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Novelist Tom Perrotta, Sending Up the Suburbs

His book Little Children has just come out in paperback. It's a satirical take on parenthood and suburbia.

19:36

Other segments from the episode on February 4, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 4, 2005: Interview with Zach Braff and Bill Lawrence; Interview with Tom Perotta; Review of the movie "Head on."

Transcript

DATE February 4, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Bill Lawrence and Zach Braff discuss their sitcom,
"Scrubs"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Zach Braff, who stars in the NBC medical sitcom "Scrubs," has found it easier
to get noticed off TV than on it. His first effort as a filmmaker as both
director and star, was the well-received "Garden State," recently release on
DVD. The movie was a surprise hit at the Sundance Film Festival, got very
good reviews from critics and generated excellent business for an independent
film. Braff plays Andrew Largeman, a young man coming home to his New Jersey
birthplace to attend the funeral of his mother. In this scene, he's talking
with his soon-to-be girlfriend, played by Natalie Portman. They're sitting in
a pool.

(Soundbite from "Garden State")

Mr. ZACH BRAFF: (As Andrew Largeman) You know that point in your life when
you realize the house you grew up in isn't really your home anymore? All of a
sudden, even though you have someplace where you put your (censored) that idea
of home is gone.

Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN: (As Sam) I still feel at home in my house.

Mr. BRAFF: (As Andrew Largeman) You'll see once you move out. It's just
what happens. One day it's gone, and it's like you can never get it back. So
you feel homesick for a place that doesn't even exist. Or maybe it's like
this rite of passage, you know. You won't ever have that feeling again until
you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, or for your kids, for
the family you start. It's like a cycle or something. I don't know, but I
miss the idea of it, you know? Maybe that's all family really is, a group of
people that miss the same imaginary place.

BIANCULLI: Zach Braff also stars in "Scrubs," an NBC series that began in
2001. Like "Garden State," it was met with critical acclaim for its offbeat
and often dark humor and sensibilities. Unlike "Garden State," it has never
really prospered. NBC moved it all over the schedule and shelved it recently
until just a few weeks ago when new episodes began to appear featuring such
guest stars ad Colin Farrell. Today on FRESH AIR, we'll talk with "Garden
State" with "Garden State" director and star Zach Braff and with the creator
of "Scrubs," TV writer/producer Bill Lawrence.

On "Scrubs," Zach Braff stars as J.D. Dorian. He was a first-year resident
as the series began, but now has made it all the way to chief resident--well,
co-chief resident anyway. Braff has been acting since his teens and got his
first big break playing Woody Allen's son in "Manhattan Murder Mystery."
"Garden State," released last year, marked his official debut as a filmmaker.

Bill Lawrence was on the writing staff of "Friends" then co-created the sitcom
"Spin City" with Gary David Goldberg. He created "Scrubs" four years ago,
when it was hailed as the first new NBC sitcom since "Friends" to bring any
quality to Thursday nights.

In addition to Zach Braff as J.D., the ensemble cast of characters in "Scrubs"
includes Donald Faison as Turk, J.D.'s fellow resident and best friend; Sarah
Chalke as Elliot, J.D.'s former lover and current co-chief resident; and John
C. McGinley as Dr. Cox, the hospital's authority figure who speaks very fast
and very meanly to all the residents. Here's a scene from earlier this season
in which J.D., seeking help in inspiring the new first-year residents under
his wing, makes the mistake of asking the dreaded Dr. Cox to give them a pep
talk.

(Soundbite of "Scrubs")

Mr. ZACH BRAFF: (As J.D. Dorian) Oh, Dr. Cox, can I ask you something?

Mr. JOHN C. McGINLEY: (As Dr. Perry Cox) The answer is, `Yes, it was me
who saw you doing leg lifts in the gym on that inflatable ball. It was quite
the display of girl power. Absolutely loved the leg warmers.'

Mr. BRAFF: (As J.D. Dorian) First of all, they were just big socks, OK?
And secondly, if you need to do some laundry, here's the washboard right...

Mr. McGINLEY: (As Dr. Perry Cox) What do you want?

Mr. BRAFF: (As J.D. Dorian) As co-chief resident, I've noticed that some of
my residents are a little overwhelmed, and I think it would be nice if you
gave them one of your patented pep talks, you know.

Mr. McGINLEY: (As Dr. Perry Cox) I'd be more than glad to give your
residents a little pep talk.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. McGINLEY: (As Dr. Perry Cox) Each and every one of you is going to kill
a patient. At some point during your residency, you will screw up, they will
die, and it will be burned into your conscience forever. Hell, take pee pants
here.

Mr. JOHNNY KASTL: (As Dr. Doug Murphy) Pee pants?

Mr. McGINLEY: (As Dr. Perry Cox) He just might go ahead and get himself a
good clean kill this morning, seeing as his patient, Ms. Sampson(ph), is in
DKA, and he hasn't been tracking her phosphate level, her phosphate level, her
phosphate level.

Mr. BRAFF: (As J.D. Dorian) Doug, stop writing and go.

Mr. McGINLEY: (As Dr. Perry Cox) That young man has killed so many
patients, I'm starting to think he just might be a government operative. The
point is, the harder you study, the longer you just might be able to hold off
that first kill. Other than that, I guess, cross your fingers and hope that
the guy you murder is a jackass with no family. Great to see you kids. All
the best.

Mr. BRAFF: (As J.D. Dorian) Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Cox.

BIANCULLI: I spoke with Zach Braff and Bill Lawrence last year, when they had
resumed production on the current season of their sitcom, and asked Lawrence
why he cast Braff in "Scrubs."

Mr. BILL LAWRENCE (Creator, "Scrubs"): No, Zach is a ridiculously talented
actor. And one of the things I was trying to do with the show "Scrubs" was
try to find a way to, in a show, have it cover both dramatic elements and big,
broad, silly comedy. And Zach was an actor that had the ability to make the
transition between the two very quickly and still have, you know, the audience
believe it. And besides that, I'm a huge fan of physical comedy, and one of
the things that I saw early on in Zach that we were really excited to do was
that he has, you know, the same physicality that John Ritter had in his
ability to turn jokes and pratfalls and make them truly look out of the
ordinary. I mean, I'm a lucky guy that the two male leads that I worked with
so far on my television shows were Mike Fox and Zach Braff, and I think
they're two of, you know, the best television physical comedians out there.

And the other reason I was really interested in Zach was the character on the
show early on on "Scrubs" is playing, you know, a young resident at his first
day of work at a hospital and how he's in completely over his head and has all
this responsibility. And I thought that a really cool metaphor for that was
hiring an actor that didn't have a whole lot of credits and were basically
going through the same thing in their real life, which is to be expected to
carry an ensemble show from the outset, you know, having never really had this
big break before. And one of the things I think was cool was that, you know,
Zach's, you know, vulnerability and, you know, in turn, the empathy we felt
for him as an audience showed through in his early performances, partly
because of his talent and partly because he was going through the same
experience in real life.

BIANCULLI: And, Zach, what do you remember about the audition process once
you got to LA and got in front of those executives?

Mr. BRAFF: I was very, very nervous. I actually auditioned a total of six
times for "Scrubs." The first time was this time where I was put on tape, and
I didn't think I did a very good job at all. And when I got out to LA, I was
able to work with Bill, and it got better. And I think, you know, the process
of auditioning for a comedic pilot is so grueling, because you walk into this
room, and pretty much every time I've ever done it, nobody laughs. This was
the first time where Bill was really helpful and, you know, really went out of
his way to make me and the other people auditioning feel comfortable before we
were supposed to go into this really funny scene. And then people in the room
were genuinely laughing, which is helpful, because, you know, I've gone to
these auditions where you're going these scenes, and they're supposed to be
really funny, and no one says or makes a sound. So, you know...

BIANCULLI: That must be brutal.

Mr. BRAFF: It was. It's terrifying.

Mr. LAWRENCE: It's a horrifying experience to these guys.

Mr. BRAFF: I mean, it really is. It's like the Olympics in a way, 'cause
you can--you know, I went in six times, and you can go in five times and
really do an amazing job, but on the final audition, in front of the network,
which is, you know, 35 people in a very small room, if you don't really land
it and do it right that time, then it doesn't really matter.

BIANCULLI: Talk about the inspiration for "Scrubs."

Mr. LAWRENCE: You know what? The greatest thing about this show is--"Spin
City"--when I created "Spin City," I knew nothing about that world at all.
And really, we were just doing a traditional multicamera sitcom. And the best
thing about this show and the reason I was somewhat protective of it is--it's
hard for people to believe, but it was truly real. We--my best friend from
college, his name is J.D. and he's now a cardiologist in the Los Angeles area
and the medical adviser on the show. He and two other of my buddies went to
med school. And I think everybody has a group of friends that your frame of
reference is when you were a teen-ager, so when you think of these people and
you see them, you regress, you know. And my last memory of J.D. is of a guy,
you know, with an empty 12-pack of beer on his head. And now--I always used
to joke that my worst nightmare in the world as a young 23-year-old would be
to wake up in an emergency room and see J.D. over me going, `You're going to
be fine. Don't even worry about it.'

But as I was sitting with these guys and, you know, just basically drinking a
beer and talking, the one through line they all had was how horrifying their
internship and residency were, and each one of them just said to me, you know,
everybody can imagine that job they had, that first day of work and how scared
you were and how you felt like you were going to fail and that everybody was
judging you. And they said, `Add to that that you're suddenly responsible for
the well-being of other human beings and whether or not they're going to live
and die, and you would not believe, you know, how all-encompassing and how
incredibly horrifying an experience it is.' And just that, to me, stuck
something in my head that it would be an amazing TV show. And I've actually
been able to, just through those two guys and actually a girl--which would be
a title for another TV show--there would be...

BIANCULLI: For about a year and a half.

