Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling novelist Tom Perrotta to talk about his latest novel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, which is something of a sequel to his 1998 hit, Election. Tom explains how this story took shape first as a novel about the character Vito Falcone, then as a response to the way the world has changed since we first met Tracy Flick (who was made famous by the Reese Witherspoon in the Oscar-nominated adaption of the book), and then finally as an ensemble novel to showcase Tom’s maturity both as a writer and as a person. The two also discuss their thoughts on middle age, the longevity of writers’ careers compared to those in other fields, and why they believe everyone has a fascinating story to share.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tom. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Tracy Flick Can’t Win.

Tom Perrotta: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Zibby: This is the best cover because this is how I feel every single day, pretty much, hunched over my desk, glasses on the side. You could be actually just taking a picture of where I am right now at the end of the day. Tracy Flick Can’t Win, tell me, why did we go back to these characters? What happened? Tell me the whole story. Tell listeners what this book is about.

Tom: Tracy Flick, if anyone knows the book or the film Election, was a very ambitious high school student who was running for president of her school. Her teacher was so resentful and annoyed by her that he actually tried to steal the election from her. That was a story that was kind of a political allegory that I wrote twenty-five years ago or so. It was turned into a wonderful movie by Alexander Payne. It starred Reese Witherspoon. As a result of Reese’s completely magnetic performance, Tracy Flick became a kind of cultural archetype. She embodied this idea of the unpleasantly ambitious young woman who is going to do whatever it takes to get to the top, which, by the way, is something that we admire in men but I think found a little bit threatening in a young woman. I had the weird experience as a writer of just watching this character turn into a stereotype or a shorthand for this female ambition. What was interesting was then it also — at a certain point, Tracy was seen as a villain early on. Then recently, feminists took a second look and said, wait a second, why is Tracy a villain? All she is is a teenage girl who is trying to get elected president of her high school, get a scholarship so she can go to college because she’s been raised by a single mom. She needs it. Yeah, she does a couple of dumb teenage things. She rips some posters for her opponent and then lies about it, but that’s it. She’s no villain. She’s a teenager. That was part of it, was just me watching this character become part of a larger cultural discussion about women and ambition.

Then there was a second, more specific thing for me, which was that in the original book Election and in the film, Tracy has a sexual relationship with a teacher when she’s in high school. At the time in Election the novel, she’s very defiant about it. She says, I wanted it. We had this relationship. I realized it was not for me, and I stopped it. She tells the story of her own agency. She was up for this relationship. Then she realized it was a mistake. Then she broke up with the teacher. He was the one who acted immature. He got caught. He got fired. End of story. She’s just going to continue on with her teenage life. She’s going to get elected president. She’s going to get that scholarship. When the Me Too moment happened, I thought as a writer, I wondered if I had told this story in the right way because I noticed when I was reading Me Too stories, so many women talking about relationships just like this and saying, at the time, it seemed like something I wanted, but now that I look back, I understand that it’s wrong. In this new book, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, Tracy is an assistant principal at a high school. She’s still there as a high school principal. She knows it’s wrong for a teacher to do this, and so she’s having to confront this experience that she has crafted a narrative about. Now that narrative is starting to feel shaky, she says. This whole book is about Tracy in middle age taking inventory of her life and wondering why she hasn’t lived up to her very powerful ambitions for herself and thinking about the way the deck seems to be stacked against her. She’s hitting a glass ceiling in her life. She’s wondering, is it me, or is it the world?

Zibby: I feel like I know many people hitting that exact same thing. I feel like there will be prints of people’s hair stuff on all those glass ceilings from so many people popping up against the same place. Never mind. Weird visual. I think you know what I mean.

Tom: I do.

Zibby: It’s a common place to bump up against at this time in our lives.

