not created this feminist utopia that we thought, and I think there were some women who were fine with it, some women who felt betrayed by it.
But I did feel like… Again, when I said before for Mrs. Fletcher, nobody really knows how you’re supposed to act as a sexual person right now. I think that so much more has been the case for women of my generation. The rules have just changed dramatically since I was a teenager. I don’t know. I just feel like it’s been… that sense of options expanding has been much more drastic women. And it probably matters that I grew up in a very conservative, Catholic, working-class world. So there was literally one way to be a sexual person, and it has been dizzying, I think, for everybody to feel the changes that the sexual revolution wrought.
But I think that I’m also really interested in the complex relationship between feminism and the sexual revolution because sometimes those two movements have been allied in increasing the amount of freedom available to women. But I also think there’s been this growing sense among a lot of feminists that I know that the sexual revolution was much better for men than for women. And there’s, I think, an attempt to curtail some of the excesses of it, and I think Mrs. Fletcher is really looking at that because Eve… It’s sort of interesting. Eve is doing things that I think if a man were doing them, you might look askance. She’s attracted to one of her coworkers, actually one of her underlings, one of her employees, and she’s attracted to a guy who is her son’s age. I think if I were telling either of those stories about a man in his 40s, I think we would look at those with a lot less of a sense of empathy or encouragement. We wouldn’t be charmed by them probably, maybe pretty skeptical.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I mean, yeah.
Tom Perrotta: And that sense of like, Eve is almost going through something like an Updike character might have gone through in the ’60s and the ’70s, and maybe Updike felt there was something charming about watching a man finally free himself from the shackles of small-town, Christian morality or something like that. But it is [inaudible 00:20:46] we don’t want to hear… That story is not particularly interesting to the culture and, in fact, is a real red flag.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, and I think also that red flag can exist on the opposite side, too. We can feel… because you feel that unsettling feeling in the novel and also in the series, I would say, of interrogating your own thoughts and feelings around… I found myself rooting for Eve particularly with the kid who is her son’s age, in some ways, and wanting that to happen, and then kind of interrogating that for myself and thinking, “Well, what does that mean? And, if this was a gender-reversed situation, would I feel this way?” and kind of pushing on all of those buttons inside of myself to feel like, What is permissible in the culture, and what are we allowing now? And what does it mean if we do or do not allow things, and who gets to decide?
Tom Perrotta: Yeah. Yeah, and I think one of the interesting things in the novel is that Eve is very much aware of these questions, and there are moments where desire or opportunity allows her to step across lines that she actually agrees with a lot, you know what I mean? I’m always interested in that moment when characters do things they disapprove of or didn’t know they were capable of because those are the moments, I think, that really have the power to reveal and also the power to change. It’s like, “Oh, I guess I am a person who thinks that I’m entitled to things that the world says I’m not entitled to. What does that mean?”
Kaitlin Fontana: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I wonder if you could speak to that. You sort of brought this up before. You show-ran this series, and you had a room of writers who were kind of taking on your work in a different way. So I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about talking about these topics in the room, and also how you set up your writers’ room, and who it was made up of, and how you knew people were right for this story. What was your experience with that?
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, it was a very lively room and a very funny one because it was a half-hour show, and I think we ended up drawing from people who had a lot of experience in comedy. And it’s funny because the final show, of course, is much more drama than comedy. So it was kind of an interesting thing. And I think it was a very heavily female room. My experience was that it was a huge reality check for me because I had written this book with that novelist confidence that I could kind of get inside my character’s head and that I somehow gave myself permission to write about a sexual awakening of a middle-aged woman character. And it was so interesting to have women in the room say, “Well, you know, I don’t think she’d like that kind of porn,” or we’d have very heated arguments about this. Just for instance, there was a real sense that women… Again, I know none of these generalizations will hold up to a particular individual’s experience, but there was just some sense, for instance, that she’s not going to watch a woman giving a blowjob. Women don’t like that porn, you know?
