Monday, September 12, 2011

A Conversation with Tom Perrotta

An event very like the Rapture has descended upon Earth and carried away millions of people. Tom Perrotta's new novel, The Leftovers, is the story of the people who were left behind. It's the story of loss and confusion on a scale appropriate to global catastrophe, but focused sharply and compassionately on a family living in a previously ordinary suburban town. I highly recommend reading Stephen King's review of the novel in the New York Times. It gives an excellent portrait of the book while preserving all the pleasures of reading it.

Even if you haven't read any of Tom's previous novels (including the brilliant The Abstinence Teacher and Little Children), it's very likely that you've seen a film adaptation of one of his books. The movie adaptations of both Election (starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick) and Little Children (starring Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, and Patrick Wilson) were both nominated for Academy Awards.

Tom will be visiting Kepler's TOMORROW (Tuesday, September 13th) to talk about The Leftovers. Join us at 7 PM to welcome this fantastic author to Menlo Park. For more information, visit this link.

Get the book HERE. Get the ebook HERE.

Megan Kurashige: What was the initial inspiration for The Leftovers?

Tom Perrotta: I've been fascinated by the idea of the Rapture for a long time, and my interest deepened during the writing of The Abstinence Teacher, when I kept bumping into descriptions of End Times scenarios. I decided to borrow the religious concept and use it for my own, mostly secular, novelistic purposes.

MK: What made you want to explore a novel from the angle of an event like the Rapture? By making something like an apocalypse a concrete element in the novel, were you able to write differently about the characters in it?

TP: The Rapture is a pretty unique version of the Apocalypse, because it leaves the material world unchanged. People are gone, but everything else is intact. In this sense, it's quite different from the more devastating apocalyptic scenarios we're used to--Zombie invasion, nuclear disaster, viral epidemic, etc.--that turn the material world into a wasteland. The challenge for the characters in The Leftovers is mostly psychological--how do they make sense of what happened, and how can they go on living in a world where such a thing has taken place? In the end, the Rapture became, for me, a metaphor for living with loss, the way we all have to figure out a way to keep going even as people we've known and loved disappear from the world.

MK: The novel focuses on individual losses and griefs in the wake of a globally traumatic event. Did you have a particular interest in exploring the differences between the grief of a community and the grief of an individual?

For the most part, individuals deal with grief in a private way, sharing their sadness with family and friends. Collective trauma seems to demand some sort of larger social response, and that was the thing that most interested me in the writing of The Leftovers. As Mayor, Kevin Garvey tries to get the town of Mapleton back to some version of normal life. He doesn't deny the trauma caused by the Sudden Departure, but he wants to call end an end to the mourning period, to get people to look forward and start living again. His wife, Laurie, joins a Rapture cult whose main purpose is to ensure that no one ever forgets the terrible thing that happened on October 14th. The book is about the struggle between these two very different cultural impulses--to remember and honor the past, or to gradually forget it and embrace the future.

MK: Was there anything that surprised you about writing this novel? Was there any part of it that was especially difficult or easy to get through?

On the whole, this was a hard novel to write. Basically, every character in the book is traumatized, whether they admit it or not. Having to imagine and experience that pain over the course of two years wasn't a lot of fun for me. But I really did enjoy inventing the three cults that are described in the book--the Guilty Remnant, the Healing Hug Movement, and the Barefoot People. Maybe I missed my real calling as Cult Leader.

How can stories change the world?

That's a pretty big question. Some stories change the world by exposing injustice or suffering, and waking people up to the truth. Other stories change individuals, expanding our sense of the world, allowing us to experience emotions and situations that we wouldn't otherwise be exposed to. Some stories just redeem a boring hour or two, and it's hard not to be thankful for that.


Tom Perrotta
is the author of The Leftovers, as well as The Abstinence Teacher, Little Children, Joe College, Election, The Wishbones, and Bad Haircut. You can visit him online at his website.

No comments: