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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Election Author Tom Perrotta on Writing Tracy Flick Into a MeToo World

No novelist can know in advance what kind of life a character might have beyond the page. When Tom Perrotta’s wry, perceptive comic novel Election was published, in 1998, he couldn’t have known that the name Tracy Flick would come to signify a certain type of young—or even not so young—woman, an ambitious overachiever with a steamroller approach to conquering the world. In Alexander Payne’s Oscar-nominated 1999 movie version of the book, Reese Witherspoon played Tracy, a calculating senior hell-bent on becoming her school’s president, with equal parts sugar and vinegar. That portrayal burned the character’s most definitive traits deep into the public’s imagination. And since then, any intelligent, indefatigable, vocal woman who goes after what she wants—whether that’s a Hillary Clinton or a Kayleigh McEnany—has been at risk of being branded, derisively, a Tracy Flick. The name has become a kind of misogynist shorthand.
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That was far from Perrotta’s intent. If you read or re-read Election today, you’ll see that, even as he delights in Tracy’s most irritating quirks, his sympathy for her runs deep. He’s as attuned to her loneliness as he is to her iron will. And with his eighth novel, Tracy Flick Can’t Win, to be published June 7, Perrotta catches up with Tracy as an adult, rescuing her from the fate of being used as an easy symbol of, well, anything. She’s much too complex for that.

“Tracy never went away, for me or for the culture,” Perrotta said recently, speaking from his home outside of Boston. “That never happened with anything else I wrote.” Which is not to say that this best-selling writer hasn’t found success with other projects. He also co-wrote the screenplay for an adaptation of his 2004 novel Little Children, which earned him an Oscar nomination, and he helped make his 2011 and 2017 novels, The Leftovers and Mrs. Fletcher, into acclaimed series for HBO.

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Tracy Flick Can’t Win is his first sequel, and he didn’t exactly set out to write one. Initially, he wanted to examine the messy state of modern American masculinity by inventing a faded former high school football star, Vito Falcone, who’s called back to his old stomping ground to receive an award. Only once Perrotta had really dug into the writing did he realize that Tracy needed to be a part of the story. “Because this guy is her worst nightmare. And once I added her to the mix, the story had this other center of gravity.”

For Perrotta, creating Flick was a leap of faith. He’d grown up in New Jersey, in a working-class family, and though it had never occurred to him that he might attend an Ivy League university, a careers teacher at his high school persuaded him to try. He ended up at Yale, graduating in 1983, and enrolled in the graduate creative writing program at Syracuse University a few years after that. Though Election was one of the first books he wrote, it wasn’t the first to be published: that was Bad Haircut: Stories from the Seventies, in 1994, which was followed by The Wishbones in 1997. But both of those books were largely about men; Election, he says, “was the first book where I really tried to write women characters, in a central way. And I was scared.”

Perrotta had come to think of himself as “kind of a guy writer,” he says. “Bad Haircut is all about male friendships, and The Wishbones is about these guys in a band. I knew I had to stretch beyond that. That was the reason I tried to write Election with those multiple viewpoints. I felt I had to be on the side of every character, and to see them as full people. And to give them parts of myself, I think.”

If it took Tracy Flick a while to emerge in the world, she’s now here to stay. In Tracy Flick Can’t Win, the teenage overachiever we once knew—the one who was almost cheated out of her high-school presidential win by a meddling history teacher, the one who had an affair with another teacher that led to his downfall, while she simply moved on—is now a dedicated but beleaguered assistant principal at a suburban New Jersey high school. The law degree she’d always dreamed of never came to be; her promising trajectory at Georgetown was cut short when she left to care for her ailing mother, who has since died. Now she’s raising a daughter of her own, Sophia, the product of a brief affair she had with a married professor while she was pursuing a PhD in education. Nothing has turned out as planned. But Tracy’s sense of ambition reignites when she learns her boss is about to retire. Why shouldn’t she step right into the top job? She’s earned it.

In considering where the modern-day Tracy Flick would end up, Perrotta says, “I didn’t think she had taken over the world. I’m much more interested, anyway, in thwarted ambition and midlife malaise than I am in people who are running the world.” It made sense, he says, “that Tracy would end up in her old battleground, still fighting for these small prizes.” After all, this is still a world where mediocre men often have an advantage over smart, hardworking women. And if Perrotta was cognizant of that injustice in Election, he’s even more keyed into it now.

While Perrotta doesn’t dig into Tracy’s politics in the new book, he notes that she’s probably rather conservative. Yet he’s sure that she is still, in some sense, a feminist. “I don’t think she’d use the word ‘patriarchy,’” he says. “But she’s aware that these men get all these unearned advantages, and that she’s constantly being put in the shadow of men who are her inferiors. She’s appalled by unearned male advantage. She wants to compete on an equal playing field. That’s what feminism would be for her.”

And in the midst of her career quandary, Tracy Flick has something else to contend with: the memory of her sexual relationship with a teacher when she was still a teenager. If that plot development was eye-opening enough in 1998, in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it has taken on a whole new dimension today.

In Election, Tracy adamantly insists she wasn’t victimized by that relationship: she was in control; she ended the relationship; he was the one who fell apart afterward. But the Tracy Flick of 2022 is more reflective. She still won’t call herself a victim, yet she does wonder what on earth her illicit paramour was thinking, embarking on a relationship with a teenage girl. And she wonders if maybe the experience damaged her in ways she doesn’t even see.

Perrotta says that when he wrote Election, in the early 1990s, he “was drawing on these currents in feminism at the time. These brash Madonna-esque ideas that women can have everything men can have. They can have sex whenever they want to and be unapologetic about it and walk away from it and go on to the next thing. Tracy was embodying this particular early-’90s sex-positive ‘girls can have it all’ mentality.”

But there’s no denying the power imbalance between an adult teacher and a teenage girl, a reality Perrotta reckons with in the new book. “There were so many MeToo stories of often prestigious private high schools where teachers had abused their students for years and years. There were some people blowing the whistle and saying, ‘I was abused by this teacher.’ And there were other women who would say, ‘I thought at the time that it was a consensual relationship,’ and now they’ve had to revisit that from an adult perspective, in a very different cultural climate.”

That was another reason Perrotta was drawn, even if only subconsciously, to revisit Tracy Flick’s story. “One of the really fascinating things about writing a book like this almost 30 years later is you realize just how powerful these cultural lenses are,” he says. “Tracy’s an administrator. She’s in charge now of policing these sorts of things. As an administrator she feels one way, but she does not want to surrender her narrative completely.”

It would be a different book, Perrotta says, if Tracy simply said, “I was a victim.” But her feelings are more complicated than that. “She’s a middle-aged person with regrets,” Perrotta says. “She’s trying to figure out, how did I get here, when I expected to be somewhere else entirely?” Not even Tracy Flick can have it all.

“As I get older, I’m so aware of the way we constantly alter the narrative of our past and choose to leave out whole chunks of it, or turn something complex into a simple thing,” Perrotta says. “You say, ’Oh, that was my 20s! That was when I had terrible jobs!’ And you just leave it at that. But we also know that those simple narratives leave out a lot of rich experience and decisive moments and often a lot of pain.” Young people are, after all, unfinished people. When Perrotta is asked if maybe the ending of Election—in which Tracy reaches a kind of accord with the man who tried to cheat her out of her presidential victory—was an inadvertent setup for a sequel, he considers the possibility. But the answer he ultimately gives is, like Tracy Flick herself, multidimensional: “I would say that any story that ends when a character is 18 is just crying out for a sequel.”

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