Portrait of an Artist: Tom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta is the author of seven books and has most recently published “The Leftovers,” which he is adapting into a TV series for HBO. Perrotta once taught Expository Writing 11 at Harvard and has since delved into screenwriting. Two of his novels, “Election” and “Little Children,” have been adapted into feature films. On March 6, Perrotta returned to Harvard as part of the Writers at Work Lecture Series hosted by the Harvard College Writing Program.

The Harvard Crimson: Did you always want to be a writer?

Tom Perrotta: Yeah. I think if you had asked me the first day of college, I would have told you that I wanted to be a writer.

THC: You’ve written some pretty intense novels dealing with subjects many writers would be hesitant to tackle. There’s a rapture-like apocalypse in your new novel, “The Leftovers,” Christian fundamentalism in “The Abstinence Teacher,” and child molestation in “Little Children.” Where any of those novels particularly hard to write about?

TP: Every novel has some obstacle or difficulty that looms really large. In the case of “Little Children,” for example, I was really concerned with this character who’s a pedophile and [was] trying to figure out a way to address that really dark subject matter in a way that I could live with. I ended up mostly describing that character from the point of view of his mother, who was the only person who loved him. With “Abstinence Teacher,” I wanted to be really there and accurate in describing my Christian characters. I didn’t want anyone to feel that I was condescending, so I had to do a lot of research.

THC: You’ve also had two of your books turned into movies. Can you tell us about what that process was like?

TP: You know, it wasn’t something I thought much about until Election happened in a very fortuitous way. At first I thought, you know, this is really great…but somehow I got drawn into it. I really loved the movie “Election,” and as a result of that movie, I got some offers to do some screenwriting. I was teaching an Expos class at that time, when the movie came out.... I stopped teaching and took a year off to learn how to write screenplays. I haven’t been teaching in any sort of permanent way since then.

THC: Do you prefer writing screenplays to novels?

TP: Ah, no. No, I don’t. But I like some parts of it. I often have some psychic down time after finishing a novel, but I can take advantage of that period to adapt my own work or try to write an original screenplay. It can be a good way to make a writing life.

THC: When I read a book and then watch the movie adaption, I can never go back to the book without imagining the movie actors in the roles of the characters. Does the same thing happen to you with your own books?

TP: Yeah, and that’s one of the difficulties for a writer. Once a character is up on screen and played by a particular actor or actress, they get imprinted on your brain. So if I [was] to pick up Election and do a reading right now, I would see Reese Witherspoon and Mathew Broderick rather than whatever it was that I saw when I was writing the book.

THC: What advice would you give to young writers at Harvard or elsewhere?

TP: Well, one of the things I say is, “Do as I say and not as I did.” I went to a Museum of Fine Arts creative writing program very quickly out of college. Now, as I look back, I say that I wish I had stayed in the world, working and getting some wider experience…maybe gone to grad school a little later. So there’s that, and another thing I can say is you have to develop almost a kind of freakish resilience. For most writers, it takes a long time to get a career started, and there’s a lot of rejection, and you have to somehow learn to make yourself strong enough.

THC: Do you collect rejection slips?

TP: Well, I certainly don’t linger over them, but I have envelopes full—I can show my scars, if you wanted to see them.

—Staff writer Virginia R. Marshall can be reached at virginiarosemarshall@college.harvard.edu.

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