literary lunch

Taffy Brodesser-Akner Wrote a Book About the Opposite Gender. So Did Tom Perrotta.

The novelists talk sex, porn, and writing outside your perspective.

Photo: Nolwen Cifuentes
Photo: Nolwen Cifuentes
Photo: Nolwen Cifuentes

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a writer of fabulously witty and penetrating celebrity profiles that have made her something of a celebrity herself, even before the publication of her ecstatically reviewed first novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, out this week. She’s not bad at texting either, as we discovered when she was stuck in traffic en route to a photo shoot and dinner conversation with Tom Perrotta, whose seven novels include Election, Little Children, The Leftovers, and even a few that haven’t been indelibly adapted for the screen.

“I’ve been in an uber since my early 30s,” texted Brodesser-Akner. “What if I die in here?” It only escalated from there: “I’m horrified,” she wrote. Her app had been telling her that she was nine minutes away for the past 28 minutes. “Is time real?” she asked, before spiraling outward to question reality itself. “Is there another version of me? Was she on time at least?”

To read anything by Brodesser-Akner in any form is to feel that you’re in the company of someone you’ve known for years, an old friend who is both relatably neurotic and extraordinarily adept at mining her neurosis for humor, and who never settles for a plain fact when a splash of hyperbole (“since my early 30s”) gets closer to the truth. She is a longtime fan of Perrotta’s books, and his latest, Mrs. Fletcher, has a lot in common with hers (which Perrotta blurbed). Mrs. Fletcher, which he’s turning into an HBO series starring Kathryn Hahn, is about a middle-aged woman who becomes obsessed with porn in the wake of her divorce; Brodesser-Akner’s debut, meanwhile, chronicles the misadventures of a freshly divorced middle-aged man in the world of dating apps.

At the photo session, at which Brodesser-Akner finally arrived flushed and apologetic, and later, over burgers (beef for him, vegan for her), they puzzled over life’s pressing questions: How have apps changed sex? Why write from the perspective of the opposite gender? Does anyone actually want to watch ethical porn? And how would they have learned about sex if not for John Irving and Philip Roth?

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Anyone want to share the bruschetta? I recently became a vegan, and it has made my life so much easier, because I don’t have to explain why I’m not eating the squid. “Because it’s squid” is the answer.

Tom Perrotta: I don’t eat anything from the water.

TBA: I thought when I became successful people would be more accommodating of my neuroses. “Oh, of course you can’t eat the squid, because it’s squid — you’re a writer, you’re allowed to be strange.”

TP: First of all, you’re already limiting yourself to people who know you’re a writer.

TBA: Ugh, you’re right. People are very accommodating of the writers who are recluses. Like Salinger? I’m not saying I’m a Salinger, but …

TP: That’s a good point. Because he got very successful — not that you’re not very successful. That was actually the first part of my blurb for you: “It’s not Salinger, but it’s a good book.” [Laughter.]

Novelists don’t have the leeway they once did. You both succeed in other mediums — movies, magazines. Why write novels? Why read them?
TP: I do think part of the job of the novel was to get you outside your little circle, and sometimes I wonder if social media now does that, it just gives us access to other people’s experience and opinions in a way that makes the novel feel like a clumsy vehicle.

TBA: I think the goal of the novel now is also absorption. Can I give you relief from this other thing? Can you listen long enough and can every single sentence make it so that you want to stay with it?

TP: Reality is so relentless and so superficial that a sustained act of imagination is radical.

TBA: That’s the feeling I have with novels now — gratitude for anything that holds me. But the reason I wrote a novel was because I had something to say that couldn’t be a magazine story. I wanted to do something about divorce. I wanted to do something about relationships for people my age. But there was no place to pitch it.

