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Over the past 15 years, Tom Perrotta has taken an unflinching look at how people live their lives, mostly in the seemingly boring world of suburbia. His novels often take on a light, occasionally funny narrative even while discussing darker issues, such as inappropriate teacher-student relationships and high-school politics in Election or pedophilia in Little Children. In his latest novel, The Leftovers, the Garwood, N.J., native imagines a world three months after a non-denominational Rapture-type event, where millions of people disappear from the planet at random, all at the same time. Through the lens of a single family in a small suburb in the Northeast, Perrotta explores how different people react to such a traumatic shared event, and the lengths society will go to in order to cope with the unexplainable. Perrotta talked with The A.V. Club about the novel (which is being adapted into an HBO series), how his blue-collar hometown is disappearing, and the difference between living somewhere and “being from” somewhere.
The A.V. Club: When did the idea of addressing a Rapture-like event come into your head, and what directions did you take the idea in when you started this process?
Tom Perrotta: I think it emerged from The Abstinence Teacher; I did a lot of research into evangelical life and evangelical thought and theology, and I was very struck by the idea of the Rapture as sort of a metaphor. If there’s any difficulty for me, it’s that I’m not talking about the Christian Rapture; I’m sort of borrowing the Christian Rapture to talk about things like loss and collective trauma and the way that history moves on, no matter what happens.
AVC: It feels like a 9/11-type of event, but not as violent because people are just disappearing. Was that the idea you were trying to convey?
TP: Exactly. Something like 9/11 or World War II, when we understand who did what to whom, those can be galvanizing events, and they can give people a sense of purpose. Even that may not last forever, but may last for a while. This [event] only intensifies the feelings of doubt. That’s a part of being human beings on the planet.
AVC: Is it because people disappear at random, and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why they disappeared?
TP: Right, and that’s the fundamental difference between this Rapture and the Christian Rapture. The Christian Rapture says that these are the chosen ones and the rest of you better get right in the seven-year period that’s going to follow before it’s really over for good. It’s kind of a second chance, and an inspiration to get on the side of good against the side of evil. Part of this Rapture-like event in The Leftovers is that you see that people have kind of a religious impulse to this large-scale trauma; it’s just more improvised and much more disconnected from traditional religious forms.
AVC: From where did you get the inspiration to create the ad hoc religious groups that you describe in the book?
TP: I was not interested in satirizing the Left Behind books or taking issue with the Christian model for this; I was really trying to think about it in fresh terms. Certainly, part of American history has been the creation of new religions and they often come at times of social crisis and dislocation. So I was thinking a lot about, you know, 19th century religious groups that have certainly been end of the world groups and Rapture cults, and religions that borrow from Christianity but then shoot off in entirely new directions. So, [I was] definitely thinking about what kinds of events create this certain fertile religious turmoil and cause people to improvise and either find new leaders or try and work on religious communities.
AVC: Was there any trepidation on your part to taking on this subject matter?
TP: Yeah, I must say that if I’m not really frightened by the material, I feel like I’m doing something a little bit wrong. I felt that way with Little Children when I started to get into the pedophile subplot, and I certainly felt that way with The Abstinence Teacher, when I made one of my characters an evangelical Christian, which is not my religion. There’s always a certain amount of risk that you take when you move imaginatively into other people’s experiences.
AVC: Do you see any kind of blowback that might happen from people who might misinterpret what you’re saying about the religious groups in this book?
TP: That remains to be seen. I don’t mind if there’s some blowback and discussion about these things. It’s funny, I write this and completely by coincidence we just went through this Harold Camping non-Rapture that happened. I don’t know exactly what I’m saying there, but we’ve seen people who are waiting for the apocalypse… I guess I’m not answering your question correctly here. I’m not worried about that kind of blowback; if people are engaged on that level, I’d be really pleased about that. I think there’s also just a cultural interest now in thinking about the apocalypse and in thinking about a bleak future, and I think some of that is definitely rooted in sort of a dark historical moment and a moment where it seems like a lot of Americans are uncertain about their futures. Apocalyptic literature allows us to push those worries into kind of a fantasy realm where can think about worst-case scenarios. [Laughs.]
AVC: Is this a book you would have written a decade ago, before 9/11?
TP: I don’t think so, but I wasn’t thinking first and foremost about 9/11. I think 9/11 informed my sense of how enormous historical moments can focus the mind for some period, and even those things start to dissipate and get caught up in the forward movement of history. But I was definitely more focused on that economic crisis in 2008 when the stock market plunged and people were losing their homes, and there was just a sense of deep uncertainty about, you know, five years from now, what will this economy look like? Will people have jobs? Will people have homes? Will people have the money they put away for retirement? I think that was sort of my starting point; I used 9/11 to inform some of the ways I talked about it.
AVC: But a lot of that uncertainty is still there.
TP: I know. It seems like maybe it’s coming back again. I thought for a little while that we had gotten back on solid ground. [Laughs.] But it has a way of coming back.
AVC: Were you trying to capture the universal shared-event feel of a 9/11?
TP: Absolutely, and I remember that day and having the sense that everything was going to be different. And it really was for some years. Now that 10 years has gone by… I mean, I think there were just a couple of years where you thought about it every day, and it just seemed to inform what you talked to your kids [about], and stories on the news, and it obviously informed American military policy. But then three, four, five years go by, and there’s this new normal that has in some sense incorporated this big event and in another sense forgotten this big event, and I think it was instructive. Anybody that through World War II or who lived through the upheaval of the ’60s can remember how those events informed the time that came after then, but also were sort of absorbed into this current of history. But 9/11 was very fresh in my mind when I wrote the book.
AVC: The fictional town of Mapleton feels like the suburban New Jersey you grew up in. In your writing process, where does that experience bubble to the surface for you?
TP: I think it’s so deep it feels like it’s almost there as an assumption or a rock-bottom sense of reality. I think interviewers say “Why the suburbs? Why do you always write about the suburbs?” It never occurred to me that I made a choice. It’s almost like that’s just where my imagination goes. My particular upbringing was small-town, middle-class suburbia, and that’s where I tend to go as a novelist. I think it’s just there in the way that maybe your family is there or your childhood experiences [are there]. That’s just the resources I draw upon when I write.
AVC: But there are clues that someone from New Jersey might pick up on. Was that your intention?
TP: I haven’t lived there since, boy, really since about… over 25 years. I don’t want to be held to that high standard of somebody who lives there now and really knows the texture of life better than I do. So I try to keep things a little bit vague, just so I can allow my imagination to go where it wants to go. I know the world in my head, but I don’t want to say that “This is such-and-such a town and such-and-such a street” or anything like that. If I wanted to for some reason, I’d take the time to do the research and get it right. This was much more in my mind as a kind of somewhat generic Northeastern suburb. It’s not Massachusetts, it’s not Connecticut, it’s somewhere in New Jersey [Chuckles.] but I didn’t want to get too specific about that.
AVC: As a longtime Massachusetts resident, you’ve had a fair amount of exposure to small town New England at this point. How are small town New England and small town New Jersey different?
TP: Well, it’s very interesting, one of the differences is superficial on the one hand but big on another; the town that we live in [Belmont] is a very leafy small town with good schools, but it’s only six miles outside of the city, and it’s very easy to get into the city. Whereas in the New York area, you have to live a lot further out to have this kind of town. So it’s a different kind of suburbs; the suburbs feel much more part of the city, if I can say that. On the other hand, in the town that I live in, there’s definitely a split between newcomers like myself and people who remind me of who I used to be in Garwood, because my dad had grown up there, and was the mail carrier, and our family had real roots there. I’m very conscious of that, since I used to an insider; I had a multi-generational history in that town. Now I live here, but I’m not from here, whereas my kids will be from here. I’ve been very conscious of what it means to be a newcomer as opposed to somebody with deep roots.
AVC: You still feel like a newcomer even though you’ve been living in Belmont for 16, 17 years?
