Megan Abbott and Tom Perrotta's epic, fascinating conversation about moving from novels to TV
As the television medium continues to expand, novelists are increasingly moving into TV writers’ rooms and developing small-screen projects of their own. Among the most prominent to do so is Tom Perrotta, who turned his book The Leftovers into an award-winning HBO series with Damon Lindelof, and is now producing a pilot off of his latest, Mrs. Fletcher, with Kathryn Hahn in the lead role. Longtime crime-mystery favorite Megan Abbott, meanwhile, has three adaptations based on her books in development, including her new thriller Give Me Your Hand, and she landed her first TV job last year on HBO’s The Deuce. In a conversation facilitated by and exclusive to EW, the two authors chatted about their media moves. Read the full discussion below.
MEGAN ABBOTT: Tom, I’ve read everything you’ve written, and so affected by seeing the way you brought The Leftovers to TV. You [were] a model about how to do all that in TV [while] still [engaging] in novel writing, and how to balance all of that. And to have a novelist [as] co-showrunner, the head of their own adaptation team, was really exciting. As a TV show, The Leftovers became an entirely different thing from the novel. What was that process like?
TOM PERROTTA: The thing I really learned from that experience was the way in which a TV show is kind of a living organism. What was interesting about that collaboration is that I went in thinking that it was going to be an adaptation in some sense, but knowing Damon [Lindelof] saw something much looser. We had to really work out what that meant. The show — it was an ongoing dialogue between the two of us, and shared between all the other writers in the room. But that was the interesting part. It was a collaboration, and an ongoing discussion about what, exactly, The Leftovers was. In that sense, it’s not so different from being alone and writing a novel and having a kind of debate with yourself about “What exactly is this? Where is this going? What kind of limits do I put on this? What kind of surprises am I open to?” Those things are embodied by other people. I’m really grateful to Damon for kind of having the boldness but also the vision to [realize] what that place could be. Because we do have our own limits, and it is nice to break through them.
ABBOTT: We know our limits, but we don’t know the tunnels we’ve created, and then other collaborators come in and they bust it all up. It’s terrifying in the moment, but then all these new estuaries to contort it even more. Dare Me has been in development for a long time; it’s gone through many permutations, including starting as a feature, but it’s also finally crystallizing to what [I] really want this thing to be about. You have to keep articulating it, and you have to take in new people’s ideas and decide which ones make it better and which ones don’t. You have to keep defending your choices. I always consider myself a very non-confrontational person, but having to pitch and present, making the case for these stories, is a thing I’ve had no experience in before this. You don’t do that in publishing. Your agent does it for you. [Laughs]
On The Deuce, the writers’ room gets like group therapy. Inevitably, we all have reasons for caring about certain things, while others are being drawn to certain characters and certain things. It’s so the opposite of the quietness of the novelist’s life. It makes you sort of decide what you value, but it also makes you conscious of things that, in some ways, authors would rather not be conscious of. Do you ever think about that? The stuff you do intuitively as a novelist, and it just happens — you don’t think about it. But you have to think about in this world in TV, justify it, sort of make the case. It’s like peering into your own brain.
PERROTTA: I’ve noticed that, sometimes, a really great idea will make the other people in the room a little bit angry. You’re angry because you didn’t have it. [Laughs] When it’s working well, it’s a little bit like a team, and it’s when someone’s bad idea leading to somebody’s slightly better idea, the person with the [better] idea gets credit for it — but there was this entire series of steps toward it. That’s when it’s interesting — you watch people kind of feed off each other, and the conversation itself kind of creates a great idea. “There it is!” All this stuff is happening in our heads when we’re writing novels.
ABBOTT: Have you thought about how, with Mrs. Fletcher, you’ll run that room? How it’d be informed by your past experiences?
PERROTTA: That’s something I’m just beginning to ponder. I think of myself as a showrunner, but I’m working with Jessi Klein, who’s the showrunner as well. She’s really smart and much more experienced than I am. I’m leaning on her. And I’m thinking about what was great about The Leftovers. Jessi has her own ideas about how a room should be run, and some of them are really intriguing to me. Mrs. Fletcher is a comedy, but a lot of the writers [have] stand-up experience and experience in broader comedy. I think that those rooms have a slightly different feel to them than a drama room, breaking a complicated story, even though we’re going to have all that. I’m curious to see how it’s different. I think a little bit like a class, the showrunner does get to define the tone. But in some other way, you want to create the space for other people to be as free-thinking.
