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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Tom Perrotta, wrote the novels "Election" and "Little Children," which were both adapted into films. His new novel, "The Leftovers," starts with this premise: What if suddenly millions of people instantaneously vanished around the world in a scenario similar to but definitely different from the Rapture?

The novel is about those people left on Earth or, as the title puts it, the leftovers. Perrotta writes about how they cope with grief and loss and why some see this as an act of God and believe it's the start of the end times while others struggle to find ways to live with the inexplicable.

Tom Perrotta is in the process of adapting "The Leftovers" for HBO. His previous novel, "The Abstinence Teacher," was about the culture wars, focusing on a sex education teacher who's pressured to teach abstinence only.

Tom Perrotta, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your book isn't about the Rapture per se, but to understand what's in the book, you have to understand what beliefs about the Rapture are. So why don't we start with that. What is your understanding of the Rapture?

Mr. TOM PERROTTA (Author, "The Leftovers"): Well, the Rapture is part of pre-millennial end-times theology. It's actually a pretty recent part of Christianity. I think it was a 19th-century invention or formulation, and it's the beginning of the second coming, which is a seven-year period.

So basically, the Rapture is the first real occasion, the Christians on Earth rise to meet Jesus in the sky, and the people who are left behind suffer through a seven-year period of tribulation, which is wars, plagues, all kinds of suffering, and there's a big battle that involves the Antichrist and Armageddon and finally the second coming and the millennium, which is, you know, Christ's kingdom on Earth for 1,000 years.

GROSS: So in the Rapture, the believers rise to heaven, and the nonbelievers stay behind and have to deal with the tribulations, the plagues and floods and all that.

Mr. PERROTTA: Exactly.

GROSS: Okay. So I want you to read an excerpt of the prologue to your novel "The Leftovers," and this is from the point of view of Laurie, who's an agnostic who lives with her husband. They have two children, a boy in college and a girl in high school.

She never believed in the Rapture. She says that it always seemed like religious kitsch to her, kind of like one of those black velvet paintings. And then she's kind of hit with the fact that all these people have disappeared. So why don't you pick it up from there?

Mr. PERROTTA: Okay. (Reading) Then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world. This wasn't some ancient rumor - a dead man coming back to life during the Roman Empire - or a dusty homegrown legend, Joseph Smith unearthing golden tablets in upstate New York, conversing with an angel. This was real.

The Rapture happened in her hometown, to her best friend's daughter among others, while Laurie herself was in the house. God's intrusion into her life couldn't have been any clearer if he'd addressed her from a burning azalea. At least you would have thought so.

And yet she managed to deny the obvious for weeks and months afterward, clinging to her doubts like a life preserver, desperately echoing the scientists and pundits and politicians who insisted that the cause of what they called the Sudden Departure remained unknown, and cautioned the public to avoid jumping to conclusions until the release of the official report by the nonpartisan government panel that was investigating the matter.

Something tragic occurred, the experts repeated over and over. It was a Rapture-like phenomenon, but it doesn't appear to have been the Rapture.

Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn't help noticing that many of the people who'd disappeared on October 14th - Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever the heck they were - hadn't accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

As far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn't be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.

So it was easy enough to be confused, to throw up your hands and claim that you just didn't know what was going on. But Laurie knew. Deep in her heart, as soon as it happened, she knew. She'd been left behind. They all had.

It didn't matter that God hadn't factored religion into His decision-making. If anything, that just made it worse, more of a personal rejection. And yet she chose to ignore this knowledge, to banish it to some murky recess of her mind - the basement storage area for things you couldn't bear to think about - the same place you hid the knowledge that you were going to die, so you could live your life without being depressed every minute of every day.

GROSS: And that's Tom Perrotta, reading from his new novel "The Leftovers." So at the center of this is the idea if something inexplicable happened, would you attribute it to God, or would you find a scientific, secular reason to explain it. Who believes this is an act of God? Who believes it's some kind of scientific or just inexplicable phenomenon that is not related to religion?

Why did you want to pose that question in your novel?

Mr. PERROTTA: Well, that's a very good question. I think when you write a book, you start, I think, in a much vaguer place. You're not really sure what question you're posing. So in this case, I wrote a book called "The Abstinence Teacher," it was my last novel, and it was about the culture wars in the U.S. and centered around sex education.

I spent a lot of time thinking about contemporary Christianity and reading about it, and obviously the Rapture kept coming up. And, you know, my first impulse was like Laurie's, to sort of laugh it off. It's sort of a funny idea, you know, people just floating away.

