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Overachiever Tracy Flick faces her unmet life expectations in 'Tracy Flick Can't Win'

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Tracy Flick had big plans in high school. She was going to be president of the United States. And whether you met her through the movie starring Reese Witherspoon or the book written by Tom Perrotta, both called "Election," she seemed like she might actually make it to the White House as she headed off to Georgetown University. But in Perrotta's new novel, "Tracy Flick Can't Win," we meet Flick in middle age. She's back in high school, working as assistant principal.

Tom Perrotta is with us to talk about his latest book. Hi, Tom.

TOM PERROTTA: Hi, Sacha. Good to talk to you.

PFEIFFER: You too. Tom, this book is basically a sequel, but it's coming out about 25 years after you wrote the first book. Why revisit this now?

PERROTTA: Well, you know, I think there are a couple reasons. One is that Tracy Flick has become a kind of iconic figure in American culture sort of separate from my book, I think because of Reese Witherspoon's wonderful performance in the movie "Election." And so for all these years since I wrote the book and the movie came out, I've been hearing female politicians being compared to Tracy, you know, Hillary Clinton foremost among them.

PFEIFFER: And we should note here, by the way, for people who haven't seen it, she was kind of, in high school, this sort of officious, driven overachiever, supremely self-confident in kind of an off-putting way.

PERROTTA: Yeah. And I think she was - became a bit of a stereotype of an unpleasantly ambitious woman who alienated the people around her, primarily the men around her. And I didn't always love that idea of Tracy. You know, some part of me really sympathized with her drive and her ambition. You know, I think to accomplish anything in life, you have to believe that you can do it. And it seemed unfair for Tracy to be vilified for her ambition. So that was a little part of it.

But the main part of it, I think, was the #MeToo movement happened, and I was reading a lot of stories about women like Tracy. Tracy had an affair or a illicit relationship or an abusive relationship, depending upon how you want to - what language you want to apply, with a high school teacher in "Election."

PFEIFFER: This was part of the plot of "Election," yeah - the book and the movie.

PERROTTA: It was part of the plot of "Election." And she was very adamant in the book and the movie that she was not a victim, that she had some agency, that she made a choice to begin the relationship, she made a choice to end it and that she was just moving on with her life. Twenty years later, she's reading, just like I'm reading, stories in the newspaper about women a lot like her and some of whom had said, like, oh, it seemed consensual at the time; but now, you know, I'm wondering if that's the right way to look at it. And she's a high school administrator, and so she would never look at it that way if a teacher she was responsible for had a relationship like that with a student.

PFEIFFER: Yeah. You know, this is a, I think, slightly more likable version of Tracy, probably for a lot of people, although the old Tracy is still there. She - at one point, she talks about, I've never been a big fan of vacations, you know? And she refers to - there's no imposter syndrome for me. So she still has that confidence, but she does seem to have more self-awareness as an adult. But this is kind of a sadder version of Tracy, a derailed version of Tracy from her dreams and ambitions. Do you think that's a fair or unfair way to describe her?

PERROTTA: That is totally a fair way to describe her. And I think, you know, there's some middle-aged disappointment that is universal. You know, we rarely achieve our dreams in a clean way, and there's always something that we regret. But I think for Tracy, she had such large dreams for herself. In other words, she's achieved a lot. She has a Ph.D. She is a successful professional. She's an assistant principal at a high school. She's a mom. You know, she owns her own home.

By any standard, she's doing just fine, except for her own standard, which was that she was going to conquer the world, that she was going to become a congresswoman and then a senator and then an attorney general and then possibly president. So when she imagines her younger self looking at her older self, she feels ashamed, even though she really has nothing to be ashamed of. But I do think there's this sadness of having betrayed her own dreams. That's how it looks to her.

PFEIFFER: I couldn't help but wonder as I read this, since it's such a reflection from middle age on life as we've accomplished it so far, that - I think you're - are you 60, Tom, if you're comfortable saying your age?

PERROTTA: Yes, I just crossed that particular threshold.

PFEIFFER: Which is a big threshold to cross. And it made me wonder how much your own reflections as you age came through in your writing of this book.

PERROTTA: You know, I'm sure they did. I mean, that is the secret of fiction writing - is that you're always, in a sense, you know, writing your own autobiography. And, you know, I don't think anybody who knew me when I was in high school would say I was like Tracy. But I also did harbor ambitions that I felt set me apart. And there's something about this feeling of ambition kind of softening with age. Like, you realize that no matter what you achieve, you know, your time is limited, that what really counts is the people that you're closest to thinking of you with love. I think that - I think there's some of that - just some sense of, well, maybe there's a little folly in ambition and that, no matter how hard you try, you can't actually achieve your teenage dream because teenage dreams don't really encompass life as it really is lived.

PFEIFFER: Although you're a person who, for many outsiders looking in, has achieved a great amount of success, written many books, many of - some of those books made into movies, I'm wondering if you feel like you achieved your own ambitions when you look back to what you wanted to be and do in high school.

PERROTTA: Yeah, that's the funny part of it. I actually have. You know, there is some satisfaction with that. I think what is surprising is realizing as you get older that ambition itself is a bit of a pipe dream. It really - what exists is the dream, not the goal. And achieving the goal doesn't somehow satisfy the ambition. There's always something more. It's a bit of a treadmill, I think.

PFEIFFER: Tom, if this book becomes a movie, if "Tracy Flick Can't Win" gets optioned - maybe it already has been, just as "Election" did - do you hope again to see Reese Witherspoon play the role of Tracy Flick? Could you see anyone else playing that role?

PERROTTA: I can't. You know, and when I finished this book, I sent a copy to Reese Witherspoon. And I told her, you know, that when I was writing it, I could hear, you know, her version of Tracy in my head. I couldn't really access the Tracy that I had imagined 25 years ago before the movie.

PFEIFFER: Oh, really?

PERROTTA: Yeah, I couldn't. I don't even remember what it was like. It's happened with other film versions of my work as well. When a really good actor embodies a character, it's hard to remember what the character felt like to you when they were just words on a page. So I was definitely in a kind of a conversation not only with the novel "Election" but with the movie "Election" and particularly with Reese Witherspoon's portrayal of Tracy.

PFEIFFER: That's author Tom Perrotta. His latest book is "Tracy Flick Can't Win." Tom, thank you.

PERROTTA: Oh, thanks so much, Sacha.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS ROAD I'M TRAVELLING")

MOJAVE 3: (Singing) Moving on down the line. I got to see what's out there. I got to take what's mine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.