Tom: We saw it in our political system. Hillary Clinton seemed like she had everything that it would take to get elected. She had experience. She had the brains. She was a hard worker. She had paid her dues. She’d been a senator. She did not win against a man who was lazy and inexperienced and unprepared, worse than that. The question was, was she a bad candidate? Did people not like her? That seemed to be part of this question of — that was also something about Tracy. She seemed very hard-edged and a little bit unfeminine. The teacher resented her. I think there was some question, again, of, was it just Hillary, or is it any female candidate who can’t win? That glass ceiling affects women at all phases of their career. I think it also is, as you say, a middle-aged thing. Even as a middle-aged man, there is that melancholy of just, I had this big dream. Now I have a life that’s somewhat smaller than that dream. What do I make of that? How do I account for it? How do I find peace within myself?

Zibby: I feel like the more resigned you are to something like that, it negates the potential of the rest of your life. Just because middle age comes, I feel so many people think, okay, well, this is what happened. I guess this is where I ended up. There are decades left to live. You know what I mean?

Tom: Yeah, I totally do. That’s where we find Tracy in this book. At the beginning, she is in that state of, my life is what it is. Then what happens is the principal job opens up at her school. She’s like Rocky coming back for one more fight. She is who she is because she is really resilient and tough. Also, that flame of her ambition has never been fully extinguished. This novel is about somebody coming out of a funk and sensing that there’s another chapter to be told, as you just suggested.

Zibby: If not now, when?

Tom: That’s right.

Zibby: Tell me about structuring this, in a way, with Vito Falcone making amends for all of his past sins and how you have introducing all these characters by when he meets them to apologize.

Tom: This book did not start out as a book about Tracy Flick. Let me say that. It started out, I was writing about this high school hall of fame. I didn’t know Tracy was part of this high school. The idea was that this high school invites a former football player back to town to induct him into the hall of fame and honor his teenage greatness. This guy is also in his forties like Tracy is. His name is Vito Falcone. He’s a former NFL football player.

Zibby: But only for three years, right?

Tom: Yeah, he had a very undistinguished career. Sadly, he is now a recovering alcoholic. He is suffering from what he suspects might be some brain damage from concussions that he suffered on the field. What I imagined was this story about a middle-aged man who comes back to his hometown to be honored, but really, there’s all these people in the town who have unfinished business with him, who resent him for the bad way that he treated them back when he was young and was this golden boy. It seemed to me like that’s really a great image of American masculinity right now. We had our golden years. Now the culture’s going, hey, wait a second, we got some things to talk about. Vito is somebody who’s treated a lot of people badly in his life, like a lot of men who have power.

Zibby: Even the boy he left on the side of the road — that was heartbreaking — as a coach. Oh, my gosh.

Tom: I know. We catch him in that stage of making amends in a twelve-step recovery program. We find out all the things that Vito has done to people. Yes, you mentioned, there’s a football player on his team who’s young, and he refused to let him ride home on the bus because he had made a mistake on the field. It can seem awful now, but coaches got away with murder when I was a kid. It was almost like a quasi-military place. There was a kind of cruelty. It still happens. You still hear these stories about hazing. Bad stuff happens in locker rooms. It used to be just considered like, yeah, that happens. That’s part of being a man, part of being an athlete. The culture just is less tolerant of it now, which is great. Vito is having to look back and literally say I’m sorry to all these people who — it’s almost funny. He treated people so badly. There’s almost some humor in that. It’s not funny if you’re on the wrong end of it. It’s funny to find out that he was so awful.

Zibby: He’s also shooting himself in the foot over again when he’s apologizing. He’s apologizing for things that people didn’t even know about. Also, my mom is still alive, or my dad is still alive. The person’s like, what? I’m getting off the phone. You just want to be like, no, stop.

Tom: It’s a Pandora’s box for some people.

Zibby: Did you play sports? Did you play football growing up?

