Tom Perrotta’s first book was a collection of short stories, but he’s probably best known for his critically acclaimed novels. “Election” and “Little Children” were adapted into Oscar-nominated films, and the television adaptation of his book “The Leftovers” has just been picked up as an HBO series.
But as Perrrotta tells Here & Now, he still has a love for the short story form, which was reawakened when he edited “The Best American Short Stories 2012.” As a result, he’s just published “Nine Inches” — his first short story collection in 19 years (excerpt below).
“I’m getting older as a writer and different stories are interesting me,” he told Here & Now. “I think some of my characters are at this point in their lives where they’re making a kind of reckoning and sensing that it might be a final reckoning.” He adds, “I don’t really care if my characters are happy … but I often feel like they’re a little bit smarter.”
By Tom Perrotta
Ethan didn’t want to go to the middle school dance, but the vice principal twisted his arm. He said it was like jury duty: the system only made sense if everybody stepped up and nobody got special treatment. Besides, he added, you might as well do it now, get it over with before the new baby comes and things get even crazier.
Ethan saw the logic in this, but it didn’t make him feel any less guilty about leaving the house on Friday evening with the dishes unwashed and Fiona just getting started on her nightly meltdown—apparently her busy toddler-day wasn’t complete unless she spent an hour or two shrieking her head off before bedtime. Donna smiled coldly at him from the couch, as if he’d volunteered to be a chaperone out of spite, just to make her life that much more difficult.
“Don’t worry about us,” she called out as he buttoned his coat. “We’ll be fine.”
She had to speak in a louder-than-normal voice to make herself heard over Fiona, who was standing in the middle of the living room in yellow Dr. Denton’s, her fists balled and her face smeared with a familiar glaze of snot, tears, and unquenchable fury.
“No, Daddy!” she bellowed. “You stay home!”
“I’m sorry,” Ethan said, not quite sure if he was apologizing to his wife or his child. “I tried to get out of it.”
Excerpted from the book NINE INCHES by Tom Perrotta. Copyright © 2013 by Tom Perrotta. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Author Tom Perrotta is best known for his sharply observed novels such as "Election" and "Little Children" that depict the dark side of suburban life. But his first published work back in 1994 was a collection of short stories. Now, after an almost 20-year hiatus from the form, Perrotta returns to the short story in his new collection, called "Nine Inches."
And in the title story, the character Ethan is a chaperone at a school dance. It's his job to enforce the rule that couples have to remain at least nine inches apart. But then one enraptured pair makes Ethan pause.
TOM PERROTTA: (Reading) Even at first glance, something seems strange about them, almost forbidding. The other couples had at least made a show of slow dancing, but these two were motionless, clinging to each other in perfect, almost photographic stillness. Amanda was melting against Ben. Arms wrapped tight around his waist, her faced crushed into his chest. His eyes were closed, his lips slightly parted. He appeared to be concentrating deeply on the smell of her hair. Ethan knew what he was supposed to do, but the role of chaperone suddenly felt oppressive to him. They just looked so blissful. It seemed wrong even to be watching them, almost creepy. But for some reason, he couldn't manage to avert his eyes, let alone move.
CHAKRABARTI: That's Tom Perrotta, reading from the title story of his new collection, "Nine Inches." He joins us in the studio to talk about it. Tom Perrotta, welcome.
PERROTTA: Oh, well, thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: So, "Nine Inches" is, in my mind, this distance of awkwardness, but also a good-natured, if possibly, ill-fated attempt from preventing people to get - from getting themselves into trouble. And it just seems like so many of the stories in your new collection, nevertheless, people are getting themselves into trouble.
PERROTTA: Well, stories are only interesting when people get into trouble. That's one of those funny things. People will say, like, why are so stories so depressing? Or why are they always about these difficult moments? And I was thinking, well, those are the moments when lives become interesting, and when they get put to the test, and when people discover that maybe they're not who they thought they were. Those moments of transition and discovery are the moments that you want to write about. And they're often difficult moments when, you know, a character's self-image runs into a test that it can't pass.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I mean, tell us a little bit more about some of those tests that the character Ethan, who you were just reading about, the test that he undergoes.
PERROTTA: So, Ethan is a chaperone. He's a middle school teacher, and he's forced to go to this dance, and he, you know, he thinks that there's something ridiculous about this role of distance enforcer. But it also turns out that a fellow teacher named Charlotte is there, and they were in love five years ago. And the story slowly reveals the history of their love and the misunderstanding that has kept them apart. And he sort of realizes that there was some distance between the two of them that they've never been able to bridge. And, in a sense, they've kept themselves apart, that it was coming from them.
