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Tom Perrotta Shares 'Post-Parental' Reflections From An Empty Nest

Oct 25, 2019
Originally published on October 28, 2019 2:03 pm

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest is author Tom Perrotta, whose recent novel, "Mrs. Fletcher," is being dramatized this Sunday as a new HBO miniseries. Kathryn Hahn stars in the title role.

"Mrs. Fletcher," both the HBO series and the novel, are about major life transitions and the sexual transitions that accompany them. When the novel begins, Eve, a 46-year-old divorced single mother, is saying goodbye to her son, Brendan, who is leaving for college. Brendan expects college to be a big beer and pizza party with plenty of girls. He's unprepared for the way he'll be called out for his sexist behavior. While Eve has been worried about the influence of porn on how her son treats young women, she finds herself turning to porn and is surprised by how much she starts to like it.

Tom Perrotta spoke to Terry Gross in 2017 when "Mrs. Fletcher" was first published. Note to parents - although they talk a little about how the main character becomes drawn to porn, they don't talk explicitly about the porn she watches.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Tom Perrotta, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to ask you to start by reading from the very beginning of "Mrs. Fletcher."

TOM PERROTTA: (Reading) It was a long drive. And Eve cried most of the way home because the big day hadn't gone the way she'd hoped - not that big days ever did. Birthdays, holidays, weddings, graduations, funerals - they were all too loaded with expectations. And the important people in her life rarely acted the way they were supposed to. Most of them didn't even seem to be working from the same script as she was, though maybe that said more about the important people in her life than it did about big days in general.

Take today. All she'd wanted from the moment she opened her eyes in the morning was a chance to let Brendan know what was in her heart, to express all the love that had been building up over the summer, swelling to the point where she sometimes thought her chest would explode. It just seemed really important to say it out loud before he left, to share all the gratitude and pride she felt not just for the wonderful person he was right now but for the sweet, little boy he'd been and the strong and decent man he would one day become.

And she wanted to reassure him too, to make it clear that she would be starting a new life just the same as he was and that it would be a great adventure for both of them. Don't worry about me, she wanted to tell him, you just study hard and have fun. I'll take care of myself. But that conversation never happened. Brendan had overslept. He'd been out late partying with his buddies. And when he finally dragged himself out of bed, he was useless, too hungover to help with the last-minute packing or the loading of the van.

It was just so irresponsible, leaving her with her bad back to lug his boxes and suitcases down the stairs in the sticky August heat, sweating through her good shirt, while he sat in his boxers at the kitchen table, struggling with the childproof cap on a bottle of ibuprofen. But she managed to keep her irritation in check. She didn't want to spoil their last morning together with petty nagging, even if he deserved it. Going out on a sour note would have been a disservice to both of them.

GROSS: That's Tom Perrotta reading from his new novel, "Mrs. Fletcher." So I love that you have these two parallel transitions - mother's transition - the single mother's transition when her son is leaving for college and his transition when he is the one who's leaving. And there's so many points in this book where I think he's being so oblivious to her needs. And I thought back to (laughter) myself when I left for college. I wasn't thinking about my parents' needs.

PERROTTA: (Laughter).

GROSS: I didn't ask them, how do you feel now that I'm leaving home? It never would have occurred to me.

PERROTTA: No, you think - you assume they're all right. Their stories are set, and you're the one who's on the adventure.

GROSS: Exactly. And that's part of the point of your book - the mother's story is not set. Like, she's questioning who she is. She's questioning her sexual orientation. She's questioning what kind of life she wants to have, how she should shake up her life. So what got you thinking about these two parallel transitions - the mother's and the son's - and how you could kind of join them together?