Mr. LAWRENCE: Yeah, exactly. But just through those three and through the
extension of other doctors, we've not done one medical story or even medical
moment on the show that wasn't handed to us by another physician. That's
the--you know, we've been embraced by the medical community. It's been one of
the best things for us. And a deal that we have out there is that anytime
doctors give us stories, you know, we end up naming characters after them and
promising not to use real names of patients or anything like that. But, I
mean, as a result of this show, you know, the real J.D. was the keynote
speaker at Brown's Med School graduation. I was--I spoke at USC's Med School
graduation. Doctors are the most supportive group that we have, but, yeah,
all that stuff's real.

And to me, once I talk to all these doctors as far as how the show came to be,
I knew right away that it wouldn't be hard coming up with the funny stuff.
And not only did I think that it would be a great TV show, but to me, it made
doctors seem very human. And on television, that's not something that--in the
dramas, people don't really do that, I don't think. I think they make them
seem so bigger-than-life and so heroic, and all my friends that are doctors
are still goofy, funny guys just trying to get through the day.

BIANCULLI: The interracial relationship between J.D. and Turk on the show is
probably, to me, the most easygoing, convincing and nice one probably since
all the way back to "I Spy."

Mr. LAWRENCE: Oh, it's cool.

BIANCULLI: Do you take it seriously? I mean...

Mr. LAWRENCE: I take it incredibly serious. I was a horrible, horrible
stand-up comic when I was really young. And one of the things I always tried
to talk about was I was a TV kid, and every TV show that I watched in my
childhood--and I'm not that old--whenever there was a black guy and a white
guy hanging out together, it would be a special episode, you know? `Oh, my
God, Jimmy's got a black friend.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAWRENCE: What the hell is going on?

Mr. BRAFF: On a very special "Silver Spoons."

Mr. LAWRENCE: Or they would err on the other side, which is, you know,
there'd be a black friend and a white friend that'd hang out and are really
close but miraculously never noticed that the other is black and that the
other is white. And I, you know--hey, I don't want to trump myself up here,
David, but I've had some black friends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAWRENCE: No, but, basically, one of the cool things is my buddies that
were comfortable with--and both ways, we would always--one of the funniest
things about those kinds of friendships are just the observations you get to
make about whether or not somebody, you know, slides into a stereotype or
tweaking, you know, the societal things that people say and not shying away
from it and being comfortable enough with a buddy that you can truly talk
about it and shine a light on those things. And it's the aspect of their
relationship that we take the most seriously because we always want to be
funny, but we never want to go over to the other side of, `Oh, now you're just
using the fact that he's black and he's white to make, you know, kind of a
racially edgy joke.' It's more important to us that these guys are so tight
that, you know, they can cross lines and they can say things. And, you know,
to me, it's the way that those relationships should be. But it's--really
flattered that you asked because it's something that we pay so much attention
to in the writers' room, and we think nobody ever notices.

Mr. BRAFF: And I like--and that's true in real life, too. I mean, Donald
and I, as I said, are really good friends, and there's nothing in the world
that I couldn't say in front of him, and he me. And there's something
refreshing about that, about a friendship where all the--people who are so PC,
especially on television--two characters that just take that apart. And J.D.,
who's a little more naive, asking Turk questions--I mean, in the pilot there
was a thing about him asking about, you know, what he's supposed to do when
there's a rap song on and he's lip-syncing along and the N-word comes up, and
just sort of deconstructing things about political correctness. And I think
that's refreshing in a way that you don't see on other TV shows.

Mr. LAWRENCE: And one of the amazing things for us is that Zach and Donald
became so tight in real life that I don't just have to draw off of my
relationships from my past. And, I mean, in fact, there's a show that J.D.
calls--I think he tries to give Turk the new nickname; I think it was
`chocolate bear.'

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

Mr. LAWRENCE: And it was just something that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAWRENCE: And Turk, on the show, likes it. And that was something
that--it was a true moment on our show that Zach said it jokingly to Donald,
and Donald was laughing, and I was just observing these two guys that were
buddies. And there wasn't any edge, and there wasn't any, `Oh, my God,' you
know. And it wasn't even something they stopped for. So...

Mr. BRAFF: But we don't recommend you white friends with your black
friends...

Mr. LAWRENCE: Don't try this at home, yes.

Mr. BRAFF: Don't try this at home.

Mr. LAWRENCE: Don't necessarily do it to a stranger, either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRAFF: Don't recommend going into work tomorrow and calling your black
friend chocolate bear. But the example is something that, you know, me and
Don--and then he called me vanilla wafer, you know? It was just like a--it
was just sort of us joking around. And then because it was real, it was
something we could put on the show.

BIANCULLI: My guests from the TV show "Scrubs" are actor Zach Braff and
executive producer Bill Lawrence. Here's a short scene from "Scrubs."

(Soundbite from "Scrubs")

Mr. DONALD FAISON: (As Chris Turk) Let me buy you lunch.