And so this story is about the distance between people, and how hard it is sometimes to bridge that, and how some of the people who bridge it are the wrong ones, and the people who are kept apart are the right ones. And it's all about closeness and intimacy and desire and sadness.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Tom, let me ask you about that, because so many of the stories in the new collection do have that tinge of sadness or regret. And I've read some reviewers saying, you know, where's that Perrotta humor? You know, I'm thinking of "The Leftovers," your novel about what happens for the people left behind after the rapture.
PERROTTA: All I can say is that, you know, I'm getting older as a writer, and different stories are interesting me. I think some of my characters are at this point in their lives where they're making a kind of reckoning and sensing that it may be a final reckoning.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, before I end up making this interview too much of a downer...
CHAKRABARTI: ...with all my talk about regret and stuff, I think there are definitely moments of hope and realization in a lot of the stories. I mean, even the fact that a character feels regret implies that he or she is having a realization of some sort.
PERROTTA: Well, as I said - I often say, you know, I don't really care if my characters are happy. I feel like happiness is a fleeting thing in people's lives. Sometimes you're happy. Sometimes you're not. But I often feel like they're a little bit smarter, that they've gone through some experience. They may even have been damaged by that experience, but they're processing it. And they're coming to realize: I used to be that person, but now I'm this person. And as this person, I have to build my life.
And so I think what I'm showing in a lot of these stories is that simultaneous movement away from the person somebody was to some tentative new beginning, some new relationship that is more authentic to the truth that's been revealed.
CHAKRABARTI: Do you have a favorite example? I mean, there are several in the book.
PERROTTA: Two that stand out. "One-Four-Five" is a story about a pediatrician who basically torches his life through a series of what appear to be random mistakes, but really seem to be just a real rejection of the life that he built for himself. And he discovers blues music at the same time, and he goes to a guitar store and finds a sort of mentor. And it's a funny friendship between these two middle-aged men who just want to play guitar together. But this becomes the rock that he's going to build a new life on.
The other one is the story "The All-Night Party," that ends at - another story about a chaperone. I'm really interested in those places where adults and kids meet and mingle. This is an all-night graduation party, and a divorced mom goes there and gets enmeshed in some adolescent dramas, but also finds herself attracted to a police officer who she initially despises. And there's this sort of sweet moment of connection between the two of them. I chose to end the collection with it, because it felt like the most hopeful one.
CHAKRABARTI: Nice. "Nine Inches" is your first short story collection in, what, 19 years?
CHAKRABARTI: Why do you think you drifted away from short story just - into novels for almost two decades?
PERROTTA: Well, I think when I started to write novels I discovered that I really liked it. Stories are hard, because they're all beginning and end. You know, it's very purposeful. And you basically build it up, and then shut it down really quickly. And I discovered that what I really like is the middle, where I set up a situation and have characters moving around. And I like, often in my novels, to have a number of characters. And I kind of love that middle part, where the characters are up and running, and they're bumping into each other and their stories are all in motion.
So I think I just really feel comfortable in the world of novels, but I love stories, too. And, in fact, one of the things that led me to write this book, or to finish it - because I had a bunch of stories written, but I wrote several in the last year. I had edited "The Best American Short Stories of 2012," and it just reminded me how much I love the form. And I thought, you know, I have to get back to story-writing. And so over the past 10 years, I had maybe half of a book.
So I really was thinking about in terms of a book. And I said, OK, I need maybe four or five stories. And I think the thing there is novels are often about a collection of characters, or a community. And I think one of the reasons that stories have a kind of melancholy tinge sometimes is they're often about people who were alone or reflecting. They're people a little bit separated from community...
CHAKRABARTI: Because you can't really cram in a cast of thousands.
PERROTTA: Right, exactly. And - but, certain stories, as I was writing them, I did start to feel like, oh, this could open up into a novel. As soon as you start to put even just two characters together, you start feeling, oh, this could become much bigger. And so there was often that feeling that I had as a story-writer of, like, don't expand this. You know, keep it shut down for now, because I was trying to finish the book. But that's what I love about storytelling, is that it can multiply. The story suddenly is much bigger than you expected it to be.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Tom Perrotta's new collection of short stories is called "Nine Inches." Tom Perrotta, it's been such a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you.
PERROTTA: Well, thank you so much. It's been great.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHAKRABARTI: By the way, don't be put off by the melancholy tone, there. "Nine Inches" really is worth reading. There's an excerpt of it at our website, hereandnow.org. And, by the way, you can also look out for Perrotta's latest novel "The Leftovers" on television. It's just been picked up by HBO.
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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.
CHAKRABARTI: I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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