Q&A with Elon’s Drew Perry on debut novel
When Jack Lang, the owner of a North Carolina mulch company, impulsively buys the house across the street from where he lives, it’s the final straw for his wife, Beth, who flees into the arms of Jack’s best friend. What happens next is the plot to “This is Just Exactly Like You,” Elon University associate professor Drew Perry’s debut novel and a work of fiction garnering rave reviews from national book critics.
Published by Viking Press, the book’s complicating factor is Jack and Beth’s six-year-old son Hendrick. When “Hen” suddenly starts speaking Spanish, it forces Jack to confront many of his assumptions about life and relationships.
The novel has already been featured or reviewed in several national publications, including the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Buffalo News, as well as regional newspapers such as the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., and the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News.
Perry, an expectant father himself, sat down recently with Eric Townsend in the Office of University Relations to talk about the novel, his inspiration behind it, and his next project.
UNIVERSITY RELATIONS: Can you start by sharing how the idea behind this novel developed?
PERRY: There was a terrible, terrible early version of this book I wrote right out of grad school—not even a version of this book, really, but it had a character like Jack in it, and a character like the child, Hendrick. So those two have always been there. But back then I wanted to write a novel more than I wanted to write. The idea of having a novel was more important than the idea of being a writer. So the book felt like that, like I was trying to write a book for the sake of writing a book instead of trying to write a book for the sake of what I hope is art. I ended up throwing that version away. Almost everything from that is gone, and that’s a good thing.
So I had the characters, and then my wife woke me up one morning and said, ‘You’ve got to go see what they’re doing across the street. They’re auctioning that house.’ And then I had the basic plot. Once I realized Beth would leave Jack, I had to figure out who she’d leave him for. I know she leaves him for his best friend, and I know that’s complicated, but I liked what that did to the story. That all happens in the first 20 pages, and the rest is untying that.
I picked up a couple of different themes in this book – love, loyalty, commitment. What message, if any, were you trying to share with your readers?
PERRY: That’s a good question, and a tough one for me. I tell my students that the job of making meaning is probably not necessarily the artist’s primary goal. Certainly, if you’re a writer, it’s your job first and foremost to tell a story, and to do so artfully and, hopefully, beautifully. It’s our job to show things precisely, precisely as they are, which doesn’t necessarily make us realists. I think the universe of fiction can be more brightly colored than our actual universe and sometimes should be.
But I was just trying to capture these people. If there’s any one thing I return to in my work—and it feels so weird to say—I like the way people do harm to each other unintentionally. Or maybe I’m interested in the way people do harm to each other unintentionally. Intentional harm seems sort of evil. Unintentional harm seems sort of human. I like to write characters who feel like that to me, who do those kinds of things.
And then I guess my characters are versions of myself who I’m afraid exist. My characters are not great husbands, and I’m often worried that I’m not a great husband. They’re not good fathers or prospective fathers, and of course, those are my fears too. Because that’s what I know. That’s my version of ‘write what you know.’ It’s not autobiographical, but I write toward things that I’m afraid of. That’s what those characters are about.
So there isn’t necessarily one idea or one concept you hope people take away?
PERRY: Yeah, I ran away from your question. I’m sorry. It’s true. I’m not pretending that the book’s not about love or loyalty. It’s certainly about those things. I just think those emerged once I had the story. I hope it’s a story that accurately reflects how difficult it is to be in the world, and how difficult it is to be in a marriage. I’m not a father yet, but I tried very hard to image how difficult it will be to be a father. And I hope it’s all a little bit hopeful without being saccharine, without things being tied up too neatly.
Things are so rarely tied up neatly in our actual daily lives, and I didn’t want them to be in the book, either.
With Jack and Hendrick, his autistic son, they seem to have more in common than Jack realizes. Is that something you intended, or is it something that emerged when you looked at your final product?
PERRY: I would say both. I began to realize that one of the things that would be interesting about the book would be for Jack, both consciously and unconsciously, to be discovering or realizing that he and Hendrick are not so far apart. One of the things that’s fascinating about autism—and fascinating is a difficult word; I don’t have it, so it’s easy for me to say that—is that it’s a spectrum disorder. There’s no set of maladies that’s common to every single patient. There’s no one diagnosis, so some patients are much more high-functioning than others.
And if you begin to stretch that spectrum out, then, as Jack wonders in the book, you could start to wonder, Where would I land on that spectrum? Where are my nervous ticks? Does that make me vaguely autistic? The answer’s no, mainly because that’s too easy and doesn’t treat the malady with the respect that it deserves. But Jack is not great at being in the world, and in some ways, Hendrick is better at being in the world than Jack is.
How do you see yourself in Jack? You mentioned that you worry about being the best husband you can be, the best father you can be. What other characteristic do you share with your protagonist in this novel?
PERRY: I am not great at completing home renovations, but I’m excellent at starting them. I will swing a sledgehammer, and then there will be a hole in the wall forever. My plans, my ideas, and my hopes often outstrip my own abilities, I think. And I think Jack has big plans but doesn’t always follow through on them. That’s probably partially me. I hope I’m not him. I hope I’m a better husband than he is, but I know there are days when I’m not.
