Sacrilege in Sharp Chapel with Tom Perrotta

Last Wednesday, author Tom Perrotta came to TU and spoke about MILF porn for awhile. There was, of course, plenty of nervous laughter present already, but I found myself unable to ignore that the reading was in Sharp Chapel. The stained-glass portrait of Jesus towered over Perrotta and seemed to lean down, holding a finger up and staring at him as if to chastise him.
Perrotta has published nine books, seven of which are novels, the other two short story collections. He is best known for “Election” and “Little Children,” and more recently for “The Leftovers,” which had a television adaptation that aired on HBO. As far as novelists go, Perrotta is unique for also being a screenwriter, having adapted several of his works for the big screen (or for TV).
Before the main event, I was among students from some film and creative writing classes that got 45 minutes with Perrotta for a more involved Q&A session. We got perhaps six questions in, because authors tend to be long-winded; so I’ve realized after attending several poetry and book readings.
A large portion of our pre-show discussion revolved around Perrotta’s life before his career as a successful novelist and screenwriter. He completed his MFA at Syracuse in creative writing, and said that a master’s degree is useless if you’re unpublished.
He took three years to write his first novel, working as a teacher on the side and eventually landing a job as a writing tutor in New Haven, Connecticut (a position he called the “lowest rung” in the academic ladder). He eventually went on to teach composition at Harvard, though he never had a position teaching creative writing anywhere.
After his novel “Election” was adapted into a successful film (adapted before it was actually published), he was offered a job writing for TV and film. Here he described to us the stereotypical rankings of writing merit, with literature and poetry being at the top and film and television being at the bottom. This held fast in his mind as he took the screenwriting position, though he made sure he didn’t “sell out.”
The differences between film and literature are vast, of course, but what stuck out to Perrotta most was the differences with which each genre handled tone. Where most films or television shows are centered around one tone (e.g. a comedy, or a drama), he finds that novels can be very “tonally intermittent.”
Perrotta didn’t hold back regarding the anxieties that came with balancing working-for-a-living and writing, particularly in his pre-published years. Perrotta wrote three novels before he published one, and he recalled friends who had written one unpublished novel and then just “dropped out,” dropped writing and focused on a career to support their families.
He didn’t disparage their decisions, just their lost talent, because many of them he considered better writers than himself. He pulled no punches when describing the hardships of the writing world to us naïve undergrad students.
Perrotta stuck it out though, and he’s one of the ones that made it. What helped particularly was combining writing and working for a living, something that came with his new screenwriting position, though the job wasn’t without its issues.
Writing collaboratively was a new challenge for him. He was now in a room filled with other writers who all had their own ideas and volition, which of course made crafting his vision difficult. He had to learn to mold his vision together with the visions of everyone else.
He was particularly and understandably defensive when adapting his own work, such as during the first season of “The Leftovers.” Eventually, though, he taught himself to stand back from his own vision “and allow the other writers to take it into new territory.”
We ended our discussion with Perrotta with tips on writing itself.
“You should just be reading voraciously,” he said. The writer should also be passionate about their reading.
“Try new things until you can find one that works,” he added. He cited musicians that constantly practiced and showed an intense love for listening to music to illustrate both of his points.
He lastly suggested that we not go into a piece with the mindset “I’m writing a novel.” He posited that the ideas should sprout for themselves into whatever they become, short story, novella, novel or trilogy.
The night’s main event featured Perrotta reading from his most recent novel, “Mrs. Fletcher.” The venue, Sharp Chapel, proved to be perhaps better housing for the large crowd but with awkward acoustics. Perrotta had a microphone when he spoke that helped a bit, but during the Q&A session particularly the echo was nearly unbearable.
Beyond the minor technical issues, though, Perrotta gave a deadpan and soft-spoken reading of an excerpt from “Mrs. Fletcher.” He described the novel as being about a middle-aged woman, Eve, coming home to an empty nest after dropping her son off at college. After receiving an anonymous text referring to her as a MILF, she researches the curious description.
She of course found a burgeoning genre of pornography (through a website called MILFateria) that disgusted but intrigued her. As the novel progresses, she becomes addicted to pornography and it leaks into her life in interesting ways. Perrotta assured us that would soon redirect to his website.
In the excerpt Perrotta read, Eve has dinner with a young coworker. Eve is at first daydreaming about pornography, particularly about the particular format of the upset young girl being slowly groomed by an older, more mature woman.
“Nothing that can’t be solved with a backrub, or cunnilingus,” Eve thinks. Amanda, the younger coworker, talks about a transsexual that she watched transition for four years. Without knowing much else about the novel, the whole interaction implies larger themes than simple porn addiction: the novel is about the nature of sexuality itself, as seen through the eyes of a timid, middle-aged woman.
Perrotta’s writing is lively and hilarious, and his underhanded delivery gives the punchlines that much more punch. It was downright shocking to see that sweet man talking about MILF porn at a church pulpit, but there he was.
The dinner between coworkers ended with an awkward kiss that Eve took the initiative with. Having misread the situation, she’s horrified to see Amanda’s shocked reaction, and later on she texts her, apologizing profusely once more. Amanda promises she wouldn’t tell anyone, and calls her by the name of the alter-ego Eve had created at the dinner table, someone she wished she could be, providing the excerpt with a hopeful ending.
The Q&A session, as stated previously, was rather echoey and difficult to understand. More lights came on at this point, and the massive figure of Christ was blinded behind Perrotta.
Most questions involved the production of “The Leftover” television show, though there was an interesting question that lead to an interesting insight about the cover of “Little Children,” a book with apparently large amounts of sex. Perrotta understandably didn’t want a book called “Little Children” with sex represented in some manner on the cover, so what eventually went to print was an image of two fish on a lawn.
Perrotta let slip another interesting insight into his life as a writer, mentioning that his fiction consumption slows considerably when he’s working on something. He said that crime fiction is the exception, but that he otherwise reads copious amounts of nonfiction.
The final two questions fell back onto the usual writing questions: how much do you write each day and how far do you think ahead as you’re writing.
Perrotta says he tries to write “something new every day.” Not 500 words, or 1000 words, though if he reaches that quota then he’s happy all the same. Something like a paragraph a day is enough to keep him going.
He also says “I can never see far down the road,” seeming to imply he doesn’t outline his novels too well. Of course, when the end is in sight he races to it, but he usually writes his novels at a lax pace, allowing the story to take itself wherever it goes.
Perrotta’s reading was raunchy, entertaining and insightful. As the line for autographs started forming, I thought about how I’d like to read “Mrs. Fletcher” (though I wasn’t willing to dish out the $28 they were charging at the event). In our previous, smaller setting before the book reading itself, he mentioned that he was currently writing the pilot for a “Mrs. Fletcher” series on HBO. There should be plenty of non-pornographic MILF-related fiction for those who were needing it.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker