Tom Perrotta’s seventh novel, Mrs. Fletcher, is a coming of age story about 46-year-old Eve Fletcher as she settles into post-parental life after her only son leaves for college.

One night as Eve lays half-asleep, phone in hand, her screen illuminates showing an anonymous text message, “U r my MILF!” Over the next year, that text message comes to affect Eve’s ideas about herself, shoving the newly-minted empty nester into navigating the thorny issues of gender identity, satisfying sexual desire, meeting new friends and masturbating to internet porn. This includes a threesome with a high school peer of her son’s and a woman co-worker and a friend relationship between Eve and Margo, the trans professor of a gender studies college class she takes.

Meanwhile, Eve’s jockish son Brendan learns that college might not be the constant bacchanal about which he fantasized. Brendan struggles to overcome his white-boy entitlement and connect to his school work and peers. After an intimate moment gone wrong with a campus activist and feminist, Brendan finds a picture of his face in a student art show with the title, “HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT.” Defeated, Brendan decides to go back to his childhood home to lick his wounds only to find his mom in the throes of exploring her independence.

Perrotta, whose own grown children recently flew the coop, says he wanted to think about a character that felt truly alone and without a partner during this period of life. “That kind of forces you to think: ‘Who am I now?’ And: ‘Is this an opportunity to change that? Can I shake up my life?’” he says.

Perrotta is a master at considering these types of questions. His fiction career spans decades, almost exclusively dealing with the lives of ordinary people. While he is most recently known for his 2011 apocalyptic novel The Leftovers and the HBO series by the same name, Perrotta is best known for works such as Election and Little Children, which explore the dichotomy of the public and private lives of everyday people. A typical Tom Perrotta novel is rife with meditations on suburbia, sex, domesticity, politics and religion, all filtered through his off-kilter lens.

Our interview, condensed and edited for clarity, covers the creep of pervasive internet porn, approaching gender identity as a cisgendered man and what middle-aged life looks like from an empty nest.

Ben King/HBO

Ben King/HBO

Mrs. Fletcher – Eve – evokes so much about what it’s like to be a mom. She also made me feel bad for being mean to my mom. Who was your inspiration for her?
You know, I didn’t have any particular person in mind. Basically, I have my wife and I have two kids. Our son is going to be a junior in college this year and our daughter graduated so we’ve been going through that empty nest period. I was just thinking about how that might be. I know what it’s like for us, but I was thinking about somebody who was alone. That single mom with one kid. What it would be like to suddenly find yourself radically alone at this period of life. That kind of forces you to think: “Who am I now?” And: “Is this an opportunity to change that? Can I shake up my life?” All those questions that I think go along with that moment in life. I wanted to explore somebody who really felt alone, rather than somebody who was taking stock of a marriage.

What does your new life look like empty nesting?
In a funny way for me, The Leftovers became my sort of empty nest project. Because I had been working alone in my room in my house for a long time, and that was my dream. That was all I wanted. To be a novelist. Walk upstairs in the morning, work on my book, and come down in the afternoon and go for a bike ride. Whatever. I had very quiet, solid, disciplined writers life that didn’t get me out of the house a lot. I started to feel like, “I’ve got to get out of the house a little bit more.” The show turned out to be that. It was one of those be careful what you wish for things because I was really out of the house. I was in the airport a lot. I was sort of grappling with living alone in a new city. It was exciting and disorienting. I think in a way what I wanted, and in a funny way what Eve wants in the book, is some chance to do something new and try on a new identity and see if you are the person who you thought you were.

You always write such great women characters. What’s the secret to writing authentically about a different gender?
I have to leave that to readers. I mean, what makes them feel authentic to me comes from observing the women around me and then trying to find some kind of connection between my own life and the characters themselves. I think for Eve, you know, is that I guess her interest in porn probably connected in some way with my own, which is that I’m not especially interested in conventional commercially produced porn, but I’m very fascinated by real people who feel compelled to share their sexual lives with the world. I think most of us are sexually flexible in the sense that we do what other people are doing. You know? I don’t think we have absolutist sexual morality unless we’re religious and say, “Okay, marriage is between one man and one woman. Sex is for marriage. These sexual acts are alright and these sexual acts aren’t alright.” I think most of us live in a sexually flexible environment. We kind of look around and try to figure out what other people are doing. In the past we didn’t always know, but now we know. You sort of think, at least if you’re my age, and you grew up during a different sexual era, “Oh, now people are doing this.” Or, “Now it works like that.” I thought it was interesting to kind of put a middle-aged person into this contemporary, technologically-assisted sexual culture.

