Revisiting Tracy Flick 30 Years Later: Tom Perrotta Talks to Emma Straub
“Why can’t I just move on?”
Earlier this month Tom Perrotta and Emma Straub spoke at Books Are Magic about Perrotta’s new book, Tracy Flick Can’t Win.
“My first interaction with Tom was as a fan, and as a part of the most elaborate birthday present I’ve ever given. For my then-boyfriend’s birthday, I sent these little notes to his favorite writers and musicians and friends and asked them to send them back to me, and then I gave them all to him on his birthday. Tom was kind enough to write a very sweet note. That was fourteen years ago, and for the last five, that boyfriend, who is now my husband, has been running our bookstore. Needless to say, I read everything Tom writes.”
–Emma Straub, author of This Time Tomorrow
Emma Straub: One of the things that I love about your new book is the chance to re-encounter the world of Election with my 2022 eyeballs. Was part of the impulse trying to reclaim the story for Tracy? Was part of it saying, Okay, so yes, everyone knows what a “Tracy Flick” is, but were we fair to Tracy?
Tom Perrotta: Was that part of it? Yeah. And the subset of that is, was I fair to Tracy? You know, though you’re younger than I am, when you’re a writer you leave a written record and it can be challenging. I started writing Election in 1993. So, this is literally 30 years ago. And because of the wonderful movie made by Alexander Payne and because of Reese Witherspoon’s electric performance as Tracy, that character stayed in the public eye. It’s great in a way because how often does that happen to a writer?
On the other hand, it was uncomfortable at certain times because Tracy, especially early on, was seen as a villain and she became a way for men—mostly men, but some women, too—to express their fears about ambitious women; the same sort of fears that came up, I think, when Hillary Clinton ran for president. I was uncomfortable with Tracy being a sexist punching bag. And then the #MeToo movement happened. One component of that was teachers and authority figures taking advantage of their positions.
If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, you know that Tracy had a sexual relationship with her teacher and she was very adamant that she was not to be thought of as a victim, that she did what she wanted when she wanted. When she no longer wanted to do it, she stopped. But her narrative was, I did this thing, I realized it was a mistake, I stopped, let’s move on—let me get elected president, let me get my scholarship, let me go to law school and become a politician. She had a plan and being a victim wasn’t part of that plan.
ES: It’s so interesting to hear you talk about it that way because it’s not just you saying, “Oh let me look at this relationship that Tracy had.” It’s certainly not the only part of Tracy’s character that is re-examined—but it’s one of them. I’m so interested in hearing you say, “Well, let’s look at the written record as well,” and to sort of reassess what your perspective on it was and whether that had changed.
TP: Tracy went to high school in the early 90s, at a time when feminism was very focused on empowerment. When I went back to Election, I noticed that Madonna appeared at various strategic points. She was an important role model at that time; it’s remarkable now when you compare her to the confessional singer-songwriters who came before and the ones who came after. She was all about claiming her power and being bold and challenging and tough. She’s not like Taylor Swift, pining over a breakup. It was more like she was breaking up with you—or it wasn’t even a relationship. I think Tracy was plugging into that power.
Girls like Tracy were the first generation who were told by their feminist moms that they could do anything, including be elected president, and they believed it. Tracy was looking for any narrative that made her feel powerful and that stoked this fire inside of her. Getting romantically involved with her English teacher came out of this sense of “I’m way more grown up than these goofy boys in my high school, my only peers are these teachers, and they see me for the grownup powerful person that I am.” Of course, we can argue about whether she was right about that. And in this new book, she’s feeling like she’s more ordinary than she expected to be, and she’s now wondering, “Looking back, was I always a little more ordinary than I thought I was? Am I a part of a group rather than this lone wolf I thought I was?”
ES: One of the little dopamine pedals that you hit in this book—one of the things that was so wonderful in Election—was Tracy’s absolute single-minded competitive spirit. She is again competing in this book and I wonder if you can talk about how you saw Tracy’s competitive spirit evolve and why you decided to put her in that position again.
TP: At the beginning of the book, Tracy feels like she’s been stuck and she’s kind of depressed, which is the flip side of that ferocious ambition. There’s an emptiness that she’s trying to fill. Then, suddenly this high school principal job becomes available and she’s the front-runner. It’s a little bit like one of those stories about the old musician who gets to play one more concert. It’s like, “Oh wow this part of my life isn’t over. I can still fight and I can still win,” and suddenly she’s alive again.There are times when I feel a little weird about exploring the same territory over and over—like why can’t I just move on? I think the explanation for my fascination with high school is buried in my own biography.