Mr. BRAFF: (As J.D. Dorian) I'm rich. I'll buy you lunch and some gold
teeth to eat it with.

Mr. FAISON: (As Chris Turk) You know, you got only one more black joke this
month before I bust your ass.

Mr. BRAFF: (As J.D. Dorian) Damn it. I used them all up watching
"Barbershop 9."

Mr. FAISON: (As Chris Turk) All right. That's it, and I'll get you later.

BIANCULLI: Zach Braff and Bill Lawrence, the star and creator respectively,
of the NBC sitcom "Scrubs." Braff also is the star, writer and director of the
movie "Garden State," recently released on DVD. More after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's return to our conversation with Zach Braff and Bill
Lawrence. I asked Zach Braff about his film "Garden State" and how long he'd
been working on it.

Mr. BRAFF: I went to film school. I set out to make movies, and when I
graduated, I moved to New York, and I was doing all sorts of odd jobs, and I
started auditioning as well. And that's when I started to get work in theater
and independent film, and that eventually led me out to LA and to audition for
"Scrubs." But my initial intention when I went to school was to be a
filmmaker, so I had made a bunch of short films and had pieces of screenplays.
And what happened was I got cast in "Scrubs," and that day I quit my waiting
tables job. And I was so thrilled and screaming to all my relatives and quit
that night. And they called me the next day and said we weren't going to
start shooting "Scrubs" for four months. So I figured out a way to live on
any of the money I'd saved, and I sat down and really hammered out, `What will
be the first draft of "Garden State"?' in those intervening four months.

BIANCULLI: The music on the soundtrack, I imagine that was an awful lot of
fun to make those choices. Was it?

Mr. BRAFF: It was. I really compiled a CD of music that I really love that
actually does relate to "Scrubs" as well because, on the show, Bill and the
writers are always looking for new music for the show. And I always, like,
try to find new bands, and I have a lot of friends that are musicians. So
it's fun 'cause we--you know, I pitch music ideas to Bill for "Scrubs" as
well. And in writing "Garden State," I had lots of ideas for the music I
wanted in the movie, and I compiled this CD that I gave out when I was
pitching the script around town and said, `And this would be, you know, the
ideal soundtrack.'

BIANCULLI: And did you have to take any off because the rights were too
expensive?

Mr. BRAFF: They were all too expensive at first, but then when, you know, we
showed people, like, Coldplay and Simon and Garfunkel, the scenes in which
they were used, they really responded to it and were generous enough to let us
use their music at, you know, a rate we could afford, which was pretty much
nothing.

BIANCULLI: And my last question, which I saved till last only because I'm so
embarrassed by it: It's a--all the care that you guys put into the fantasy
sequences, there was one probably from a couple of seasons ago now. Do you
know which one I'm--I don't even have to...

Mr. BRAFF: Oh, I'm just anticipating that it's going to be one of the odd
ones.

BIANCULLI: It is one of the odd ones. And it was one of the characters--and
I believe, in my memory, it was Turk who was fantasizing about Sarah Chalke's
character in, like, sort of a soft-core porn, nurse's uniform...

Mr. BRAFF: Nurse's outfit, sure.

Mr. LAWRENCE: Sarah, how's it going?

BIANCULLI: ...setup. And I remember this two years later, partly because I
just...

Mr. LAWRENCE: It was hot.

BIANCULLI: It was--for a regular family sitcom, it was like, `Wow, that whole
thing was filmed and shot and performed in a way that I couldn't believe that
you got away with on network TV.' And I figure, `There must be a story there.'

Mr. LAWRENCE: No. You know what? The only story, truly, David, is that by
working in a creepy, deserted hospital, we've created this environment that
the network people don't want to come and visit us. They--honestly, because
when they drop by there, it's just hot and muggy, and no one's ever around.
So we basically just shoot the stuff and try to really approach the line as
much as we can. Like, we shot some romance scenes or sex scenes with Zach and
Sarah Chalke over the years that I thought were, you know, at least PG-13, if
not R-rated, movie stuff.

Mr. BRAFF: I couldn't believe that some of that got on the air.

Mr. LAWRENCE: I know it. And basically we just turned it in at the last
second and said, `This is all we got.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAWRENCE: And they were just nice enough to go with it, you know. And
these things all lend themselves to the stories of me talking to the various
censors and saying, `Oh, it'll be totally tastefully done,' or--in fact, one
of my cherished possessions, David, is they don't--you know, we--language is
always a tough barrier, especially when you're talking about network
television vs. cable, because cable--they swear and curse. And then on
network TV you're allowed to say the word `ass,' but we had said it too many
times in one episode. And the censor had sent me a note that I framed on my
wall that she wanted me to not use it six times but to use it three times. So
the note said--listed all the page numbers that the word `ass' was on, and
then the note said, `Please pick your ass.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAWRENCE: And I guarantee you that she had no idea of the comedy of it,
but it's framed on my wall in my office.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: Well, Bill Lawrence, Zach Braff, thank you for coming to FRESH
AIR.

