Tom Perrotta’s Advice to Writers
Thomas R. Perrotta is an American novelist and screenwriter best known for his novels Election (1998) and Little Children (2004), both of which were made into critically acclaimed, Golden Globe-nominated films. Perrotta co-wrote the screenplay for the 2006 film version of Little Children with Todd Field, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Question: Should you always write what you know?
Perrotta: I’m always weary of any kind of generalization like that. There’re some people who… I think somebody once said there are two kinds of writers, you know, that there’s somebody who lives home and somebody who stays home, and I’ve always been the kind of writer who stayed home but I don’t necessarily feel like that’s going to work for everybody. I think you have to do a lot of reading and you have to do a lot of writing and if you’re lucky you’ll eventually find a voice or find a subject matter that you’re passionate about. I mean that to me is really the crucial thing, it’s somehow, you know, having your work connect with your obsessions and your passions and, you know, it’s… if you teach writing, sometimes it’s just very mysterious because you’ll see somebody, you can see that they have talent, you can see that they want very much to write but somehow there’s a kind of psychological disjunction between the work and what really matters to them and it’s scary, you know, when your work starts to interact with the unruly parts of your subconscious. You put yourself at risk and there are some people who just can’t do that but… So I’d rather challenge people, in a way, to figure out a way to get their work to connect with what really means something to them, however they’re going to do it. It doesn’t always mean writing about what you know. It means writing about something in a way that’s going to get you to use your best and most troubling material.
Question: How can you write with authority about an unfamiliar subject?
Perrotta: So, for instance, when I’m watching the 1992 election, I wasn’t really thinking about this as material. What happened in my life then was I was unemployed, you know, I was trying to write but I had lost my teaching job for a year and I had a lot of free time and this election was happening and I found it very exciting and [write] everything I could. I remember, in 1992, I certainly didn’t have… I had e-mail but I didn’t have any kind of Internet connection. There wasn’t a kind of blogging culture, [right], so that you’d follow the election by reading the paper, reading magazines, you know, watching Nightline. There wasn’t a 24 hour culture that, you know, that you have now where basically anybody who wants to be a political junkie can be a political junkie. I really went out of my way to understand that election, and when it was over I was sort of grieving for it. Like, what am I going to do with my time now? And somehow that feeling of emptiness after that election led me to think well maybe I should write a political novel but, you know, I don’t know anything about politics. My only political experience was, you know, as a homeroom representative for two years in high school, and suddenly, like, something went off in my head, like that was, “Oh! I could write a political novel about high school politics,” and I always liked to have a little bit of a counterintuitive, you know, buzz in the idea and that was… for me, that was it and I, you know… And so I wrote the novel in a way to assuage my own feelings of, you know, I want this election to continue. I just, you know, continued the election by writing my own version of it. So, yeah. But, as you say, the idea… We came out of a place that to me didn’t have anything to do with where I usually would seek out my material. At the time, I was really looking at my own life and I was thinking about the election as the election and, you know, that was an interesting breakthrough for me to realize that I could write fiction that in a sense was commenting on the public culture rather than just commenting on my own experience in a world that I knew directly.
Question: How has your life experience informed your craft?
Perrotta: I was in my early 30s. I was married. I’d written a couple of books that I hadn’t been able to publish at that point. I really felt like the time for me to be a writer was running out, and one of the things I did… and I see it now. I don’t think I understood it then. Both “The Wishbones” and “Election” are dealing head on with characters who were facing the exact dilemma that I was facing. Mr. M., the first line of “Election” is, “All I ever wanted to do is teach,” and it’s a story about a guy who has this one thing and he loses it and it’s sort of the story of how he did it. In “The Wishbones” the main character wanted to be a rock star. He sort of washed up in this wedding band and he’s about to get married and he’s facing like the end of his entire rock and roll dream which has basically been the thing that structured his whole life up to now. And, you know, I see now that what I was doing is taking these fears that I had, that I was going to end up doing something I didn’t want to do simply because I couldn’t make a living at the thing I wanted to do and I took… and I just found indirect ways to deal with that issue that was really a burning issue in my life and it still is kind of a defining thing for most of the male characters I write about. Todd in “Little Children,” he’s a former athlete who’s gone to law school and it about… He can’t pass the bar and I think there’s an implication in the novel that he can’t pass the bar because he really doesn’t want to take on this profession, that it’s really not something that he’s doing because he wants to do it and instead of becoming a lawyer he just wants to stay home and hang out and I think that, you know, that period in my life, that fear that I had that I was going to end up doing something I didn’t want to do and was going to be kept from doing the thing I really did want to do, as you say, that panic was burned pretty deep into me. I think I’m still writing about, you know, that feeling and I think a lot of people have that moment. I mean, most people don’t end up doing precisely the thing that they want to do and they have to make some compromises with adulthood and find compensation and, you know, other pleasures, you know, whether it’s raising a kid or hobbies or, you know, whatever that might be, but I experienced that as a real existential dilemma and it really fed directly into my fiction.
Tom Perrotta debunks the maxim of always writing what you know.