ABBOTT: With comedy and the half-hour format, there’s a precision required, like a short story. There’s a rhythm to the way that comedy’s structured. And there’s a lot of innovation going on in the 30-minute format, because you’re not bound to certain things that a drama is. Is that part of what made you drawn to the idea of having it as a half-hour show?
PERROTTA: You know what drew me? In The Leftovers, we burned through the book in a year. An HBO hour is a hard 60 minutes. It’s a lot of story to do week by week. I’ve noticed that [so many] of the great dramas have had some sort of genre element to them, and I do think that an hour-long drama that’s basically just relationship-based — it can be hard to distill all that space with story. I thought, as you say, the half-hour has been gradually [turning] much more dramatic, with different kinds of storytelling, like Atlanta or Girls. Having those episodes almost like one-act plays.
ABBOTT: I think of the story of Mrs. Fletcher, and just thinking of Dare Me too, we’ve noticed a shift in the way networks and other people think about these stories that deal with women and sex and gender and experimentation. We’re both in some ways in different environments. We’re dealing with stuff that feels very of the moment, and I wonder if you heard any of that in your venture, or has that been part of the discussion. Post-election, and all the #MeToo movement. I’ve heard it a lot.
PERROTTA: When I started writing Mrs. Fletcher, it involved pornography, social media, campus sexual assault, gender — everything that was bubbling under the surface during the Obama years. [I had] that feeling I had when I was writing, being a little bit ahead of the curve. Oh boy, I’m right in the thick of it. But [there’s a] level of consciousness now about inclusion — about the perils of having a middle-aged white guy telling the story of a woman’s sexual reawakening. So I’m surrounded by women on this show. Jessi Klein has been a writing partner and collaborator. Nicole Holofcener is directing. Sarah Kondon is an executive producer. Often, it’s me and a bunch of women discussing Mrs. Fletcher. It’s great.
ABBOTT: When Dare Me was first in development, it was hard to make the case for why it’d be interesting to anybody other than teenage girls. It’d often be treated like, on first glance, “What is this? Pretty Little Liars? Mean Girls?” It never was that. It was always this battle: Why teenage girls [would be] in power, complicated relationships, mentors, predatory coaches — why any of this would be taken seriously. Why it would even be a drama! I remember that was one of the arguments. That dramatically changed in the last year. I didn’t even have to make the case anymore. It felt like almost overnight. In books, we’ve been operating in this world forever, and publishing isn’t exactly a business in the same way that Hollywood is; it was interesting to see all these new possibilities open up, and I think it’s in both a political and a cultural context. With TV, there’s more diversity because there are more places for shows to be.
PERROTTA: And you’ve been writing these stories for 10 years, it’s kind of amazing it’s all coming together now.
ABBOTT: All these female directors are in demand, too. And that’s wonderful. When we were talking to directors about Dare Me, we were committed to assigning a female director, and there were all these great ones, but so many of them were getting snatched up, because now there’s this hunger for female directors, and they were all getting their moment, too. I wonder about the influx of TV on your writing in two different ways: Whether you’re inspired by something that you watch, a great piece of art like Atlanta, or if the experience of writing for TV has influenced your novel writing — if aesthetically or from a practical standpoint, you felt one kind of bleed into the other?
PERROTTA: I was watching Mad Men when I was writing The Leftovers [book] and just thinking about the shape of the episodes. I noticed that when I was working on the chapters I was much more concerned with making each chapter have a narrative arc within itself. In other words, it was a more fragmentary kind of structure that we sometimes use with novels; we often compare TV dramas to novels, but you could argue they’re more like linked story collections. I’ve always been interested in that idea of these smaller narrative arcs within a larger narrative arc. I remember watching Mad Men with a sense of enormous admiration for the way that each of the shows felt like a complete work of art, and not just some fragment of a larger story. It really filtered into my novel writing. What about you?
ABBOTT: In a similar way, it’s more structural than anything else. My first draft is tighter now because I’m aware of structure and pacing. I usually carve that out in the second draft; I’d create the pace in revisions, before. But now I’m really hyperaware of it because you have so little space in a script. Everything has to count. I’d start to pare away stuff much more quickly. You get more comfortable with cutting and being really unprecious with your stuff. It’s made me really try to keep this narrative drive, which suits crime novels anyway.
PERROTTA: It’s very interesting to hear you talk about pacing because I’ve always thought of you as a master of pacing. That kind of breathless storytelling. Sometimes we admire something in another medium, but it connects with something we’ve been doing anyway. You’re saying you’re now conscious of it at a different part of the process. It wasn’t like you suddenly woke up and found you were writing these slow novels. [Laughs] The other thing I wanted to ask you about: Any kind of mystery novel, which I think your books sometimes fit in, often feel like they’re more suited to the enclosed narrative of a feature film. Is there a special challenge to turning a mystery into an ongoing drama?
