From page to screen

Author Tom Perrotta found his way to New York publishing houses by an unusual route: through Hollywood. With two novels turned into films, he thrives in a dual world.

Published January 14, 2007

Tom Perrotta is a little out of breath. He's out and about near his home west of Boston, he says. "We just got back from Los Angeles last night, and I had to get a tuxedo to wear to the Golden Globes next week."

It's not exactly an errand you might think of as part of a novelist's day. But Perrotta, who will be on the guest faculty for the third annual Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College starting Saturday, hasn't had the usual career trajectory.

The author of Election and Little Children started writing early, publishing stories "heavily influenced by Rod Serling" in a high school literary magazine called Pariah, according to his Web site autobiography. He got a master's degree in creative writing at Syracuse University, wrote ad copy, taught full-time schedules for part-time pay at Yale and Harvard, among other places. Along the way he married, had a son and a daughter, and filled a drawer with unpublished novels.

"I really struggled to get into print," he says. "I found breaking into Hollywood easier than breaking into the New York publishing world."

He's not kidding. Election, a satiric tale about a campaign for high school class president born out of his obsession with the 1992 three-way U.S. presidential race, was optioned as a film three years before it was published as a novel. It arrived in bookstores in 1999, mere months before the opening of the movie, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways) and starring Reese Witherspoon in a breakthrough role as terrifyingly perky Tracy Flick.

Election isn't Perrotta's only novel to make the transition to screen. Little Children, published in 2004, deftly combines a comedy of manners about the sexual escapades of suburban parents with a darkly suspenseful tale of how a community deals with a child molester in its midst. It inspired the New York Times Book Review to call Perrotta an "American Chekhov whose characters even at their most ridiculous seem blessed and ennobled by a luminous human aura." The film version of Little Children was released in the fall.

Directed by Todd Field (In the Bedroom) and starring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson, the film is the reason Perrotta is going to the Golden Globes on Monday night. He and Field are nominated for best screenplay; the movie also received nominations for best motion picture drama and best actress in a drama, for Winslet.

Perrotta, 45, says he's looking forward to the gala. "I think I can enjoy it more than people who are in that business. For them, it's their real work, but for me, it's play."

Adapting his novel into a screenplay was "a very interesting experience. Todd and I didn't know each other at all. It was like, 'Hi, how are you? Let's write something together.'

"It's a very private thing to write, so it was a big risk. But I'm very happy with the way it turned out."

Working on screenplays and novels has taken him away from teaching on a regular basis, he says. But he still enjoys working with writing students at programs like the Stonecoast Writers Conference in Maine.

That conference led him to Writers in Paradise: "The short version is, Dennis invited me. We taught together at Stonecoast."

That would be Dennis Lehane, co-director of Writers in Paradise, Eckerd alum and author of seven novels, including Mystic River, which gave Lehane his own Hollywood experience when the film based on it won two Oscars in 2004.

Perrotta says he has known Lehane, a Boston native, for about five years. "I'm a huge fan of Dennis Lehane. He doesn't get the credit he deserves as a literary writer."

Perrotta says another writer he admires is his former teacher Tobias Wolff, who in such books as his memoir This Boy's Life achieves the blend of "comic writing and moral seriousness" Perrotta strives for in his fiction.

Teaching writing is a complex business, Perrotta says. "You can't give somebody talent, and you can't give somebody that deep desire to write, and those are two crucial things.

"But if somebody has talent, you can encourage it. And there are concrete craft things you can teach them."

Among the most important things he teaches, he says, is how to read like a writer. "It's very striking to me that some of these students just haven't read a lot. If you're serious about writing, you have to absorb a whole lot of literature. And I don't mean they should scan it; they should absorb it into their bones."

Perrotta recently finished writing another novel, The Abstinence Teacher, which will be published in the fall. "It's about sex education and the culture wars. It's close in spirit to Little Children, I think."

And has this one already been optioned for the movies? "Oh, yeah." He'll be working on the screenplay for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the directing team behind the indie hit Little Miss Sunshine.

"With two movies under my belt, I'm very much in the mix in Hollywood."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.

Writers in Paradise Evening Reading Series

The third annual Writers in Paradise conference takes place Saturday through Jan. 27 at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. The conference workshops, for poets and fiction and nonfiction writers, are closed for this year, but there will be readings by members of the conference faculty each night. The readings, which are free and open to the public, start at 8 in Miller Auditorium.

Before each reading, there will be a wine and cheese reception and book sale at 7:30 in the auditorium lobby. Authors will sign their books after each reading.

For information, go to writersinparadise.eckerd.edu or call (727) 864-7994.


Saturday: Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children and co-screenwriter of the Golden Globe-nominated movie based on the novel.

Jan. 21: Les Standiford, author of Last Train to Paradise and director of the graduate creative writing program at Florida International University; and Sterling Watson, director of the creative writing program at Eckerd College and author of five novels, most recently Sweet Dream Baby.

Jan. 22: Beth Ann Fennelly, winner of the GLCA New Writers Award and author of the poetry chapbook Tender Hooks; and Laura Lippman, winner of the Edgar, Agatha, Shamus, Anthony and Nero Wolfe awards and author of the New York Times Notable Book of the Year, In a Strange City.

Jan. 23: Tom Franklin, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and author of Smonk; and Thisbe Nissen, author of The Good People of New York and Osprey Island.

Jan. 25: David Simon, writer and producer of HBO's The Wire and author of the Edgar Award-winning Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

Jan. 26: Peter Meinke, recipient of two NEA Fellowships and three prizes from the Poetry Society of America, author of The Contracted World; and Roland Merullo, author of A Little Love Story and finalist for the PEN New England/L.L. Winship Prize.

Jan. 27: Dennis Lehane, recipient of the Anthony Award, the Barry Award for Best Novel and the Massachusetts Book Award in Fiction for Mystic River, which was made into an Academy Award-winning film starring Sean Penn and directed by Clint Eastwood.