Tom: I did. I’m not very big, so my football career ended sophomore year when I realized that I was not going to be — I played quarterback and was captain of my freshman team. Then sophomore year, everybody grew, and I stayed the same. I couldn’t see. I would try to tackle people. I’d hit them as hard as I could, and I’d end up on the ground. I realized that I was physically not up to it. It was a real moment of tribulation for me because it’s what I had dreamed about. My conciliation was to sort of migrate into the artsy side of high school. I tried to play guitar but wasn’t that good. Then I started to really get into reading. When I started to write, I felt what I knew I didn’t have with music. I’d play with other musicians. They would be like, oh, it just goes like this, and they would do it. It seemed like there was no obstacle between what they were hearing and what they could play. Whereas for me, it was just all obstacle. Then when I wrote, I had that feeling of, oh, I know how to do this. I stop here. I jump to there. This would be the way to end it. Those things that seemed so mysterious to me in music — I just couldn’t follow it. When I wrote, I felt like, oh, I think I’m good at this. That’s a very powerful feeling when you’re a young person, to sense, okay, I’m good. Then comes the real journey as a writer, which is, you find out that talent is such a small part of it and that you need so many other things. You need to read widely and deeply. You need to fail and be rejected and toughen up and find a voice that is particularly yours. I do think it gave me the fuel to start that journey, this feeling that I could be good at this.

Zibby: Basically, if you were 6’2″, we would not be talking about this book.

Tom: I would be apologizing to you like Vito.

Zibby: That’s really funny. My husband, by the way, was the same thing, quarterback, didn’t grow enough, and had to stop. He actually went into tennis and then ended up doing that professionally.

Tom: Oh, wow. That’s a different kind of happy ending.

Zibby: Different, but I guess with writing, you could do it forever. Your knees are fine. You can do it as long as you want. It’s a better place to arrive at, honestly.

Tom: I wish I were a better tennis player, though. Yes, you’re right. It is a really interesting thing because writing can be a lifelong journey. I just was reading this book by Geoff Dyer called The Final Days of Roger Federer. It’s about that moment in everyone’s life when you’re trying to stave off the end. He’s talking about that. Every book he thinks is going to be his last book. That’s what motivates him to get through it, but then he has to immediately start another one so that he can have another last book that he’s working on. There are writers like Philip Roth and Alice Munro who were able to write well into their seventies. As I get older, that’s an inspiring vision.

Zibby: I do think, though, that the aging athlete is something that the community at large, almost like veterans, has dropped the ball on, so to speak. We put so much emphasis on athletics. I have four kids. I have two boys. It’s always, boom, boom, boom. What are they going to do? What’s the next thing? Then people with talent, what happens then? When your life goes a different way, what are you equipped to do? How do you come off of that and all that attention? Even with the arts, when you’re performing, how do you then migrate into another life, especially if CTE plays into it also? I don’t know. I just feel like there’s no good, thank you for your years of service on entertaining the rest of us and playing. This is your life now. Good luck. Where is the welcome bag to part two?

Tom: So much of this book, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, is about getting older in a really competitive society. Tracy is a competitor. This book is about her finding a way to compete again in her forties. I do think there’s also a critique underneath it of a society that is all about winning and is also about youth and promise and not so much about finding ways to age gracefully or finding ways to make peace with the fact that you’re no longer competing. I think all these issues are related somehow. They’re part of the culture that we’re in, which I think does make it — it’s hard enough to get older and to feel that you’re losing some of your physical abilities. The culture also sort of says, we’re not even noticing you anymore.

Zibby: It’s sort of like the rise and fall of Front Desk Diane’s hopes. I loved her, by the way. You have Front Desk Diane, who has this unrequited — well, I guess requited for a time — love and keeps hoping for the principal to be able to officially leave — you introduce this terrible illness, so of course, she can’t wish anything ill upon his wife. She’s longing for him all along the way and just waiting and waiting and waiting. It was a little bit heartbreaking.

Tom: That’s another story in this book. Tracy Flick Can’t Win is told as a kind of ensemble story set around this high school. One of the characters, as you say, is Front Desk Diane. She’s the person who greets you when you come to the main office. Everybody loves her in town. She’s kind of a local celebrity because she’s been doing the job forever. She knows everyone. She’s always friendly and helpful. She has a secret, which is that she once had a long-term affair with her principal, who’s the guy who’s about to retire. This is another case of somebody who is having to grapple with a huge disappointment in her life, that she couldn’t be with the man she loved and has to work beside him and also feel guilty about the fact that she had an affair with him rather than a relationship on the up and up. That came, partly — I wrote the novel Election when I was younger, and I sort of poked at the people in the front office the way you do when you’re young and you are maybe not seeing the world with the eyes of somebody older and a little more compassionate. I just felt like, I don’t want to make a joke out of this school secretary. I want to see the school secretary as a full human being. That guided me into that story. She is a figure who I also had enormous tenderness for. People see her and know her, or they think they do, but they don’t really see her and know her. That’s part of what fiction does. It gives us an opportunity to see people and imagine their lives, people who we might have just walked right past in the world. That seems like a really important thing that fiction does.