But I also kept thinking: Well, what if it did happen? You know, I'm such a skeptic that I think even if it did happen, I thought I would resist the implications of it, and I also thought three years later, everyone would have forgotten about it - that no matter what horrible thing happens in the world, you know, the culture seems to move on and keep flowing into the present moment.

And so the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a really rich metaphor for thinking about the way that we react to, as you say, incomprehensible events, horrible events, things that we can't completely understand. There are these dueling impulses to, you know, to remember and bear witness and to forget and move on. And this was the scenario that I chose to explore those impulses.

GROSS: Now, your book is being published very close to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and in a way that seems like no coincidence because I kept thinking about 9/11 when reading your book because many people in New York, you know, did disappear. They disappeared into the rubble of the towers. Their remnants, their remains were never found.

Mr. PERROTTA: And, you know, I certainly was thinking about it as I wrote it. I didn't write the book as a kind of direct response to 9/11, but I did keep getting hung up on this idea of seven years and that's the period of the tribulation mentioned in end-times theology. And I kept thinking, you know, seven years is such a long time.

You know, I remember 10 years ago feeling like, you know, the world will never be the same, we'll never forget this. And I think, you know, even four and five years later, it started to seem like something that had already been absorbed by history, that we had moved past it.

Now obviously for people who were directly affected, it's never absorbed by history, it's always present. And so it was one of the really contemporary examples I had of this process, but you can name any number of traumatic 20th-century events and think about, you know, how quickly people managed to - many people managed to move on.

GROSS: The mother in the book, whose point of view we heard represented in the reading that you did, she joins this cult-like group called The Guilty Remnant. Would you describe the group?

Mr. PERROTTA: The Guilty Remnant represents a very extreme reaction to this event, the Rapture, the Sudden Departure. These people are kind of a home-grown suburban cult, and they have taken over a development on one side of town, that - eight homes, eight really big homes, and they're living there as a commune.

They dress in white, and that makes them distinctive. They travel in same-sex pairs throughout the town. The thing that makes them most distinctive is that they are smoking constantly. This is a sort of a declaration of faith and also a sense that they have that there's no future, that they don't have to worry about their health or anything like that.

And what they do is just follow people around, and they see themselves as living reminders. They devote themselves to bearing witness, and there is this guilty sense: They believe that they were in some way rejected by God.

They're not - they don't necessarily identify as Christians, but they have absorbed that viewpoint on the Rapture, that they were, in a sense, left behind, judged and found wanting, and they don't - they dedicate themselves to preventing a return to normalcy in the town.

GROSS: Yeah, and they're living with the idea that being alive on Earth is more of a punishment than a gift.

Mr. PERROTTA: It's true, and yet, you know, the biblical context for that, the wars and the disasters, hasn't really occurred. And so what they have is a kind of voluntary renunciation of the world, and so they're eating very badly, and they're sort of hungry all the time.

And there's a scene, for instance, where Laurie ends up in the supermarket, and she's extremely hungry, and it's a completely familiar supermarket, but, you know, it's almost more than she can take. And she sees it as, you know, this garden from which she and everyone else has been expelled, but not everyone seems to know that.

GROSS: You know, reading the book, you have to wonder what would make a woman leave her husband and leave her two children. I mean, the marriage hasn't been that great lately, but, you know, and her son's away at college, but her daughter really needs her.

Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, I know, and I think this has been, you know, something that's come up with some readers. And to me, you know, Laurie's reaction is rooted in - oddly enough, in her friend's grief.

She - no one in the main family, the Garvey family in the novel, has disappeared, and yet they're all - a number of them are seriously haunted by losses. In Laurie's case, it's a fairly close one. It's her best friend's daughter who is gone.

And somehow that disappearance has just shocked her out of her own life. And she spends a lot of time helping her friend grieve, that's what's recounted in the prologue. And that grief, she says, you know, feels sort of right. It becomes the place where she needs to live. And she can't find her way back to any kind of normal rhythm and normal life.

And it's true that her daughter needs her, and yet she's frustrated by her daughter and ultimately decides that she needs to be in this place where she can be silent and just focus on this new world that she believes she's living in.

(Break)

GROSS: Do you know why the people in your own novel disappeared?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PERROTTA: No, no, I didn't. Partly I'm always impatient in science fiction movies or books where there's this explanation, well, there was a temporary disturbance in the Earth's magnetic field or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. PERROTTA: ...you know, tons of industrial waste were dumped into the river, and that's why this monster was created.

Yeah, I understand that there may be social criticism embedded in those sort of explanations, but they always seem kind of cheap and easy. And in any case, for me the book was really about the experience of not knowing.

As I say, I'm a skeptic myself or an agnostic, whatever word you want to put on it, and I do feel like, you know, the burden of living with that sort of skepticism is that you are confronted with not having a story about, you know, why terrible things happen or, you know, what the meaning is of our time on Earth.

So to me, you know - and the apocalyptic religious stories are always about, you know, imposing a final meaning on the mysteries of life, and, you know, this is an agnostic's apocalypse where even this event that should make everything clear just makes it all murky.

GROSS: Did you grow up with religion?

Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, though - yes, I grew up Catholic in the 1970s, and it was not a very rigorous religious upbringing. I stayed in the church right up to the point where I got confirmed at age 13, and that was basically considered - that was basically what we did. It was like just stay in, get confirmed. It was almost like I graduated from church.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. Right, so you didn't even need to have a falling out. You just graduated.

Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, you didn't have to go anymore.

GROSS: But knowing what you know about Roman Catholicism and then having done some studying of evangelical Christianity for this book and also for your previous book "The Abstinence Teacher," what are some of the differences that you see between the two approaches to faith?

Mr. PERROTTA: Well, that's sort of an enormous question. I mean, the thing that most struck me in, you know, studying evangelical culture for "The Abstinence Teacher" was just how crucial the Bible was and one's own reading of the Bible and one's understanding of the Bible and one's personal choices. And I don't remember feeling like, you know, the Catholic Church was encouraging, you know, one to independently read the Bible.

I'm sure that people are going to - people who are Catholics now will tell me that I'm wrong about some of these things, but this is my own experience at the time. It felt somewhat - it was more - I guess I should say I was raised in the kind of Catholic culture rather than as a, you know, religious person. So - but it was not, I was not encouraged to read the Bible or make, you know, very personal religious choices.

GROSS: Since you're not someone who turns to the Bible for explanations about life and death and other mysteries, do you find that fiction is helpful in, if not comprehending the world, at least finding people who help explain living in the face of mystery?

Mr. PERROTTA: Oh, yeah. I mean, I would probably have to say that reading fiction, you know, that's what - those stories fill the space that, you know, other people might use religious stories for. You know, the bulk of what I know about human life, I've gotten from novels.

And I think, you know, the thing about novels that make them important to the people that love them is that there's always another perspective. There's no novel that I think really works unless it has a kind of internal dialogue and a tension.

And I think that is obviously, you know, a real alternative to religion, which tends to give you a unified perspective and isn't that interested in the idea that there are competing ideas that are equally valid or valid if you are a person in, you know, one set of circumstances and less valid if you're a person in another set of circumstances.

It's very relative in that sense, as opposed to absolute, and that's what drives, you know, religious conservatives crazy. They don't like this idea that there are multiple truths for multiple people.

(Break)

GROSS: So we're talking about how literature has filled a very important function in your life. No one, I think, has turned to your novels in a way that somebody would turn to the Bible, however...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Your stories have become very popular, and I'm thinking about, like, your book "Election." When Hillary Clinton was running for president, she was sometimes compared to a character in your novel "Election" who's kind of ruthless when she's campaigning for, like, the high school student council president.

What did it feel like to have this fictional creation of yours be used in that kind of way, like people were using it to help explain who they thought Hillary Clinton was?

Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, that was very interesting. I think when it first happened, I was really flattered and kind of excited because I think there's always this secret dream you might have as a writer that, you know, you're going to influence the culture and that, you know, people will use characters you've created as a kind of shorthand.

And I think, you know - so I actually was in the car and the radio, and somebody was sort of talking about, you know, Hillary as a Tracy Flick, and by the way, they then did it with Sarah Palin, and they did it with Kirsten Gillibrand, and then I started to get nervous because I thought, Tracy Flick is just one character in this book "Election," and she's been made memorable really by Reese Witherspoon's amazing performance in that movie, but I did feel like she was starting to be kind of an anti-feminist icon, that, you know, the idea that women of ambition were sort of unpleasant and ruthless and goody-goody.

And that part of it made me uncomfortable. I think the two go together. You know, you write something, and it goes out in the world, and then if you're lucky, the world makes its own use of it. I wasn't all that comfortable with the way Tracy has been used in public discourse.

GROSS: You feel that people were using the character to help stereotype women.

Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, and it didn't almost matter who they were. Any ambitious woman suddenly was a Tracy Flick and was therefore sort of, you know, unpleasant and a little scary.

GROSS: Did you feel like going on all the talk shows and saying wait a minute, you're misinterpreting the character. You're using her to stereotype people in ways I never intended.

