Friday, July 9, 2010

An Evening With Jonathan Tropper

Ain't it great when a writer you admire turns out to be as funny and entertaining in person as he is on the page? Such is the case with Mr. Tropper, who I caught last night at a signing/reading on his tour to promote the release of the paperback version of This Is Where I Leave You, one of my favorite novels of 2009.

Put it this way: If Jon's careers as a novelist and screenwriter don't work out, stand up comedy wouldn't be a stretch. He's quick-witted, smooth, sarcastic and damn funny — seemingly very similar in real life to the fictional wise-cracking, smart ass main characters in his novels.

In fact, when someone asked him the inevitable (and annoying) question about how much of his writing is autobiographical, he smirked and deadpanned "None of it." Then he paused, laughed, backed himself up a bit, and explained that any writer who says that there isn't at least a kernel of autobiography in his fiction is lying. He said that of any of his books, Everything Changes (my review here), along with being possibly his favorite, is the most autobiographical. The novel is about an early-30s New Yorker who pees blood one day, freaks out that he might have cancer, and then falls in love with his dead best friend's widow while dealing with the return of his clownish, Viagra-popping father Norm. Tropper made it clear that none of that had actually happened to him, leaving us to wonder what about the novel made it most autobiographical for him.

Tropper began the event by talking about how he developed the story for This Is Where I Leave You, presumably preemptively striking against the "Where do you get your ideas?" question. He said he wanted to write a book about a guy who loses his job and wife in one fell swoop. And then, to add insult to injury (and comedy for his reader), he wanted to send his character to the worst possible place he could imagine when things were low: his parents house. But he needed a way to keep him there for more than 20 minutes, so he converted the family to Judaism, killed the father, and had them sit shiva — all in one afternoon of creative inspiration. That was a productive afternoon, he said.

A woman commented that the character Judd in This Is Where I Leave You is every woman's worst-nightmare regarding how men think. This made me laugh, because I thought Judd, if a little depraved and more honest than might be socially acceptable, was actually pitch perfect for how dudes think. Tropper also laughed, and said, "So is the question 'Do all men think like that?' Well, I have bad news for you..." He conceded a little, explaining that Judd is "sexually angry" because he'd just caught his wife in bed with his boss, so that's the lens through which readers should look at him over the course of the rest of the book. In other words, there's a part of Judd in every dude, but because Judd is a bit damaged at the moment, not every dude lacks the impulse control Judd seems to, in both thoughts and deeds. 

A few other notes from the event:
— Tropper changed publishers between Everything Changes and This Is Where I Leave You, actually paying to get out of his contract because he was fed up with the way his former publisher was marketing his novels, and was especially annoyed by their ridiculous covers. Yeah, he said he despises the Everything Changes cover — he said he thought he'd written a novel about a guy in crisis, and then what do they put on the cover? A giant vagina. He also hated the original cover for How To Talk To A Widower (my review here) — a novel about death whose cover makes it look like a teen comedy. Thankfully, his past books have been re-published with new covers more closely resembling the design of This Is Where I Leave You.

— I asked him how he translates his humor to the page, since jokes, one-liners and especially sarcasm don't always translate well in black and white print. He said he doesn't try to write funny, he just writes. That's his style, his personality. I might not have believed that without actually meeting him, but it's pretty apparent from the way he is that that is the case.

— He's written a screenplay for This Is Where I Leave You (it's kind of a rarity for writers to adapt their own novels), which currently has a "famous" director attached and is in development at Warner Brothers. He said he's hopeful the movie will get made, but he's not holding his breath. As a screenwriter also, he seems pretty jaded and disenchanted with Hollywood. "Any movie that doesn't have a super hero doesn't get made anymore."

— He said his favorite novelist is Richard Russo, who actually also adapted his own novel — Empire Falls — for an HBO miniseries.

Here's the rest of Tropper's book tour schedule. If he's coming to your city, I'd highly, highly recommend checking him out!


  1. This Is Where I Leave You is high up on my to-read pile. I've barely touched it, but I just have this feeling that I'll like it a lot. Thanks to your enthusiasm as well. :) If it all works out, I saw a copy of How to Talk to a Widower in a bookstore, and I might trek to get that.

    So thrilled for you! Meeting favorite authors is such a dorky high, innit?

  2. Lucky you! I'd never even heard of Tropper until you reviewed it last year, and I'm intrigued. I'd have to agree with you (and him, it seems) that the big vagina cover is, well... strange. Great post, and sounds like a great signing/reading/talk.

  3. sounds like a great event! He is coming back to NY in August so hopefully I will be in town to see him here. Thanks for the post on the event!

  4. Terrific post! It must have been greeat to hear him speak. Thanks for posting about it.

    Funny that Russo is his favorite writer - he's mine too.

  5. Nicely reported Greg. Quick question, have you read any of the other books. I'm half-way through This is Where I Leave You and am wondering if this is representative of the rest of his oeuvre.

  6. @Sasha - Meeting authors is indeed a dorky high. I'd highly recommend getting to This Is Where I Leave You as soon as humanly possible. You will not be disappointed!

