Tom Perrotta head shot

Tom Perrotta On Choices, Changes, and the Holes Where People Used to Be

Author and screenwriter Tom Perrotta wrote the novels “Little Children” and “Election,” both of which were made into Oscar-nominated films. His new book, “The Leftovers,” was published several months after we talked over tea at Algiers in Harvard Square.

Q: How are you? What’s happening?

A: I’m in a weird place. I have several balls in the air but none of them are consuming. I finished a book that will be out in September –

Q: What book is that?

A: It’s called The Leftovers. It’s my post-apocalyptic novel, with a twist. It’s not like The Road. It’s very different. I’m also working on a story, and I have a TV pilot at Showtime, which is very cool. Of course you send things out to Hollywood and just wait. I could hear from them next week or I could hear from them two months from now.

Q: Is the pilot an original story or is it based on a book?

A: This is based on The Wishbones, which is really interesting, actually, in relation to your project, because I’m returning at age 49 to a book that I wrote when I was maybe 34. I was a very different writer, I think, and it’s been kind of fun because my last book is very heavy and dark and it’s all about loss and grief, among other things, and people sensing their future sort of dissolving in front of them. And The Wishbones is so much a young person’s book, about looking at adulthood and knowing it’s time to plunge in but not really wanting to. It’s just sort of interesting for me to feel just the passage of time and the ways that I’ve changed. And it was such a relief to be young again as a writer, to go back and feel this high spirit that infused that book.

Q: Tell me about stepping into that younger man’s mindset. What has that been like?

A: You know what? The great thing was it felt totally familiar. I knew the characters really well. I was trying to not reread my book and just tried to write from my memory of what I had been trying to do. And the other thing is we’re trying to set it in the contemporary landscape. Even then I was a little older than the characters, now I’m way older than the characters. So I would say first off that I find it very familiar and fun to go back to these characters in whom I’d invested a lot of my younger self. But then there’s also a challenge, that I’m sure you’ve felt as a journalist, if you’ve been around for a while and you have a historical frame of reference. I kind of know how people who are in their late 20s talk now, but I don’t know it in my bones, I know it from listening. So there’s both a sense of intimate connection and a sense of slight alienation and distance that I have to kind of jump past.

Q: What do you make of the timing of The Leftovers? Are the themes and concerns and mood of the book connected to the time of life you’re in?

A: Well, part of it was just that I spent a lot of time thinking about evangelical Christians with my last book, The Abstinence Teacher, and started thinking about the whole idea of the Rapture, this idea that one day the good Christians are all going to float away from the world and the rest of us are going to be left behind. What I did in this book was just treat that as a kind of metaphor of the losses that we all live with all the time. So basically it happens, but it’s not Christians who float away, it’s just a random bunch of people. The book picks up three years after this event and people are trying to make sense of what happened and who left and why. And it follows this one family in which each individual had very different reactions to this event. Really the whole book is about a world in which everybody’s thinking about who’s not there and why they’re not there. So I think it’s both related intimately to this religious research I did and to being this age and feeling like already the world’s full of holes where people used to be.

Q: Can you imagine having written this book 15 or 20 years ago?

A: No. I wouldn’t have. That was the thing, I think, about going back to The Wishbones and seeing this sense of high spirits. The characters weren’t, I think, looking at the world as a source of sadness and grief. I think they were looking at it as a very rich place and they’re trying to find their place in it. Finding your place in the world is very different from seeing the world fade away in front of you, you know?

Q: That’s one of the striking things for me about midlife, and it’s distinct from the idea of generally aging. I feel like I’m straddling those two things, feeling a great sense of possibility and at the same being able to sense the end point. We’ve talked about this before, but I think our generation is unique in that we’re really a bridge generation. We grew up in a time before all this technological change and now we live and work in this radically transformed world.

Q: Yeah. I forgot about that. Part of this book, I think, was written out of this sort of apocalyptic sense that was in the air in the past few years. You know, part of it was just economic, like the economic system that we took for granted looked suddenly extremely vulnerable. It’s always been impossible to look down the road 20 years and have any idea what the the world looks like, but it was very clear that you couldn’t even look down the road five years and sense what was going to happen. It was sort of terrifying to a lot of people. But also, if you worked in the newspaper business, the music business, lots of other businesses, or just grew up with this idea of America as a kind of really powerful colossus that hovered over the whole world, all these things were just dissolving in front of people’s eyes. Of course, some people, especially young people, look at that and see opportunities. I think the older you are, the more invested you are in the world that you know, the more terrifying those moments are. And part of you wants to be young and flexible, but you are invested in the status quo and it’s falling apart.

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