Tom Perrotta talks about "The Leftovers"

"The Rapture is ... a surprisingly rich metaphor for growing older and living with loss," says Perrotta of the end-time theme in "The Leftovers."

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    "I do enjoy writing the more extreme characters," says Perrotta, "the ones who are so caught up in their personal dramas they can’t get any perspective on themselves."
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Was it the Rapture? Suddenly, on a seemingly ordinary October day, 87 people disappear from a small New England town in Tom Perrotta's new novel The Leftovers. Perrotta’s novel follows the stories of those left behind. End-time fiction may seem an unlikely genre for Perrotta (author of "The Abstinence Teacher," "Little Children"). I asked him about this – and a few other things – in a recent interview.

Q. What inspired you to write about the Rapture in "The Leftovers?"

The original impulse came out of the research I did for "The Abstinence Teacher." I got to thinking about the Rapture, and what it might be like for contemporary secular Americans if something like that really did happen. The more I thought about it, the more interested I became – the Rapture is both a lovely and troubling image, and a surprisingly rich metaphor for growing older and living with loss. We’re all aware of the empty spaces around us, the absences that remind us of the people who are no longer there.

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Q. Like the mystical Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, you hold mirrors up to characters in your novels that often reveal sympathetic or brutally honest portraits. Which of these types of characters do you enjoy writing about the most and who would you say are among your favorite characters in your books?

Wow – that’s the first time I’ve ever been compared to a mystical anything, not to mention a Greek philosopher. I don’t really distinguish between sympathy and honesty when I’m writing. The two go together – I’m interested in inhabiting my characters, seeing the world through their eyes. That said I do enjoy writing the more extreme characters, the ones who are so caught up in their personal dramas they can’t get any perspective on themselves – Tracy Flick in "Election," Larry in "Little Children," Tom Garvey in "The Leftovers."

Q. Much of your writing revolves around temptations – and typically those that are succumbed to rather than avoided; for instance, Sarah Pierce and Brad Adamson's affair in "Little Children" and Jim McAllister and Linda Novotny's tryst in "Election" – which had radically different outcomes. How do you decide which characters will suffer and which ones will redeem themselves through remorse of some other catharsis?

Is it too glib (or theological) to say they all suffer and they’re all redeemed? In any case, those aren’t issues I’m particularly attuned to in the writing. I’m just trying to tell the story, to show how the characters got one place to the other, and what they learned on the way. As for writing about temptation, there’s no drama without temptation, and no novel without drama.

Q. Recalling for a moment the uproar author John Updike created in his home town of Ipswich, Mass., after writing "Couples," a novel that was presumed by some to have revealed the intimate affairs of certain residents of that town, would you say that your fictional version of suburbia is more or less "exciting" than the reality?

I guess it depends on how exciting your life is. My novels are certainly more exciting than my own life. I would also say, in general, that the contemporary suburban world is probably a lot better behaved than the world Updike was writing about. There seems to be a lot less drama (fewer affairs, less divorce) than there was at the height of the sexual revolution. That’s probably good for society in general – whether it’s good for the novelist is another question.

Q. You've been called variously "the Steinbeck of Suburbia" and "an American Chekhov" for your insightful (and incisive) treatment of the lives of suburbanites. Were you at all influenced by other chroniclers of suburbia such as Updike, John Cheever, Dominick Dunne, or Philip Roth? Or, are there other writers of this particular subject matter who've left lasting impressions on you through their work?

Dominick Dunne is the odd man out on that list. Updike, Cheever, and Roth were big influences on my work, as they were for most writers of my generation, whether they want to admit it or not. I’m also heavily indebted to a number of writers I first encountered in the 1980s, when I was just beginning to write fiction – Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, Tim O’Brien, and of course, Tobias Wolff, whom I was lucky enough to study with in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse.

Q. Have you considered your next project? If so, could you offer a thumbnail sketch?

I don’t know what my next fictional project will be. At the moment, I’m concentrating on the release of "The Leftovers," working on a feature film script of "The Abstinence Teacher" (along with Lisa Cholodenko), and preparing to adapt "The Leftovers" for HBO.

Christopher Hartman is the author of “Advance Man: The Life and Times of Harry Hoagland.”

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