Transcript: Tom Perrotta and Nnedi Okorafor

This is a transcript for Recommended Season 1 Episode 6.

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by Tom Perrotta, discussing The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.

TOM PERROTTA:

What made The Metamorphosis so strange and refreshing for me was that it seemed to take its own weirdness in stride. It was a very matter of fact account of something that was completely impossible. There wasn’t that distance that you often get when you read sci-fi or fantasy, something that puts you outside of the realm of reality, because Gregor is not that surprised to find himself turning into a bug. We’re not that surprised either.

JENN:

And Nnedi Okorafor, who picked What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

NNEDI OKORAFOR:

Above all of the politics, I think the book is really well-written. I think that’s also relevant. It’s not just this thing that they threw together and threw out. It’s very readable. I know, for me, I don’t remember any political book like this that I binge read where I was looking forward to getting back into it. It’s very readable. You just sit back and listen.

JENN:

Tom Perrotta is the bestselling author of nine works of fiction, including Election and Little Children, both of which were made into Oscar-nominated films, and The Leftovers, which was adapted into a critically acclaimed, Peabody Award-winning HBO series. His newest novel, Mrs. Fletcher, follows a forty-six year old divorcee who receives a mysterious text and her college-bound, aspiring frat-boy son as they find themselves enmeshed in morally fraught situations that come to a head on one fateful November night.

PERROTTA:

My name is Tom Perotta and The Metamorphosis by Kafka is my recommended.

I first read Kafka in my sophomore year of high school. I was lucky enough to take this advanced English class that featured a book called Nine Short Modern Novels. It was really the book that blew open the world of literature for me. It included The Stranger, Heart of Darkness, The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James. There’s a novel by . There was something by Thomas Mann, something by Faulkner. And there was The Metamorphosis, which just completely blew my mind.

I think somebody had told me, “Oh yeah, this is a really cool story. It’s about a guy who turns into a bug.” I think what I imagined was some wild sci-fi story. Instead, what I got was this weird family drama where no one was actually that surprised that this guy had turned into a bug, almost like something that had been within the realm of possibility. The controlled weirdness of it was something that really amazed me, and felt extremely different from anything else that I was reading in that book or anywhere else, because I had been a sci-fi and fantasy person up to that point.

I was loving Lord of the Rings. I was loving Kurt Vonnegut. That stuff was much more, I think, conscious of its weirdness. What made The Metamorphosis so strange and refreshing for me was that it seemed to take its own weirdness in stride. It was a very matter of fact account of something that was completely impossible. There wasn’t that distance that you often get when you read sci-fi or fantasy, something that puts you outside of the realm of reality, because Gregor is not that surprised to find himself turning into a bug. We’re not that surprised either.

I remember just being so excited by the weirdness. There were a couple of writers who hit this note of sustained weirdness that I found hugely exciting. The other one for me, was Flannery O’Connor. When she would write a story like Good Country People, where the Bible salesman steals Helga’s wooden leg. I think that I loved a premise that, in itself, was enough to make you sit up straight. But then the writer who could take that premise and somehow work it all the way through the story and not ever wink. Neither Kafka nor Flannery O’Connor ever lets down … winks at the reader, and says, “Can you believe I’m getting away with this craziness?”
That’s something that a lot of writers have done in a post modern fiction. There’s often a kind of authorial winking in a sense that this is a little game that we’re all playing. I find that somewhat alienating in the fact that Kafka or Connor just would create a premise so insane, and then treat it as if it were just another idea for a story. That really is what makes it feel like you’ve entered a dream or some alternative reality that has as much gravity as the world that you move in.

Here’s the interesting thing about Kafka is, he was hugely important to me when I was in college. I think he was a direct inspiration for me to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was a big, magical realist. In my mind, I thought that was the way to go. I was really interested in that strain of writing.
Then, late in college, I read Balzac, and suddenly I was just young and reading a lot of things. Suddenly Balzac and 19th century realism just really excited me. Somehow, then I read Raymond Carver also right in my senior year of college. I became this confirmed realist.