Kaitlin Fontana: Hmm.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah. Yes, I know. Well, there you go. And there was a kind of moments when I was saying, “She’s not a savvy consumer of porn at this point. She’s just turned it on. She’s going to see, basically, what Pornhub puts in front of her. And I guess as people watch more porn, they become much more… What’s the right word?
Kaitlin Fontana: Curatorial?
Tom Perrotta: Yeah. Well, they sort of define their desires more clearly. I mean, that’s part of what’s weird about porn, right? It just breaks human behavior down into these endless categories, and you can really get very specific about what you want to watch. There was basically one other straight white guy in the room, and we were both kind of like… We were outnumbered about… A lot of women were just saying that we should really feature porn that shows a woman being pleasured, for instance. So there was a kind of political split in the room. I think in the end we found… We didn’t end up doing a deep dive on the porn that she was watching, but there was definitely a gendered breakdown in terms of what we thought the kind of porn she would watch.
But I just really was… I wanted the porn to feel dirty. I love the scene in the pilot when Eve sees that… We actually show just a couple seconds of porn that has that shocking power that I think porn does have when you… If you’re not in the mood for it, and you see it, it’s like, “Whoa, what did I just see?” And then she shuts her laptop and then picks it up again. It’s just a flash, but if I told you we spent days really heatedly arguing about what kind of porn she would watch, and it was really an interesting experience for me.
There was also, by the way, there was a real generational. I think it’s just clear that younger people in their 20s have grown up in a culture much more focused on consent and more judgmental and more certain that certain things are right and certain things are wrong than some of the older people in the room who tend to be maybe a little more forgiving and maybe… It was not considered really cool to be the censorious one when I was younger, but I think now it’s considered… The conscientious thing to do is really be very clear about what you approve of and what you disapprove of. So to take a laissez-faire attitude about sexual behavior doesn’t come naturally to people who are younger right now.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, and I think the show does a really good job of showing that distinction, particularly when focusing on the son’s story as he moves through beginning years of college and is kind of curtailed in his behaviors for the first time, perhaps.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah. No, I think it really is often very surprising for parents of my generation to understand how careful their kids are about even just the way they talk about things because that was not… We either didn’t talk about them or pretended to be more… or strove for a kind of open-mindedness. And obviously this moment is very open-minded in some ways, right? Things that we just couldn’t conceive of… for instance, around an issue like polyamory now. There’re just a lot of people who are very earnestly trying to do something that was a source of a kind of fantasy or joke for people my age. But then whenever you read about it, it just seems like, oh, my god, all they do is talk, talk, talk. They seem to take all the fun out of it.
Kaitlin Fontana: Well, you just so happen to be speaking to someone who does live that way, and talking is definitely a huge part of it, but it’s still pretty fun, I will say.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, I bet it is. I mean, it was just funny to read all those articles that talk about all the rules, but the upside is that people are honest, you know?
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, radically so.
Tom Perrotta: So before, a sexually exciting life, it was almost like what you could get away with, kind of.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, and now it’s what you can give each other permission to get away with.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, yeah. No, it’s so interesting. It’s, again, another generational change that seems quite drastic.
Kaitlin Fontana: So, within the writers’ room, was that generational shift represented, do you feel? Do you feel you had a good spread of people who are from different generations working on this story together?
Tom Perrotta: Oh, yeah. Yeah, we definitely had people in their 20s, people in their 30s. I was not the only older person in the room, but it was definitely skewed. Like most writers’ rooms, it skewed younger.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, and did you feel, given that this was kind of your first… I know you worked in The Leftovers in a similar situation, but this was sort of your first hands-on, showrunner-y type role apart from your work with Damon. So how did that feel to kind of dig into the writers’ room experience in that way on a story like this?
Tom Perrotta: You know, it was… The Leftovers was a little bit dizzying to have to let go of the sense that I was in charge of… I mean, that’s a funny thing. You’re trying to keep control but give up control at the same time, and it’s really just a day-to-day, ongoing process. So there were days when I felt like the room had a mind of its own and sometimes days when I felt like I was struggling against the tide of the room and other times where… And I think in any room, I knew this from The Leftovers, you would have days of just gloomy silence and then days when something happened, and the room came to life, or we started working together. We just had this weird thing where it was almost like the odd-numbered scripts came relatively easy, and the even-numbered were… So I don’t know why that was. So it wasn’t like we hit stretches. It was almost like we’d have an episode where, “Oh, yeah, this one came together really well,” and then the next one, we would really struggle over for some reason. So it was… That’s just an observation. I have no idea what would explain that. But first seasons are also… and this was a limited series. You’re learning what it is as you’re going.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah. It’s not only that you’re creating story. You’re actually creating a show, which is a different sort of animal in itself.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, you’re creating a show, and you’re creating this show that is the expression of this particular group of people.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right.
Tom Perrotta: So there’s a part of the room that is getting to know each other, a part of the room that is discovering what the divisions are. And are there camps? Are there individual pockets of tension? All those things, that almost becomes the story for a lot of… The period in the writers’ room is… Just the writers’ room itself is the subject almost.
Kaitlin Fontana: And, again, a shift from being on your own, writing a novel to this other world of creating a world on top of the novel, almost.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, well, that crazy thing because the struggles when you’re writing a novel are internal ones, when you’re aware that there’s some part of you that wants to go in this direction and some part of you that’s scared or whatever that is. And in the writers’ room, that just becomes externalized. It’s like, “Oh, this person’s pulling in that direction, and this one’s pulling in another,” and in a way, it’s less personal, but other people are much more stubborn and intractable than one’s own psyche, I think.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Well, I would hope so. If there was that much of a struggle going on inside of you, I might be a little worried for you.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, yeah. No, I just read this biography of Kafka, and that was definitely… His whole career was him fighting himself, and I think a lot of writers would say that that fight with the self is kind of overwhelming sometimes.
Kaitlin Fontana: Certainly, but maybe if Kafka had been in a writers’ room, he would’ve discovered that that fight outside was harder.
Tom Perrotta: You think he just… Where’s Mel Brooks when we need him?
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, right.
Tom Perrotta: Kafka in the… Got a new writer for you, Tom.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, Kafka in the writers’ room. Someone at some point would say, “This is becoming Kafkaesque,” and then the whole thing would fold in on itself and explode. So tell me who your writing heroes were when you were first coming online as a creative person.
Tom Perrotta: Well, it’s funny. The reason I was reading this Kafka biography was that I’ve just been so aware in recent years… I read The Metamorphosis when I was probably a sophomore in high school, and I think I’m still recovering from that. I’m a realist when I write my own fiction, but my early heroes were Kafka and García Márquez and Tolkien. I was, probably like a lot of people, drawn to fantasy and bold imaginings when I was younger. But then senior year in college, I got ahold of Raymond Carver’s short stories, and that was really the decisive moment for me as an adult reader. That seemed like such an exciting moment in American fiction, and it was one that made sense to me because I think… I’m exactly the same age as David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, and I think a lot of people of my generation were really drawn to these big, virtuoso, sometimes metafictional novels. And I was drawn in this other direction toward this kind of almost minimalist realism that was happening also at that time.
But then I think the thing that happened after that for me because I was deeply involved in writing fiction, but then that indie film moment happened in the ’90s. I remember being very jolted by Do the Right Thing or Steven Soderbergh, and that was the beginning of my… If that moment hadn’t happened, Election would’ve never been a movie. The fact that it was actually made as a studio movie at that time is kind of mind-boggling.
Kaitlin Fontana: Indeed, yeah.
