Interview with Jonathan Tropper

Posted by Goodreads on July 30, 2012
Jonathan Tropper is on a tear. With this month's release of One Last Thing Before I Go, the New York-based novelist will have published six books about being a man in contemporary America—all in a little over a decade. Tropper specializes in endearingly flawed characters. There's the vindictive novelist who is the title character in The Book of Joe (2005), the newly bereaved Doug of How to Talk to a Widower (2007), and the embittered Judd, recently fired by his shock-jock boss—yep, the same guy who seduced his wife—in This Is Where I Leave You (2009). In his latest, One Last Thing Before I Go, we cringe as the chronically adrift Silver, once a drummer for a one-hit-wonder band, kicks at the remains of a life he abandoned. Faced with his teen daughter's pregnancy, his ex-wife's impending marriage, and his own potentially fatal heart condition, Silver decides to forego life-saving surgery—a decision that no one else will accept.

Fresh from signing 500 books at his publisher's office, Tropper talks to interviewer Jade Chang about his writing process, his Hollywood career, and living with regrets.

Goodreads: In One Last Thing Before I Go a side effect of Silver's worsening health is that he sometimes fails to censor his speech, leaving him no choice but to say all those things that maybe we should say to each other, and don't.

Jonathan Tropper: For me, there's definitely a form of wish fulfillment in that in fiction you can create characters who can live out loud more than you might, who speak their minds in ways that you wouldn't. We go through life not saying the things that we should say for whatever reason—maybe we're protecting ourselves or others, or we're shy—and these are the things that are designed to bring you closer. The idea of not having the barrier of protection and secrets was very appealing.

GR: You say that it's "wish fulfillment"—is this something you have a hard time with in life?

JT: For a long time I was specifically not able to do that. A lot of this is my own journey of being able to speak up. My nature is to be more reserved—sometimes I feel myself being more reserved in situations where I know I ought not to be. It's amazing that you can recognize this in yourself and still not be able to do anything about it!

GR: You once said in an interview, "When your life gets rocked, it affords you a certain level of emotional honesty." This is starting to sound a little bit like a therapy session, but how do you harness that emotional honesty without rocking your life?

JT: Now you're asking a question that I don't know the answer to—I think the answer is to live as true to yourself as you can, but for a lot of us...we live in complacency, and I think it requires a raising or changing of the stakes to allow us to step out of our existing metric.

GR: There's a scene in One Last Thing where Silver and his daughter go to a diner in his old neighborhood—it's a place that he used to go to with his family before the divorce and where she's still a regular. Through his eyes the whole suburban scene seems terribly depressing, and he thinks, "I used to belong here, I used to be one of them." You live in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York. Do you feel like you belong there, like you're one of them?

JT: To me, it's a point of view. When I'm describing that scene, I'm not saying that across the board it's a depressing scene. That's how he sees it, and that's a window into what drove him away from that life. I live in it, and obviously I don't find it that way otherwise I wouldn't stay. He found the quiet of it somehow threatening to his being—but it's not clear to him or anyone else that he's found anything better.

GR: Do you ever feel like it's your responsibility to defend the suburbs?

JT: I don't think the suburbs require any defending! People are certainly still moving to them in droves.

GR: Goodreads member Hendo asks, "I'm interested to know if Tropper's friends think he's a funny guy—his work can be so serious and heartbreaking, then be laugh-out-loud funny only a moment later. So what kind of person do his friends know, and is that how he sees himself?"

JT: Oh, I definitely don't know the answer to that! You'd have to ask my friends. I know I'm not a comedian; I don't walk around cracking jokes.

GR: You're not the clown of the group?

JT: Definitely not.

GR: The title of your last book—This Is Where I Leave You—and this one—One Last Thing Before I Go—feel like they're in conversation with each other.

JT: That was an accident! I actually regretted it after I suggested the title. I thought, "Oh, absentminded people are going to mistake these and think that they're the same book." But my publisher was so in love with the title that they wouldn't change it.

GR: In a way the two books seem to work in tandem. This Is Where I Leave You is about a family sitting shivah, and One Last Thing Before I Go takes us through all of the other Jewish ceremonies—there's a bris, a bar mitzvah, a wedding, a funeral...

JT: I actually think that this is really a departure from my last few. It's not a first-person narrative, there's a broader character canvas in that I'm shifting points of view, and it's written in a less comical style. People might find it funny, but the story is from a slightly more removed place in that it's about a family that's on a much further place down the road to being broken. With the other books things are just starting to break; with this it's much too late to salvage anything. It's a little harder to understand where the redemption lies. In the others the mistakes were actually happening in the moment. This is from a vantage point of eight years after, so the question is how to move forward.

GR: Is that the product of being a bit older and thinking about your own mortality?

JT: I was less thinking about mortality than about regret, though the two are closely linked. The older you get, the further you go in life, the more you're left with lingering regrets and the more those become part of the tapestry of your life. No one is left without regret. My past characters are all very active in their lives, still on the upward side of the curve. I wanted to write about someone on the other side, who's been a bystander to his own life for so many years.

GR: Silver's numbness and inaction might spur readers to inject a little forward motion into their own lives.

JT: I hope so! It's very hard under any circumstances to get to a happy point in your life without things you regret, and when you're heading into middle age, you're no longer at the point where you get do-overs anymore.

GR: Goodreads member Frank asks, "All of your novels contain deeply personal relationships. Have you ever had an instance where someone in your life has reacted to feeling like they were 'portrayed' in one of your novels?"

JT: I get it all the time, and it's 90 percent not true. People assume that if they know you, you must be writing about them—it's almost insulting that they think you're not capable of making anything up! The people I know wouldn't make for such interesting reading. I always think that people are overestimating their appeal.