Zibby: You had this sad moment of her hiding out from the whole community in the grocery store late at night, finding the off times so she’s not accosted at the store. You never know. It could’ve easily come from my going to the grocery today and seeing somebody and wondering, I wonder what her story is. Then little do you know, she’s the lynchpin of the whole community where she works. You just don’t know, obviously. This sounds ridiculous. There’s so much you don’t know when people make all these snap judgements about people that they pass throughout the course of the day, whether it’s their profession or their longing or their love or all the things they’ve gone through or their addiction or whatever. I think that’s one of the greatest things that novels do, is remind people to stop doing that. There’s a whole story inside of everybody.

Tom: When I was a teacher, one of the things I would say is, write a story about the person who lives next door to you. I realized at a certain point in my life, every time I lived next to somebody, it turned out they had some amazing story. At first, you’re like, oh, what a coincidence. My neighbor has an amazing story. No, it turns out everybody has an amazing story. You just have to have the patience and the empathy to listen to it or, in some cases, as a fiction writer, to imagine it. I do take that to heart as a writer. I don’t write, for the most part, about adventures or people who are super powerful or wealthy. I try to write about ordinary people and see their lives in a full way.

Zibby: When I was younger and I would get seated next to somebody at a dinner party or something like that and I would have a bad conversation, I would think to myself, ugh, I got seated next to somebody so dull or so boring or whatever. Now that I’m this age, and maybe because I have conversations for a living somehow, I’m like, if I find that my conversation’s boring, then I haven’t done my job. That’s my fault. Then I haven’t figured out, what is that person’s story? It’s always interesting. There’s always something.

Tom: Yes, though, there are boring people in the world. They might have interesting stories. I have been at dinner parties and have tried. Sometimes you can’t get past the surface of, people are actively repelling you, maybe because they don’t want to tell you their story or they don’t understand, really, what’s interesting about them. I think that’s possible sometimes. I agree that if you could somehow get people to open up and tell you their story, that there is something there that’s fascinating, but they don’t always know what it is. I might not know what my story is.

Zibby: Tom, what is your story? What makes you interesting? Tell me.

Tom: I grew up in a very working-class community. My parents didn’t go to college. It’s been very important for me to try and write books that are accessible to a lot of different people. I don’t believe in a literary culture that only belongs to highly educated people. I will also say, my parents were much more culturally conservative than I was. I got used to kind of hiding aspects of myself from them. Not that there was anything particularly scandalous. It was just generational. I think that fiction writing appealed to me because there are these layers of masks that you can — I could say to my parents, that’s not me. That’s a character I wrote. It’s part of why fiction exists. We can tell certain kinds of truths more easily if there’s a layer of distance or plausible deniability. For me at least, I have never found a way to write a memoir or write honestly about myself. I think that this habit of keeping my privacy has encouraged me to be a fiction writer. I can range really widely as a fiction writer. I’m not one of those fiction writers who sticks really close to his own experience, but I do think there is some element that comes from growing up of not being fully open and that fiction is the only — I need that device to tell my truths.

Zibby: Interesting. See, who knew?

Tom: Who knew? Not me.

Zibby: Thank you so much, Tom, for coming on. Thanks for reintroducing Tracy Flick, but mostly — not to disparage her in any way, but I just loved all the other characters and how many characters there were and how you kept bouncing us from person to person and giving us so many different vantage points to keep it really interesting and also, of course, continuing this fabulous character. It was really fun chatting. I look forward to hearing if your dinner party conversations are now spiced up. You can think of me.

Tom: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. It was a real pleasure.

Zibby: My pleasure. Congratulations. Buh-bye.

Tom: Buh-bye.


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