What have you been reading lately?
TBA: I can’t read anything else while I’m writing. I was so worried that reading other people’s stuff would cause me to inadvertently steal it. The one thing I read while I was writing [Fleishman] was Mrs. Fletcher, because the minute I saw the cover I was instantly jealous of it. I couldn’t not read it. And then when my publisher was talking to me about a cover, I remember angrily saying, “Well! The Mrs. Fletcher cover is taken!”

TP: Our books do have certain things in common. They’re almost a mirror image of each other.

Do you think there’s something especially dangerous or compelling right now about imagining yourself into the other gender’s perspective?TBA: I was at GQ and that’s what I did, I wrote about men. The idea for the novel came from hearing all my male divorced friends telling me their stories.

TP: I think something gets lost if we’re not allowed to do that or don’t feel empowered to do that. Certainly it’s important to the history of the novel. Madame Bovary

TBA: Anna Karenina! Anna Karenina was really good.

TP: Probably there were women who could have written some version of Anna Karenina that would’ve been just as revelatory. But I do think that looking at male sexuality, say, from an outside perspective might reveal things about it. I also think there is something interesting about moving outside of your comfort zone. The writer can fall on their face and maybe that’s part of the interest of it.

TBA: You’re right. I remember I was like, I will read this Mrs. Fletcher and see if he got this right!

TP: I was on Fresh Air and Terry Gross was like, there’s a scene in Little Children where Sarah orders bathing suits from J.Crew and it’s like —

TBA: One size too small. I think about that all the time. She goes for the eight instead of the ten.

TP: Yeah, Terry was just like, “How did you know about this?” And It was such a funny question. First of all, I’m married to a woman. Also, I always read women’s magazines. As a kid they were around the house, and I read whatever was around the house, and I think I took it like, This is how women talk. This is supposedly how women think or how they tell each other they’re supposed to think.

TBA: But also the questions people ask about this are reductive because it assumes that we can only write about ourselves, and that’s not true. Probably, in the climate we’re in, you would get far more flak for writing about a woman, whereas when I write about a man, I’m impressive.
If anything, people told me, “It’s so amazing how you’re able to embody a man, but the problem is that you didn’t get the women right. The things that women want on the apps lately are so depraved. You didn’t even scratch the surface.”

TP: There’s this desire to simplify, and to say, “Well, Mrs. Fletcher is a woman’s story and Fleischman is a man’s story,” but both books are about people navigating their lives in families. I don’t think it’s a very useful rule for novels: “This is a woman’s story, so a woman should write it.”

Do you ever hear that? Did anyone say that?
TP: It’s certainly common in academia right now, and it’s pretty common in Hollywood. And in a way, that was really useful for the adaptation of Mrs. Fletcher. We only have women directors on the show, and the writers’ room was very heavily female. There were moments when the women in the room were pushing back against me, like: What porn would Mrs. Fletcher watch?

TBA: I love the way you write about that porn! The thing I’m so jealous of in your book is the evenhanded way of describing the porn. It’s not prudish; it’s almost journalistic, it’s really quite beautiful!

What were the objections in your writers’ room?
TP: There was a debate. There’s a certain kind of feminist porn which is about women’s pleasure. And some people thought she should be watching that.

TBA: Kosher porn.

TP: And I was like, No, she should watch, like, really dirty …

TBA: That’s the thing! It’s the same desire. There is a category of female desire that is watching a man get what he wants.

TP: My argument was that maybe Mrs. Fletcher would get to that point, but when she first goes online she’s just going to see what a teenage boy sees. ‘Cause you have to really be a connoisseur to get to the very specific thing that you want.

TBA: You definitely have people that say, “I am only watching female-gaze porn.”

Do people really pick the porn they consume by their politics?
TP: I don’t think so.

TBA: I think we all wish we did. We all want to watch ethical porn.