GR: Unlike Silver, you are definitely not a one-hit wonder. Several of your books are in development as movies—can you give us an update?

JT: Well, this book, Paramount optioned it for J.J. Abrams, and I'm writing the screenplay for J.J. With This Is Where I Leave You, I wrote the script for Warner Bros., and that's scheduled to shoot this fall. And then there's The Book of Joe: I wrote that screenplay with Ed Burns, and Eddie and I want to make that independently. Let's see... Everything Changes—I'm in the process of finalizing a deal to write that for a financing company.

GR: And you also have a TV show on Cinemax this fall that you're writing with another novelist, David Schickler (Kissing in Manhattan, Sweet and Vicious). What's the premise of the show? It's called Banshee, right?

JT: Yes, Banshee's the name of the town. The show is a one-hour drama about a Pennsylvania town where the new sheriff is actually a convicted felon who just got out of a prison sentence and has stolen an identity. And he's not really interested in law and order...

GR: How was working with a writing partner?

JT: Of course, I never wrote with a writing partner before, which has been an adjustment. You're writing under much tighter deadlines, but because we're working for HBO and Cinemax, it's a great atmosphere where they'll certainly give you their opinion, and you'll give them yours, but everybody gets their day in court, and it's usually the strongest opinion that wins out. There's something frustrating in that, but it's also exciting that you're creating characters everyone's so invested in. You know, when you write books, you're basically alone for a year writing a book. It's wonderful to have people you can call. You have all these other people feeding the idea, and there is something exciting about that.

GR: Let's talk about your writing process. Do you start with a character or a plot?

JT: I have the character in mind and the journey in mind, but the rest of it is something that only comes together when I start writing. I knew I wanted to tell the story of a man who was kind of negligent to his daughter and divorced not from just his wife but his whole life. I started out writing about him and Casey [Silver's daughter], and then I gradually figured out what his marriage was about. Casey's pregnancy was always going to be the trigger, but his heart condition came a bit later. Originally that was not part of it, but I loved the idea that they each had a choice to make. It gave them an allegiance.

GR: What would a typical writing day be like for you?

JT: I work in the office in my house. I generally like to be at my desk by 9 o'clock, writing. I try to avoid the phone till about lunchtime, and then I'll return some calls and take a break. I'll probably shift gears to another project in the afternoon, and then sometime in the evening, if I'm working on the book, I'll go over what I wrote that day. Because I have kids, I treat it as a day job.

GR: What did you grow up reading? What authors or books really influenced you?

JT: Going back, Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, [which] I read in college, What's Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges I read soon after that, and Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, I think I was already published when I read that. Also, Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo.

GR: And finally, what are you reading now?

JT: I'm not reading anything now because I'm so absorbed in writing. The last book I read and liked was The First Husband by Laura Dave, and the next book I will read is probably Canada by Richard Ford.

Interview by Jade Chang for Goodreads. Jade is a journalist and writer living in Los Angeles.

Learn more about Jade and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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message 1: by Denise (new)

Denise I am so excited for the new book! I'm a huge Tropper fan and have read all of his books.

message 2: by Elyse (last edited Aug 02, 2012 04:52AM) (new)

Elyse Walters I'm also excited for your new book.

The first time I read "This is Where I Leave You" ...(reading quietly to myself during a summer vacation --sitting under a tree--I said "Paul, listen to this, you will crack up silly")...
It was at that point-My husband wouldn't let me finish the book 'without' him. We read it together outloud on that vacation. Such Fun!

Later: (I kid you not). I have bought & given your book to at least 7 or 8 people ---
Plus, I've suggested it to dozens of others.

When if comes to tragic-comedy ---nobody makes me laugh more than you. (I happen to be Jewish, also ---but I'd be on the floor laughing even if I wasn't).
I tend to read historical fiction and non-fiction books more often ---(but when its time for a 'break' *YOU* come to mind.

Congrats to you on your new book! A fan also!

message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael I am a huge fan of his writing style, very happy that he has a new book out.

Great questions:)

message 4: by Abdul (new)

Abdul Qadir i will be longing for his book, but i don't know when it will get place in the book shops of pakistan.

message 5: by Mimi (new)

Mimi Elyse wrote: "I'm also excited for your new book.

The first time I read "This is Where I Leave You" ...(reading quietly to myself during a summer vacation --sitting under a tree--I said "Paul, listen to this,..."

message 6: by Mimi (new)

Mimi I'm looking foward to his latest book! I read "this is where" and passed it along to my whole jewish suburb neighborhood! I was so hysterical laughing and shocking at the same point! I also read parts to my husband!!
But now I'm totally into The Bronze Horseman trilogy! Historical fiction-Russia 1941- love story!! Ahhhhh! I think of the characters all the time!
But Troppers next book should be fun!!

message 7: by Abdul (new)

Abdul Qadir i did read a lot about victimisation of the jews in east europe and watched tv drama serial 'holocaust'. anyhow everything about that times is written is heart breaking. but i don't know how did he explore it.

message 8: by Michael (new)

Michael Fantastic author! Fantastic interview! I would love to get one of those autographed copies! Anyone know where they will be sold?

message 9: by Lesa (new)

Lesa Amazing writer! Can't wait for the new book!

message 10: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Cannot wait to read this new book !! Jonathan Tropper is a fantastic author!
I have read and enjoyed all of his previous books :)

message 11: by Abdiqani (new)

Abdiqani Mohamed Realy i am surprised your book i am say to u thanks for your struggle, if allah say i am expecting to write the book whose tittle 'the life of ryan'.

message 12: by Blaine (new)

Blaine Got hooked on "How to talk to a Widower" and ventured thru the remaining Tropper library. I always look forward to a new book from this guy......

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