On Pushing the Envelope: A Q&A with Novelist Jonathan Tropper
Critics have often called novelist Jonathan Tropper “the American Nick Hornby,” because Tropper writes about guys—not men—who have yet to grow up, even though they are usually in their thirties, looking for love and some change in their lives. In his sixth novel, One Last Thing Before I Go, just released in paperback by Plume, Tropper’s main character suffers a heart attack and refuses to have surgery because he feels his life is not worth living—not with his divorce, his estranged daughter and his failed career as a rock star. Like his last novel, the best-selling This Is Where I Leave You (Plume), which takes place at a shiva One Last Thing Before I Go deals with a Jewish family as well as issues of God and religion—not to mention Tropper’s usual trope of what it’s like to be a man in America.
Q. Drew Silver, the forty-something divorced protagonist of One Last Thing Before I Go, is a bit different than your previous male figures, who are usually in their early to mid-thirties and single or married. Why?
A. Well, it was a combination of a few factors: I’ve written five books in which we were meeting the characters in the middle of a crisis, and it was always clear there would be some form of redemption around the corner. I was interested in writing about someone who had failed to get that redemption and it was too late—he lost his wife, he lost his daughter, he lost his career. I wanted to see what that redemption looks like once it’s too late to correct mistakes.
Q. After he decides not to have the surgery that would save his life, Drew’s father, Rabbi Ruben Silver, decides to take his son to every Jewish life-cycle event: a brit, a bar or bat mitzva, a wedding, a funeral.
A. Well, you know, I felt like when you see someone who has screwed up his life as badly as [Drew] Silver had, you would make assumptions about his own childhood and upbringing. I wanted to give him really solid people and good parents. I don’t think there’s necessarily a correlation between people who screw up their lives and their parents, and so I like the idea of having a guy who’s a screw-up and has good parents.
Q. And why the life-cycle events?
A. I wanted to grapple with God’s role in everything. We have all these rituals that are supposed to be about God that, depending on your beliefs, can be in many ways deep or can be empty rituals. They mean one thing to his father, one thing to him.
Q. Is this a commentary on your belief system? Are you trying to say something about God and religion?
A. No. I’m really careful not to do that. I don’t like my books to be political or take any side. I tend to move away from organized religion. His father is the most sympathetic character in the book. I like to focus on the characters rather than make them represent movements…it’s much more interesting to me to see the individual that you think you have pegged where he is in his life, but then you don’t have him pegged at all. People would assume that the father—a rabbi—would be an overbearing pain in the ass, but he is wise and sweet and the most sympathetic character in the book.
Q. Fathers are always important characters in your novels. Sometimes they are caring, but often they have very complicated relationships with their sons and themselves. What is the Jewish father to you—and why is he important?
A. I don’t think it has to do with being Jewish. I think men coming into manhood—which is what my books are about, men who were arrested in their development coming of age late in life—can’t do that without grappling with their impressions of their father….
Q. You grew up in Riverdale and live in Westchester, both modern Orthodox communities in New York. But your characters seem to be from Reform or Conservative Jewish homes.
A. They’re never really any kind of Jews. When I was starting out, I didn’t want to write about Jews. I wanted to write about contemporary East Coast Americans. In This Is Where I Leave You, which takes place at a shiva, that was the least Jewish family possible. I was really careful not to make anyone Jewish. I wanted to write about your generic Americans. But then I started feeling like there’s not that much difference—we’re all American. The only books with Jewish plot lines are the last two, where I could give it a little more flavor [by making them Jewish].
Q. Your new television show, Banshee, which is filming its second season to air on Cinemax, seems different than your novels.
A. Banshee is a violent sexy drama about an ex-con who becomes sheriff of a small town in Amish county, Pennsylvania. I created the show with a friend. I wanted to do something different. I like action movies, I like the Coen brothers. I wanted to do something that pushed the envelope on television.
Q. Five of your six novels have been optioned for films. This Is Where I Leave You, starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda, among others, is now shooting in New York. Mike Nichols is in talks with producer J.J. Abrams to direct One Last Thing Before I Go, which you wrote the script for. What’s it like working in Hollywood versus in books?
A. It’s using different muscles. It’s a great creative diversification: Writing prose is one part of it, telling stories visually is just another way to do it. [On the] TV show, I’m the writer and I work with other writers, directors, actors, wardrobe and hair, and it’s a big social enterprise. As a novelist you do all those things yourself.
Q. So will you be moving permanently to the visual form?
A. No. I’ll always write books. I’m writing a new novel now for Dutton. It’s great to collaborate with people, but it’s great to have one little spot where you are the absolute ruler on everything. No one else has any input on my books but me.