Do This/Q&A: Author Drew Perry, Kids These Days

Meet him at Inkwood Books tonight.

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Stop in Inkwood Books tonight, where North Carolina-based author Drew Perry will read passages and sign copies of his most recent novel, Kids These Days.

It's an entertaining read, about loan officer Walter and his wife, Alice, who is expecting their first child and must relocate to Florida after his career becomes another casualty of the big real estate balloon pop. The two move into Alice's deceased aunt's condo. Weirdness ensues, when Alice's brother-in-law Mid offers Walter a job. Mid's line of work is highly suspicious, and soon lands them in deep trouble. At the signing, Perry will discuss his endearing, Hiaasen-esque ode to impending fatherhood. CL caught up with the author before his visit.

Drew Perry
  • Drew Perry
You've hinted at biographical leanings in creating your protagonist. While writing the book, did you intentionally have Walter say or do anything you wouldn't, apart from the situations he's in?

I always write towards what I’m afraid of, and when I was first writing this book, I was deeply, deeply afraid of having kids. Now I have kids, and I’m even more afraid. Turns out that a toddler, any toddler, is a pretty good evil genius, as evil geniuses go. So: sure, some (many?) of my fears are Walter’s fears. But any piece of fiction worth anything must eventually take on a life of its own, and Walter pretty quickly becomes his own man, responding in his own ways. That’s actually when I first know I’m doing alright on the page—when I’m not making characters say things any longer, and instead I’m just listening, trying to get them right.

Any real-life people influence the other characters — Alice, Mid, Carolyn?

I initially had Mid set up as an old friend of mine who was forever chasing the next big scheme, and as a kind of straw man for the excesses that melted the economy, but he, too, became too real on the page for me to force him to be or do anything — in fact, I’d wanted to leave him in jail (he goes to jail pretty early in the novel), but things were less interesting without him. In ways, he takes over the book. I loved writing him — and his hard-to-handle 15-year-old daughter, Olivia, who becomes the sort of moral compass of the whole thing.

As for Alice and Carolyn, they’re hybrid versions of women in my life—my wife, my sisters-in-law, a few friends—who know much more about how the world strings itself together than do the men in their lives. If I stole from them, I stole patience. And details about hair and dresses.

As a writer/editor at a free newsweekly, I don't earn as much as, say, a corporate copywriter, so a good many of my PR-leaning, liberal arts peers, are a bit more affluent and lead a different lifestyle. They have disposable income and spend money on things I'd never even imagine owning (like Mid and the yellow Camaro). Did you run into this a lot as a professor/beginning novelist? Are you settling into a comfortable life now with your new family?

It is true that I could make more money doing a lot of other things — even, perhaps, by painting my pickup green and starting a lawn-mowing business. (I’ve done the math.) But my wife and I are pretty lucky — we both have solid teaching jobs, which means we’re not rich, but we’re insulated from the market in a way. We’ll never have yellow Camaros (I’ve done the math on that, too), but we can scrape together enough money to pay the mortgage and hire a sitter once a month so we can flee the boys and have dinner, so yeah— I guess I am settling into a pretty comfortable life. I wouldn’t give it back: I draw a paycheck, whatever its size, to write and talk about stories. Plus I love being a dad. It’s killing me, but I love it.

Was lampooning the questionably rich of Florida a way to deal with anxieties about money? Or is that just my mode of therapy?

The Questionably Rich of Florida should have been the title of the book! You know, I didn’t set out to lampoon them, the Questionably Rich — it’s just that back pre-meltdown, there were all these housing developments springing up literally in the middle of nowhere, and I just kept thinking, Who will ever live here? Right about that same time, I got obsessed with parking lot ice machines (Who owns these things? How much do they cost? What the hell are they, anyway?), and the novel kind of built itself around that—how hard we all work to build our own empires, however wobbly and weird.

When you were a kid and you'd come to visit Florida, did you imagine you'd ever write a book about it?

Not when I was a kid. When I was a kid I was hoping there would be a girl staying at the condo complex next door who would hold my hand. By middle school I was hoping for a kiss. But by the time I was in my twenties and knew I would be a writer, I do think I knew I’d set a book in Florida some day, in a beach town. I love it all too much, love the strangeness that attends to a beach town, love the open-air fish-sandwich joints and the surf shops and the bikini-selling gas stations and really just about everything that sits more than a block back from the water. I need landscape in my work, and I know this one by heart.

Did you have wacky relatives or family friends here? Or were your evenings summering in Florida spent in polite company at Southern-touristy seafood restaurants with broiled fisherman's platters that come with a foil-wrapped baked potato?

Oh god no. No polite company. We have family friends in Jacksonville — that’s who we vacationed with for years — but the place we went (and still go), Crescent Beach, is a really sleepy town. You have to drive a ways to find any potato at all, much less foil-wrapped. We were (and are) of the buy-groceries-for-the-week sort, down on the beach every day, all week. Move your chair for the tide and nothing else. For a brief time when we were teenagers I think we found pirate-themed mini-golf to sulk in or at a couple nights a week, but it’s mainly been low-key sand and food for 30 years.

And by the way: I almost always order that platter fried. With gator tail. I am not proud of any part of that.

The '80s comedy film Summer Rental starring John Candy was filmed at a couple of our beach communities (Treasure Island, St. Pete Beach). Did you ever see it? That film captured some of the absurdities of beach vacations ...

That is a deep cut, and I know a lot of John Candy. So I guess I should be totally honest and say I know it but have never seen it, though I can probably guess: Inflatables? Kids? Hijinks? Stray romantic storylines bluntly resolved? Beer and sunburn? Shark jokes? Incompetent men?

Maybe that’s what’s so great about the beach town: It’s a completely American experience, even in its absurdity. It is a distilled version of the great time we know we’re supposed to be having. The week’s clock is up there ticking, and if we haven’t rented a sailboard yet, we’re doing it wrong. I love the desperation of it all. I also unrepentantly love the beach, and even boogie boards, so I guess I also embrace all the contradictions.

A lot of people have compared your style to Carl Hiaasen. I definitely saw that with the eccentric hang glider. Yet, you steer clear of arbitrarily inserting eccentricities to grab the readers' attention. Like Hiaasen's books and Florida itself, they come to life quite naturally.

Well, thanks. I definitely want it all to feel organic, natural — I don't want to be strange or silly for the sake of being strange or silly. But I also feel like the world is a deeply odd place, and if it presents you with a flying man — that guy is lifted directly from Crescent Beach, circa maybe 10 years ago — then you should make full use. In many ways I feel like my job as a writer is not so much to invent, but to steal. Artfully, of course. I hope.

Do you have any advice for professional writers or writing teachers striving to publish their first novel?

Do not do it. Do not do it unless your first love is the desk and the work itself. Everything else that comes with it is wonderful and heartbreaking and exhilarating and wrenching and any number of other things, but what remains is you and your work and the desk, and if you’re not happy there, you won’t be happy out in the world on the other side, when somebody’s printed the thing and said, well, let’s put it out there and see what happens.

Also: tell the very best, most important story you know. Don't save anything for any other book. You’ll have new ideas later. Use everything you know right now, for this book.

If you had to own any yellow mode of transportation — it has to be yellow — what would it be?!

A helicopter I could land in people’s lawns so I could hand the book out one copy at a time—which is how legend has it that Kris Kristofferson convinced Johnny Cash to listen to his songs.

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