But the flip side of being alive in that way is to be reminded of all the other times when she fought and lost, including her experience in Election, which is the primal scene for her of a teacher scheming to keep her from winning an office that she completely deserved. I would say that Tracy is in fact both inspired and triggered by her dream getting revived at a time when she might just want to put it aside. This is the tough part of middle age—when do you throw in the towel on certain things, like, “Well, I had this dream but it’s not going to happen?” And then you have to figure out a way to be okay with that.
ES: So I wanted to talk about this a little bit. Tom and I did a Zoom party for booksellers—which is actually more fun than it sounds. But I want to talk about something that we talked about in that which was school. As you mentioned, Tracy is back in school but of your books, it’s not just Election and Tracy Flick Can’t Win that exist within the walls of a school. I would say Tom Perrotta loves school. Can we dig into that a little bit? What is it about the school setting and particularly these years that you keep returning to?
TP: There are times when I feel a little weird about exploring the same territory over and over—like why can’t I just move on? I think the explanation for my fascination with high school is buried in my own biography. I grew up in a working-class town in New Jersey and went to a public high school and I was part of a big eclectic community. Then I went to Yale and suddenly I was with a very different group of people and I just felt like, “Oh, I was in America before but now I’m in elite America.”
This has actually become one of the major political divides in our country, and it made me think about high school—public high school in particular—as a microcosm of America. It’s actually been a very fertile microcosm for me as a writer. In Election, some elements of the story—the sexual scandals and electoral fraud—have become familiar parts of our real-life political culture, and even the archetype of this hard driving woman and this guy who seems like—
ES: Oh my god, Tom did you make anything happen?
TP: I’ll leave it up to you. In this book, there’s also a #MeToo angle and a critique of the hierarchy that puts a male athlete at the top of the heap even though you know he is an objectively horrible person, among other things. And “microcosm” isn’t just a metaphor: look at what happened in the past year with CRT and book banning in the Virginia election. What are we teaching our kids is one of the central political controversies of our time. What is the place of transgender athletes in high school athletics?
All these things get litigated at the level of the local school board. That’s where we fight over our values. People get in rooms and they scream at each other and in that sense, it really is a forum where there’s some semblance of actual democracy. I look at Congress and the useless debates that happen there, the fact that we can’t even begin to address our most pressing problems—it doesn’t feel like a functioning democratic forum. A community school board can be ugly and it can be messy but it also has to function in some sense.
ES: Yeah, it’s true! School. I want to ask about writing a sequel. So, I find myself in this moment answering a lot of questions like, “Everyone’s writing time travel—did you all call each other?” But I think it’s true for time travel and it’s also certainly true for sequels of an interesting kind, like Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House.
TP: There were a couple other ones too this year, I’m blanking now—
ES: Emily St John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility—she’s a double whammy actually; that’s a time travel and a sequel, so she gets two points. But yeah, there are a bunch and they’re interesting books that don’t follow the model of what the word “sequel” brings to mind, which is, “Oh, people really liked that! Better write a second one right now!” It’s obviously not that kind of thing at all but I wondered—after the not great guy with the brain injury sort of lumbered in and you were like, “Oh wait, maybe Tracy’s a part of this story!”—after she came aboard, how did you feel about it? When you realized or decided that you were gonna tell another story with Tracy—how did you feel about writing a sequel?
TP: I like that you asked did I realize or decide—because that is a very murky thing sometimes. As a novelist, you’re in charge but it doesn’t always feel that way. In fact, it’s better when your unconscious mind is in charge, and that was what happened with adding Tracy Flick to this novel, which originally was about Vito Falcone. I was trying to tell Vito’s story in the style of Election, with these alternating narrators, and it felt like I was I plagiarizing myself, or maybe just repeating myself. But once I realized that Tracy was part of the story, then it made perfect sense to be echoing Election.
At the same time, I became aware of all sorts of potential landmines. There were a lot of tricky issues involved with re-examining a character who I created, but who became famous because of a portrayal in a movie that was a little bit different from the version that I wrote. And then the political culture used Tracy Flick as a kind of shorthand for an unpleasantly ambitious woman and then feminists reclaimed her.
