Nearly everyone has received a text message that seems like it wasn’t meant for them. When Eve Fletcher receives a text that reads, “U r my MILF! Send me a naked pic!!”, her world turns upside down.
So begins Tom Perrotta’s most recent novel, Mrs. Fletcher, which follows Eve on a journey of embarrassment, liberation, and self-discovery. Lonely and confused in the wake of her son Brendan leaving for college, Eve begins to learn more about herself as bratty Brendan does some soul searching of his own at school.
Perrotta will speak at Brazos Bookstore about Mrs. Fletcher, now out in paperback, on May 3. We caught up with him to talk about technology in fiction, that ambiguous cover illustration, and which actress will be playing Mrs. Fletcher.
The book begins with a naughty text message. How difficult was it to write that or to find the appropriately naughty words and abbreviations for that opening?
(Laughs). I don’t remember it being especially difficult. I think that I knew the exact words I wanted to use—this sort of porn identity of “MILF” that I wanted to be applied to Eve. At first it’s kind of an insult and an act of sexual aggression, but on reflection, she thinks about if there’s a compliment in that and what happens if she starts to embrace that and start thinking of herself as that. The book is a little bit about a woman who has an identity imposed on her, but then she sort of embraces it.
The world of the book expands far beyond just Eve and Brendan, and you inhabit so many different characters with very different points of view and experiences. Which character was the hardest to slip into in terms of sensibility?
The character I approached with most trepidation was Margo, the transgender instructor at Eve’s community college. I think it was really because it felt like a real responsibility to present a version of Margo’s inner life that would feel real to people who maybe had gone through that experience or have that identity. It’s become a political act these days to write outside of one’s own identity, so I was very conscious of the risk of doing that.
A lot of contemporary novelists will shy away from including social media and text messaging in their books, but you make it integral to Mrs. Fletcher. Did that create challenges for you?
Yes it did! I’m a middle-aged person. I have a phone, but my life doesn’t really take place on social media. Luckily, with the Eve parts, I could play around with that. She doesn’t know the texting shorthand like Brendan and his friends do. But I did have to check that out with my own kids and make sure I hadn’t completely botched it.
But you’re right—one of the subjects of the book is how technology has changed our sexual lives and sexual behaviors, whether that’s internet porn or the ability to text or the ability to Skype with your long-distance girlfriend. I really wanted to look at the way that everybody’s sexual lives in the book are mediated by various screens.
Absolutely. Even with the book’s cover illustration—the woman holding the phone above her face—that’s such a real feeling that anyone can relate to. I catch myself doing that and I hate myself because I could be doing literally anything else, and it drives me insane.
It’s funny, because you say that, and I totally recognize what you’re saying. And yet, once you read the book, you get the sense that you’re actually watching something potentially very sexy there with the cover, depending on what she’s looking at. (Laughs.) At first it looks like it might be a very mundane moment, but it might be a strangely intimate moment, and I like the ambiguity of that.
The book is about to be out in paperback, and it’s been out in the world for nearly a year now. What’s been the most surprising reaction to the book that you’ve seen or heard so far?
It’s interesting. When I’ve gone out on the road, I’ve met a surprising number of women who have confessed to me that they saw themselves very much in Eve. It’s a slightly risqué story, and I don’t know that they were talking about it in terms of Eve’s sexual journey, but maybe that feeling of wanting to hold onto some youthful sense of self in middle age and to feel alive in that way.
The other thing, of course, is just the range of attitudes toward Brendan. A lot of people kind of hate him. (Laughs.)
You picked the perfect name for him, too. When I was reading, I was like, “You’re such a Brendan.”
Oh, good! Poor Brendans out there!
A few of your books have taken on lives of their own as movies and TV series—Election and The Leftovers being prime examples. What actress would make a perfect Eve Fletcher?
Not only do I have a name for you—we’re making a TV pilot for HBO in June. And Mrs. Fletcher will be played by Kathryn Hahn, who is just an amazing actress.
Oh my gosh, that is absolutely perfect.
Isn’t that great?
Yes! That is so great. I did not know that.
So we found the perfect one! I hope we do the book justice.
Tom Perrotta, May 3 at 7 p.m. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet Street. More information at brazosbookstore.com.