Life has a way of taking that out of you: A conversation with Tom Perrotta

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Like many people, I came to Tom Perrotta’s fiction not through his books, but through the film and television adaptations of his books, the most famous of which is the 1999 Alexander Payne film, Election. I was still in high school the first time I watched the movie, and it immediately became a lasting favorite of mine, mainly because of how much of myself I saw in the main character, Tracy Flick.

Tracy Flick is an ambitious high school student with perfect grades (and an equally perfect side-part) who is running for school president, only to see her upward trajectory derailed by her government teacher, Mr. M, who wishes to slow Tracy down, and ends up destroying his own unimpressive life in the process. In the decades since the novel and the film entered American pop culture, Tracy Flick has come to represent female ambition in our national consciousness, her name even used by pundits as stand-in for powerful women who want it all.

But readers also learn that when Election opens, Tracy has just broken off a relationship with another of her high school teachers, an affair that started when she was only fifteen. This relationship doesn’t mean much to Tracy at the time. She describes the teacher as being “a baby” when they break up, and her focus immediately shifts back to school, to the election, to the future she can see taking shape if only she can work hard enough to reach it. But readers, myself included, are aware of the lasting effect such a relationship can have on a child. And as I’ve aged and watched the national dialogue around abusive men shift, I’ve often thought about Tracy Flick, her affair, and how wrong it all was.

It is this affair and Tracy’s reckoning with it that opens Tom Perrotta’s latest novel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, a timely sequel that finds Tracy in her forties and still in high school, though now working as an assistant principal in suburban New Jersey. Tracy has come to the job after dropping out of law school to care for her dying mother, and now in middle age and living in a post-#MeToo world, she finds herself confronting what happened to her when she was a teenager, as well as coming to terms with her own fizzled dreams. When her school board proposes creating a hall of fame for luminous alums, and they wish to honor Vito Falcone—a star quarterback of dubious character who had a brief career in the NFL and is now suffering the effects of traumatic brain injury—Tracy draws a line between this and the forces that have left her feeling thwarted and disappointed. In typical Perrotta fashion, his latest novel is frank and funny and genuinely, if frighteningly, on the nose.

I spoke with Perrotta about revisiting Flick after so many years, female ambition, and the task of showcasing an America in decline.

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The Rumpus: So after all these years, what drew you back to Tracy Flick?

Tom Perrotta: Tracy is a unique character for me because she didn’t really go away, right? In a way, her public profile just got bigger and bigger. And it grew beyond the book and even beyond the movie to become a kind of political archetype or stereotype. I would be in my car driving and listening to the news, and suddenly there would be a reference to Tracy Flick. And that just never happened to me with anything else. And then a few years ago, there started to be a kind of revisionist school of critics who were defending Tracy. And it was such an interesting thing for me to watch, just to feel like the character was worth fighting over.

So she was in my mind that way. And then when the #MeToo movement happened, there was a lot of focus on relationships like the one I described in Election, like between teachers and students or powerful men and less powerful women or older men and younger women. And these questions of consent and abuse that were raised made me think about Election and how I had portrayed Tracy, and I was sort of looking back wondering about how I had told the story. But I also thought, you know, I bet Tracy would be looking back too through this cultural lens. I saw a lot of women talking about relationships that they had in the past that hadn’t seemed so problematic to them at the time, but in looking at them in the light of the #MeToo movement were suddenly like, Wait a second. That was maybe not what I thought it was.

And then there was this other thing which was that, over the years, many women had come up to me at readings and said, I was a Tracy Flick. And it was touching to think that these people were identifying with the character and they weren’t saying, I was a terrible person. They were saying, I was an ambitious young woman. I always had my hand in the air. I always worked harder than everybody else. And that helped me to think about Tracy less as this completely formidable person and more as an ordinary person. A lot of us have great ideas about ourselves when we’re young, and then when we’re middle age, we’re kind of rueful or wistful about them because life has a way of taking that out of you.

Rumpus: Have you ever worried that you gave Tracy short shrift in Election? Did you ever feel like you owed her a second chapter?

Perrotta: Looking back on it I don’t feel like I’d given her short shrift. In fact, what I really like about Election and what made it an important book in my development as a writer was that I decided I would tell the story from multiple perspectives and only in the first-person. Every character got to tell their own story. And so, actually, what I think happened in Election is that early on the audience decided to identify with Mr. M’s perspective on Tracy rather than Tracy’s perspective on herself. And what changed, I think, was that critics started to say, Wait a second. Tracy is just this young woman trying to get elected president of her school so that she can get into a good college. Her family could really use the scholarship. And the worst that she does is tear down some posters and lie about it.