Tom Perrotta: But I think… And then TV kind of picked up that slack when that indie moment expired. So those are the broad strokes, I think, for me.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, and what does it look like for you when you are sitting down to write? Writers’ room aside, which I know is a separate animal, but let’s say when you’re sitting down to work on a novel, where do you do it? And what does the room look like? And what conditions do you like?
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, I’m in that room right now. It’s a little room on the third floor of my house. Nobody else comes up here, and it is also my music room. So it’s full of guitars and… Well, I say full. It’s got a bunch of guitars and amps, even though it’s a very small room. So it’s cramped, but it just sort of feels like my creative space, and I can shut the door. It does have windows, but I face a wall. Say about it… I mean, it definitely isn’t something you would put in a movie to signify this is a room where a successful writer… It’s not a tasteful novelist room. It’s full of junk, and it’s cramped, and it’s… but it’s very much a workspace for me. I come up here, and I know, okay, this is what happens here, is I got to work.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, and speaking of music, do you listen to music while you write?
Tom Perrotta: Never, never. I like music too much. It’s like a drug to me. It’s so interesting and powerful that I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else. It never really successfully melts into the background. I can’t read while listening to music. I can’t really do anything.
Kaitlin Fontana: Huh, interesting. There seems to be a divide about halfway down the aisle between those writers who need it and those who can’t have it at all, and there’s no in between.
Tom Perrotta: I know, I know. I’m always struck by those people who say that it’s a source of inspiration. I could see listening to a certain song maybe beforehand just to maybe… if I wanted to conjure a mood because music can do that like nothing else. But during, it just seems impossible.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. So are you working on a new novel right now, given the pattern of how your creative life has gone so far, project to project?
Tom Perrotta: I’m trying. The thing that I didn’t understand was just how crazy it was going to be to be a showrunner because when I worked on The Leftovers I was an executive producer, but Damon was the showrunner. I was in the room, but I also was able to come home. I live in Boston, but I would go out to L.A. for a couple weeks at a time. But then I would go home just to reacquaint myself with my family and then come back out to L.A. But this time, basically it took up a whole year and a half. I was in New York for several months. I was in L.A. for like eight months, I think, and didn’t get back as much as I thought I would. I was on set every day, and then we were in post. I’m still kind of recovering from the shock to my system of all that work, and it’s a little bit hard because it doesn’t feel like it’s quite over yet. I mean, the show is…
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, because it hasn’t premiered yet.
Tom Perrotta: Yeah, the show is done, but it hasn’t really made its way out in the world, and I’m just very… I think I just need to clear my head a little bit, but I do have an idea. It’s just what I don’t have is the discipline, and that’s when I think the shock of moving between this very collaborative social world of making a TV show and the solitary quiet world of writing a novel… It really is an enormous transition, and I’m making it very slowly.
Kaitlin Fontana: Well, I mean, I think you’d be forgiven if you could take a minute to not be working on a project. I think that… Speaking on behalf of the culture, Tom, I give you permission.
Tom Perrotta: I guess you should call me every day and remind me because it’s always that feeling within me. I know logically you need what you need, but there is that weird Protestant work ethic that is stuck in the writer’s head, just that guilty conscience that says, “Who are you if you’re not writing?” And there is that feeling of… It’s very easy to waste a day.
Kaitlin Fontana: It certainly is, yeah, especially with things like easily-available porn, for example, bringing us back to Mrs. Fletcher.
Tom Perrotta: The example… Yeah, that’s… It’s always out there.
Kaitlin Fontana: It’s true. Well, Tom, thank you so much for being with us today, and congratulations again on Mrs. Fletcher. It’s a huge achievement and a fantastic show, and I hope everybody checks it out when it premieres.
Tom Perrotta: Oh, thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking to you.
Kaitlin Fontana: Thanks.
Tom Perrotta: Bye-bye.
Kaitlin Fontana: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East. Tech production and original music is by Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at wgaeast.org. You can follow the guild on social media @wgaeast, and you can follow me on Twitter @kaitlinfontana. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for tuning in. Write on.