DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic, David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, Tom Perrotta, is a novelist whose latest book, "The Leftovers," is being turned into an HBO series of the same name which premieres Sunday. Perrotta adapted it along with Damon Lindelof, one of the stars of ABC's "Lost." The story of HBO's "The Leftovers" is the same as in Perrotta's novel.
One day, with no warning and no explanation, 2 percent of the world's population just vanishes into thin air - old people, parents, children, even babies. The HBO drama starts with the disappearance, then jumps to three years later, as those who are left behind - the leftovers - struggle to carry on and make sense of it all.
Some start as a religious cult called the Guilty Remnants. Here's a scene from Sunday's premier when the mayor of a small town is explaining her plans for a third anniversary parade, while the chief of police listens skeptically. The mayor is played by Amanda Warren, the police chief by series star, Justin Theroux.
(SOUNDBITE OF HBO SERIES, "THE LEFTOVERS")
AMANDA WARREN: (As Lucy Warburton) The DSD has proclaimed a federal holiday of remembrance. And that's what they're calling our departed because that's how we want to remember them. Everyone loves a hero. So we're all going to have a nice walk through town, have a good cry and then move on. It's time. Everybody's ready to feel better.
JUSTIN THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) Not the Remnant.
AMANDA WARREN: (As Warburton) At last, the chief speaks.
THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) I would've said something sooner, but I was so riveted.
WARREN: (As Warburton) So we're going to do this again?
THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) The whole town - the same place at the same time on the anniversary? You're inviting them to show up.
WARREN: (As Warburton) The GR isn't a threat. If they want to stage a nonviolent protest, that's their right.
THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) You were at the homecoming. They walked right onto the field.
WARREN: (As Warburton) And then they walked right off, no harm done.
THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) They are trying to provoke us.
WARREN: (As Warburton) Then don't get provoked.
THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) A year ago, these people didn't even exist. Now there's almost 50 of them. They bought up an entire cul-de-sac.
WARREN: (As Warburton) You know, you're saying this to me as if I didn't already know it.
THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) I don't know [bleep], Lucy, do you? Where did they come from? What do they want? You don't even know who they are.
WARREN: (As Warburton) We know who they were.
BIANCULLI: Also starring in HBO's "The Leftovers" is Amy Brenneman, playing the sheriff's wife, Laurie. Tom Perrotta also wrote the novels "Election" and "Little Children," both of which were adapted into films. Terry Gross spoke to Tom Perrotta in 2011 and asked him about the idea behind "The Leftovers."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
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?
TOM PERROTTA: 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 19 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 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.
GROSS: OK. 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 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?
PERROTTA: OK. (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 14 - 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.
GROSS: That's Tom Perrotta reading from his 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?
PERROTTA: 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 think - I wrote a book called "The Abstinence Teacher." It was my last novel, and it was about the culture wars in the U.S. centered around sex education.
And I spent a lot of time thinking about contemporary Christianity and reading about it. And, obviously, the Rapture kept coming up. And my first impulse was to sort of laugh it off. It's a sort of a funny idea - people just floating away.
But I also kept thinking, well, what if it did happen? I thought, three years later, everyone would have forgotten about it - that no matter what horrible thing happens in the world, 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, 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 10 anniversary of 9/11, and, in a way, that seems like no coincidence 'cause 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.
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 20 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?
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. 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 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 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 dedicate themselves to preventing a return to normalcy in the town.
BIANCULLI: Tom Perrotta speaking with Terry Gross - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with author Tom Perrotta. He's just helped adapt his latest novel, "The Leftovers," into a TV series for HBO. It premieres Sunday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Do you know why the people in your own novel disappeared?
PERROTTA: (Laughing) 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...
GROSS: (Laughing) Yeah.
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 why terrible things happen or, you know, what the meaning is of our time on Earth.
And so to me - you know, and the apocalyptic religious stories are always about imposing a final meaning on the mysteries of life. And 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?
PERROTTA: 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.
GROSS: (Laughing) Right. Right, so you didn't even need to have a falling out. You just graduated.
PERROTTA: Yeah, you didn't have to go anymore.
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?
PERROTTA: Oh, yeah. I mean, I would probably have to say that reading fiction - 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 the thing about novels that make them important to the people who 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 and - 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.
GROSS: So your new novel, "The Leftovers," is being adapted into an HBO series. Are you working on the adaptation?
PERROTTA: Yeah, I'm going to write the pilot.
GROSS: So what are you going to have to do to make this into television?
PERROTTA: That's a very good question. I think 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 about - 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?
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 then it turned out to be. The problem was - 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 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 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.
PERROTTA: Oh, thank you, Terry. I really enjoyed it.
BIANCULLI: Tom Perrotta speaking to Terry Gross in 2011 - his newest novel, "the Leftovers," is the basis of a new HBO series premiering Sunday which Perrotta helped adapt. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.