A CONVERSATION WITH TOM PERROTTA ABOUT THE LEFTOVERS AND BRINGING CLOSURE TO MYSTERY
By John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
In 2011, Tom Perrotta wrote a book called The Leftovers. He was already an acclaimed author at the time, having written novels like Election and Little Children, both of which had been made into Academy Award-nominated films. The latter gained Perrotta a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay with his co-writer Todd Field. However, it has been The Leftovers that has become the most discussed corner of his work. Centered around an unsolvable mystery, the story has been hailed by critics as one of HBO’s strongest offerings in years. I sat down with Perrotta to talk about the series, how he and the team approached providing closure to a show that values mystery so highly, his own personal journey of faith, and his writing process.
John Bucher: Tell me about what it’s been like to go from the first moment that you put words on a page for The Leftovers to having a show people can’t stop talking about.
Tom Perrotta: Yes, it’s been quite a journey, yeah. It’s been about eight years of my life since I started it. I remember having this sense that there was something about this idea of this event that resembled the Christian rapture, but seemed to be theologically empty. I remember thinking this is a big idea. This is an idea that I’m not fully grasping. I feel like the show taught me things about this idea that I could never have learned from just thinking about it on my own. I think in particular Damon (Lindelof) has a much different approach to storytelling than I do and he found depth in this show that I just wasn’t aware of until he pointed it out.
John Bucher: I personally was raised in the Evangelical Christian church and was very fearful of the rapture and of a scenario like what plays out in the show. How were you raised? Did you have any sort of connection to religion growing up where you heard about these ideas early on?
Tom Perrotta: No. Quite the opposite. I was raised Catholic in the 70s at a time when, at least around me, nobody was particularly religious and the idea was just go to church until you’re confirmed at age 13 and then you don’t have to go anymore. I grew up, cheerfully enough, without much religion and I remember I read a book about the rapture in college and it was news to me. Is this true? And I discovered that there were tens of millions of Americans who expected it at any moment, and it really struck me. There was just something shocking about that scenario.
I just filed it away under crazy Christian story, and then around the time that George W. Bush was elected and the culture wars in our country seemed so much about the Religious Right versus the Secular Left, I felt as a novelist that I was woefully uninformed about Christian culture and yet it was a decisive power force in the country. So I just plunged into it. I wrote a book called The Abstinence Teacher, which was about a sex education teacher who feels that she’s being persecuted by an evangelical church in her town and to do that, I just ended up reading the Bible, immersing myself in the online Christian world.
I went to a Promise Keepers conference, and I just kept running into the story of the rapture and hearing from people who expected it to come at any moment. I remember that there would be stories about the tribulation and so for seven years you’ll have a chance to get on the right side. I remember I was just so stubborn in my own mind. I thought even if it does happen, even if there’s a rapture I’m just going to continue to live my life, because why should I be subjected to this story that’s so ridiculous and that I don’t believe in? That’s not my story and I’m just going to ignore it.
Somehow this idea that the tribulation would be going on and I would be sitting on my porch drinking a beer listening to rock music or watching a football game, there just seemed to be something true about that. You know, the way that some of us are in the midst of one story and other people are in the midst of another one and slowly that morphed into a rapture-like event that not even the Christians could be sure of. Was it the one that they had been expecting? ad I realized that it would just create this theological vacuum and that became really the germ of the story — this rapture that didn’t even make sense to Christians.
John Bucher: It’s interesting in this final season. The show has really revisited this idea of connecting to more traditional belief with the way the third season opens and even bringing about a flood that everyone’s expecting. It seems like you returned to that idea in this final season.
Tom Perrotta: What’s interesting is, I think the show has decided to borrow from more explicitly Christian narratives, because that seems to be what Kevin is enmeshed in at the time. The Guilty Remnant, which to some people seems completely ridiculous, is borrowing from monastic traditions and early Christian communes, a certain aesthetic spiritual tradition. So I think one of the things that has always been there in The Leftovers is the idea that even at a moment when a new religion starts, it’s borrowing from religions that exist.
But I think the real difference was, and I gave all this credit to Damon because when I wrote the book, Kevin Garvey was the mayor of the town and his job in the book was to advocate for a return to the life that everybody had before the departure. It’s like hey, we had a pretty good life here in middle class America. Let’s just find our way back to that. So, it was a primarily a nostalgic feel good role that he took, and Damon pushed and pushed for Kevin to have much more of a spiritual journey on his own, because in the book he’s the least spiritual person around.
He’s just resisting any attempt to ascribe spiritual meaning to the departure or to say that a verdict has been rendered on us and we need to change. He’s not that, and so the character began to change. I remember in season two, just the shock when Damon came in and just said, “I want Kevin to die and come back from the dead.” And the thing about Damon is he makes it happen. As a result of that, I think this idea of Kevin as Jesus and all these ideas that had been latent in the show became very literal. I think we always had this sense that, and you can see it in Miracle, too, that it was like a contemporary world, but it’s Biblical.
