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Judging from his collection of protagonists over the years, author Tom Perrotta seems to have quite the affinity for pariahs. There’s his indelible Tracy Flick, a hyper-ambitious, social relations–be-damned high school student in Election, and Little Children’s outcast Sarah, who becomes a source of gossip and admiration when she risks her marriage for an affair. Then there’s his newest book, The Abstinence Teacher, out in October, featuring Ruth, a sex-education teacher and single mom who refuses to kowtow to administrative dictates, and Tim, an evangelical single dad, soccer coach and recovering drug addict. Not exactly nominees for homecoming king and queen.
“I think one of the insights I’ve had over time is just how few people think of themselves as insiders,” says the soft-spoken Perrotta, who is raising two children with his wife in Belmont, Mass. “When you’re an insider, you don’t even notice it. It’s mostly in your life you notice this feeling of being outside.”
In The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta, 46, explores a group many liberals would prefer to see as being on the outside: evangelical Christians. And, like Election, which was inspired by the three-way race in 1992 between Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot, his latest work is drawn from the contest for the 2004 presidential election.
“There was this sense among political observers that it was this sort of evangelical, moral-values vote,” says Perrotta of the outcome. “And I as a novelist felt, boy, I don’t really understand who these people are. I’d kind of ignored what turned out to be the decisive group in the political system, and I just thought, I really want to explore this in a novel.”
And so Perrotta, who was born in New Jersey and raised Catholic (“It was much more a cultural identity than deep religious faith”), spent ample time on the Internet, researching the religious group and even attended a Promise Keepers men’s weekend in Baltimore. It was an experience that helped him understand the level of male camaraderie that would lead someone like Tim to turn to religion in order to overcome his substance abuse.
“I wasn’t there as a journalist per se, I just paid as if I were a participant,” says Perrotta. “But I felt this sense of community that wasn’t my community. I could see that for these guys it was a sustaining thing.”
So much so that, in the case of Tim, he feels obligated to spread the message, leading his young girls’ soccer team (one player is Ruth’s daughter) in group prayer. It is an act that sets the tone for the cultural war and emotional turmoil at the heart of the book, and also leads to an unlikely attraction between Tim and Ruth. (It is also curious to note that Perrotta himself coaches his children’s soccer games.)
“I think I’ve borrowed from the conventions of romantic comedy and also tried to undermine them at the same time,” explains Perrotta.
“In this case, I wanted to use the attraction of these two as a way to explore something political, which is the question of what we have in common with people across the ideological line that seems so definite. Often the people on the other side seem like they live in a foreign country.”
The same might be said for the divide between filmmakers and literary authors. And yet, as with two of his other works, Election and Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher has been optioned for a movie, this time to be directed by Valerie Farris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine). Perrotta is already at work collaborating on the book’s screen adaptation.
“Movies are the central public art form. I noticed this with Election. You know, I wrote that book and I couldn’t get it published, and the reason it [came out] was that my publisher heard there was going to be a movie,” he says. “And when I was reviewed, I felt like a lot of reviewers missed the point. They were treating it as a high school soap opera and not a political satire. When the movie came out, it was very intelligently reviewed….That taught me a real lesson: If you want to just reach an audience and have the culture interact with your story, movies are more powerful than books in that sense. A book writer can bemoan that fact, but I don’t think there’s any getting around it.”
That said, Perrotta won’t be abandoning his novel-writing skills any time soon. Despite the success of the film incarnations of his books, he has no intention to become exclusively a screenwriter.
“I think books do things films can’t. I see them more as enriching one another than one superseding the other,” he muses. “For me, the creative pleasure of writing a novel is enormous. And I think the experience of reading a novel is the richest private experience you can have.”