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The psychological apocalypse of The Leftovers

‘You know, 9/11 changed a lot of things, but it didn’t change us in as fundamental a way as we thought,’ says Tom Perrotta.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Call it Lost in Suburbia: For HBO's big summer series The Leftovers, the network has paired up Damon Lindelof, the creator of Lost, with author Tom Perrotta (Election, Little Children) to adapt the latter's acclaimed 2011 novel. In the series, the fine people of Mapleton struggle to adapt after an unexplained event three years earlier, in which 2 per cent of the world's population suddenly disappeared. Was it the Rapture? Something else? We talked to Perrotta on a stop in Toronto this week.

I have to tell you, watching the show made me want to go home and hug my family.

Yeah, yeah, it's grim. (Chuckles)

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How would you describe it?

It's about a psychological apocalypse, rather than a real-world nuclear holocaust or attack of the zombies. To me it's about people grappling with a mystery that will not be resolved, and it's how they create meaning in the face of that mystery.

It feels very post-Sept. 11. In the pilot episode, there's a memorial in which children read the names of the disappeared, people jump off a building in slow motion, there are ribbons tied around trees, and other echoes of that day.

Early on in the book, I was very conscious of that, and – then just kind of started to realize, well, this event is not an allegory for 9/11, but it is the same type of event. It's one of these enormous events that seems to divide history into Before and After. I think they feel very different in their immediate aftermath than they do a few years later. Like – 9/11, on Sept. 12, felt like, just this event that –

Everything had changed

… Yeah, everything had changed. We said that so easily: "Everything has changed." I remember, I was writing an article about Britney Spears for GQ, and she was at the height of her fame, and I very confidently predicted in the last paragraph that, Well, I don't think there's going to be a place for artists like Britney in the post-9/11 world, I think the culture's about to become much more serious and thoughtful.

You weren't the only one – Graydon Carter predicted "the death of irony" …

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Yeah. And, of course, who do we have now? Kim Kardashian!

We doubled down on that stuff.

We doubled down! So, I think our responses are unpredictable. You know, 9/11 changed a lot of things, but it didn't change us in as fundamental a way as we thought. Some people's lives were altered permanently, and some people were able to look at that and think, "oh, that was one episode in an unbroken flow of history."

You see the same split in the characters on the show: Some, like the chief of police (Justin Theroux) try to carry on as best they can, while others such as Amy Brenneman's character, join this weird cult, the Guilty Remnant, who take a vow of silence, wear white, chain smoke and basically wait for the end of the world.

Religion is the story we tell, to answer the questions that can't really be answered, and what I started to realize that this story was leading me to, was – it was almost as if the religious clock got set back to zero by this event. So there was this space for contemporary expressions of spirituality that were kind of outside of Christianity or Judaism or Islam, whatever. To me, that was the heart of the book: This event had created this space for new religions to come into being.

Not to stretch the point, but frankly TV seems to be our new church: It's the place we go to seek and create meaning out of our own lives. The shows that really hit are the ones that speak to us on a deeper level.

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I'm totally fascinated by this, because for many years you taught English, I taught writing in colleges, and you could sort of feel a certain amount of energy go out of the study of literature. Just the sheer number of people who did it started to drop, and the sophistication with which people did it, and the dedication with which people did it started to decline as well. And some part of me thought: Oh, that's a lost art, this art of close reading and interpretation. But it turned out to have migrated to TV. It's amazing, the level of discussion and enthusiasm and sheer hermeneutic energy that goes into, like, parsing a show such as True Detective – or, you know, close readings of episodes of Mad Men. And I know Damon Lindelof, my partner in this, has experienced it in an enormous way, and he often will say, as we're writing, he'll say, "Oh my God, they're gonna go crazy about this." He kind of knows exactly what the bait is for that kind of craziness.

You've had two of your novels turned into features, Election and Little Children – both of them wry satires. This TV adaptation is very different than the satire in the book, The Leftovers. Certainly, it's much heavier.

One thing I've learned from getting three works adapted is that the kind of hybrid tone that I use in my books, which is sort of dark but funny – it turns out to be really hard to match that on screen. So, [the director] Alexander Payne really took the funny: Election is a funnier movie than it is a book. He took that one element and he magnified it. Little Children is a dark, funny book – [the director] Todd Field really made it much darker and heavier than the book. And I think Damon is doing something similar, but with a very distinctive style of his own.

There's a party scene in the first episode, with teenagers playing what seems like a very edgy game of truth or dare. For me, that scene and others had echoes of The Ice Storm, Rick Moody's great novel set in the early 1970s.

That's funny. And it's weird, because while I was writing the book, I was thinking back to my high school in the seventies. It was much more chaotic, you know?

Well, all the governmental and societal institutions were breaking down. Kids just did whatever they wanted.

And teachers didn't feel like they could tell them No. So, that was always in the back of my mind: the post-apocalyptic high school is actually the high school of the seventies.

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