Author Perrotta Discusses 'Abstinence' Tom Perrotta's fifth novel, The Abstinence Teacher, is out this month. Perrotta discusses the collision of religion and politics that occurs in the suburbs.
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Author Perrotta Discusses 'Abstinence'

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Author Perrotta Discusses 'Abstinence'

Author Perrotta Discusses 'Abstinence'

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

At the beginning of the new book "The Abstinence Teacher," protagonist Ruth Ramsey remembers the four words that got her into trouble: Some people enjoy it.

Ruth is a sex ed teacher at a suburban high school. Christian fundamentalists are setting up shop in her town, and they force her to change the way she teaches.

Meanwhile, the coach of her daughter's soccer team has led the team in prayer after a game. Ruth is enraged and yet strangely attracted to that coach. Tom Perrotta wrote "The Abstinence Teacher," and you may know him from his previous novels, "Little Children" and "Election," both of which were turned into movies. Tom Perrotta joins me now.

Welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Mr. TOM PERROTTA (Author, "The Abstinence Teacher"): Thanks for having me.

BRAND: Well, like those two other novels, "Election" and "Little Children," your latest takes place in an unremarkable middle-class suburb, and it involves what on the face of it looks like, you know, pretty mundane lives. So I'm wondering, are you picking up where authors like John Cheever, John Updike left off?

Mr. PERROTTA: I don't see myself as writing about the place so much. I really see myself as writing about people raising kids, and you know, transmitting values to kids. That seems to be something that has interested me all along. And so with "Little Children" I was a little surprised when people started talking about it as a suburban novel, because I really thought it was a novel about a time of life, just that early parenthood when you - just the reality of what you'd taken on began to sink in, in the sense that your own story got - had gotten interrupted.

BRAND: But there's something about the suburbs that you mine particularly well, and that is the kind of conventional wisdom that gets passed around in places like these suburban towns that you set your novels in.

Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah. Well, I guess, wherever we live there is a sort of - a conventional wisdom. But I think it's probably true, as a lot people sense, and as someone like Cheever was really clear about, that it does get pretty narrowed down in certain kinds of suburbs. There's a lot less range of acceptable behavior or thought, I think. A lot of my characters find themselves maybe on the wrong side of conventional wisdom.

BRAND: And that conventional wisdom, in this case you kind of turn it on its head because Ruth seems to be the purveyor of conventional wisdom at the beginning, the sex-ed teacher.

Mr. PERROTTA: You know, that's actually a really good point. I think that she's sort of unaware that the world has changed around her and that what she says seems completely commonsensical to her is inflammatory to other people. And so I think, you know, she's surprised by the firestorm that's created when she's just answering a question in a way that seems completely unremarkable to her and leads her into the kind of controversy that she never expected.

BRAND: Describe that scene. This is a scene I eluded to at the beginning where she says those four words that got her into trouble.

Mr. PERROTTA: Ruth is giving a contraception lecture and she's a sort of pro-sex, liberal feminist, sex-education teacher. She's a product of the sexual revolution. She believes, as the book says, that pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power.

So she's someone who just speaks very matter-of-factly about sex. And a student raises her hand and says, oral sex is disgusting, and Ruth is sort of taken aback by the girl's tone, and in a kind of reflex just says, oh well, from what I hear some people enjoy it. And then she goes on to give a much more teacherly response, talking about how the body works and, you know, sexually transmitted diseases, et cetera.

But the girl turns out to be a member of this activist evangelical church in the town, and she reports to her parents that her teacher said some people enjoy it, and basically Ruth is accused of advocating pre-marital sex to her class. And the bureaucrats in the school become very nervous about the fact that the sex education curriculum has become a source of controversy and they, like many other school districts in the country, decide to revamp their curriculum and turned it into an abstinence-only curriculum.

BRAND: The reader at first is on Ruth's side and you think, wow, how can these, you know, small-minded bullies come in and tell her what to do? She's been doing this for a long time, she's all about the freedom of speech and freedom of thought. And then we meet Tim. And Tim is the other protagonist in the novel. He is a recovering addict who has found Jesus.

Mr. PERROTTA: The inspiration for this book was to write a culture-war novel from both sides of the cultural divide. And I think it's a little bit of a shock when you read it because you're completely in Ruth's point of view for the first hundred pages or so. And as you say, you see her is a besieged person, and Tim is, you know, one of the people she sees as making her life miserable.

And then you enter into Tim's world, and really the book kind of slows down and spends about a hundred pages telling you how Tim got where he got. You know, his basic decency and humanity and his desire to salvage a life that he came very close to ruining comes through in those pages, and in some ways he's a more open-minded person than Ruth. And I think this is one of the ironies that begins to develop.

He also happens to be somebody with a really, you know, interesting sexual history. And so there's a kind of irony that develops where Ruth is this pro-sex sex education teacher who is lonely and has had basically a kind of miserable sexual history, and Tim is this guy who's trying to be good but just, you know, always seems to have a life that's a little bit too exciting for his own good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: You seem like you're obsessed with sex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Or just really, really, interested in it.

Mr. PERROTTA: When you talk about this suburban tradition, you know, someone like John Updike kind of carved out this space where, you know, sex and suburbia were always linked, and I guess that seemed like a good idea to me.

The other thing I would say there - and it's the reason I picked sex education as opposed to, say, you know, the teaching of evolution or abortion as a focus for this culture war - and that's that it's a kind of a universal thing. Everybody has to make sexual choices before they're married. And everybody has a secret life, and I think that that's what the novel really - novels as a genre deal with people's secret lives and the way that their secret lives intersect, contradict, reinforce their public lives.

So it actually seemed to me like a really fruitful place to go, and I think that's one of the reasons why sex and adultery are so prevalent in novels; it's just a window into the secret lives of the characters.

BRAND: "Anna Karenina," for example.

Mr. PERROTTA: Exactly.

BRAND: Your previous novel also mines - "Little Children" centers around two unhappily married people who have an affair. Are you pretty glum about married life in general?


BRAND: Do you think you can be happily married?

Mr. PERROTTA: You know, I'm happily married, and I think lots of people are happily married. It's hard to know where to find the novel in a happy marriage, as Tolstoy pointed out. You know, the traditional story is they got married and they lived happily ever after. So marriage would be the end of the story.

So once you're talking about creating novels around married characters, I do think unhappily married characters offer a lot more possibilities to a novelist than happily married people.

BRAND: Well, Tom Perrotta, thank you very much.

Mr. PERROTTA: Thanks for having me, Madeleine.

BRAND: Tom Perrotta is the author of the new book "The Abstinence Teacher."

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