I really self consciously identified with that and it has been my guiding light in my own sense of my literary influence. Just in the past month, I saw that there was this new biography of Kafka. This new three part biography by a guy named Reiner Stach. I ended up reading the middle volume, because the new volume had just came out. They came out in some weird order. But it was called Kafka, the Decisive Years. And it was about Kafka between 1910 and 1914, which is when he wrote The Metamorphosis and the Judgment, and really became the writer that we know now.

I read the biography, and then I read The Metamorphosis. It was as if I’d found some picture in a yearbook. It just all came flooding back to me, like this book kind of changed my life. I had repressed it, because I went in some other direction and decided that I didn’t want to write magical realism. I was an advocate of reality and realism.

I just suddenly found it, and it was like seeing yourself with long hair in the ’70s when you liked AC/DC or whatever. And you go, “Oh yeah, that’s who I was.” There was a shock of recognition. I also realized that unlike, say Marquez, who I think really does move in a magical space, what I really was struck by was the matter of factness in Kafka. And the sense that it was just a family story. The story The Metamorphosis never leaves the apartment. The only relationships that matter are really Gregor’s relationships with his family members.

In that sense, it has as much in common with a lot of realistic short fiction that I read. As a story by John Cheever, who also, by the way, works in magical spaces. I think I was just working on a false dichotomy.
The other thing that happened was that I wrote The Leftovers. I didn’t write it thinking about Kafka at all. But when I started to think about why I wrote it the way I wrote it, I realized that I had learned an enormous amount from something like The Metamorphosis, so The Leftovers opens, not with the event of people disappearing, but opens three years later. The thing has already happened. It’s just a fact in the world. I just treat it like a fact in the world.

When it feels like it’s working it has … For me, when I was writing, there were just certain moments that have this certain sense that I was reporting something dreamlike, but in a way that felt as real as any realistic story I’d written. I realized that my entire aesthetic for writing something that had a dystopian or speculative or unreal premise had come from reading Kafka.

I’m glad I got a chance to do this, because I really did feel like I found some buried diary or something and got a glimpse of my former self in this book.
I think it’s also true that our deepest influences sometimes we don’t even acknowledge. We’ve buried them so deeply. We draw on them all the time and just take them for granted, the way maybe we do with our own families.

JENN:

Thanks again to Tom Perrotta for joining us and recommending The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. His latest novel Mrs. Fletcher, published by Scribner, is available wherever books are sold. You can learn more about him at tomperrotta.net.

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JENN:

Nnedi Okorafor is an international award-winning novelist of African-based science fiction, fantasy and magical realism for both children and adults. Her newest novel, Akata Warrior, is the sequel to Akata Witch, and continues the story of Sunny, who is learning to develop and control her magical powers and who must learn enough to confront the dark forces threatening humanity.

OKORAFOR:

My name is Nnedi Okorafor, and Hillary Clinton’s What Happened is my recommended.

I picked up the audio version, because the audio version is read by Hillary Clinton, and I had it pre-ordered a long-time ago, as soon I heard that she was doing this book, I pre-ordered it immediately.

I am really, really enjoying the audio. I think that the best way to hear the story is in Hillary’s own voice. The way that she reads, it’s like you fall into the rhythm of her words and her story.

I knew going in, I understand who Hillary Clinton is. I know that she is a politician, and she’s both a person and a politician. I went into reading this with that information in mind and listening with that information in mind. What I love most about the book is that she answers every single question that I had, that I had about the whole situation, and she does it thoroughly. She does it in a well-researched way. Of course, I fully understand that she’s coming from a political perspective, but also, I think the book is also really personal as well.

I enjoy reading memoirs. There is that, and that was part of what attracted me to this book, especially when the memoir is in a narrative format. I like reading that. I wanted to hear her experience. I don’t read a lot of political books at all. I just don’t. I read snippets and bits and pieces, and I’ll read textbook-type nonfiction for information, but this one, I didn’t just read for information. It’s enjoyable to me. It flows in a way that … That’s what I find so delightful about it. The narrative aspect in there is strong.

It’s not just a political narrative where I’m just reading it to understand what happened. It’s a story. It’s a story of her life. She talks about her family. She talks about Chelsea, a little bit about Bill. I would’ve liked more of that. I mean, there are aspects of it I know that she just purposely stayed away from. I would’ve liked to hear what she had to say about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I would’ve hear her point of view on that, her honest point of view on that.

