In his new novel The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta imagines the aftermath of a Rapture-like event on a suburban American town not so dissimilar from the ones he examined in Little Children or The Abstinence Teacher. I spoke with Perrotta on the deck of his home, in the Boston suburbs.
You write a lot about the suburbs. What interests you in them?
It's never been an actual interest. It's a default setting of my imagination. It's where I grew up. It's where I live. I'm going to be 50 in about a week and I've lived in cities about five years of that and suburbs 45 years of that. It's where the stories take place in my mind.
It seems like they're all New Jersey. Is that true?
Little Children was Massachusetts. I grew up in New Jersey and I tend to write about New Jersey. I tried with Abstinence Teacher and The Leftovers to be a little vague. It's almost like I'm envious of The Simpsons for Springfield. They have this place that stands in for America rather than is a specific place. Obviously there are many Americas. It's a little misleading to say this white upper-middle-class suburb is America, but I'd rather it be about America than New Jersey or Massachusetts.
You have people in The Leftovers who have left the town and come back and some who've never left the town. What is it about those kinds of people who never leave?
I hadn't thought about it in that way. I definitely thought about it in Joe College, which was about leaving the place you grew up in. We're used to thinking of America being a very mobile society and people living all over the place but in a lot of places, people stay where they grew up. The Leftovers is a little bit about people deciding if they should stay or they should go. Partly that's about the time and it's also about the place they are in their lives.
For me, I've wanted to write about towns lately. It's a family novel but it's also a town novel. It's really like a microcosm. It's really hard to write about America as an overarching political entity. So for me the town is like this political microcosm. Kevin's the mayor. I don't want to make many grand claims for it but I do think the town is a manageable unit. You can see how it organizes itself and how things get figured out.
Where did you get the idea for this book and writing about the Rapture?
In a way it grew out of The Abstinence Teacher. I spent a lot of time thinking about Evangelical culture, reading about the Rapture, which has always been a fascinating image for me. I grew up Catholic; it's not a concept for Catholics and a lot of mainstream Protestants don't deal with it either. While reading for The Abstinence Teacher, I came across that fact that in pre-Millennial Christian theology there's the Rapture and then there's the seven year period of tribulation. I thought that seven years is a long time and thought, half-jokingly, that three years after the Rapture I'd forget everything that had happened. In that joke was some seed of the novel.
Whenever there's a major event, some people build their lives around it and some people just move on, just flow. The book is not about the actual trauma but about how people deal with the trauma. It's not a satire about the Rapture. It's not even about the Christian Rapture. It's a concept I borrowed from Christians and secularized for purposes of the novel.
What kind of research goes into writing a novel? How long does it take you? This book took me two years to write. The Leftovers is far less researched than something like The Abstinence Teacher, where I spent every day immersed in the Bible or going to church or a Promise Keepers rally. Because The Leftovers is set in a futuristic world, I couldn't do that much researching. But I did some pretty amazing reading. Pursuit of the Millenium, about end-of-the-world cults. A great biography of Jim Jones called Raven. When Prophesy Fails, about an end-of-the-world cult.
Why the smoking of cigarettes for the cult members in The Leftovers?I was trying to create a plausible suburban cult. Part of it was that I tried to do that, "What would you do if you knew the world was going to end?" thing. Some people would pack in as much fun as they could. So I thought, what would you do if you were part of a contemporary cult that thought that the end was coming? The idea of smoking struck me as a funny one because for some people it's an illicit pleasure and for other people that would be like taking poison. It seems like a good ambiguous gesture and is something that in a contemporary suburban setting is fairly unusual. By its nature, it has to be available to everybody. I think that the white clothing and smoking is just enough to give them that sense of identity and separation that cuts them off from the rest of the community.
There are lots of storylines that aren't revealed completely until later in the novel. How do you organize your writing?
There are always mass amounts of information that need organizing. I made a choice from the beginning that it doesn't start on the day of this Rapture-like event. Basically, I made a choice to have it start three years after and that was my way to announce that this was about the aftermath, somewhat distant, of this terrible event. That meant that I had a lot of history to fill in through flashbacks. I had to figure out where to put that. I wrote a draft and discovered that certain people were really unsure about what this event was. There is some ambiguity in the book about it and I ended up writing the prologue, a discussion of what the Rapture is and why this may or may not have been the Rapture. It was a way to orient the reader and make everyone clear about what this thing was. My plan of starting the book three years later was adjusted quite a bit with this prologue.
Why do you use chapter titles?
It's something I've always had fun with and it may have something to do with having been a short-story writer. I definitely think of a chapter as a unit I work in. I never sit down and say, "I have to write a 350-page novel," because I think I would just collapse under the possibility of that. If I have a 25-page chapter to write, that is doable. I can see the end in sight. I like giving the chapters names. It gives me a chance to be poetic. I'm not a particularly poetic writer. Little phrases can get pulled out that seem funny or lyrical or just weird. That's become a recognizable signature for me.
What's the best part of writing?
The best part is when I've invested enough in a book that it's started to become real to me, that it picks up momentum and you're starting to feel like you're living inside this world. Six months before, a year before, it was nothing.