Mr. PERROTTA: If I got a chance, as I am now having a chance, I will say that I think we should be careful about that. But we'll see if my warnings will have any effect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I don't think so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Perrotta, and he wrote the novels "Election" and "Little Children," which were adapted into films. His new novel is called "The Leftovers," and it's about a Rapture-like experience, where suddenly many people in a small town just disappear in an instant, and some people think this is the Rapture or something like it, that it's a religious experience that is a precursor to the end times and the second coming, and other people just think it's like a mysterious phenomenon. But everybody is grieving in their own way.

Because grieving is so central to your novel, I was wondering, like, what have been some of the biggest absences in your life?

Mr. PERROTTA: Well, I've been pretty lucky, I think. I was into my 40s before I lost anyone in my immediate family. You know, my grandparents died when I was younger. So it feels like my life is sort of unfolding according to, you know, the natural schedule of things, meaning, you know, that there have been no - nobody dying sort of well before their time.

But I will say, you know, my father died nine years ago now, and, you know, life I think is just a series of entirely predictable shocks. I mean, my father died. I think that - you know, he was in his 70s. He died in a car accident, so it was a sudden event. You know, it was a sunny day. I was out for a bike ride, and I came home and got a phone call and, you know, learned that my father had just died.

And I think obviously that sense of someone just being there and being gone is connected with that. But I think - so I think yes, there's grief in that very real sense of, you know, my father died, and then there's just that other sense, I think, of, you know, living long enough that some parts of your life are behind you.

I mean, there are many people who are really close to me at various times that I no longer see. I think, you know, as you get older, you just start to feel the absences around you take on a kind of importance that they didn't have earlier.

And some of those absences are absences because people are truly gone, and others are just, they belong to some part of your life that no longer exists.

GROSS: Well, one of the characters in your novel, this is the daughter in the main family, she thinks about how easy it is to romanticize the missing. And somebody who - one of her friends disappears during this Rapture-like experience. And everybody assumes that they're best friends and that Jill, the daughter, must be in a terrible state of grief.

But Jill and this other girl, it turns out, really weren't close. It's their mothers who are very close. And she didn't even like her all that much and so all these, like, feelings of grief are being projected on her that she doesn't quite feel. And she also thinks about, in romanticizing the dead, how her friend would be described, you know, that God missed her blue eyes and her beautiful smile and wanted her company.

And I was wondering if you've been to funerals or memorials where you felt that the person who was deceased was being romanticized in ways that weren't honest or - yeah.

Mr. PERROTTA: Well, I think that part happens all the time. And sometimes it happens the other way, where people's lives are just reduced, and their complexity is reduced. And I think, you know, what Jill is trying to figure out is, you know, how do you hold on to the truth of your life at this moment when everybody, you know, as you say is projecting things onto her.

She's what's called an eyewitness in the world of the novel; she happened to be there when someone disappears. And eyewitnesses have a sort of privileged place in the hierarchy of grief. But she feels that just as the disappeared person, Jen, is being sort of unfairly glorified by the language of grief, I think she also feels that her own experience is being erased, and she wasn't that close with Jen.

She doesn't want to live the rest of her life or at least the next few years being thought of as, you know, the girl who lost her best friend. And so she's really, in her own mind, just saying she wasn't my best friend, I didn't even like her, she was mean to me.

And, you know, to me it just - there's this impulse to make the past simpler and easier to hold onto and this impulse to hold on to the complexity of our experience. And to me that is, you know, the way to respect life and the way to respect an individual is to try and remember them in their complexity.

(Break)

GROSS: Although your book isn't really about the Rapture, it's inspired by belief in the Rapture, not your belief but other people's belief. Did you do any research for the book or go to churches or other forms of meetings, gatherings where people who do believe talk about it?

Mr. PERROTTA: You know, I haven't. I read the first "Left Behind" book, but I didn't spend a lot of time, you know, researching that firsthand. I had done a lot of research into contemporary Christian life for my last book, and this book was in a way more idea-driven.

There were a couple books that really mattered a lot to me. One was called "Pursuit of the Millennium" by a historian named Norman Cohn, which was about these sort of medieval, apocalyptic medieval cults. Some of them were flagellants, and others were cults where people decided that they were, in effect, you know, the second coming of Jesus Christ. And it was really about the way in which these sort of apocalyptic cults emerged from times of great social upheaval and actually political unrest, as well. And so that was a book that was really in my mind.

There's a biography of Jim Jones called "Raven" by Tim Reiterman, which was also a really important part of my thinking about the way new religions or, you know, really charismatic, dangerous prophets might emerge.