It was just a matter of Tracy. She was there hidden in plain sight the whole time and people just chose to accept Mr. M’s word instead of Tracy’s. And that maybe is an error of emphasis on my part. Mr. M gets the first and the last word in that book. But it’s hard to say why the reader would say Mr. M is the source of authority in this book. He does really terrible things and undermines his own values in a huge way. So, I certainly don’t feel like I took Mr. M’s side over Tracy’s in Election, but I do feel like that just shows you in a way how sexism works, right? Is that somehow his perspective seemed more legitimate than this teenage girl’s perspective.

Rumpus: Were there other times over the last twenty years when you wanted to write the sequel, or started writing it?

Perrotta: No. I never had some separate intention of wanting to write a sequel. And in fact, with this book, I started by telling my agent I was writing this book about a former professional football player who’s in his forties, and he’s beginning to suspect that he’s had a brain injury from concussions, and he’s being brought back to his high school to be honored.

And when I started to write the story, I found myself using the format that I used in Election of a kind of a mock oral history with short chapters from different perspectives. And I was very uneasy about the fact that I’d done that because I’m like, Why am I using the form of Election for this? It just feels like I’m plagiarizing myself.

But I knew it was the right way to write the book, and at some point I suddenly thought, What if Tracy is working at this high school? And when I had that idea it felt like the first time that she made sense to me as an adult. I didn’t think she was going to be the president of the United States. And I didn’t think she was going to be a senator or a district attorney for some reason. And suddenly, to see her back in high school and still struggling for these very small victories, she made sense to me. I was like, Oh, there’s Tracy. And once I started to write her, she took [the book] over. Vito [the football player] is more like a supporting character now, but he was the character I started with.

Rumpus: It’s interesting that you say you knew as an adult she wouldn’t be the president or a senator or a district attorney. Why is that?

Perrotta: I think it relates to what I told you before about all those women who came up to me and said, I’m Tracy Flick. They were ordinary people. They were educated. For the most part, they were successful. Some of them had opted to stay at home with their kids. Some were teachers. Some might have been lawyers. But they had not set the world on fire necessarily. They had lived successful, but ordinary, lives. And that was like a helpful reminder to me. There’s a Tracy in every school, maybe more than one, and I think it really raised the question: How exceptional was she? And that was a question for me as a writer. That will be a question for readers who care about Tracy, and it’s a question for Tracy in the book: Was I wrong about myself? I actually don’t think she was. I think that if circumstances had been slightly different she might have been on that road. But that’s how it happens, right? A lot of people are in the race, and then fall out for all kinds of reasons, some of which are just luck. In Tracy’s case she made a decision to put her own education on hold so she could care for her mother. A lot of people, especially women, find that caretaking sometimes interferes with their trajectory as professionals.

Rumpus: Why do you think she’s come to represent female ambition? And do you think pundits and journalists use that comparison in a derogatory way?

Perrotta: When I started writing Election in 1993 I don’t think I had read a single novel or seen a single movie about a female politician. And so, it’s partly because Tracy was part of that first generation of girls who were raised by feminist mothers who told them, You can do anything you want. You can be president. This was just not something that was told to my mother’s generation. And so I think Tracy was part of a cohort of women that was new in our culture. This character with such intensity. I think she just filled the space that people needed to talk about female ambition. There was always that template, which is the woman who is ruthless, but [like Lady Macbeth] on behalf of her husband, because the opportunities don’t exist for her.

And here was a girl who just wanted power on the same field that the men played on.

Rumpus: Rereading Election as an adult, it was nothing like I remembered. I just didn’t remember the creepy way the male teachers spoke about their female students, who are children. And that says a lot about me growing up in the nineties as well. But what’s interesting about Tracy Flick Can’t Win is that we’re in a post #MeToo universe where not only does the reader find these behaviors disgusting, Tracy as the narrator reacts to them as well. A lot of us have done a tremendous amount of reflecting in the last few years. What have you come away with in this reckoning? And why did you choose to speak through Tracy Flick?

Perrotta: It’s a little embarrassing when I look back at Election, and I think if anything, I bet that I was soft-pedaling some of that stuff at the time. I think part of me wanting to look back through Tracy is that it just seems like a great opportunity to have her life be a kind of way to measure what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. I’m a huge fan of John Updike’s Rabbit. He would revisit Rabbit, you know, [in the] sixties, seventies, eighties, and it would just be a way of seeing the interplay between an individual character and the change in culture. It seemed to happen on some slightly subconscious level, like there wasn’t this moment of Oh, here. Tracy is a great way for me to reckon with the changes in sexual politics that have occurred over the past twenty or thirty years. It was more like, Well, I’m telling a story, and Tracy’s in it, and she’s still in school, and a lot of the same issues are still in the air.

