Reese Witherspoon in 'Election', a film adaption of Tom Perotta's Part One of 'Tracy Flick Can't Win' (inset), 1999. (Photo: Everett Collection/Canadian Press); Inset, top: Campaign poster for Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in 'Election'. (Photo: Everett Collection/Canadian Press)
Tracy Flick Can’t Win
In a Q&A with Tom Perrotta about the sequel to “Election,” he explains how actress Reese Witherspoon changed his perception of his heroine / BY Kim Hughes / June 9th, 2022
As in life, fate sometimes intervenes in fiction. Just ask Tom Perrotta. The acclaimed, best-selling novelist didn’t set out to write a sequel to his smash 1998 dramedy Election, famously filmed in 1999 by director Alexander Payne, with Reese Witherspoon cast as the book’s inimitable lead character, Tracy Flick.
Yet Perrotta, 60, has just published Tracy Flick Can’t Win, in which its once-promising heroine is a beleaguered, mid-40s, single mom and assistant principal at a suburban New Jersey high school. She is at the centre of another competition: fighting to claim the top job after the current principal retires.
Like the original story, which focused on teenaged Tracy vying to become school president, the sequel finds unfriendly forces conspiring to keep her from the role she deserves and is clearly qualified for. To cover her bases, Tracy makes nice with Kyle Dorfman, who — having made a fortune with an app developed in Silicon Valley — returns with his family to Green Meadow, N.J., and becomes school board president in short order.
Dorfman’s dream is to create a Green Meadow High School Hall of Fame, commemorating high-achieving former grads, thus boosting the school’s reputation. He plans to launch it with onetime football star Vito Falcone, whose adult life, like Tracy’s, has failed to leverage the blazing promise of his youth.
The Hall of Fame idea, although anathema to Tracy with an athlete as its first major inductee, is something she will endorse if having Dorfman in her corner will help secure the proverbial corner office. Things very much do not go according to plan.
As Perrotta explains from his home outside Boston, the new book – currently amassing universally positive reviews – began not with Tracy’s story, but with Vito’s. Tracy spontaneously appeared in his imagination, as if compelled to reconcile with the #MeToo Movement. It reframed the original story’s depiction of Tracy’s “affair” with her English teacher, and Tracy Flick Can’t Win explores it at length.
Perrotta spoke with Zoomer on the cusp of the book’s release on June 7, and ahead of an appearance July 7 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, where he’ll be in conversation with Zoomer contributor Johanna Schneller.
Kim Hughes: The new book is a critical hit. Do you read reviews?
Tom Perrotta: I let my publicist screen them for me and provide them via excerpts. You can’t really control the reception, and sometimes just an errant line will make me depressed for a day (laughs), and I don’t want to lose a day to that!
KH: From what I understand, you didn’t initially set out to revive Tracy as a character, but rather to spotlight the character of Vito Falcone, a faded football star, and Tracy just kind of popped up. Correct?
TP: Yes, and I think that was a better way to do it. I’d had conversations with people over the years where I’d be asked, ‘What do you think Tracy is doing now?’ And I could never come up with a satisfying answer. People would speculate that she’d become president or one of these blonde commentators on Fox News. That never felt right to me. With the new book, I found myself mimicking the structure of Election with these little oral history chapters, which didn’t make sense after all these years. But suddenly, it was, ‘Tracy’s here!’ I could sense her presence in the background and how much she would have disliked honouring this football player as opposed to other people. When I pictured her as a high school administrator, there she was. It made sense. Most people don’t become president or Fox News commentators, not even very ambitious people. From a writer’s perspective, it’s more interesting to explore someone who thought they were extraordinary but is living an ordinary life, and try and account for how that happened. I think a lot of people get derailed along the way.
KH: The film version of Election was such a powerful cultural thing. Did Reese Witherspoon’s performance change or impact your image of Tracy?