PERROTTA: Well, the first part of it is, I think, that I've been kind of tracking my own life in my fiction. So when my kids were little and on the playground, I wrote "Little Children" based on those experiences. And when they were playing sports in junior high and high school, that gave me some of the raw material for "The Abstinence Teacher." And the most recent era of my life has been this transition to the empty nest and to this post-parental moment of reflection - like, OK, this huge project of raising kids is over. What does my life look like now? What - you know, what does my wife - what does her life look like, as well? But I never really write straight autobiography. And it seemed like a much more poignant thing to reflect on what it would be like for a woman whose son was the other person in her family. She really is alone when he goes to school. The empty nest really is empty for her.

GROSS: Another thing that really sets off the story - it's on that day that she's about to drive him to college for his first day there. The girlfriend who her son has broken up with comes over for a visit. So the mother, Eve, goes out to get gas before driving him to college. When she returns, she hears that they're engaged in a sexual act. And he's giving her - her son is giving his girlfriend - really, his ex-girlfriend - these crude sexual commands about what to do to him, calling her the B-word.

And Eve is just, like, appalled. Like, she's an enlightened woman. Like, she hates this language. She hates everything it stands for. And she doesn't know how to have that conversation with him and certainly doesn't want to have it with him on the day that they're parting, that he's going to college. But she wants him to begin college with the understanding that there's a difference between sexual relationships in real life and the soulless encounter he presumably watches on the Internet.

So what made you think about that? Does that come out of your life, too, of wanting to make sure that your children weren't learning crude, condescending ways of speaking to their boyfriend or girlfriend, from - either learning it from friends, from television, from porn, whatever?

PERROTTA: Well, it - I just think it's a really interesting and peculiar moment in American culture because on the one hand, there is this kind of crudeness in the way that we talk. And on the other hand, there's this conflicting urge to really police the way that we speak. And so you see it with, you know, the B-word, as you said. But so it's very common to hear women laughingly refer to their friends with that word.

But then there's a sense that, you know, a guy should never say it to a woman. And you might say, well, that's a clear rule, but it's also a confusing rule. I think it's a shock for Eve to hear her son use this word in a sexual context. And I think she immediately thinks that he learned it from porn, where - because he certainly wouldn't have anybody modeling that kind of language for him in real life.

GROSS: So, you know, she's assuming her son watches porn. And then once he's out of the house, she starts watching a lot of porn. And would you describe the kind of porn she's especially interested in?

PERROTTA: Yeah. Well, she receives an anonymous text that applies a certain label to her, which you and I have agreed to say - she's a sexy mom, a mom who is sexually desirable. People will know the acronym. And she's offended by it. And it's a dirty text. But at the same time, she realizes she's not really sure about what the term means. And she goes to look it up the way we do. And she realizes that it's not quite the old Mrs. Robinson stereotype. It's a more neutral, and possibly even complimentary term suggesting that you may be older, you may be a mom, but you're still desirable.

And in the course of doing this, she's led to a website that basically consists of ordinary women in their 30s and 40s, you know, sending in - or their husbands or their partners sending in videos of them engaged in sex. So it's highly amateur, and it's just about people saying, hey, this is me. Here, you can get a glimpse into my bedroom.

GROSS: And she's surprised to find herself watching lesbian porn.

PERROTTA: Yes. You know, she samples the menu, which is vast. And at a certain point, she settles on this lesbian porn as - you know, she's never thought of herself in this way, but this porn turns her on, and I think it leads her to the sense that there are sexual possibilities in her world that she hasn't investigated yet.

GROSS: In the sexy mother category of lesbian porn, you describe it as often beginning with a reluctant woman grumpily washing dishes or mopping the floor, when the doorbell rings. And then a more confident woman arrives with a bottle of wine and a bit of exposed cleavage, and then the action begins. Did you watch a lot of this before writing the novel?

PERROTTA: (Laughter) I watched enough to write the novel. Yeah, I did. And it was really interesting because, you know, if you - I mean, people have different responses to porn, obviously. And some of it is disturbing, and some of it is just too much. But I did find that I was especially interested by this category of porn that involved a kind of a seduction because it was, I think, very different from, you know, the stereotypical male porn that would just sometimes just launch right in. You know, nobody wants any talking. But there was this sense that, you know - I guess maybe this is the definition of a certain kind of female-friendly porn - that it was about two people connecting and about - it was about seduction, actually, very clearly.

