Tom Perrotta: Novelist

Tom Perrotta said he finds it helpful to read biographies of other writers.
Tom Perrotta said he finds it helpful to read biographies of other writers.
By Amy Sutherland
October 2, 2011

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Novelist Tom Perrotta has a knack for timing. Not long after the last expected rapture came and went without any missing souls, he published his sixth novel, “The Leftovers,’’ the story of those left behind after the chosen have been sucked up into heaven. Perrotta lives in Belmont with his wife and two teenage children.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

PERROTTA: I’m reading “Sweet Soul Music’’ by Peter Guralnick, a history of ’60s music. He’s my favorite music writer in America. This is his one book I hadn’t gotten to.

BOOKS: Do you read about music regularly?

PERROTTA: There have been times when I have. I’m a very eclectic reader. When I’m writing a novel, I read a lot of nonfiction. I’m a big consumer of writers’ biographies. There’s some motivational effect. It helps to read about other writers that somehow got the work done.

BOOKS: What have been some of your favorite biographies?

PERROTTA: Blake Bailey recently wrote “Cheever: A Life’’ that is pretty wonderful. Patrick French has a recent bio of V.S. Naipaul that is about the writer as a human monster. You become convinced he’s a kind of genius and kind of grateful you are not.

BOOKS: Have any of these biographies changed your ideas about a writer?

PERROTTA: Yes. I’ve been very engaged with Flannery O’Connor my entire reading life, but I’ve been wary of her from a political and religious perspective. She saved her greatest satirical venom for liberal do-gooders and atheists. What’s interesting in Brad Gooch’s biography, “Flannery,’’ is what I thought was venom for people unlike her was really self-critique as well, which made me think of her in a more complicated way.

BOOKS: When you aren’t working on a book, how does your reading open up?

PERROTTA: I’m always playing catch-up with all the fiction that has come out in the past couple of years. I read “Brooklyn’’ by Colm Toibin this summer. I remember reading reviews when it came out, wanting to check it out and holding off. Same thing happened with Tom Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists,’’ which is a tremendous book.

BOOKS: When did you become a reader?

PERROTTA: Very young. In eighth grade I discovered Tolkien. I found “The Hobbit’’ in the drugstore in a display carousel. No one had ever mentioned it to me. I told my friends about and it turned out their older brothers and sisters knew about it but I thought I made this remarkable discovery.

BOOKS: You made “The Hobbit’’ the hit it was?

PERROTTA: Yes, I was responsible for that. You can probably track the sales back to that drugstore in New Jersey.

BOOKS: Where did you go from there?

PERROTTA: I was hungry to read. If a teacher said you should read “Moby Dick’’ this summer, I’d give it a try. I remember going to the high school librarian and asking for “The Magic Mountain.’’ She said, ‘‘No you don’t want to read that book.’’ I read it and told her I liked it. Then she started recommending other books.

BOOKS: Did you get heat from your friends for being bookish?

PERROTTA: Some of my literary life was secret and some of it was in the open. I wasn’t trying to get them to read “Moby Dick’’ for example. But I was such a proselytizer about “Lord of the Rings,’’ I became known as Frodo. It seemed kind of affectionate as those things go.

BOOKS: Have you ever been through a phase where you didn’t read?

PERROTTA: No. There have been times in my life when I had less time to read. It’s been important to find a half-hour each day to read, often right before bed. I’d say it’s some form of meditation practice, that particular mental state of quiet concentration is a way to feel like myself.


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