People are at ground zero. They’re figuring out religious narratives. They’re not inheriting them. But then we actually got to the point where it’s very literal. Matt is writing a scripture. Kevin is, perhaps, Jesus and so I think ideas that were latent just became very pronounced and conspicuous.
John Bucher: You bring up Matt, who has, in my opinion, turned out to be one of the most fascinating characters on the show. While there are certain times that we look at the lunacy of organized religion, Matt is always taken very seriously by the show and he’s given a voice that, he’s never mocked. But at the same time, is shown having his own doubts. I heard someone say once that Matt in many ways is the voice of a large part of the audience watching the show. When you created Matt, did you anticipate that many layers for him?
Tom Perrotta: No, and this is another case I think where the show has reinterpreted the character. So, Matt came out of a very specifically Evangelical tradition in the book. And his goal was to basically dig up dirt on the people who departed to show that they couldn’t have been the kinds of good Christians who would be raptured. And basically what he was looking at it from was the position that if it was the rapture, I would have been taken. Therefore it wasn’t the rapture. So he has a very specific theological ax to grind. And in the show, he kind of, he comes from a different religious tradition. He’s Episcopal and in the book, he basically leaves. He just stops being a preacher. He just feels like it doesn’t make sense. But in the show he just keeps trying to hold on to his faith in increasingly desperate ways. It’s a very different character, but like a lot of other people in the show, his religious yearnings are mixed up with a need to feel special.
It’s one of the things that we’ve been exploring. I think there’s a certain amount of ego that goes into the beginning of any religion, that they’re charismatic people and they’re people who are needing to feel important and connected to something meaningful.
John Bucher: As a writer and a creator yourself, you’ve been a wonderful champion of the reinterpretation of your work and the changes that people have made. Like you mentioned, Kevin was the mayor in the book, not a policeman. How was that process for you? How did you become so supportive of the changes that were made to the original material?
Tom Perrotta: I think I’ve been unusually lucky with adaptations, so the first one that I had from a book of mine was Election, and I loved that movie. It’s faithful to the book in terms of the plot events, but it basically imposed a very satirical tone on something that had a much more melancholy realistic tone. So, Alexander (Payne) found the satire that was sort of hidden inside that book. And I remember sitting down in the movie theater and watching it for the first time and thinking if I had no connection to this at all, I would just be thinking this is one of the best movies I’ve seen years. It just made me realize the book is the book and the film is the film.
And with Little Children, I think Todd Field found a darker version of the story than the one I had written and it had a thriller-like momentum that I really was amazed by. Again, I think it was in there in the book, but it wasn’t … It was brought out with a kind of force that hadn’t been in the book and I just decided that the way to do this if we’re lucky enough is just to find really great people and really let them do their thing.
Damon is somebody who I just have immense admiration for, but we started out from very different places and I think the first season was hard because sometimes he would make his wild declarations and I would resist. I would say, “Well that’s not who this character is.” Then I started to realize, this character can become something else. Almost always, if I trusted him, something great happened. I really did learn to trust him.
John Bucher: I’m glad you brought up Election, because I do think it’s interesting, your work often explores the idea of institutions, whether that’s a school or a religion — the church. Is that theme of looking at institutions something that’s just always been of interest to you or is that something that’s just organically happened?
Tom Perrotta: I think Election is very typical of my work. I often write about education. I’ve written books set in college. I’ve written books in high schools. I’ve written a lot of coming of age stuff. I’ve written a lot about teachers, and I do think that you’re right. When you broaden it, religious communities work in that way. In the new book I wrote, the main character runs a senior center. I do like these places where the community gathers and they’re also workplaces, but they’re also just places where community is formed and sustained and values get articulated. So yeah, I think I’m interested in institutions. Institutions is one way to put it, and communities is another.
John Bucher: How in the world do you end the story like this? So much is centered around mystery. Can you speak to the process of how it went to wrap up this story that began for you so long ago?
Tom Perrotta: I think one of the things the show has benefited from was that we declared right from the beginning that the point of the storytelling wasn’t to explain, but to explore. And that we’re more interested in the characters than we were in solving mysteries. I think we tried to stay true to that when we got together at the beginning of this season and said, “What is the final scene of the show?” Which was really the process for this year. We were able to boil it down pretty quickly to it being a story about Kevin and Nora. Though the great surprise in that process was that we did actually come as close as we ever came to offering some cosmic explanation for what happened. So we did try to work on both levels, which is something that I think the show has been successful at throughout its whole run. It’s dealt with big ideas and cosmic narratives, but it has also been a love story and a family story and a friend story.
John Bucher: Tom, what was the big theme that The Leftovers gave us? What was this so centrally all about? If you had to boil down this long journey you went through of writing the book and being involved in creating this show, if somebody asked you who had no familiarity at all, what thematically is The Leftovers about?
Tom Perrotta: I think that it’s a show about people trying to create meaning in a world that has just revealed itself to them to be terrifying meaningless.