September 23rd, 2011
06:00 AM ET
By Todd Leopold, CNN
(CNN) - Stories of the Rapture usually come accompanied with the operatic drama of bright lights, doomy thunder and the echoing hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen as the world awaits the inevitable apocalypse.
Author Tom Perrotta prefers a little quiet.
In his new novel “The Leftovers” (St. Martin’s), the bestselling author of “Little Children” and “Election” follows a group left behind after something called the “Sudden Departure,” a Rapture-like event in which millions of people suddenly vanished like smoke.
Kevin Garvey is the mayor of Mapleton; his family was left physically intact but psychologically frayed. Nora Durst, on the other hand, lost her husband and children and still hasn’t recovered.
Some characters retreat into cult-like groups. One group, the Guilty Remnant, haunts the living and awaits the end; another, the Holy Wayners, is led by a charismatic hugger who loses his bearings.
Then there’s a local preacher, Matt Jamison, who insists that what happened couldn’t be the Rapture because it claimed flawed humans of all faiths and ethnicities. “I should’ve been first in line,” he insists, while compiling dossiers of the departed’s faults.
Listen to a clip of the audiobook, courtesy Macmillan Audio:
Perrotta talked to CNN about the book, his own faith and putting himself in others’ shoes. Here’s an edited transcript of the interview.
I’m not religious but am extremely interested in religion. I went through a brief phase of being intensely religious as a kid, but by the time I was maybe 13 or 14, religion no longer played a big part in my life.
One of the things I’ve been fascinated by the more I’ve delved into evangelical culture is how consuming a religious commitment is. I grew up where it was one part of life – it didn’t pervade your entire existence.
Your last couple of books have had religious themes. Why are you so interested in the subject?
I approached [my previous book] “The Abstinence Teacher” through a political lens. I was really interested in the American culture war, which five or six years ago was a kind of consuming part of the political landscape.
I remember that feeling around George W. Bush’s reelection was the sense that the election was going to hinge on people’s views about gay marriage in Ohio.
And here I was living in Massachusetts, gay marriage was legal, people I knew had no problem, the sky hadn’t fallen – and I remember this as a constant question people were posing: Who are these devout Christians? And I thought it was one of the jobs of the novelist is to know who their fellow citizens are.
So I approached it from there and tried to immerse myself in the Bible and Christian culture and follow this one character’s journey from the inside.
Did that lead to “The Leftovers?”
In the course of a lot of reading I kept bumping up against this end times Rapture scenario. And this is not something Catholics buy into. I think I didn’t even hear about it until college. I was reading a book about fundamentalist religion in Texas when I first heard of the Rapture. It was such an amazing image, and such a poetic image, that it stuck with me all these years.
Another point was, I was very taken with the specificity of the scenario. The Rapture would happen, I would presumably be left behind and there would be a seven-year period of tribulation for Jesus’ second coming and the millennium.
And I kept thinking, “Seven years is a long time.” Especially in this culture.
So one of my thoughts was maybe three or four years in, some people would have forgotten. And other people would be, rightly, just focused on the past and on remembering and making sense of this big thing that happened. And I felt that, in this little joke I made to myself – seven years later, nobody would remember – was some truth about these human impulses. One is to remember and make sense, and the other is to forget and move on.
So that’s really what this book is about. It’s not a theological argument with apocalyptic theology. It’s a book about how we remember, how we forget, how we move on. It’s also about the way that trauma inspires intensely religious reactions.
Why is it so hard for us to let go, to enjoy life? Is it our deep-seated religious guilt that prompts these evangelical movements?
I don’t know. I think most of us set ourselves on a path, and we don’t like to get knocked off. I think that’s why the story of St. Paul is such a great one – that you have to get hit by lightning to change. I think a lot of us feel that we have a life that we like, and adding anything that intrudes on that is a problem.
I still have this vivid memory of 9/11 – I was writing a story for this magazine in New York. I was working closely with this editor and I got the news and I e-mailed, “Are you OK?” He e-mailed back, “Fine here. Where’s that rewrite?” It was like, I’m going to pretend this didn’t happen.
Do you have a sympathy for people who think we’re in the end times?
I’m sympathetic with the need for clarity – who we are, what we’re doing, where we’re going to go, what death means. What I’m not so sympathetic with is that sense that some of us are going to get rewarded and lots of other people are going to get punished.
To the extent that somebody takes pleasure in that, that’s a problem for me, in the same way someone might welcome a war in the Middle East because that signals some movement toward the end times.
Seems kind of selfish...
And I’m no expert on Christianity, but one of the interesting things about Jesus is how he constantly works against anyone’s assumption of moral superiority. So Christians who assert moral superiority and certitude about their own election will always seem to be in some sense setting themselves up for a fall, because Jesus was always uncomfortable with people who did that.
Did writing this change any of your thoughts about the Rapture?
The reason it has so much power to me is that it’s such an amazing metaphor for the way life is. As we get older people start disappearing from our lives. That, to me, was the leap that made the book possible. We are all left behind. We’re not left behind in the way the end times scenario envisions, but we’re all living with the absences of all kinds of people – not just people we loved, but people who sat next to us in school or worked across the hall. But we keep going, because that’s what we have to do.
What’s your vision of God? Do you have one?
I don’t, though it’s hard for me to believe in a God who’s personally interested in the fates of every one of us, because the fates of so many innocents are so terrible. I know there are theologians who will explain that away to me, but it never sticks.
But you do believe in God?
I consider myself agnostic because I’m never quite comfortable with a story that says we’re some accidental combination of gases and all this emerged. I guess I haven’t heard the story yet that makes complete sense to me, from scientists or religious people.
Have you gotten any personal e-mails or letters about "The Leftovers?"
I’ve just started to get a few people who say they’re praying for me. I think there are going to be some people who are going to see the cover, see the name, see the Rapture and assume that this is, in effect, Christian fiction.
Religion feels like it clearly came out of a world – it was a tribal world, it was a local world. If you think about a world in which there was fire or calamity or flood, that’s our everyday world. And that was part of it. It’s always end times in a global, media-connected world.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.