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Novelist Tom Perrotta looks back on his most famous creation: Election’s Tracy Flick

The book that inspired the classic high school film almost wasn’t published.

Reese Witherspoon played Tracy Flick in Election.
MTV Films
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Novelist Tom Perrotta’s books have become one of our most consistently enjoyable dissections of a very specific sort of America — upper-class, wryly comic, and white.

Even when his books dig into a world where something very like the Rapture has happened (as in his 2012 novel The Leftovers), they take place long enough after the catastrophic event for things to be reverting to the status quo.

That makes him terrific at picking apart the foibles of our modern world, and it’s also made him a frequent target for Hollywood adaptation. His 2004 novel Little Children became an Oscar-nominated film in 2006 (one of those nominations was for Perrotta’s work on the screenplay), while The Leftovers turned into a tremendous HBO series.

2014 Winter TCA Tour - Day 1
Tom Perrotta
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

It’s the 1998 novel Election, however, that won him the most fame. A book the author had largely given up hope of seeing published, Election found its way into Hollywood’s hands and became a classic 1999 film that helped propel Reese Witherspoon to stardom and cemented Perrotta as a novelist to watch.

When Perrotta joined me on the latest episode of my podcast I Think You’re Interesting, I found myself wondering if he can go back to Election now without thinking of the movie. He admitted it has, in some ways, colored his experience of the book.

“If I pick up Election now and I start reading, I’m seeing Matthew Broderick and I’m seeing Reese Witherspoon. That’s just how it works,” he said. “If that were a bad movie, that would be a profoundly dispiriting experience for me. But because it was a great movie, I get a big kick out of it.”

That’s despite the fact that the book is very different from the film.

“Tracy’s a very different character in the book. She’s much more sexual and sexually confident, and she wears sexy clothes, unlike Tracy in the movie, who wears these schoolgirl skirts and turtlenecks,” he told me. And yet when a movie is as good as Election, “it’s harder to see the book as an independent entity once it’s adapted.”

Still, Perrotta is endlessly pleased at the strange turn of events that led to Election going from a book he had stuck in a drawer to one that launched the next phase of his career. He says:

That was a book that when I wrote it did not make a splash whatsoever. I couldn’t get it published. My agent said, “People don’t know whether it’s YA or adult. They don’t know what to do with it.” It fell between some cracks, and I thought of it as a failure for several years. Then through a flukey chain of circumstances, I ended up sending it to Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the producers, and they got it to MTV Films, which was just starting up, and MTV and Albert and Ron got it to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. That part of it just happened like a fairy tale, and then suddenly there was this amazing movie out of a book that I considered a failure.

The book’s genesis wasn’t in Perrotta’s experiences as a teacher, perhaps surprisingly. It was in the headlines of the day. He says:

I was obsessed with the 1992 election. I had the feeling that something really interesting was happening, and when it was over, I felt bereft. I couldn’t really move on. I wrote the book to keep that election alive in my mind. That idea of Bill Clinton and the character issue — the sense that who we are in our private lives tells us something important about who we are in our public lives — struck me as completely wrong and simple-minded. As a novelist, I just thought the disjunction between who we are internally and who we want the world to think we are, that is the crucial question of the novel. The idea that the American public was crying out for the banishment of the private self struck me as completely wrong.

But also I was writing about my own generation of women. I went to a working-class high school, and then I went to Yale, and I met all these women who had been empowered in a way that a lot of the girls I had grown up with hadn’t been. They felt that the world was wide open for them. They were powerful figures, and I was both fascinated by them and a little intimidated. And then I went and I taught at Yale and Harvard for 10 years after that. I was just teaching freshman comp but meeting all these powerful young women, and I did have this feeling of, this is something new. I didn’t know that these sort of superwomen existed.

They were scary to a lot of men, I think, and at least I think I put my finger on that sort of ambivalence that came from encountering these women. I love that Tracy is subject to revision right now, that feminists have rediscovered her and are starting to defend her. For years and years, there was this sense that Tracy is a monster, and I never felt quite like that. I felt like Tracy makes some mistakes, but there’s something really human and admirable about her.

For more with Perrotta — especially on his most recent novel, Mrs. Fletcher, which dives into some tricky territory with grace — check out the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — visit the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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