Rumpus: That’s a great comparison with the Updike novels. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but staying with the same character through different time periods—they become a cipher for understanding how political changes and social changes impact a person that we already know, and so we can see the impact more clearly.

In an interview you did with Vox a few years ago, you said this about Election: “As a novelist, I just thought the disjunction between who we are internally and who we want the world to think we are—that is the crucial question of the novel.” What then is the central question of Tracy Flick Can’t Win?

Perrotta: The thing that was called the “character question” back then applied very directly to Bill Clinton, which was: If you cheat on your wife and are dishonest in your private life, then should we assume that you will be dishonest as a public figure? There was almost like this religious desire to say that you have a unitary self, that who you are in private is who you are in public. And as a novelist, I just know that that’s wrong. Like the novel exists as a form because it allows you to see both the character’s thoughts and the character’s actions, and they rarely line up. And you know that every public person is a kind of a fiction, so it’s fun to kind of do that in a high school setting. Even these high school kids have secret lives that they’re hiding from one another.

But the question of Tracy Flick Can’t Win, I think at the heart of it is, ambition, success, and who we choose to honor. Tracy is grappling with this personally because she feels like all she wanted was success. And she hasn’t achieved the kind of success that she dreamed of and feels that she deserved. Her question is, Did I fail or was the game rigged against me?

And for Vito, there’s just this question of, Was [his football career] worth it? He got a brief moment of fame and athletic success. But now he’s paying for it.

Rumpus: I love that you asked, Who do we honor? Because I think that’s a really big question for today: Who do we hold up as emblematic of success? And for what reason?

Perrotta: I will say this is something that connects the two books because one of the great pleasures of writing Election was that all this intrigue surrounded what we can all agree is a pretty meaningless election, right? Nobody really cares who’s the president of the high school except the president. Similarly [in Tracy Flick Can’t Win] there’s a hall of fame for this high school. And it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but actually, it is a big deal because it is this question of who do we honor and why. And Tracy feels like a bait and switch was perpetrated by Kyle [the school board member who proposes the hall of fame], who tells her we’re gonna honor people for all kinds of reasons: scientists, musicians, maybe even caretakers. And I think she’s really pleased by this because it opens the space for her to imagine that she could be honored.

And maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about being honored, but I think Tracy feels overlooked. There’s something about an expansive version of success that might plausibly include her that she finds inspiring. And then like everything else in her life it gets sort of ripped away from her by men who just say, Well, we were just kidding, you know?

The Rumpus: How do you go about character development with a character you invented in the nineties and who was fully fleshed out back then? From a craft perspective, was it hard to go back into her head?

Perrotta: It turned out not to be. And that was one of the great happy surprises of the book. I think it’s kind of an actor technique. I tend to seize on one thing, like I went back and reread Election before I started. And everything about Tracy’s mom and her relationship with her mom just jumped out at me—that was the most important relationship in her life. And it really becomes the story of how Tracy’s mother was the one who inspired her to success. And her mother was also the one she had to take care of, and that was the thing that really anchored me in this book.

[And as to Tracy in her forties] I felt like she would be more rueful, more introspective, sort of heavier in her spirit. I think everybody is when they get into their forties and their potential has turned into a more ambiguous reality. Some of that was just trying to imagine how her teenage traits would affect her in middle age.

The Rumpus: Your characters are, similar to George Saunders’s, people who often live in suburbia in decline as Judas Shulevitz termed it in The Atlantic. What is it about this space and these people that excites your imagination?

Perrotta: That’s the world I live in. And so that’s the world my imagination resides in. I think if I had been a city person, I’d probably be writing about similar characters. They would just be living in a different place. I guess you could say that suburbia is in decline. But I think you could also say that most of America’s in decline. And I think that we live with a sense of that. I don’t think if you go back to Election, there’s a feeling of decline. Those early-nineties were kind of a go-get-‘em moment. I think I’ve been very conscious of what it means to live in a country that’s in decline, but also maybe the irony of being a privileged person in a country in decline.

The Rumpus: You crystallized so much of our current moment and poured it into this book. So I’m curious, when you look around at the world, what do you see? And where do you see us going?

Perrotta: One of the things I have learned over my decades is that I really try not to look at this moment and project the future. The thing I’ve been so conscious of lately is that something is gonna happen that none of us see coming in the next couple of years. And that’s gonna completely change our sense of what is the central narrative of our lives. I mean, just the way the pandemic changed everything so quickly—I’m still kind of reeling from that. We just got spun off our axis, but it’s happening multiple times in my life. The main truth I’m aware of right now is that the future is just gonna surprise all of us.

 

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Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan


Elizabeth Gonzalez James is Interviews Editor at The Rumpus, and author of the novel Mona at Sea. More from this author →