That reminds me of the ending of the book, which is sort of left hanging. Without giving it away, do you think everyone has a private dark side that they’re wrestling with?
The ending is maybe a little bit darker than it at first appears to be. I think one of my points when I was thinking about the book was that porn affects everybody. Even people like Eve. She knows there’s a lot of porn out there at the beginning of the book, but she mainly sees it as this worrisome phenomenon that might have caused her son to think about women in ways that she doesn’t approve of. Then she ends up exploring that world herself, and finding the stuff that she likes or intrigues her. Also discovering that it changes her view of the world because she sees that she does have a sexual place, or sexual identity in this porn landscape, which is she’s a MILF. She didn’t know that before. Now that she does, it means certain things. There are people who like MILFs, and MILFs get to do certain things. They’re involved in certain scenarios. Suddenly she notices that these scenarios are present in her life. She takes some risks or has some adventures. However you want to look at it, that kind of opens her up in interesting ways. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I think it suggests that a fantasy was imposed on her that she then accepted and that became her fate.

Because porn, even if you’re not watching it, is somehow probably going to affect you.
Exactly. It starts to filter into the culture in ways that people might wear certain kinds of lingerie, or groom their bodies in certain ways. Not necessarily knowing that it came from porn. They may just think that that’s what everybody’s doing right now.

Have you learned anything from seeing your work on screens? Has it given you a different perspective?
The Leftovers was an incredibly illuminating experience for me because I was a little scared of the material and the big speculative premise that was at the heart of the book. To do it, I thought I’m going to have this crazy, supernatural premise that millions of people have disappeared simultaneously. It seems like the rapture but there’s no apparent religious logic to it. Then I’m just going to write one of my books. I’m going to write a realistic novel about people living in a world where this happened a few years before. In a way, it allowed me to kind of manage this unruly material. But I’ve walled it off. I said there’s going to be no supernatural presence in this beyond the premise.

Then I started collaborating with Damon Lindelof on the TV show and he brought a much more expansive sense of how the show could work and the ways that it could engage with wilder sci-fi. You know, genre conventions of apocalyptic stories. In opening up The Leftovers to that sort of treatment, I think we found emotional depths in the show that didn’t exist in the book. I think it was like “Wow, okay, I could approach my ideas in different ways.” It just kind of shook me a little bit out of my own storytelling habits, which I’d gotten very fond of. It was really exciting to see what could happen when my material got radically re-imagined and some of the rules got changed.

Given the current political climate, do you have any interest in writing more about politics in your future work?
Well, I feel like I’m always writing about politics. I mean, I obviously didn’t write Mrs. Fletcher with Donald Trump in mind. In fact, the book was put to bed by the time Trump won. I was writing the very end of the book maybe during the heart of the campaign, when it was a possibility that Trump would be our president. I do think in my book there’s this idea of, here’s a woman. She’s a strong woman. She has a good job. She’s a feminist. She’s trying to raise her son in a certain way. Yet, he seems in many ways like a stranger to her. And his treatment of women kind of freaks her out a little bit.

This sense of a gap between feminist mothers and a certain kind of American male who is also her son seem to get at something very true about our politics, which is just this gender gap that is revealed in our politics. You know, I was obviously also thinking about all the divisions on campus, and the way in which college students are fighting over what the purpose of an education is and what sorts of behaviors are permissible or desirable within that community. Even though Mrs. Fletcher covers very ordinary stuff – it’s just a kid goes to college and has some interesting/disturbing experiences – I think it’s actually embedded in a pretty crucial political context.

You also wrote a trans woman, Margo, into this book. She serves as a reflection of the time we’re living in, the progress we’ve made, and the tensions we still have to navigate.
Yeah. I was reacting very much to the way that this conversation about gender just accelerated so much in the past three or four years. I don’t remember hearing the words disgendered until right around the time that I started writing the book. Then suddenly, trans people were so visible in the culture. This discussion about what gender was and questions of do we need more pronouns? How many stops are there on the sexual spectrum and on the gender spectrum? All those questions suddenly became unavoidable. We’re really the source of all these interesting and disorienting conversations that people were having outside of academia for the first time.

I love how throughout the book Eve, who is trying to be the most politically correct person, has to give herself these morality checks when she realizes she’s prejudging Margo.
Well, you know, as a writer who is a white, straight male I’m aware that there are people who will be skeptical about my venturing into this territory. But I feel like if gender is going to be reinvented, everybody has to be part of that conversation. It’s not going to work if people in elite academic communities have a certain set of rules and the rest of the society isn’t even aware of them or hasn’t bought into them. I do think this experience of cisgendered people suddenly having to think of themselves in that way is very similar to white people becoming aware of themselves as white rather than just people. I think that end of the story has to be told as well. How does someone who’s secure in her gender react upon meeting her first trans friend or teacher?