Mr. LAWRENCE: Hey, thanks for having us, man.

Mr. BRAFF: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Zach Braff and Bill Lawrence. Lawrence is the creator and
executive producer of NBC's "Scrubs." Zach is the show's star as well as the
star, writer and director of the movie "Garden State," now out on DVD.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: When his kids were young, Tom Perrotta was one of the dads of the
playground. Coming up, we talk with Peratta. His satirical novel "Little
Children," about parenthood in suburbia, is now out in paperback. Also, film
critic David Edelstein reviews "Head-On," a German film about a Turkish
couple's marriage of convenience.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Tom Perrotta discusses his book "Little Children"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.

"Little Children" is a satirical novel about a young woman who is married,
raising her child in an upper middle-class suburb and can't understand how she
wound up in the life she's living. But she believes she has found some
meaning in her life when she meets Todd, a father at the playground who seems
to be as alienated as she is. They begin an affair and think they are falling
in love.

The New York Times Book Review described "Little Children" as an extraordinary
novel about adultery and child raising in a generic American suburb. The
author of "Little Children" is Tom Perrotta, who also wrote "Election," a
satirical novel about a high school election. That book was adapted into a
film staring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. Perrotta's novel "The
Wishbones" was about a musician who wants to be a rock star but, after many
years, remains stuck playing weddings. Terry spoke with Tom Perrotta last
spring when "Little Children" was published. It's just come out in paperback.

Here's a reading from the beginning of the novel.

Mr. TOM PERROTTA (Author): `The young mothers were telling each other how
tired they were. This was one of their favorite topics, along with the
eating, sleeping and defecating habits of their offspring, the merits of
certain local nursery schools and the difficulty of sticking to an exercise
routine. Smiling politely to mask a familiar feeling of desperation, Sarah
reminded herself to think like an anthropologist: "I'm a researcher studying
the behavior of boring suburban women. I am not a boring suburban woman
myself."

`"Jerry(ph) and I started watching that Jim Carrey movie the other
night"--this was Cheryl(ph), mother of Christian(ph), a husky
three-and-a-half-year-old who swaggered around the playground like a Mafia
chieftain, shooting the younger children with any object that could plausibly
stand in as a gun: a straw, a half-eaten banana, even a Barbie doll that had
been abandoned in the sandbox. Sarah despised the boy and found it hard to
look his mother in the eye. "The Pet Guy?" inquired Mary Anne, mother of
Troy(ph) and Isabelle(ph). "I don't get it. Since when did passing gas
become so hilarious?" "Only since there was human life on Earth," Sarah
thought, wishing she had the guts to say it out loud. Mary Anne was one of
those depressing supermoms, a tiny, elaborately made-up woman who dressed in
Spandex workout clothes, drove an SUV the size of a UPS van and listened to
conservative talk radio all day. No matter how many hints Sarah dropped to
the contrary, Mary Anne refused to believe that any of the other mothers
thought any less of Rush Limbaugh or any more of Hillary Clinton than she did.
Every day Sarah came to the playground determined to set her straight, and
every day she chickened out.'

TERRY GROSS, host:

That's Tom Perrotta reading from his new novel "Little Children."

Tom, the main characters in this novel are kind of living the wrong life, like
Sarah, the main character who you were just reading about. This is not the
life she wanted. She didn't plan on being a mother living in the suburbs. In
college she had been bisexual, she had an affair with a woman, she was
immersed in critical gender studies, she worked at a rape crisis hotline, she
was hoping to be a feminist film critic. I think a lot of people feel that
they ended up in the wrong life. How did she get there?

Mr. PERROTTA: Well, I think she got there the way a lot of people get where
they end up. The years after college were particularly lonely for her. She
was directionless. She tried graduate school, was very excited for a while
but then didn't like teaching very much; worked at Starbucks, had some
affairs. And somehow there was a man at Starbucks, an older guy, who was also
a little bit lost who found his way toward her. And, you know, they fell in
love, so she thought, got married and suddenly found herself in the exact--I
mean, she didn't have a profession. He did. Basically, there was a kind of
economic determinism to it that's almost 19th century to her.

I also think there's something about the generation, that's my generation, of
people who went to college in the '80s and '90s when feminism was still, I
think, a really dynamic force in American culture. And, you know, we, in our
minds, imagined a whole different set of social arrangements and family
arrangements. And something happened, you know. I mean, when I was first a
parent and at the playground, I was suddenly surprised to find myself often
the only stay-at-home dad. You know, I wasn't a full-time, stay-at-home dad
but I was doing about half-time child care. And if I took my kids to the
playground during the workday, I was usually the only man there. And I think
that in the same way that I probably felt surprised by that and a little bit,
you know, like, `What had happened? Where was the world that we thought we
were entering?'--I think someone like Sarah, who was, you know, really in the
vanguard of this sort of thing, probably felt it quite a bit more acutely than
I did.

