'Leftovers': Life After Judgment Day

The rapture is the starting point of author Tom Perotta's new novel, The Leftovers. It's about the lives of the people left behind; how they cope with loss, where they look for comfort, how to move their lives forward. Guest host John Ydstie speaks to Perrotta about his book.

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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. The rapture - or Judgment Day - when the faithful are rescued from the Apocalypse in the end times, is the starting point of author Tom Perotta's new novel, titled "The Leftovers." It's about the lives of the people left behind - how they cope with loss, where they look for comfort, and how they move their lives forward. Perotta's six previous works of fiction include "Election" and "Little Children," which were both made into movies. Tom Perotta joins us from WBUR in Boston. Welcome.

TOM PEROTTA: Well, thank you.

YDSTIE: So why did you choose the rapture as a point of departure for the novel?

PEROTTA: You know, I had been thinking a lot about evangelical Christianity in relation to my last book, "The Abstinence Teacher." It was a kind of exploration of the American culture war that was going on during the administration of George W. Bush. And I started thinking a lot about the rapture, and especially the idea - the tribulation, the seven-year period after the rapture, when the people who are left behind have to sort of - they get a second chance to get it right and fight on the side of good. And it struck me that the way that our culture works now, seven years is an incredibly long time. And in my mind, I thought, you know, some people three years in won't even remember the rapture; they'll just be on to the next thing. This, you know, apocalyptic event will be absorbed into the narrative of history the way that all kinds of other, you know, hugely traumatic historical events got absorbed in the flow of history.

YDSTIE: Actually, there are a lot of rapture deniers in the novel, or people who just think it's some other kind of phenomenon. There's a whole range of descriptions for it, right?

PEROTTA: Yeah. You know, I didn't want the book to turn into a sort of critique of the Christian rapture, and I didn't really want to get too literal. I really wanted to use the rapture as a metaphor. And the event in the book is known to some people as the rapture, and to other people as the sudden departure. One of the reasons for this difference in opinion is that it's not just the Christian faithful who have disappeared. It seems to have been a sort of random act. You know, millions of people all over the globe, of all sorts of religions and all sorts of non-religions, have disappeared. And so it doesn't make sense within the framework of the Christian apocalypse.

YDSTIE: As part of your research, did you read the "Left Behind" series, the very popular evangelical books that were written on this subject?

PEROTTA: I did, of course, because I sort of knew that I was wandering into territory that Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye had explored in that wildly popular, multi-volume series.

YDSTIE: And do you see your book as a continuation of that genre, in some way?

PEROTTA: Well, I don't know. I certainly see the relationship. I have a feeling that people who approach my book from a kind of straightforward Christian position will see it much more as a subversion of that genre rather than an extension of it.

YDSTIE: But in any case, it creates lots of interesting scenarios - people examining why they were left behind, people trying to make sense out of life, lots of introspection and re-examining of why we live our lives the way we do. Really great grist for a novel.

PEROTTA: Yeah. It was a lot of fun for me in the course of writing this. I mean, the Apocalypse was a lot of fun for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PEROTTA: You know, one of the things I was able to do in this was to create some cults. So that seemed to me plausible expressions of sort of contemporary American culture. So there's a group called the Guilty Remnant, who dress in white and chain- smoke. And this chain-smoking is an expression of their disbelief in the future. And they travel around just sort of shadowing people, so that they will never forget what's happened. They call themselves living reminders.

YDSTIE: One big issue, of course, is people who thought they should have been taken in the sudden departure or the rapture, like the evangelical minister Reverend Matt Jamison, of the Zion Bible Church. I wonder, actually, if you wouldn't mind reading an exchange between Reverend Jamison and another character, Nora Durst, whose husband, Doug, and children, Jeremy and Erin, all disappeared during the sudden departure. It begins with a response to Reverend Jamison from Nora.

PEROTTA: OK. (Reading) There was no rapture, she told him. The reverend laughed as if he pitied her. It's right there in the bible, Nora. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. The truth is right in front of us. Doug was an atheist, Nora reminded him. There's no rapture for atheists. It's possible he was a secret believer. Maybe God knew his heart better than he did. I don't think so. He used to brag about how there wasn't a religious bone in his body. But Erin and Jeremy, they weren't atheists. They weren't anything. They were just little kids. All they believed in was their Mommy and Daddy and Santa Claus. Reverend Jamison closed his eyes. She couldn't tell if he was thinking or praying. When he opened them, he seemed just as bewildered as before. It doesn't make any sense, he said. I should have been first in line.

YDSTIE: And of course, Reverend Jamison ultimately had a very nasty response to his situation. He starts trashing the reputations of all the people who were taken.

PEROTTA: That's right. I think one of the things that happens in the wake of these disappearances is that a lot of people tend to romanticize the people who've left. They call them heroes, and sort of assume that they were chosen because of their virtues. And this really offends the reverend, who sees himself as a - sort of more virtuous person and more faithful person than a lot of the people who left. And to prove it, he becomes a kind of investigative journalist and goes around digging up dirt on the people who disappeared, just to make it clear to everyone that this couldn't be the Christian rapture because God wouldn't have chosen these particular people.

YDSTIE: One thing that occurred to me as I was reading is that all of us eventually disappear, and the emotions and responses of those who are left behind is, you know, very much like the responses of the characters in your book.

PEROTTA: That's a really interesting point. I think, you know, I may have started out writing this novel thinking over theological questions, and really thinking about the rapture as a sort of literal event. But I think the more I explored these characters, the more I came to the idea that the rapture is this beautiful metaphor for growing older and living with loss, and being conscious of all these very significant absences around us. And so you're right. The book is, in a sense, a kind of concentrated exploration of grief as a kind of a communal fact of life.

YDSTIE: Author Tom Perotta. His new novel is "The Leftovers." Thanks very much for joining us.

PEROTTA: Oh, thanks for having me.

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