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‘Mrs. Fletcher’ becomes an object of desire in Tom Perrotta’s new novel

August 21, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Suburbia, sex and a touch of the supernatural are familiar themes for novelist Tom Perrotta, author of “Election,” “The Leftovers” and “Little Children.” In his new book “Mrs. Fletcher,” Perrotta offers a story about an empty-nester who adopts a new fascination and a new worldview. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Perrotta to discuss the ways his work borrows from his own life experience.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a look at a sexual revolution in ways you might not expect. Jeffrey Brown has this latest addition to the NewsHour bookshelf.

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JEFFREY BROWN: Suburbia, sex, satire and a touch of the supernatural, subjects Tom Perrotta has taken on in novels, and the films and TV shows adapted from them. Among them, the 1998 book “Election” made into a film starring Reese Witherspoon.

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REESE WITHERSPOON, Actress: Who put you up to this?

MALE: What do you mean?

REESE WITHERSPOON: You woke up this morning and suddenly decided to run for president?

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JEFFREY BROWN: In 2004 in 2004, came the novel and then film “Little Children” with Kate Winslet.

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KATE WINSLET, Actress: It’s him.

MALE: Oh, Jesus.

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JEFFREY BROWN: And most recently, “The Leftovers,” an apocalyptic tale that became an acclaimed HBO drama.

Now, Tom Perrotta is out with his seventh novel titled, “Mrs. Fletcher,” about a woman coping with her empty nest, her son who’s gone off to college and the sexual boundaries both explore.

Tom Perrotta, nice to talk to you.

TOM PERROTTA, Author, “Mrs. Fletcher”: Oh, great to talk to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, for you, the writer, were looking at sort of sexual norms today.

TOM PERROTTA: Yes, absolutely. So, in a way this is a book about college and identity. Eve sends her son Brendan off to college and she’s alone in the empty nest and she’s looking for a way to jumpstart her life. She’s lonely, and through a strange series of circumstances, starts looking at this porn that confuses her, but it also features middle aged women like herself and it makes her see herself as possibly an object of desire, and in doing so, it kind of changes her view on the world. Ordinary situations that seemed completely innocuous before are suddenly charged with some erotic possibility and sometimes she acts on that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Get to look at the limits of acceptable behavior today.

TOM PERROTTA: Yes, and I’m always interested in this idea of transgression and the fact that the lines keep changing, you know? So, in “Little Children,” the adulterous couple, that’s not the scandal, you know. But the pedophile is the scandal. Whereas in the 19th century in novels like “Anna Karenina” or “Madame Bovary,” the adulterous couple was the scandal.

So, we keep redefining where that line is and for Eve, worrying about her son’s porn consumption and she just feels like, oh, that’s — it’s terrible what these kids are exposed to and it’s had harmful effects on him. And then she starts looking, out of curiosity and it gets under her skin in a strange way.

And so, she’s in that place where a lot of my characters are where she’s doing something she herself disapproves of but she can’t stop.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s Jane Austen, right? I mean, this is the stuff of, how do we treat each other, what’s allowed and what’s not?

TOM PERROTTA: Right, I’ve seen, you know, my parents generation have one view of sex, my — and one experience of sex, my generation had another, and now, my kids are coming of an age in a time when all sorts of sexual identities are suddenly available but also this huge amount of pornography on the Internet, so that, you know, any kid who wants to be exposed to the entire encyclopedic spectrum of sexuality can get it.

And I just don’t think that we know exactly how it’s affecting people. I think part of the fun of this book was to show a middle aged person experiencing this late in life this kind of sexual re- education.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I want to say, I mean, for the audience too. I mean, we’re talking about a book that is sort of about pornography and sex, but there’s not a lot of — this isn’t a book with a lot of pornography or even a lot of sex for that matter. You’re writing a book about sex without a lot of sex.

TOM PERROTTA: Yes, I hope that doesn’t disappoint anyone.

(LAUGHTER)

TOM PERROTTA: Right, I think that it’s really about how we think about sex, how sex factors into our identity and how that identity can change at different points in life. For instance, Eve takes a night school class on gender and society and she has a transgender professor and the book kind of tracks this moment that we just lived through where, you know, the culture has started to re- define gender as a spectrum, to see that trans people are, you know, human beings and part of the community, but it’s also been challenging to a lot of people who are used to thinking about sex in, you know, very binary terms. And so, think about gender in very binary terms.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, it looks like you’re a writer who is in some way tracking his own life. I mean, I wonder if this is fair. I mean, I think of early novels as a young guy and then, you know, married, living in the suburbs with kids, and then up to today as an empty nester, it sounds like yourself, right? Is that fair?

TOM PERROTTA: Yes, that is absolutely fair. It’s —

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re your own material.

TOM PERROTTA: I am. And so, I don’t often write about myself or people I know, but I do write about the life passage that I’m going through and it helps in a way because I think I’m very close to it while I’m writing. So, it’s not seen through that mist of nostalgia, you know, and so, I really felt like, you know, what I was reading in the newspaper was feeding directly into this novel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is your television experience impacting you fiction writing in terms of storytelling, or how you even approaching a novel?

TOM PERROTTA: I don’t think so. You know, I feel like if you look at “Mrs. Fletcher” and you look at some of my earlier work, I think you’d say that’s the same writer doing that.

On the other hand, what has happened is I’ve become much more aware of what’s special about novel writing, what are the kinds of things I can do. I can go into a character’s head. I can follow their inner monologue in a way that’s very difficult to do in a drama. And so, I think that I try to avail myself of the tools of fiction when I’m writing fiction, I’m much more conscious of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The new novel is “Mrs. Fletcher.” Tom Perrotta, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

TOM PERROTTA: Great to talk to you.

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