ABBOTT: There is! Maybe in a different economic climate: As we know. it’s very hard to get movies made now. I would have stayed there: I tend to think in three acts and I don’t have that many characters; I just think of [my books] more as movies. Maybe it’s better, then, that I’m adapting these for TV because I get so knocked out of the book so quickly. They’re so limited, and you couldn’t maintain that for TV. You have to have more characters, you have to have a larger world. It makes me surrender that quality of the book.
PERROTTA: That to me was a huge difference between TV and feature films. I had the experience with Little Children, and Todd Field made a beautiful film of it, but Todd and I both felt like we’d lost parts of the book that just couldn’t fit into this two-hour narrative. It’s so interesting to think of TV as a place to supplement the novel and build on the novel. Turning the novel into a feature film was always a matter of shaving off so it could fit in this very narrow box. I love the idea that we can, in this [TV] form, just suddenly decide, “Let’s focus on the school secretary. What’s going on with her?” It does feel like the world is full of stories and these stories collide; you create a space where all kinds of stories can intersect and develop
ABBOTT: And with shows like Atlanta, too, they’re shifting genres between episodes sometimes on TV now.
PERROTTA: Atlanta this year felt like they set out to make a bunch of art films, and involve the characters of Atlanta; there was so little story. It reminded me of a certain moment in the history of the novel, where writers feel like, “We’re not that interested in plot, we just want to go deep on character and consciousness.” I think Atlanta, in many ways, had a consistency of tone throughout. You just never knew what you were going to watch from one week to the next. That was the aesthetic principle: You weren’t following a story, just visiting this world.
ABBOTT: Right, and its pseudo-main character, Earn [played by Donald Glover], sort of drops into the background for most of that season. It feels like breaking rules is almost a given now on TV. That’s exhilarating. I bet that’s something you’ve thought about with Mrs. Fletcher.
PERROTTA: Maybe it’s because I wrote the pilot, but it has felt a little bit more like an adaptation than The Leftovers. I’m hoping as it moves on that there will be more space for those sorts of surprises.
ABBOTT: It’s also ideological. I remember when I was working on The Deuce: David Simon has a real ideology. He wants to tell these stories because of his fervently-held political beliefs. He was just saying that nothing can beat TV, [in terms of] having more people hear these stories that he wants them to hear.
PERROTTA: You had an apprenticeship for David Simon, possibly the greatest of TV creators in this Golden Age. I got to spend years on The Leftovers with Damon Lindelof, who is one of the great artists in the form, too. There is some quality of apprenticeship, being built into TV, because there’s a little bit of a hierarchy. What did working on The Deuce mean for you in terms of how you’ll go forward with a show of your own?
ABBOTT: It was certainly terrifying. There were no stages to it. One day we were in the room, and there’s David Simon, George Pelecanos, Richard Price — I had no idea how it was going to work. But now I’m so glad it was that way. It was a noisy, loud, funny room tackling a very dark subject matter. The thing I took away most from him, trying to figure out what I’d do for my own pilot, is how passionately he fights for the storytelling he believes in. I so admired seeing him keep the integrity of the “living organism,” as you put it. Holding onto all those pieces and making sure you’re still telling the story you want to tell, and making everybody that doesn’t seem to understand, understand it. It seemed exhausting and daunting, but also quite extraordinary.
PERROTTA: Now that I’m in charge of Mrs. Fletcher, I often hear myself saying things that Damon said, just because that’s the example I know. [Laughs] It’s a good example. You realize how we’re so dependent on our teachers. I’m just so glad I was able to be around and watch him handle situations like the ones I’m facing now. At least now I sound like I know what I’m talking about… You were describing The Deuce‘s room as this sort of conversation that was full of jokes and stories. I do think a show is a conversation among the writers. We’re in the process of putting a room together, and I’ve been drawn to people where I think, “I want to hear their side of the conversation.”
ABBOTT: In the world of book writing, there’s a few people, maybe, where you have close relationships. In TV, there are so many more relationships, and they’re all so critical. Part of it, I’m sure is, “Is this a person I want to be hanging out with?” [Laughs] You want people to feel comfortable. You want them to take chances. I’m hearing stories about how personal the room can get, so you want it to be a place for people where everyone’s going to feel like they can say anything. But it’s so much. Sometimes, it does make me want to climb back into my little cave and write novels all day.