GROSS: And then in contrasting that with her son, he grows up in a boy culture where date rape doesn't seem like it's necessarily wrong to the boys. And if you're a guy who tries to intervene and stop date sexual harassment or date rape, you're going to be bullied for it, and it makes it very confusing for the boys, I think. And I'd like to know what you were thinking about when you were writing this character who is kind of subscribing to that kind of behavior and language and not really understanding what's wrong with it, even though he grows up in a family that wouldn't tolerate that kind of behavior.

PERROTTA: Right, and he would say that it was wrong if you asked him about it. And I do think that I was really interested in the fact that we talk way more about consent than we did when I was in college.

GROSS: When were you in college, by the way?

PERROTTA: I graduated in 1983, and, you know, I think that a whole sort of body of knowledge of, you know, or just even the category of sexual harassment didn't fully exist. Like, I think I certainly knew students who'd had affairs with teachers, and that was sort of considered, you know, a little bit risky but not beyond the pale. And, you know, it just hadn't been codified as an offense at that point. It would soon change.

But I will say we didn't speak as much about consent. We didn't speak as much about sexual boundaries. I think we were closer to the sexual revolution. It was right at the moment when AIDS started to really change people's sexual behaviors. But it is interesting to me that, you know, students now have all these workshops and sessions about consent, and yet it does seem like the problem - I don't know if it's getting better. Statistically, it's hard to say, but it does seem that these guys are somewhat immune to all of the teaching, or they arrive at college still expecting to have that party that they've been dreaming about.

BIANCULLI: Author Tom Perrotta speaking with Terry Gross in 2017. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "TWELVE'S IT")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2017 interview with author Tom Perrotta. His novel "Mrs. Fletcher" has been made into an HBO miniseries of the same name, which premieres Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So the mother, Eve, wanting some kind of adventure in her life with the new freedom that she has - like, she misses her son. She's alone. So she's both lonely, but she also senses she has this freedom, and she wants to use it. And one of the ways she uses it, as we've discussed, is, like, watching pornography. But when she goes out to dinner with a younger woman who works on her staff at the senior citizens center, she makes a pass at her, which is rejected. And this is the first time she's ever even thought of the possibility of having a relationship with a woman.

And when she's rejected, it's kind of devastating. It's like, OK, I tried freedom. Like, what did I think I was doing? Like, apparently, I can't do that. Apparently, I've made a terrible mistake. Now I'm just really embarrassed. It's inappropriate, too, she thinks, as, like, the boss to have made a pass at someone who works for her. And she says, like, that's sexual harassment. Like, why did I do that? And she's just heartbroken and disappointed in herself and also inhibited by the response that she's gotten. And I thought it was interesting for you as a male writer to try to really get deep into this woman's head while trying out for the first time a lesbian relationship.

PERROTTA: Yeah, and I think it really was coming from that that sense that, once she starts looking at porn, certain things in real life look different to her. So she's watching all this porn where a confident, experienced woman is seducing a woman who is sort of - reluctant, I guess, is the word that's used in the book. There's a confident one and a reluctant one. And she's having this wonderful dinner with her employee, and there's - it's kind of flirtatious. And they're discussing sex, and they're discussing gender, and she keeps feeling, like, the gravity of this porn scenario. It's like, oh, you know, which one of us is the confident one? Which one of us is the reluctant one?

And somehow - I think this is really what the book is about. During this fall that most of the action takes place in, Eve is feeling her life becoming a kind of a porn scenario or a series of porn scenarios, and they do cause her to act in ways that she never would have acted before in ways that go against her principles. And one of the things that she says that I do think is absolutely true is, in porn, there's no such thing as sexual harassment. Any time a kind of illicit situation is set up, it's so that the doctor can have sex with the patient.