GROSS: Well, I want to get back in a minute to you being the only dad in the
playground, but, first, I want to talk about another father, a father in your
novel, who is the father in the playground. He's one of the few guys who goes
there with his kid, and he ends up having an affair with Sarah. But he, too,
feels like he's not quite in the right life. His thing when he was in college
was football, and now he's studying for the bar exam kind of
unenthusiastically. How did he get stuck in the wrong life?

Mr. PERROTTA: Well, he's not sure about that. His mother died when he was
in high school, and he'd become a sort of high achiever in the wake of that.
And life had been completely effortless for him through--he's a very
good-looking guy, very smart guy. He married this beautiful woman, he got
accepted into law school. And at some point between finishing law school and
passing the bar, you know, they had a kid. His wife was working full-time.
He was home with the kid. And what seemed to happen to Todd was that he just
lost interest in the adult trajectory that he'd been on. I mean, in some
ways, he's a male version of one of those women CEOs who suddenly decides that
she doesn't want to, you know, run the company; she wants to be home with her
kids. In some sense, parenthood does appeal to him. I mean, in a way, his
wrong life is the exact opposite wrong life of Sarah's. I mean, he's a man
who's supposed to have a high-powered career who somehow has decided he likes
the rhythms of being home with the kid all day and likes the rhythms of
adolescence, likes the rhythms of sports. He likes everything but the rhythms
of responsible adulthood.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're living the right life?

Mr. PERROTTA: I feel like I am now. I think that I was one of those people
who was very shaken by parenthood, not so much because I didn't like it
because I really did enjoy it and I found it kind of thrilling and mesmerizing
the way a lot of people of my generation, you know, do. At the same time, I
wasn't where I wanted to be professionally and, you know, I was shocked by the
time burdens that were placed on me. And, you know, I had gone to great
lengths to, you know, invent myself as somebody who, you know, had a certain
level of coolness, or so I thought. You know, I think parenthood is about the
least cool role you can take on. And so for anybody who has any sort of, I
think, you know, bohemian leanings or aspirations or self-delusions--you know,
you can put it in all those ways--parenthood is a jolt to, you know, the very
fiber of your being.

GROSS: I'm sure that's true and why is that? What is it that's so, like,
uncool about parenthood, unhip about parenthood?

Mr. PERROTTA: Well, for one thing, right, coolness must have something to do
with a kind of--I mean, there's a certain sexual component to it and, as a
parent, you know, your sexuality is, I think, you know, for good reasons, you
know, it goes on the back burner. You know, probably even at home but
certainly in a kind of public way.

But then, you know, you have to argue with your kids, you have to, you know,
try and mollify them when they're screaming, you have to walk around with, you
know, vomit on your shirt. In fact, you know, one of the roots of this novel
was a strange event that happened to me when my daughter was very young and I
used to carry her around in a backpack which I really enjoyed. But one night
I was out for a walk with her and this guy who was a teen-ager just started
taunting me from a doorway. He would call me--he would say, `Hey, you look
like an idiot' or something like that. And I remember getting like, you know,
oddly enraged and sort of forgetting for a second that I had my daughter on my
back. And, you know, I turned and said, `Who are you talking to?' And, you
know, we had this sort of odd, heated exchange which is not something that's
common in my life. And at a point, he just started laughing and said, `What
are you gonna do, fight me with that thing on your back?' You know, that
thing on my back being my daughter.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. PERROTTA: And I thought, you know, what's the matter with me? Why am I
acting like a, you know, angry 16-year-old when I'm, you know, 30 years old
and I have a small child on my back? And it was just a moment that really
stuck with me. And about 10 years ago I tried to write a story that was
called This Thing on my Back that was about, you know, somebody kind of very
reluct--well, no, it's not even reluctantly, it's just somebody finding out
that his, you know, adolescent identity was still burning inside of him while
he was, you know, a responsible adult with a child to care for.

BIANCULLI: Tom Perrotta speaking with Terry Gross. His novel, "Little
Children," has just come out in paperback. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Tom Perrotta. His novel,
"Little Children," is a satire about marriage and parenthood in the suburbs.
It's just come out in paperback.

GROSS: How old are your children now?

Mr. PERROTTA: My daughter's 10 and my son is seven.

GROSS: In the acknowledgements to your new novel, "Little Children," you end
it by saying, `Mainly, though, I'd like to thank Nina(ph) and Luke(ph) for
letting me tag along at the playground.' So I assume that Nina and Luke are
your children, that you spent a lot of time taking them to the playground and
using that as inadvertent research for your novel. You have a really funny
paragraph about what the few men who come to the playground with their
children are like, what they look like and how they behave. I'm going to ask
you to read that paragraph for us from "Little Children."

Mr. PERROTTA: OK. "Most of the men who showed up at the playground during
the workday were marginal types: middle-aged trolls with beards and pot
bellies, studiously whimsical academics who insisted on going down the slide
with their kids, pitch-hitting grandfathers providing emergency day care,
sheepish blue-collar guys who wouldn't meet anyone's eyes, the occasional
cooler-than-thou hipster with a flexible schedule."

