A Conversation with Tom Perrotta

The creator of the HBO series "The Leftovers" talks about the true, down-to-earth Jersey attitude, and how the state influenced his work.

Photo courtesy of Ben King/HBO

New Jersey Monthly: What did you get from your Jersey upbringing?
Tom Perrotta: The older I get, the more clear I am about what a New Jersey attitude is. It’s a very down-to-earth, egalitarian place. I think that sticks with anyone who grew up there. In the end, you belong to the place you grew up in.

NJM: Did Jersey influence you as a writer?
TP: I have always considered myself a writer who focuses on ordinary people and who treats everyday life as a subject worthy of literature—and that’s a product of growing up in Jersey.

NJM: You were creator and executive producer on HBO’s The Leftovers—based on your 2011 novel. Critics gushed over the recent finale. How did that feel?
TP: Deeply gratifying. There were huge expectations on the show.

NJM: Given your success with books and the movie adaptations of your novels Election and Little Children, why take a chance on episodic TV?
TP: I remember watching The Sopranos and feeling tremendously excited as a novelist. I remember thinking this was a new form of storytelling. A story could go on for years and years, our sense of character could deepen. Even in a novel you don’t get that kind of connection. I kept thinking, I want to do this. I could just feel something really amazing was happening.

NJM: So, why write another novel?
TP: Fiction is my first love. There’s a purity you find in it you don’t find in TV and film. Those are collaborative mediums. There is just something special about writing a book. Every word is mine, every choice is mine, and the truth is my other careers have been built on the novels.

NJM: You are developing Mrs. Fletcher for HBO. What fascinated you about this material?
TP: The starting point was the sense that the culture had been changed so profoundly by smart phones, the Internet, social media. One thing that’s changed is sex and dating. I wanted to take a middle-aged person and plunge them into this world. If there was one subject I really wanted to address it was the omnipresence of pornography and how it affects everybody. Even people who don’t realize they are being affected by it.

NJM: Your 2000 novel Joe College is about a humble Jersey kid’s challenging first year at Yale—your alma mater. How autobiographical is it?
TP: It really was quite a culture shock. I had grown up in Garwood and it was a world unto itself. I hadn’t traveled, hadn’t met people too different from the people I’d gone to high school with. The world opened up in a startling and sometimes intimidating way. I had to figure out how to navigate that. But I was also determined that I was not going to be changed by it. Then you realize that experience is going to transform you whether you want it to or not.

NJM: When you visit your mom in Garwood, what strikes you about the area?
TP: First, let me say that my mom and I always make a religious pilgrimage to the Galloping Hill Inn to get a hot dog. It’s fascinating to see the gentrification of Garwood, Cranford and Westfield. There’s this proliferation of gourmet groceries and food culture from Brooklyn.

NJM: As a teenager, you had a summer job collecting trash in your hometown.
TP: What do you remember from that? I never threw up. On that job, that was not a given.

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