Do you think there is something this novel reflects about America today?
PERRY: I hope so! But that’s a lofty goal. I hope the novel’s part of a tradition—and these are not my ideas, but we’ve been writing about the suburbs since there were suburbs. I think there are things about the suburbs that are alienating, though maybe no more alienating than things about the city. The American social experiment leads to some lovely things, but it also leads to isolation, I think, and loneliness. Existential loneliness, and actual, physical loneliness.
So there’s that, and then there’s the advertising and the sloganeering that Hendrick quotes that creeps in around the edges. I feel that pretty acutely. It seems like there’s always some type of commercial advertisement, some kind of “Voice” creeping in around the edges that tells you how you should feel about something. I’m nervous about that in our society. We feel a little bit more fragmented now, maybe, than we used to be. There are things that are good about that and things that are bad. And then we feel a little more connected, conversely, than we used to be. There are things good about that, too, and things that are bad.
It seems like the more we’re connected to one another electronically, maybe there’s a little less we actually say to one another. There’s something about the pace that’s not quite right. Maybe it touches on those things.
I couldn’t help but think that Hen was like a Twitter account.
PERRY: Maybe he is. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with Twitter. I’m on Facebook, I confess, but I don’t have a cell phone. I’m nervous about our ability to endlessly update each other with incredibly banal pieces of information. Maybe Hedrick is doing a little bit of that. Though I hope his information is usually more than just a status update.
My problem is this. I’ll be standing in the grocery store—and this reference is 10 years old now, but it still feels new to me—but as cell phones became ubiquitous I began to notice that people would call each other in the cereal aisle to announce that Cap’n Crunch was on sale, as if that was some sort of crucial piece of information. I’m not against that kind of connectivity if your tire is flat on the highway, but man, we’re updating each other with information we don’t need to know.
I’m curious about something else. Kinnett College…
PERRY: Totally fictional! 100 percent!
It sounds a lot like Elon.
Why rename what may have been Elon when you mention just about every other real venue in the book?
PERRY: I think I probably wanted safety in early drafts to say anything I wanted to, knowing that it might eventually get read and that I work here. I also wanted the safety and freedom to reinvent the college. It is Elon, of course. That’s why I say there’s a landscaping tag on everything that’s growing. But I renamed the mulch yard, too… I love the mulch yard, which is right down there on 70. But I wanted to change things enough for the novel, enough to give me freedom to do what needed to be done.
I don’t know why I didn’t call it Elon. I don’t think I have a good reason. I do like the sound of Kinnett College, the alliteration. I think I wanted to be able to make it up, to have it be as fictional a place as it needed to be. And I think I thought early on that it was going to play a larger role, but it turns out it really doesn’t. And I needed to have something on page 10 four years ago, that’s what landed there and it just stayed that way.
What changes would you make to the book, looking back on it now?
PERRY: I think I’d love to have one more draft. I’ve been doing readings and I can feel places in the front where it might be a little loose. But that might just be that I’m unwilling to let it go into the world.
I’ll probably always feel that way. You can give me a million drafts and I’d want a million and one to get that right word into the right place, but I’ve been feeling better about letting it be the way that it is. Would I make any other changes? I don’t know. There are some plot things that I’m still not quite 100 percent sure of.
PERRY: I want for Jack’s decision at the end about the putt-putt animals to be convincing. I hope that it is.
Well, I noticed that was the first time that he really took a stand with Beth.
PERRY: Yeah, it’s a strange place to take a stand. Man, she should have just left him all over again. That shows him as well as he can be shown. That’s the place where he wants to prove something to somebody, and he does it by purchasing fiberglass putt-putt animals. That’s no way to conduct a marriage, or a life, I don’t think, but he’s trying. He’s just not trying quite right. That’s what he’s about the whole time.
But it’s also the first time, with the possible exception of opening his own business, where he actually completes a project?
PERRY: Yeah, which is maybe why Beth is willing to give him a second chance, if she is. It’s a terrible project to complete. It makes the house unsellable, but yeah, he does complete the project.
And that’s what he wanted.
PERRY: It is what he wanted. And the thing about that, if we can defend that decision, is because he did it for his son, not because he did it for himself.
Speaking of projects, what is your next project? You’re working on a book right now about being a father.
PERRY: Yeah, we’re due in mid June. And the novel I’m writing right now is about a guy who has agreed to have a child with his wife, who he loves desperately, and he wants absolutely no part in having a child. But he’s agreed to do it because she wants to do it, which is, and I talked about this earlier, writing toward my great paralyzing fears. I am paralyzingly fearful of having a child. But I am also excited about it. And that’s sort of the arc to the character in this new book, him moving from this all encompassing fear to a healthy dose of fear, but also some excitement about it.
And where are you in that project?
PERRY: I’m about 80 percent of the way through a first draft. I’m hoping to show it to my agent mid summer.
Would you go back to Viking?
PERRY: I hope so, yeah. I would love to stay with Viking. They’ve been great to me, and it would be a lovely place to settle in. It’s a fabulous, fabulous press. I hope this one will make them happy enough to buy the next one.