    @Kerry - It was a great event - was almost relieved to discover how cool he was in person. He matches the tone of his writing to a T.

    @Booksnyc - Definitely go see him if it fits into your schedule! He's great.

    @Janna - Yeah, Russo's one of my favorites, also - so that part of this talk made me very happy.

    @the Ape - Yeah, I've read Everything Changes and How To Talk To A Widower. This Is Where I Leave You is his best, IMO, but those other two are very similar in terms of tone, humor and entertainment value. Definitely recommended - but put some time between reading them, otherwise you might be annoyed that they're TOO similar...

  7. I don't want to be a curmudgeon because I really didn't like TIWILY, but I thought it was clearly written with an intent to sell the film rights and was basically a script already, from the clear structure to the broad humor to the clearly "typed" characters. I forsee an aging actress who has fallen on hard times positioning this as a comeback of sorts, playing the mother.

    I sent my girlfriend the following when I was partway through. Perhaps I was a tad bitter about it?

    "from the studio that brought you little miss sunshine comes a story that reminds how sometimes, the things that threaten to tear us apart are often the moments that bring us closer together..."

    (killers song starts playing over fast cut montage)

    "jason segal. joseph gordon-levitt. rachel mcadams. david schwimmer. and goldie hawn."

    (shot of the dad knocking the potty out of the boy's hands, implied shot of the mess landing on a plate, dialogue: "well, you can't ask for a more perfect metaphor than that!")

    "this is where i leave you... rated pg-13."

  8. @Joel - I'm not sure "it already felt like a movie" is legitimate criticism. What novel doesn't? Besides, I'm not sure I buy your argument anyway. If Tropper had ONLY wanted to sell the movie rights, why not just write in the first place as a screenplay and save the needless and soul-sucking work of novelizing it first? Your actual criticisms of clear structure (though I'm not sure what that means), broad humor and typed characters, well...I couldn't disagree more - a mid-50s mom who is having a secret lesbian relationship with her neighbor? A woman who has sex with her brother in law as what she feels like is her last resort for conceiving a his father's shiva? Not exactly a trope there, in my mind...Nor is that broad humor. In fact, much of the humor wouldn't appeal to most of the chuckleheaded, Jersey-Shore-watching dunderskulls out there. A lot of it is pretty smart. But I liked your movie trailer. I'd go see it!

  9. I thought it read like a movie because there is hardly anything interior about it. All of the characters get together to have long conversations about exactly what they are thinking (the phrase "I wish dad was hear must appear at least a dozen times, usually after either 1) something emotional happening, or 2) something funny happening). Old wounds are opened, but everyone more or less makes up by the end in a style that reminded me of way too many wacky family dramedies (Family Stone, Dan in Real Life, Little Miss Sunshine).

    Broad humor = poop flying across the room, guy getting set on fire having sex (by a thrown birthday cake no less)... I can't remember a lot of examples since it's close to a year since I read it, but it was very into the farcical comedic set-piece. The dialogue was also very "set up/punchline" all the way through.

    By "clear structure" I meant it all takes place in a week, basically in one location, and counts down the days. Everyone is forced to stay together because of the promise to their mother. It doesn't do anything ambitious in terms of plot movement (and yes, I know, that's the book... Fine. But it was more the way this combined with everything else - the characters, the dialogue - that made it feel like a certain kind of movie I've seen many times before). Each day is one comic scene after another, with the constant progression of goofy mourners coming in for a fresh laugh whenever we need one (oh ha ha the old guy is horny! Hey the fat guy's chair broke! And so on.) The emotional revelations, such as they are, come at just the right moment chronologically (i.e. the Roger Rabbit rule of storytelling) - everything really exciting happens right before everyone has to go their separate ways, so we get the climax and then a smidge of catharsis. This did not feel genuine to me, it felt contrived.

    The characters are totally typed! The one that sticks out the most is the loser brother, who might as well have "comic relief" stamped on his forehead. And I didn't find anything interesting about the mother turning out to be a lesbian. Her character was probably the most irritating, actually. Oh, the weird sex columnist mom, look how all her kids have relationship hangups. Again, it has been some time since I read this one, but each of the siblings seemed to have about two personality traits. I mean, wasn't one dude angry because his bright future in sports had been ruined? Never being able to live up to the glory days of high school isn't exactly a fresh character motivation.

    The idea that all the wacky estranged siblings are brought back together by a tragedy is totally a trope. The only one more overdone is, perhaps, someone lingering on their wistful memories of a lost loved one while driving to some obscure favorite place to scatter some ashes. Oh wait, that was Russo's book.

    I didn't think it was badly written at all. Many of the comedic moments were amusing even if they didn't seem particularly original. But it just seemed very tossed off, like clearly Tropper was capable of a lot more. Which is why it felt to me like a bid for a movie deal. I assumed he wrote it as a novel because he is a novelist and writing a screenplay is a very different skill set, and not all authors care to do it (or would necessarily be good at it).

  10. I have read and enjoyed all of J. Tropper's books. They all have a special slant toward human every day interactions that allows me to relate and see the humor in living.