TP: Definitely. To be honest, my book did not set the world on fire. It was the movie, and very specifically Reese’s performance, that made Tracy an emblem of female ambition. When I tried to imagine a grown-up version of Tracy, I imagined someone who looked and sounded like Reese Witherspoon’s version of Tracy and not what she was before.
KH: You are so good at creating female characters. Do you seek input from women about whether something scans convincingly or not?
TP: My wife is my first reader, and my agent and editor are both women, so it goes across the eyes of many women whose judgment I trust. I try not to focus so much on details that I could get wrong, like clothing. In this book, you don’t hear much about what Tracy looks like. What’s coming through is her worldview and emotional reaction to things. She is created from within. Personally, I find when I read, I often imagine characters looking different from what is explicitly described (laughs). My mind stubbornly creates its own images, and I imagine my readers will, too.
KH: In the new book, some characters speak in the first person, but not all – notably Vito, who was the original impetus for the story. What was the thinking there?
TP: Election was only first person, none of these third-person chapters. In this instance, [third person] made sense to me. It gives variety to the book and slows it down. Plus, I think it would be hard to make Vito sympathetic if he were narrating. It’s easier to see him from the outside, struggling in his own limited and slightly impaired way to make amends for the wreck he’s made of his life.
KH: You recently said, “Tracy is appalled by unearned male advantage. She wants to compete on an equal playing field. That’s what feminism would be for her.” What is feminism for you?
TP: The idea that there would be something like an equal playing field is appealing, though I imagine there are those who would argue that isn’t the goal of feminism. I do like the idea that many feminists have articulated: that feminism is maximizing the choices women have in order to create a happy life for themselves. That goes for all people, a society where people aren’t defined by birth to a limited subset of choices.
KH: A compelling aspect of the book is how Tracy begins to question her teenage affair with a teacher; reconsidering how much control she really had, even as she clings to the notion that she wasn’t “a victim.” Is that a result of Tracy experiencing #MeToo or simply a function of aging?
TP: It was a matter of the time. I read about some prep school, can’t remember the name, but there was this teacher who, over decades, had had multiple affairs with students. Reporters had contacted half a dozen women and the stories ranged from those who felt the teacher had ruined their high school experience to others who said, ‘I thought he was my boyfriend, and we had a sweet relationship.’ That made me think about Tracy and how I had described her life. I felt that I had to take an inventory of things to see if I had done her justice.
Another thing that had changed over all those years was, ‘Who has the right to tell a story like that?’ I hadn’t really reckoned with it in the 1990s. I wanted to be sure I hadn’t done an injustice to that character or to people who had shared similar experiences. Plus, I felt someone like Tracy would also be performing this act of looking back and wondering if she perceived things correctly. When Tracy was young, she was very interested in being empowered. She had big plans, didn’t want to be slowed down. Part of her believed she wasn’t like other high-school girls. She regarded her teachers as her only real peers. But she was still a teenager. Now she is older, a little sadder, and when she looks back, she sees that maybe she was part of a class of young women who were somewhat special, but were also taken advantage of by male teachers.
KH: Writing: what’s your process?
TP: I sit down at 9 a.m. with a cup of black coffee. I am a regular and monogamous writer. I work on one thing. It’s not a scattered process for me. Being a novelist is a job and a daily practice for me. A little today and tomorrow and the next day adds up if you can do it for a year or more.
KH: And is a year typically how long it takes you to finish a book?
TP: More like 18 months to two years, but that first year is the real struggle, where you’re just generating enough raw material to begin to sense the complete story.
KH: Has Hollywood been in touch about this new book yet?
TP: Yes, though nothing has been finalized. But there is interest and negotiations are ongoing.
KH: What will success look like for you with Tracy Flick Can’t Win?
TP: I want people to read it and talk about it and maybe feel like they understand their lives a little differently because of it. It’s a broad metric, so I’ll try to focus on that and maybe not think about the other ones … like sales.