So, yes, there was an element of me stepping into the conversation, saying, “Well, here’s the Tracy that I know” or “Here’s a Tracy that I’m going to imagine now.” Over the years, I had had people ask me, “What’s Tracy Flick doing now? Is she president? Is she on Fox News?” None of those answers felt quite right to me because my characters don’t ever get to those lofty places. My characters—they are hobbled by being my characters.
ES: That’s so interesting, Tom, that not only are you following up and returning to this character who you created in 1992 or 1993 but that you also have to wrestle with and sort out your feelings about not only Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal, but then also what has happened to her, outside of you. It’s a reclamation but it’s also like really stealing her back. I don’t know—I hadn’t thought about it that way. It’s much more complicated to write a sequel with someone who everyone has opinions about, rather than just a character that was well loved in a novel, like, “Oh right, I haven’t thought about her in 30 years.”
TP: Yeah, and another challenge of that is that 25 years have gone by. No matter who you are, when you’re 16 and then you’re 43—there might be some strands that connect you, but there might be other ways in which you’re a whole different person. So usually a sequel is, “I love this character and I want to send this character on another adventure, but the character is more or less same age as before—to the point where James Bond, for example, has to be played by different actors. Because James Bond can’t be old.
But Tracy’s an adult now, a middle-aged adult, and I had to answer the question of who is she now, is the she the same person we knew from Election? I think that’s why I latched onto the idea that she’s still in high school and she’s still fighting—there’s an element of sameness there, but also some major differences. She’s lost her optimism, she’s lost her sense of being somebody really special and powerful in the world, and she’s trying to find her way back. It’s like she’s trying to make this book into a sequel, but a successful sequel.
ES: I believe in you, Tracy! So, I want to stay on the on the topic of adaptations for a minute. I think that you might not know anything about this but for those of us who don’t have lots of things adapted to the screen—this is how it is on earth, Tom—the last question, I would say, of like 97 percent of book events is, “So are they gonna make a movie?” and then you have to be like, “I don’t know, hopefully someday, maybe.” It’s something that people are always interested in for obvious, glamorous reasons, but I think you—to me—are such an interesting case because there have been so many not just adaptations of your work but really incredible ones. There are no stinkers, they’re all good.
I say this as someone who has read all the books—so I can say this—but I wonder what it does for you. I mean specifically with this book, but also just in general as you’re writing, to have a sense of the flexibility of your own work, the adaptability of it. Like not just in terms of, “Oh, how could this be translated to the screen—large or small?” but like if you feel there’s some sort of inherent elasticity to the work?
TP: That a great question, and I find it hard to answer. I feel like so many things in a writer’s life are completely contingent on circumstance. It was very hard to get Election published. It was like every door was shut to the book. But when it made its way to Hollywood, everything was easy. It was turned into a script—a legendary script—in a year and MTV films jumped on it and Matthew Broderick said he would do it, and suddenly it was happening.
Some part of me wants to say if it wasn’t a successful, good movie, a groundbreaking movie, maybe people wouldn’t have taken a chance on Little Children. There is some way that success begets success, so that’s one answer, which is there’s nothing particularly special about my work except I got good people to take a chance on it. That said, I did get good people to take a chance on it so they must have trusted something in it, but it’s weird because my work, I think, is hard to characterize.
I think one of the things the movies have done is take a certain part of the mix that I put onto the page and really heighten that one element. For example, Election heightened the satire; it’s not like I don’t have any satirical impulses but Alexander Payne found that germ and made that his guiding principle. Whereas Todd Field, in Little Children, took the dark thriller-y aspects of that book and really amped them up in a great way, and the comic part of it got suppressed a little bit. Damon Lindelof, with The Leftovers—it’s a creepy speculative book but he brought his whole arsenal of big bold storytelling to it. I think The Leftovers is unique in the way that Damon transformed and expanded it.
In fact, we used up the book in the first season and seasons two and three are like literal sequels and maybe that was part of what helped me to think about sequels more. Because I’d always just assume a novel is a standalone thing. When I’m done, I’m done. But with the The Leftovers it was like, “We’ve got these characters, let’s send them to a new place and see what happens to them there.”
Mrs. Fletcher was mostly just me—it had my mix and I think it was puzzling to some people when they saw it on the screen. I mean it had these great moments but it was like, “Oh wait this is supposed to be a comedy but it’s actually really troubling.”
ES: That sounds like a success to me!