It’s like a fantasy about the kinds of fantasies we have.
TP: But porn is the place you go when you want to break the rules. In the writers’ room, no one wanted to say, “I happen to like a certain kind of porn that might be a little bit degrading.” But when I speak privately to women friends of mine, you know —

TBA: They’ll say it. I spent time on the apps doing research. I’d go on as a man and as a woman. The amount of men who wanted a blowjob while I stared deeply into their eyes — which is a physics problem to me. Like, how? What are you doing? Life isn’t hard enough? But ultimately, my experience in evaluating and observing life on the apps was that, despite everything, men are still calling the shots.

How do you know?
TBA: We know what men want. How do we know? From the porn, right? But for women, our desire isn’t just desire. Sometimes our desire is a submissive kind of pleasing. Or in my experience, or the experience of my friends, it’s not really, “I’ll do what the man wants,” it’s like, the thing that turns me on is what the man wants. It’s being the thing the man desires. It actually works out evolution-wise really well! It’s not a great thing to say in 2019, but it was my observation that this hasn’t really changed. I don’t know if it’s so bad either. I think desire is desire and it doesn’t matter what the root of it is.

TP: I thought one of the things your book did amazingly well was Fleishman sees the world of apps as this kind of sexual utopia for him, but he very quickly becomes numb to it. It’s almost like the world of porn. I stayed away from porn for a long time. I didn’t want to go to that back room and rent those tapes and then return them. I don’t want those magazines around my house. But when it was suddenly there on the internet, it was just like, how would you not? But the thing was, I also saw things I never even fantasized about that suddenly became part of my fantasies.

TBA: But then you can only like it five or six times before it’s like, eh, this thing’s so boring.

TP: Yeah. Unless you really like it, and then it becomes your ⁠—

TBA: Your thing.

Each of your books has this moment where the main character realizes their kid is exploring the same sexual universe that they are. You both have kids. I’m curious to hear more about that.
TP: I was raised very conservatively in a Catholic family, in this world where premarital sex is a terrible thing, masturbation is a terrible thing. I remember Dr. Ruth in my 20s being like, “It’s all right to masturbate!” And I thought, Finally! It was just so clear to me that no parents have anything to teach their children, because in every American generation the contexts are entirely different.

TBA: It’s true. My mother is ultra-Orthodox, and her sex education was: “Don’t. Until you’re married.” And then, “Just don’t let me know what happened, thank you, but yes, I want grandchildren.” You can’t teach your children because you don’t even know what they’re learning. I was sent by Cosmo a few years ago on a story to find out that the most prominent problem at health services now on campus is anal fissures.

TP: Huh.

TBA: My mother, if she’d decided to tell me about anything that was going to happen to my body, it would never have occurred to her to say, “No one can just put it out back; you should have to consent to that.” You know?

Or get some lube.
TBA: Oh my God. Somewhere in Brooklyn, she just dissolved, because you said that.

TP: She doesn’t know what lube is, so it’s okay. You say, “What’s a novel for?” For me, as a kid, that was how I learned about sex.

What was the first book that introduced you?
TP: Well, John Irving was huge for me.

TBA: Me too!

TP: And I remember reading Portnoy’s Complaint freshman year in college. I was undone by it, you know? The anarchy of lust.

TBA: My first was Portnoy, but I was in eighth grade. My mother wouldn’t let me read young-adult books. The Sweet Valley High girls were such sluts to her. But those Philip Roth books, they were literature. So I was reading Portnoy’s Complaint because I was not allowed to read these very chaste books, and it really informed me about the way men think. It normalized sexual thought in men for me. I’d never be shocked again.

TP: I never met Roth, but once I was riding my bike along the river in Cambridge and he was just sitting on a bench staring at the water. And I had that moment, like, Am I gonna stop and try …

TBA: What?! And what did you do?

TP: I rode right on by.

TBA: What’s there to gain?

TP: Yeah, there’s some writers who might be happy to be interrupted in their brooding. If I were a —

TBA: Excuse me, did you read Asymmetry? You could’ve ended up in bed with him!

