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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.