She tiptoed away from that, but it’s still … That personal narrative aspect to it, it really is what got me through what is considered a political book.

She is very aware of what questions people wanted answered, and she put in a way where you’re like, “Okay.” Then also, there are a lot of anecdotes. She puts a lot of her personal self, yeah, her personal self into this book. I really appreciated that. I mean, for all the criticisms, Hillary Clinton certainly is not perfect. She’s made mistakes. Like every politician who has been in the game for a long time, she’s made mistakes.

Also, I can hear some of the flaws as well. There are moments where I’m like, “Okay, you need to address issues of race in your white privilege part here.” I can hear those moments as well. I’m aware of those, but that’s what I mean. You go into the book understanding these things, and you know how to listen, and you know how to take in the information she’s throwing at you. Even with its flaws, it just feels very honest. It feels very honest, and I appreciate that, I mean, as honest as a politician can be.

I think that the book will stay relevant for multiple reasons. One, I think people are curious. I think people are curious to hear her perspective. For a politician to talk about mistakes is always difficult. She talks about her mistakes, and she talks about all sides of it.

Above all of the politics, I think the book is really well-written. I think that’s also relevant. It’s not just this thing that they threw together and threw out. It’s very readable. I know, for me, I don’t remember any political book like this that I binge read where I was looking forward to getting back into it. It’s very readable. You just sit back and listen.

I hope that people are actually reading it and not just buying it to have it. I do think that those who read it will find that it is a rare gem, because it’s a book about politics, but it’s also very, very readable from beginning to end.
I mean, who is the intended audience? What I also thought about was that, or what I also hope is that those who are not Hillary supporters would read it, but I can’t really see that happening, maybe the book, not the audio book. The audio book is very much in her voice. There are some people who just absolutely hate this woman for so many reasons, and a lot of reasons where I’m like, “Whoa, you need to scale that.” There are so many people who absolutely hate her and see her as not a human being but as a political force, a negative political force. I can’t see them sitting back and listening to a whole audio book in her voice. I can’t see it, especially when she speaks her perspective.

I think that this book is … Outside of all the political aspects of it, for me, as a black woman who is dealing with the issue of … Being in a position where a lot of things are happening for me, where I have to stand up for certain beliefs and stand up to issues of race, and issues of gender, and issues of sexism, I found reading this book to be very strengthening and empowering. I mean, aside from all of the politics, this is a woman who entered a very male, patriarchal arena and have to deal with some serious, yeah, some serious sexism. She had to face it, and she had to be eloquent about it. If she weren’t eloquent in the way that she handled those things that were thrown at her, it would’ve just damaged a lot of paths for those who after her. Me dealing with all the things that I’m dealing with now as a black woman, reading this book was empowering. It was exactly what I needed to read at the time.

With the film option, and then having these weird media issues that I have been having, and understanding where a lot of that is coming from, and then having to hear through social networking thousands of people just talking and seeing all these new stories that are popping up about this project that are wrong. What they’re saying is just flat wrong. I remember thinking, “Oh man, what must Hillary had thought when she went through a lot of the things that she’s been through over a decade.” Hearing her talk about how a lot of this hurts, a lot of the things that were happening around her and things that were being said, a lot of it hurts, but she kept going and stayed strong. Even all the politics aside, that was just something I needed to hear. It helps a lot. It was some role model stuff for me.

JENN:

Thanks again to Nnedi Okorafor for joining us and recommending What Happend by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her novel Akata Warrior, published by Viking Books for Young Readers, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at nnedi, that’s nnedi.

JENN:

Thanks to Fierce Reads for sponsoring the show on behalf of Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani. Be sure to check out the Recommended Season 1 giveaway at FierceReadsRecommended.com.

Next week on Recommended, one of our guests tells a very personal story:

UNNAMED GUEST:

So I had the book, and this is probably going to be inappropriate. But, what actually ended up happening was. I actually was in the bathroom. I was in the bathroom. And for those who know the book, it’s not a big book, there’s not much there. Um, there’s a lot there, but there’s not a lot of heft to the book, in terms of pages. And I was sitting there and I was reading it, and I read the first two pages and then I just stayed in the bathroom for the next two hours. I just sat in the bathroom.