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October 24, 2019

His Agony and Ecstasy

Bringing Mrs. Fletcher to life as a limited series spurred mixed emotions in novelist Tom Perrotta.

Mara Reinstein
  • Tom Perrotta with Kathryn Hahn

    Sarah Shatz/HBO

It came to him as he was driving his daughter to college for the first time.

What was already an emotional rite of passage turned into a melancholy realization. "I was a little jealous of her," Tom Perrotta admits. "Her whole world was opening up, while I felt like a chapter in my life was coming to an end. Like, what now?"

When you're a bestselling author, the answer is: write about it. Now, his 2017 novel, Mrs. Fletcher — the comedic tale of a 45-year-old single mom who experiences a sexual reawakening after her only child leaves the nest — is coming to life.

In the seven-episode series, which premieres October 27 on HBO, Kathryn Hahn (Transparent, Bad Moms) stars as a caring senior-center director by day and rabid porn-watcher by night. "It's about a woman's inner life, but Kathryn is so expressive and fearless that there's no distinction between her inner life and outer life," Perrotta says.

This isn't the first of Perrotta's works to receive the HBO treatment: The Leftovers (based on his 2011 book) ended its acclaimed three-season run in 2017. This time, though, he took the reins as showrunner, in addition to serving as creator–writer–executive producer. He ran the production meetings in Los Angeles.

He oversaw the staff ("a lot of funny people"). He fretted about the final product. He jokes that he even called Leftovers honcho Damon Lindelof to apologize for all the "uncharitable thoughts" he'd had about him.

What inspired him to take the job? "I figured that if there's anything left for me to do in television, it's to have that final authority," Perrotta says. "It was really just an attack of hubris."

The experience left him both overwhelmed and exhilarated. "There were moments when I was in despair because it was so hard, and I wondered why I ever decided to take it on," he recalls. "Then, when the first cut came together, there was this feeling of 'Oh, yes, this is what we did!' It reminded me of working on a novel."

Indeed, Mrs. Fletcher was Perrotta's ninth book, following such titles as Election and Little Children (which were made into feature films).

The tie that binds them? a deeply woven, wryly funny examination of suburban ennui. "I wouldn't call it a satire, because that assumes a certain superiority on the part of the writer, and I see my characters with compassion," he says. "I write about people who often screw up or do things they might come to regret."

Perrotta is himself a proud suburbanite, a New Jersey kid who now lives with his wife, Mary, in Belmont, Massachusetts. He writes in his home office and, on this particular afternoon, he's just returned from a bike ride.

Now that the Mrs. Fletcher series is, well, in the books, Perrotta is taking a well-earned break. He's not at work on a new novel ("I don't mind when you ask; I mind when my publisher asks"). Does he hope Mrs. Fletcher will pull a Big Little Lies and come back for more?

"When you see the full arc, it will feel complete, and if that's all there is, I'll be satisfied," he says. "But there are always more stories to tell."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue no. 10, 2019

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