In one of those lovely it's-a-small-world serendipities, one of my dearest friends is married to an old college friend of the author Tom Perrotta, whose works include "The Leftovers," "Election," "Little Children," and his latest novel "Mrs. Fletcher." My friend's husband recently shared memories with me of a long-ago visit to Perrotta's New Jersey home:
"We went to the local cafe, where I think we talked about how he talked with and understood the characters in his life; saw the softball fields where a good part of socialization took place. I remember a warm, but not oppressive summer night, meeting his family. When reading his works, I go back to the feel, the light, the calm, and the knowledge that everyone in those scenes had a story."
I can't think of a better way to describe how Perrotta's books affect me, too: how every character has their own story, and how Perrotta, a writer of an unusually generous spirit, lets each person in his books shine in their own light. Their actions may not always be admirable, but we're given the tools to understand them; they seem complex and well-meaning and utterly real.
Perrotta's seventh and latest novel, "Mrs. Fletcher" is about a divorced mother named Eve whose life – social, emotional, sexual – begins to expand in unexpected ways after her only son leaves for college. In a warm telephone interview last week (yes, he remembered my friend, and had kept up with their family), he said that the book had a somewhat autobiographical element, as do many of his novels.
"The Wishbones," written when a thirtysomething Perrotta was pondering whether to quit writing (he hadn't yet published any of his work) and go to law school, follows a sunny New Jersey 30-year-old named Dave, who's still following his dream of playing in a band. (That charming 1997 novel, by the way, is one of my nominees for Best Book You've Never Read; check it out.) "Little Children," written when Perrotta's children were small, followed the lives of young suburban parents. "The Abstinence Teacher," the title character of which is a soccer mom, came about when his children were active in youth soccer. "The Leftovers," the 2011 novel about a Rapture-like occurrence in a suburban community (and eventually a hit HBO series), was inspired by the death of Perrotta's father.
And "Mrs. Fletcher" is about, Perrotta said, "that moment when your kids grow up and move away, and you have to take stock of who you are and what you want to do with the rest of your life. I could have written about that from the perspective of a married couple, but there seemed to be something more poignant and more pure about the idea of somebody whose nest actually was completely empty. She was looking at kind of a blank page, for the rest of her life."
Busy with "The Leftovers" (for which he was co-creator, writer and executive producer) and with little time for new work, Perrotta said he was inspired by Elena Ferrante's brief 2005 novel "The Days of Abandonment," in which a young mother, left by her husband, becomes unhinged. He'd planned "Mrs. Fletcher" to be quite short, and from a single point of view, but things changed.
"I wanted it to be kind of an erotic fugue state that (Eve) got into, involving porn and sexual acting out. That part is still there. But I wrote the first chapter and I was so curious about the son that I thought, I had to see what he's up to. And then I wrote about her workplace, and I was interested in (another) person, and so I thought ... It's just the way I work. The book that actually helped launch me is so different from the book I ended up with."
Likewise, Perrotta's career is a little different from the one he originally envisioned; he now divides his time between books and screenwriting. But he didn't write the first movie based on one of his novels: "Election," released in 1999. "It felt like a miracle to me," Perrotta remembered. "I sent off this book that I couldn't get published and it seemed like a only a couple of months later, (Hollywood producers) optioned the book. They offered what to them seemed like a nominal fee but it was like a year's salary to me." He said he didn't consider writing the screenplay: "The MTV Films executive said, 'You don't want to write the screenplay, do you?' The correct answer was, 'no, of course not.'" (And, eventually, the book got published, though "the movie almost beat the book into existence.")
But the attention from "Election" brought more screen opportunities his way. Perrotta was an executive producer of the 2001 TV movie of "Bad Haircut," co-wrote the screenplay for 2006's "Little Children" – and, for "The Leftovers," took a leading role in its creation. "I was part of the team for the entire life of the show," he said. "It was really a wonderful experience."
His time with TV may well continue; Perrotta said that he's currently in talks with HBO to develop "Mrs. Fletcher" as a possible half-hour comedy series. "I was intrigued by the way 'The Leftovers' outgrew the world of the book, and the characters sort of lived on and had other experiences. I love this about TV – viewers can have a relationship with these characters over a long period of time. It's a fundamentally new thing – how many years did I watch Don Draper or Walter White? The stories just become a big part of people's lives."
Just as Perrotta's books and characters have been, for 20 years now, part of mine; filled with friends, old and new.