TP: Yeah, which is a funny New England thing. [Laughs.] People tend to go back a long ways in some of these towns. The ethnic mix is not wildly different [from Garwood]—there are definitely some differences—but I grew up in a working class, Catholic world, and that’s very much also present up here.
AVC: Mapleton, the town in your book, seems to be struggling between its blue-collar past and gentrifying present. Do you see that when you go back to your hometown?
TP: I sure do. Garwood, when I was growing up there, I think the town motto was and probably still is “The Industrial Center Of Union County,” and all along the railroad tracks along North Avenue there were working factories and some of those factories worked three shifts, so it was very common for us to see, you know, sweaty workers leaning against the brick wall of the perforating company that was banging loud, and then there was a spray drying [factory], which freeze-dried food, so sometimes the town would smell like whatever food they were freeze-drying that day. [Laughs.] It was a really industrial, blue-collar culture. And I could be wrong about this, but I think most people’s parents when I was growing up had high school educations; there was not a lot of college-educated people. People worked in New Jersey; there weren’t that many who commuted to New York. But all that’s changed; it’s post-industrial, and property values have gone up, and I imagine that’s difficult for blue-collar people to afford that town. And there’s definitely a loss in that. I remember the first time I started to see a whole bunch of guys in suits walking down Center Street with briefcases, and it was a real shock to me; that was just not the profile of the town I grew up in.
AVC: In the book you decided to focus the stories around one family, the Garveys, more or less, and how each member dealt with the Rapture-like event. What were your models for these characters?
TP: I was definitely think of it as a small-town novel in that sense, so the place I started was with Kevin being a mayor, a political leader trying to keep the town afloat and keep everyone’s spirits up and convince them that the worst was over and that they needed to pick up the pieces and move on with their lives. I started there, but I was very interested, as we mentioned before, in talking about religious reactions people have to this event even though it’s religiously ambiguous. So I wanted the family to be split between the two who decided to stay and continue with their lives and the two whose response to this mysterious traumatic event was to search for new religious communities.
AVC: There’s a central scene involving a memorial parade, which invoked the image of small-town Memorial Day parades. What in your experience did you fall back on when you wrote that?
TP: When I was a kid, we marched in parades, often in Little League uniforms or Pop Warner uniforms or Cub Scout uniforms. Recently, there was one in Garwood, I’m trying to remember if it was for the town’s centennial or something, I wish I had the fact right, but it was very moving to me to see. Because it’s such a small town and because even now I know so many people who live there, I find it very moving to see people marching through the center of this small town being applauded by their neighbors, and also just sort of proclaiming their belonging to whatever group it is that they chose. My dad was a volunteer fireman in Garwood, and when he died nine years ago, it was very moving to see all these other firemen and the ladies’ auxiliary come to the funeral home. So definitely, again, because I came from this small town, I really wanted to evoke that particular feature of it. But that’s one way that we come to terms with our history, to sort of publicly mark it, and so I thought it would be an interesting way to get this story off the ground.
AVC: Even in this day and age, why do you think people are still surprised about stories set in the suburbs that dig in and show that things aren’t as ideal as they seem from the outside?
TP: [Laughs.] I don’t know, it’s such a funny… I remember when Little Children came out and [people] said, “Oh, he’s exposing the dark underbelly of suburbia” or something. And I never thought I had any sense of that; I always felt like the whole spectrum of life occurred in the suburbs just the way the whole spectrum of life occurred in the city. Some of the details are different. But I guess just that myth that you’re going to move from the city to this green and leafy place and everything will be all right, and TV reinforced that. But I don’t know who still is the straw man out there who believes that there’s some idyllic suburban town where everything’s good and the people are all nice and there aren’t any problems. That’s not my starting point.
AVC: People have made whole magazines out of how weird the suburbs are.
TP: I know. [Laughs.] I feel like it’s a bit of a straw-man thing. But it does linger; I’ve seen it myself. I sort of feel like I was getting credit for doing something that was not something that I was trying to do, nor did I want any credit for it.