TP: Yeah, you know, I was well aware, like, if I were a pretty young woman, I could stop and say, “Mr. Roth?”

You’re both married but write about divorce. Why is that?
TP: You know, um, it’s a simple reason. There aren’t a lot of novels about happily married people. There’s no drama in a stable life.

TBA: People say to my husband a lot, “Is it okay with you that your wife wrote a divorce novel?” And he would say, very easily, “She’s obsessed with divorce.”

TP: I get that too: Why do you always write about adultery?

TBA: And are you ever like, “Cuz I’m cheating on my wife”?

TP: [Laughing.] I highly recommend it. But a character needs to desire someone or something. I guess you could have a happily married person who desires money, or something else, but my imagination is sadly influenced by sex. Sex seems to be the human urge that interests me way more than any other.

TBA: Everyone in my family’s divorced. It’s interesting to me. But then again, who knows? Maybe this is like my secret cry for help and only in five years will I go, “Ugh, remember when I was trying to divorce my husband and had all these cries for help? And one of them was writing a novel about divorce?”

How did you two first meet?
TP: We met on the set of The Leftovers. I liked her right away. I thought your piece on Damon Lindelof was great, but it was more conventional than what you do now. And I’ve been wanting to ask you: What happened to you in these past few years? Suddenly, you’re very present in these stories, a wonderful, interesting comic persona. Whenever I read you, I always laugh, but I also have this sense that you’re saying things about the culture that you wouldn’t have been able to say in a conventional piece of journalism. When I read you now, I don’t say I’m reading a profile, I say, “I’m reading a Taffy.” I care about your subjects because you’re writing about them.

TBA: And because of Gwyneth. We all care about Gwyneth.

TP: What was interesting about that piece, to me, was that you were willing to expose your own insecurities. This is what makes her have this power. Everybody’s insecure and she’s saying, “I have a cure for that.”

TBA: There’s just no way to beat her. She’s perfect. She’s funny, she is beautiful, she is smart, she is cool. She is energetic. And I’m not any of those things. I am not even⁠ —

TP: You’re funny.

TBA: But all I wanted was to be cool, Tom!

TP: I think you’re cool. But can you tell me how you became a much more adventurous journalist?

TBA: I became more confident. At first, I saw that I was adept at profiling. And then I realized I was adept at this other thing, which I think is present in the Damon story, which is an intimacy, writing on somebody’s behalf. Extrapolating for them. Now, the worst thing you can do in this business is to ever be in conversation with your last story. I learned two things: that every story gets its own voice and that everything is a great story. It is a great story by virtue of the fact that it is a human being trying to survive their environment. And once I was no longer afraid that I wouldn’t have material, I stopped being worried that people weren’t telling me things and I started just letting them tell me whatever they wanted to tell me. And also poverty. I was so broke at that time that I wrote so much.

How did you balance writing a novel with all that?
TBA: So scrappily. That year, I had written 100,000 words that were published in magazines. My book was 100,000 words. And I was exhausted. But the way I did it it was like an act of defiance. It was, I’m not doing small stories for Women’s Health anymore, and this is gonna be my ticket out of it.

TP: Writing a novel is just such a monogamous act for me. If my attention’s anywhere else, then it’s really hard.

TBA: Are you gonna write a novel after [working on the show]?

TP: Someday. Are you?

TBA: Yes, I’ve sold it already. It’s called Long Island Compromise.

TP: That sounds like a dirty sex act.

TBA: [Laughs.] It is a dirty sex act! It’s a made-up euphemism for a dirty sex act. You’re the only person who guessed that!

TP: Which one?

TBA: It’s anal sex. and it’s based on a conversation two of the characters have about how all the Long Island girls wouldn’t have sex with you but they’d let you, you know, do it that way, so they could retain their virginities. That was the Long Island compromise. You predicted that. So what’s my third novel, Tom?

Tom: [Laughs.]

A Conversation With Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Tom Perrotta