Author Q&A: Tom Perrotta

  • January 3, 2012

Questions and answers with the author of, most recently, The Leftovers.

“What if – Whoosh, right now, with no explanation – a number of us simply vanished? Would we think it was the Rapture? Would some of us collapse? Would others of us go on, one foot in front of the other, as we did before the world turned upside down?”

Q&A with Tom Perrotta for The Leftovers

Is the American public tired of heroes or is it that they just don’t believe in them anymore?  They don’t seem to find their way into contemporary literature.  Which do you think true?  Why or why don’t you think it’s true?

We’re living in the age of superhero movies, so the public clearly isn’t tired of them. American writers of literary fiction are skeptical about the concept, though. But that skepticism has existed for a long time you won’t find a lot of heroes in the works of Twain or Hemingway or Dreiser, either.

I made a quick survey around the office, the cafes, churches and schools and asked if “The Rapture” had been part of anyone’s religious upbringing.  No one seemed to have anything but a small recollection if they had a memory at all.  Even on Wikipedia, the explanation doesn’t make much sense.  Was it a part of your religious education? What made you decide to write about the after effect of the Rapture?

I was raised Catholic, and the Rapture isn’t part of that particular religious tradition. I got interested in the concept while researching my previous novel, The Abstinence Teacher, part of which is about an activist evangelical church. In evangelical circles, the Rapture is a hugely important event, and millions of Americans expect it to happen during their lifetimes.

Your characters don’t seem to spend too much time worrying about exactly what happened.  You fast forwarded to acceptance.  How come no one hired some forensic detectives/scientists that could still be working the case – a few years down the road?  What was the atheist reaction?

A number of theories are put forward to account for the Sudden Departure, but there’s no conclusive explanation. Remember, three years have passed between the Sudden Departure and the main events in the novel. The characters have gotten used to not knowing. We live with all sorts of uncertainties it’s the human condition.

Reverend Matt Jamison seems like the most likely character to exist after October 14th.  It is the reverend who spends his time trying to prove to everyone that it couldn’t have been the Rapture because he was left behind.  He produces a rag about all of the taken and what awful people they were but he disappears quickly.  I’d hoped for more proof.  Did you want your readers to believe in the Rapture and not side with the Reverend?

Jamison is an orthodox evangelical Christian. He can’t understand why he hasn’t been taken in the Rapture. His response is to become a Rapture denier and document the ways in which the people who disappeared failed to live up to Christian standards. He does this not because he’s interested in the truth, but because he’s been deeply wounded by the idea those awful people might have been chosen by God while he’d been left behind.

The Guilty Remnant is the strangest invention ever.  They smoke, stare at people, wear white and suffer bad accommodations.  Eventually, they begin to kill each other.  Is this what guilt actually does to a person?  Makes them suffer and eventually kills them?

Religious history is full of people who proclaim their unworthiness, mortify their flesh, and withdraw from the world. But the Guilty Remnant have a political objective as well they want to act as “Living Reminders,” to keep their neighbors from forgetting the Sudden Departure and moving on with their lives.

I’m not a fan of taking something apart to find out how it fits together.  In fact, though I certainly believe criticism has its uses, I’ve always hated the proverbial questions like “whose story is this?”  But whose story is this?

It’s the story of the Garvey family, and the town of Mapleton.

So we’ve already established that all the heroes have disappeared.  There isn’t a real villainous character either.  Is this purposeful?  In a lot of current fiction, the characters are all Joe Blows in somewhat interesting settings.  They are not dastardly, sad or truly evil, just kind of living their lives and not necessarily in quiet desperation.  Does this describe the 21st century state of mankind?  Are we reading about ourselves? Really?

I don’t think about huge generalizations like this when I write.

Once more, and I know I’ve already asked.  I’m throwing you off by placement.  There isn’t any real investigation into the disappearances.  Is this because people have simply accepted what they can’t explain?  Is this the new religion or a simple adaptation to what it was always like to have faith?

The investigations were inconclusive. People have no choice but to accept what they can’t explain. Scientists can’t explain why we need to sleep. But we all still go to sleep every night.

On page 297, “Kevin sensed a shift in the collective mood … It didn’t matter what happened in the world genocidal wars, natural disasters, unspeakable crimes, mass disappearances, whatever, – eventually people get tired of brooding about it.” “On balance, he thought, it was probably a good thing.”  It seems like you’re telling all of your characters and readers not to waste a minute on anything they can’t control.  Is this true?  It just took 333+ pages and however many reader hours to get to it?

Kevin is saying this, not me. The book is about the ways various characters react to an inexplicable tragic event. This is one way. You seem obsessed with getting a simple answer to a complicated question. It’s not a great way to read a novel.

On page 338, you mention “the conviction that fun was still possible …” But no one really seems to want to have any.  Even as Tom heads to the Poconos, somehow it doesn’t sound like any fun.  Is fun overrated?

Not in my book.

In the book, Laurie, the character that first seems like she might be the one to redeem herself makes the worst choice of all. There is absolutely no explanation in the story for her lousy choices. Can you explain them to me? Can and do “supposedly normal” people just calmly go off the deep end?

There’s a lot of explanation in the book for her choices. But if you haven’t seen “supposedly normal people” going off the deep end, you live in a different world than I do.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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