GROSS: There's a character in your book who is a charismatic religious leader who, in the face of this sudden disappearance, creates a cult around him. Would you describe him a little bit?

Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, this guy's name is - at first he's Mr. Gilchrest(ph). He's a father who has lost his eight-year-old son and has discovered that he has a certain kind of gift, which is to comfort people by hugging them.

And the member of the family - the son in this Garvey family is a guy named Tom, and he goes to college. And Tom is really shaken by the news of the loss of a childhood friend of his, someone he hasn't seen for years, but somehow this loss, he takes it far more personally than Jill takes the loss of her best friend Jen.

Anyway, Tom is in college. He's lost. He's sort of falling apart. And a friend takes him to hear Mr. Gilchrest speak, and, you know, Mr. Gilchrest at this point, I think, is a really genuine, grieving man who discovers that he has this power to comfort people. But over time, he becomes intoxicated by his power, and, like many, you know, dangerous, self-appointed prophets, uses this power to start controlling people and also, you know, gratifying himself sexually with a lot of young women that he meets at these rallies.

And Tom's story is, in a sense, the story of his disillusionment with Mr. Gilchrest, who, in his charismatic phase, becomes known as Holy Wayne. So Tom is a follower of Holy Wayne.

There are basically three cults that spring up in the book. One is the Guilty Remnant that Laurie Garvey belongs to, and then there's the Holy Wayne movement that Tom Garvey gets involved with, and then there's a sort of neo-hippie group called the Barefoot People, who are a kind of hedonistic alternative to these more religious groups that spring up.

GROSS: The world's going to end, so let's have a good time now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PERROTTA: Let's have a good time, exactly.

GROSS: So your new novel "The Leftovers" is being adapted into an HBO series. Are you working on the adaptation?

Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, I'm going to write the pilot.

GROSS: So what are you going to have to do to make this into television?

Mr. PERROTTA: That's a very good question. I think one of the things that I'm pondering right now, and I haven't really done the writing yet, the book has an interesting time frame. It basically does not focus on the Rapture-like event that's at the center of it. It begins some months after it happens, and the bulk of the action takes place three years after the event.

So, you know, one of the things I'm really pondering is just where do I begin my story? And the thing I love about serial TV drama is that you can really let a story breathe. And, you know, when you're adapting a book for a film, a feature film that's two hours, you're just always compressing and cutting. And I think what TV offers you is the ability to maybe open things up, take events that are just mentioned in passing in the novel and develop them.

So I'm really thinking that there's a lot of material that takes place in this three-year period that I kind of skip over that I might be able to, you know, break open and explore and let breathe.

GROSS: You know, when I first opened your new novel "The Leftovers," I was kind of expecting it to be a social satire about the Rapture and people who believed it. And I don't think that's what it is.

I mean, there are satirical elements in it, but I think what you're really doing is looking at why some people believe, why some people don't believe, how we live in the face of mystery, how we grieve for people who we've lost.

Can you talk a little bit about the tone you wanted and the tone you wanted to use to describe those people who do believe in the Rapture?

Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, no, that's a - I'm really glad you said that because I don't feel like I'm a satirist. I don't even think I ever was. But that label has stuck to me probably because the movie "Election" was a brilliant satire, and it kind of amped up some elements that were muted in the book to do that, and that was the first way people became familiar with my work. And so labels tend to stick, and first impressions tend to stick.

But I will say that I think what happens for me is that I do start in a place that feels like it might lead to a satire, and then the process of spending time with characters, getting inside their heads, trying to see the world the way they see it, pulls me away from satire.

And I think a lot of times, you know, you can't see where you're going to end up. So I think I did - if you asked me the day I started writing this book, I think I would have told you that it was going to be a lot funnier than it turned out to be. The problem was that to choose the Rapture as your subject matter means that you're dealing with characters who are grieving for the missing.

And the story is the story of an epidemic of grief and loss, and, you know, if there's a religious impulse in the book, it's to me, you know, what must have been the original religious impulse, which is, you know, that faith is a response to incomprehensible loss. And so I don't think that any of the characters who embrace the various faiths that are available in the book are ridiculous. I think that feeling of loss and that need for comfort is a completely human response to what's happened.

GROSS: Tom Perrotta, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PERROTTA: Oh, thank you, Terry. I really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Tom Perrotta's new novel is called "The Leftovers." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

The new Kanye West/Jay-Z collaboration has a track that samples a track by soul singer Syl Johnson. Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward has a Syl Johnson retrospective. This is FRESH AIR.

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