GROSS: Were you the occasional cooler-than-thou hipster with the flexible
schedule?

Mr. PERROTTA: I was somewhere between the hipster with a flexible schedule
and the studiously whimsical academic. But there was some part of me that was
also the sheepish blue-collar guy that wouldn't meet anyone's eye.

GROSS: All right. What was it like to be one of the few fathers regularly at
the playground with your children?

Mr. PERROTTA: You know, probably some women who were at the playground would
deny this, but I was actually I thought made to feel somewhat unwelcome.
There was just some sense of, you know, `What is he doing here?' And if you
tried to strike up a conversation, sometimes there was a little bit of reserve
or coolness.

But what did happen and I think is something I tried to use in the novel was
that occasionally there would be a woman who, for some other reason, was not
part of, you know, this sort of the core female society, the core mother group
of the playground. And occasionally I would get into conversations with these
women who, for whatever reasons, were also outsiders. And that's the dynamic,
I think, between Todd and Sarah, they both feel somehow excluded from this
core maternal clique at the playground and it creates a kind of instant bond
of intimacy between them.

GROSS: There's a section in which Sarah goes shopping for a bathing suit and
she wants to get a bathing suit that makes her look very attractive which was
difficult. And I think most women agree that buying a good bathing suit is a
real challenge and it's something a lot of women are particularly
self-conscious about. What kind of thinking did you do to try to write that
scene from a woman's perspective?

Mr. PERROTTA: You know, I think for men, it's very interesting the point
where you realize how, you know, nervous and anxious women get about these
things because, of course, for most men, I think the idea of a woman in a
bathing suit is, you know, kind of a very exciting thing and--due to the fact
that women are probably much harder on themselves and their bodies than men
are at a certain point. So I think that--again, it seems like a pretty
pervasive thing. I mean, I read some catalogs, you know, and--for instance,
if you read, you know, the Lands' End catalog, there's a very kind of--you
know, the voice of the catalog is, you know, `This is coverage, this is going
to, you know, save you from certain embarrassing issues that will conceal the
problem areas.' I mean, you know, it was really just right there in the
forefront. And maybe, you know, I was reading something that men don't
normally pay attention to. You know, we're just supposed to look at the
pictures, but it was, you know, right out in the front, you know. And I've
certainly heard women, you know, talk about the bathing suit dilemma.

GROSS: Do you want to read that paragraph?

Mr. PERROTTA: Sure.

GROSS: In this paragraph, Sarah is shopping with her young daughter Lucy(ph).
And while she's, you know, trying to find a good bathing suit, she also has to
keep track of where her daughter is.

Mr. PERROTTA: That's right. And I should say that Sarah is hoping to go to
the town pool and reconnect with Todd after their first intense flirtation, so
she's given this a lot of thought.

"When she finally made her selections, she dragged Lucy into the fitting room
and told her to stay put while she tried the suits on over her generously cut
gray cotton panties which kept poking out and spoiling the effect. Not that
there was much to spoil. The first suit hugged her hips and waist perfectly
but looked about three sizes too big on top. The second fit nicely across her
chest but drooped off her ass like a tote bag. She thought the third suit
looked OK. It was a black one-piece, daringly low-cut with a series of oval
cutouts traveling up the side. But when she left the fitting room to consult
with the saleslady in front of the three-way mirror, the woman hesitated for a
long time before answering. `I wouldn't,' she said finally."

GROSS: Yeah, I love that. You know when the saleslady, who needs to sell you
clothes, thinks something looks bad, it really looks bad.

Mr. PERROTTA: I know. Usually she'll say she would. OK.

GROSS: Thanks for reading that. Did you talk with your wife a lot about
certain things, you know, before writing the book or while writing the book,
just to get--you know, just again to get into a kind of female point of view
of things?

Mr. PERROTTA: I think, you know, when you live with somebody, you get their
point of view...

GROSS: Good point.

Mr. PERROTTA: ...kind of around the clock. I'm sure I had to ask her certain
questions and she'd be very happy to help me if I did, but I think it's more
like, you know, a steady stream of information that I get from her and from,
you know, other women friends.

GROSS: You know, you've said that one of your interests is, you know, writing
in a period that's obsessed with youth culture. And you started writing when
you were in your twenties--you started publishing I should say--Yes?--when you
were in your twenties?

Mr. PERROTTA: Well, actually, I started...

GROSS: Thirties?

Mr. PERROTTA: ...writing those stories when I was in my twenties, but they
didn't get published until I was in my early thirties, "Bad Haircut."

GROSS: Has it been difficult for you to make that transition out of youth
culture? As a writer and as a person to not be, like, the young person
anymore or the young writer?

Mr. PERROTTA: No, I just practice denial on an extreme level. You know...

GROSS: Well, I guess I'm wondering, like, what's your approach to, like,
getting older in a culture that is so kind of youth-obsessed and so in denial
about getting older?

