For his new novel, Tom Perrotta dives into the social and spiritual dimensions of online porn and sexual consent.

For his new novel, Tom Perrotta dives into the social and spiritual dimensions of online porn and sexual consent.

Nick Hennessy/OPB

Even if you haven’t cracked a book in 20 years, you may be familiar with novelist Tom Perrotta’s witty, affectionate satires of suburban life. In novels like “Election,” “Little Children” and “The Abstinence Teacher,” he creates set pieces where the surface appearance never tells the whole story. As his characters collide in stories of infidelity, political friction and emotional recklessness, Perrotta always keeps their humanity at the center.

His work has been successfully adapted for screens large and small. Alexander Payne’s film adaptation of Perrotta’s “Election” — a breakout role for Reese Witherspoon — is a cult favorite. And HBO’s series based on Perrotta’s speculative classic “The Leftovers” became a Peabody-winning fan favorite.

In this new novel, “Mrs. Fletcher,” Perrotta brings us into the world of Eve Fletcher and her college-bound son Brendan. Eve is on her own for the first time in decades. She tumbles down a rabbit hole that begins with internet porn and ends with a radical rethinking of her entire identity. Meanwhile, on campus, Brendan is on a collision course with a young feminist who challenges his lack of empathy. A New York Times reviewer called “Mrs. Fletcher” “the sweetest and most charming novel about pornography addiction and the harrowing issues of sexual consent that you will probably ever read.”

In "Mrs. Fletcher", Tom Perrotta's empty nest mom finds an unexpected path to re-evaluating her life through internet porn.

In “Mrs. Fletcher”, Tom Perrotta’s empty nest mom finds an unexpected path to re-evaluating her life through internet porn.

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

On why he was drawn to examine online porn in the lives of a mother and son:
“I wasn’t writing about my kids, especially, but when I think about what’s different in the sexual milieu that they’re coming of age in, that’s one of the enormous differences. I grew up working class Catholic. Porn was a dirty secret and you had to work to find it. But now our kids are all growing up with 24-hour access. I don’t think it’s just kids. We don’t like to talk about it, but it informs sexual culture.”

On researching the book:
“You know how Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000-hour rule? [laughs] In my defense, porn is this enormous cultural force, for good and for ill. I think a lot of people know a lot about it and they don’t want to talk about it. I definitely had this feeling while looking at some of it that this is revealing of who we are as a culture, but it’s not the official story. It really contradicts the official story. Most of us are operating in this gray area between a kind of rational, thoughtful, ethical version of sexuality and this chaotic, dangerous one.”

On why he decided to write a scene about consent and sexual assault on a college campus:
“It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about. Our concern about endemic sexual assault, and hook-up culture and porn — everything that’s breaking open in the culture right now, to me, was also being addressed in this discussion about sex in college, and so it’s something I wanted to talk about. It’s one kind of book if you go to the worst sort of case: Somebody is unconscious and they’re raped. There are other stories that fall into a gray area. I just wanted to get into the heads of people who were doing it. It was actually the hardest scene to write in the book. Notice they’re both thinking about previous sexual encounters. Their minds are not really on each other. It went off the rails in a way that felt real to me.”

On the film adaptation of his novel “Election”:
“I didn’t know it was such an A-list cast at the time. Reese Witherspoon, at the time, was not a household name. I still think [she delivers] one of the great comic performances in American film. It’s been the source of some mixed feelings for me. I’m very proud this story I told has become a kind of touchstone. There’s one way to look at it that sort of vilifies female ambition, but for me, it’s about the male terror of female ambition.”