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.