Mr. PERROTTA: Well, I think, like a lot of people my age, there is that kind
of denial. I mean, I know that when my first kid was born, you know, one of
the first things I did was get a mountain bike and--at some period, you know,
where, you know, I think I take way better care of my body now, spend a lot
more time exercising now than I did when I was young. And, you know, I
was--at least until a couple years ago, you know, I was the kind of person
who, you know, I would still get carded and, you know, when I'd go take out
books from the library in the college where I taught, they'd say, `Oh, you're
not a student?' But recently I've started to go gray and I don't get that
anymore. You know, I'm trying to do it with some combination of, you know,
grace and defiance, you know.

As for the writing, I mean, I have to say that I'm still a little bit 10 years
behind. I mean, I'm in my early 40s, but the characters in "Little Children"
are in their early 30s. I do think I'm still looking backwards and trying to
figure out, you know, what it is that I've gone through. And that seems OK
for a writer to look backwards in that sense.

GROSS: Well, Tom Perrotta, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PERROTTA: Oh, well, thanks for having me, Terry. I enjoyed it.

BIANCULLI: Tom Perrotta's new novel is called "Little Children." It's just
come out in paperback.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Music from the Almodovar film "Bad Education," composed by Alberto
Iglesias.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews a new German film, "Head-On." This is
FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: German film "Head-On"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

The new German film "Head-On" explores the relationship between two troubled
young Germans of Turkish descent. Film critic David Edelstein says that when
traditional Turkish culture clashes with contemporary Western lifestyle, the
result is an edgy love story.

DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:

One big attraction of Hollywood movies is watching emotions that in real life
would be messy, ugly and brutal, transformed into the stuff of zany romantic
comedy. Two nutty people, a guy and a gal, meet cute, act out their anxieties
in endearing ways, make each other jealous and break up, and then the guy
comes to his senses and leaps into a taxi and tries to reach the woman before
she leaves on the plane or train or bus or boat. This comforting ritual isn't
entirely removed from the real world. It's just that what seemed like
intractable problems of character and circumstance tend to melt away like
chocolate in your true love's mouth. The transfixing new German movie,
"Head-On," adds a dose of strychnine to that bonbon.

Directed by the 31-year-old Fatih Akin, it's one part "Screwball" to one part
"Sid and Nancy" with interludes of Turkish wedding music to really weird you
out. It hovers on the outskirts of romantic comedy and even farce before
taking a hard swerve into the land of worst-case scenarios. The central
couple meets cute, well, kind of cute. They're both in the hospital after
violent suicide attempts.

Cahit, played by Birol Unel, is an unkempt alcoholic druggy who works in a
punk club collecting empty glasses and lives in squalor. He deliberately ran
his car into a brick wall, head-on, of course. Sibel, played by Sibel
Kekilli, cut her wrists, but not, Cahit explains helpfully, in the right
direction to make her bleed to death. Hearing that, she gazes on him with
big, dark eyes and sees her liberation. A promiscuous non-conformist from a
repressive Turkish family, Sibel thinks she can use Cahit, whose background is
also Turkish, to keep that family at bay. She can marry him and keep sleeping
around. This is the farce part, the attempt to put one over on Sibel's
family, including the brother who punished her wandering ways by breaking her
nose.

Cahit loathes Turkish culture, but his life is dead-ended. He has nothing
better to do and he takes a weird pleasure in taunting Sibel. He puts his
wedding band on his middle finger, and as they dance at the ceremony, whispers
crude, sexist insults into her ear. When they're ushered into a private room
for the customary deflowering, they do lines of cocaine and stare into space.

Our comedies have primed us for the pair to fall madly in love. And I'm not
saying they don't, but they're almost never in sync, and they're both prone
to making wildly self-destructive spectacles of themselves. When Cahit
decides Sibel means something to him, he drains a glass of booze, ecstatically
smashes it down on the bar and then pounds the shards with his hand. By the
time he hits the dance floor, he's practically hemorrhaging.

"Head-On" doesn't sound like a lot of fun, but it keeps you on edge, laughing
nervously, appalled and, against the odds, enchanted. The writer-director
Akin uses a traditional Turkish band to signal the start of each new act.
They stand in a line by the Bosporus River before a picture postcard view of
Istanbul. And these stylized interludes remind you of the formal Turkish
culture that the characters have left behind. They also give the movie some
much-needed lift. The actors do too. Unel's Cahit is handsome but
prodigiously unhygienic. He can bathe and comb his hair, but disillusion and
chaos leaks from his pores. The voluptuous Sibel Kekilli has a motor that
runs at a much faster speed. She takes everything to the edge. That gorgeous
bumpy nose reminds you she's been walloped once and that she's daring the
world to wallop her again.

"Head-On" is a downer, but it doesn't leave you demolished. There's something
tonic about experiencing screwball conventions without the fairy godmother of
comedy flying in to wave a wand and dissolve the obstacles. We watch the
head-on collision of these two unstable souls and think, `I'm glad I wasn't in
that wreck.'

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is the film critic for the online magazine Slate.

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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