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One Book One Belmont: Perrotta On "The Leftovers"

Belmont resident talks about his novel before his talk tonight at the Beech Street Center.

“The Leftovers” is the sixth novel of Belmont resident Tom Perrotta. Named one of the best books of 2011 in a number of end-of-the-year lists including being a New York Times Notable book, a Washington Post Notable Fiction Book and one of NPR's 10 Best Novels of 2011, it is the choice for this year’s One Book One Belmont program.

Perrotta will read from and talk about The Leftovers, at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Beech Street Center. Perrotta will be introduced by Belmont author Leah Hager Cohen, whose The Grief of Others was also named a New York Times Notable Book for 2011.

A book signing and refreshments will follow the talk, with copies of The Leftovers available for purchase.

The Rapture is a state of grace, where individuals are taken to heaven, to an afterlife, without warning – and in this novel, even the wish to go. In Perrotta’s book, not all those chosen have lived virtuous lives. Certainly children didn’t have a chance to do much evil or good. The irony is:  Either you are chosen or you are not.

The leftovers are those left behind: the wives, husbands, parents, children, friends, lovers, pets, and colleagues in the New England town of Mapleton.  Perrotta’s novel is about their coping and their coping mechanisms.  The book is both funny and grim.

Q: Stephen King praised The Leftovers and wished you success.

A: Like a number of King’s novels, The Leftovers has a fantastical premise—the sudden disappearance of millions of people throughout the world—but it focuses mainly on the mundane struggles of the characters in this newly altered world.

Q: You’ve analyzed Britney Spears’ significance as a pop star. Your novel is full of references to popular culture: SpongeBob SquarePants, Desperate Housewives, Viagra, Cosco, Springsteen, and the Prius. If your characters had different cultural icons and a better education, would they have avoided following fakes like Holy Wayne?

A: I’m not a cultural elitist—I don’t equate an appreciation of pop culture with bad education or bad decisions. In the world I grew up in, pop culture was pretty much universal. The same goes for the novel—people who follow Holy Wayne don’t follow him because they’re ignorant, or because they watch too much TV. They follow him because they’re deeply traumatized, and he seems to offer them a way to heal.

Q: A novelist living in a small town who writes about a small town – seems like the neighbors would wonder if they are characters, particularly villains, in this book.  Is Mapleton Belmont?  The 17-mile bike path in the novel does sound a lot like the Minuteman Bike Path to Bedford.

A: The bike path does sound familiar. As a novelist, I borrow details from real life, but The Leftovers is primarily a work of imagination. And there aren’t a lot of villains in the book. I try to treat all of my characters with some level of sympathy and understanding.

Q: The small town has been the subject of much American fiction because it is – like Main Street – synonymous with the rural (or suburban) heartland: Winesburg, Ohio, Ithaca, New York, and Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Do you see a sinister side to the culture in Mapleton, which produced a Manson-like cult, one which turns deadly? 

A: I would definitely put The Leftovers in the tradition of American small town novels that you mention. Winesburg, Ohio is one of my all-time favorites, as is Our Town. But I don’t think the book is a critique of small-town culture. It’s about something bigger—the way that human beings deal with collective trauma and the difficulty some people have in moving on with their lives afterward.

Q: Eleven years ago, 9/11 struck our country hard, with thousands of lives changed quickly.  The capriciousness of the Rapture, the holes left in people’s lives, even the reparations by the state or federal governments – did 9/11 influence your plan for the book?

A: The events and aftermath of September 11th were on my mind while writing the novel. That’s the most recent example we have of a tragedy that seems to stop the flow of history, to divide our lives into before and after. But September 11th was an act of terrorism—we knew right away who was responsible and why they’d done what they’d done. In The Leftovers, the Sudden Departure is mysterious and much larger in scale. Because people are unsure about what happened and why, they’re also uncertain how to react. Some people want to continue their lives as before; others feel the need for a dramatic break with the past.

Q: You conclude The Leftovers with a sign of hope, the Miracle Child.  Nora Durst, whose family departed three years earlier, finds a baby to nurture – can we assume that this leftover has a way to affirm life again?

A: That’s the kind of question that I’m happy to leave up to the readers. The characters in the novel have a variety of outcomes—some of them are more affirmative than others.

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