And so just for a second, I think Eve mistakes her life for a porn scenario. And then when cold water gets splashed on her, it's like she's waking from a dream. Like, what was I doing? What was I thinking? And I am very interested in those moments when people do things that run contrary to their deepest principles, to their sense of right and wrong. Those are the moments, I think, when we find out who we really are.

GROSS: Are you saying, too, that we sometimes confuse freedom with violating our own principles?

PERROTTA: Yeah, that's really interesting, right? That's certainly how it is when we're kids, right? We're told you can't do this and you can't do that, and the minute you find yourself alone, those are the things you want to do. And so there is something in that kind of youthful rebellion against parental strictures that I think can still affect you when you're an adult.

I remember talking to a friend of mine when our kids had first left for college, and he's a little bit older, and his kids had been gone. And I said, oh, yeah, we're going to have an empty nest, you know, pretty soon. And he just looked at me with his - sort of wearily and said, well, the pressure to have sex is enormous.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PERROTTA: You know, it's like the kids leaving was like before when your parents left. Like, you're suddenly free. There's nothing stopping you. And I do feel like Eve is in this moment when, you know, she's alone. She's on her own, and I think she does want to have a sexual life, and she's trying to figure out how to make that happen.

GROSS: Since you write about turning points in people's lives, what was a big turning point in your life?

PERROTTA: Well, I do have to say that that going to college was - going college at Yale specifically after growing up where I did in New Jersey - at the time, I was really adamant with myself that I was not going to let this snobby Ivy League world change who I was and that I could go there, kind of take what it had to offer and emerge kind of unscathed. And I really tried that. I had a girlfriend at home. I came home a lot on weekends. I always came home for the summers. I always had blue-collar jobs.

But at a certain point in my late 20s, I suddenly realized, you know, I don't eat the same food as my parents anymore. I don't watch the same TV shows as them. I don't read the same books. I feel like there's this distance sometimes between me and older friends. I think that it just - in spite of all of my determination, I had been really transformed by the experience of going to this elite Ivy League college at that particular point in my life.

GROSS: How did your parents and how did your old friends react to the changed version of you? Did your parents say, what happened to you? You're not our son anymore.

PERROTTA: No. You know, my parents were were great about it. I think especially my mom - she was the one who really encouraged my siblings and and me to to go to the best schools we possibly could, and I think she sort of accepted that transformation. I remember occasionally - my father has been dead for the past 15 years, but I do remember a few times when I was sort of just mocking some TV show he was watching. And I thought it was just a dumb show, and I remember that he turned to me with a really - he was both irritated and wounded, I think, by the fact that I was looking down on the show that he was watching.

And, you know, I still actually feel bad about that and don't - that's the part of the transformation in my own life that I'm not crazy about, you know - the sense that the country really is divided by class. And by virtue of going to an Ivy League school, I did, like, sort of jump social classes, and it's real. You know, you - there is a kind of condescension that can come with that that I, you know, have to really fight in myself.

GROSS: Well, Tom Perrotta, thanks so much for talking with us again.

PERROTTA: Oh, thanks so much for having me. It's such a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Tom Perrotta speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. His novel "Mrs. Fletcher" has been adapted into an HBO miniseries of the same name. It premieres Sunday, starring Kathryn Hahn in the title role. After a break, Booker T. Jones, whom The New York Times just called soul's ultimate sideman. He fronted the band Booker T. and the M.G.'s at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in 1967, which made stars of such influential music acts as Janis Joplin, The Who and Jimi Hendrix. Booker T. and the M.G.'s was the backing band for another headline-grabbing act, Otis Redding. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE BEEN LOVING YOU TOO LONG")

OTIS REDDING: Oh. Oh. Can you do that one more time just like that? Oh. Oh. Do it just one more time - one more. Oh. Oh. Do it just one more time. Oh. Oh.

(Singing) With you, my life has been so wonderful. I can't stop now. You were tired. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.