Lessons from 'The Abstinence Teacher'

A politically liberal sex-ed teacher who's forced by her school board to teach abstinence and a born-again soccer coach who can't shake his love for the Grateful Dead are the two main characters of Tom Perotta's new novel.

MIKE PESCA, host:

Sunday in the suburbs, it means both the Sabbath and soccer. One day, worlds collide as an evangelical coach leads his 10-year-old charges in a post-game prayer, parent Ruth Ramsey objects. She is the abstinence teacher of Tom Perrotta's new book of the same name. But who is this coach invoking Jesus at midfield? He's Tim Mason, recent convert, a former addict who's trying to figure out the ways of his new church and his new wife, who was raised in the faith. Here, listen to Campbell Scott reading from the audio book of "The Abstinence Teacher."

(Soundbite of audio book, "The Abstinence Teacher")

Mr. CAMPBELL SCOTT (Actor, Director, Producer): (Reading) "On the way home that night, it occurred to Tim that he and Carrie had effectively grown up in different countries. At first, this seemed depressing to him, but after a while, he came to realize that it was helpful to think about their relationship in this way, and even oddly comforting. If she'd been a Japanese or a Turkish woman, say, he wouldn't have expected her to know who Bad Company was or to laugh at a passing mention of the Coneheads. He would have either explained the reference or told her that it wasn't important enough to worry about, but he wouldn't have been annoyed or troubled by her ignorance of something she had no reason to know about in the first place.

PESCA: Tom Perrotta, author of "Election," "Little Children" and now "The Abstinence Teacher," joins me. Thanks for giving us some time, Tom.

Mr. TOM PERROTTA (Author, "The Abstinence Teacher"): Oh, my pleasure, Mike.

PESCA: Tell me about that little passage we read. Is that how you envisioned or at least one way you thought about the difference between secular America and Christian America?

Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah. You know, the book was written in the wake of the 2004 election, and I remember at that point really just having this feeling that two countries wasn't really just a metaphor, that, really, we're living in different realities whether we were in red America or blue America. And what I wanted to do in the book was really try and illustrate that sense.

PESCA: And how much research did you do to make sure to get all the details right, and how much did you just want to rely on your own imagination?

Mr. PERROTTA: Well, you know, it's always a mixture. I think some writers will go out and do tons of research and then winnow it down. What I try to do is start with a character. And Tim Mason, the evangelical soccer coach in this book, could have walked out of my novel, "The Wishbones." He's sort of a, you know, a musician who has hit, you know, a more responsible adult period of life, and is really having trouble adjusting. He's had a drug problem. He's divorced, and, you know, kind of messed up his life pretty badly. And people have given up on him.

And then this church takes him in and this - particularly, this very strong pastor, and makes him feel like his life is worth something and they get him back on his feet. And so I think that once I started with Tim, then it really was a question of, well, what, you know, of the evangelical way of life is going to be difficult for him? You know, what is going to be helpful for him? And so…

PESCA: Right. Because you started with a guy who you recognized as sort of like saying, okay, what if I were an evangelical? And I thought…

Mr. PERROTTA: Exactly. And…

PESCA: Yeah. There's a frame of reference that you got to start off with.

Mr. PERROTTA: Right. And, in fact, you know, in the course of my adult life, which has mostly taken place in secular, liberal communities, I have run into a number of people who've been evangelical Christians and an inordinate number of them have been people who have had drug and alcohol problems and have been helped by their religious faith to deal with those. So I did know that kind of person, and I felt like it gave me a way into Tim, which is really all you need as a fiction writer. You just need a way in and a feeling of connection with a character, and then you can develop them.

PESCA: Have you had any reaction from evangelical readers?

Mr. PERROTTA: You know, it's actually been really good. I think, in a funny way, some liberal readers have had maybe a little more problem because what they were hoping for was an "Election"-like satire that, you know, punctures the pretensions of evangelical Christians when, in fact, the book, I think, really tries to deal in an even-handed way with both sides of the cultural divide.

PESCA: You know, I find that in all the books of yours that I've read, which is all of them but "The Wishbones," on the scale of humanity - from heroic to loathsome - I find most of your characters are in the middle third. Is that how you think of people?

Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah. I've always been one of those writers who has insisted that in the course of an ordinary life, there's enough drama to power a good story or a good novel. And, you know, I started with a book called "Bad Haircut" that follows this one kid, and it really looked at all these sort of mythic moments of childhood, whether it be…

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. PERROTTA: …getting your driver's license or going to the prom or, you know, playing in a Pop Warner football game, and tried to develop moral dramas around just the choices that everyday people make in the course of their ordinary life, and that's really a kind of an article of faith for me.

PESCA: There's another thing that somehow you're able to do - maybe I could get you to talk about it if you've even thought about it. You have your finger on the unglamorous aspects of life like no other writer I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: I mean, you can somehow evoke the itchiness of a shirt or a weird smell, or just - I mean when we think about our life's experiences, we edit out the fact that we were tired or hung over or things smelled bad, but somehow you're able to nail that sense. Is that something you work on? Or is that, like, just how you experience life?

Mr. PERROTTA: You know, that's a really interesting thing, because I remember talking about this in college with a roommate of mine, and, you noticing in, say, Henry James, you know, how ethereal everything was. You know, it was this high level of, you know, psychological speculation and articulate conversation as if, you know, no one's ever hungry. No one ever goes to the bathroom. No one's clothes don't fit right. You know? And it did strike me that, you know, one of the jobs of the fiction writer was to get as much of life as possible onto the page.

And, you know, I do feel like most of our exalted moments are, you know, dragged down to earth by, you know, a little rock in your shoe or, you know, the fact that you're - you ate a little too much for dinner. So I do try to keep that in mind.

PESCA: All right. Well, Tom, thanks a lot for your time. This is a very good book.

Mr. PERROTTA: Oh, thanks so much, Mike. It's great talking to you.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Can I borrow a copy of that book, or has it already gone back to the NPR library? Otherwise known as Mike Pesca's living room.

PESCA: You have it, with my underlines.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: All right. Thanks so much.

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