Charles Webb's follow-up to ''The Graduate'' -- The author discusses the influence his debut novel had on his latest work ''Home School''
Charles Webb graduated from Williams College in the early ’60s, rebelled against the conformity of his middle-class California upbringing, had ”stars in his eyes” for a friend of his parents’, and then began a relationship with a woman his own age against the wishes of her mother. Sound familiar? Yes, his story closely resembles that of The Graduate— which is hardly surprising, given that Mike Nichols’ 1967 movie was adapted from Webb’s first novel of the same name. The main difference? Whereas Webb’s hero, Benjamin Braddock, consummated the relationship with his protocougar, Mrs. Robinson, the writer himself did not.
Since The Graduate, Webb has written several books (New Cardiff was adapted into the 2003 Heather Graham-starring film Hope Springs). Now he’s releasing Home School, a full-fledged continuation of the saga he began with The Graduate. In the book, set 11 years after Benjamin hijacked his soul mate, Elaine, from her own wedding, the couple are teaching their two sons at home. When the local school principal cries foul, they ask Elaine’s mother, the notorious Mrs. Robinson, to seduce the married educator so they can blackmail him. ”It started out having nothing to do with The Graduate,” says Webb, 68, by phone from his home in Eastbourne, England. ”The thing that drove me — perverse though it is — is the notion of somebody seducing someone else for their friends. Then it hit me that this was the right place for Mrs. Robinson to wind up.”
His publishers on both sides of the Atlantic apparently agree. ”Charles has a very particular prose style,” says Paul Sidey, the U.K.-based editor who first acquired Home School. In person, he adds, ”Charles is very droll indeed — and utterly normal. Although he’s had a fairly complex life since completing The Graduate.”
No kidding. Sharing Benjamin’s antimaterialism, Webb has given away a large portion of his earnings to various causes. ”When there’s no money, you’re forced into new and interesting situations,” he says. In the early ’90s, Webb and his wife (whose given name is Eve but has long gone by the name Fred to show solidarity with a men’s support group) helped to manage a nudist colony in Basking Ridge, N.J. ”We weren’t required to be nude,” he says. ”It would have been distracting to mow the lawn without benefit of clothing. Highly dangerous, too.”
The couple has coped with more serious issues in recent years. After moving to the U.K. in 2001, Webb says, Fred suffered a nervous breakdown. ”After the breakdown she emerged as two personalities,” he says. ”She alternates between her adult self and being, basically, the child she was at 5 years of age. When she’s 5 years old, we usually have a fairly limited range of activities during the day.”
Though Fred’s health has come to dominate their lives, Webb hasn’t given up writing. He says his focus is no longer on novels — he claims Home School will be his last — but on plays. Curiously, he was inspired by a 2000 production in London’s West End of…The Graduate. ”Kathleen Turner was Mrs. Robinson,” he says. ”There was something about the audience reaction that made me realize my lines should always have been presented as spoken.”