The Gospel According to Tom Perrotta

By Nick Haramis


Like all good five-year-olds, writer Tom Perrotta spent his First Holy Communion at St. Ann’s Church watching older friends steal from an offering of jellied donuts. He abstained. Decades go by, in which Perrotta takes up roller-blading, starts teaching at Yale, and moves to Brooklyn. He wrote a few novels that had critics drooling (and name-dropping contemporaries like Nick Hornby and Philip Roth), before breaking into the big leagues, almost despite himself, with Alexander Payne‘s adaptation of Perrotta’s Election. (See below, where the writer explains why he can’t seem to get Reese Witherspoon and Kate Winslet out of his head.) After putting Tracey Flick to bed, he wrote Little Children, picking up an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay.

Now, Perrotta is back with The Abstinence Teacher, a satirical look at liberal sex education and the Christian Right. The book opens with Ruth Ramsey, who, in response to a question from one of her students on the subject of oral sex, explains, “Some people enjoy it.”

Parents are outraged. Ruth finds herself battling preconceived notions about education and organized religion after she falls for her daughter’s soccer coach, Tim Mason, himself a recovering junkie who finds God late in life. Together, they struggle to live their lives in a suburban climate determined by a return to fundamentalism of all sorts. The Abstinence Teacher is an intelligent, charming, and all-out winning He said/she said take on sex and sinners. Here, its writer talks candidly about masturbation, night shifts, and a little something called Fear Street.

BLACKBOOK: Growing up, you’ve had some pretty terrible jobs. TOM PERROTTA: Working the night shift as a proofreader for the Tobacco Retailer was the worst. The guy next to me��������this really sweet, old guy out in some industrial park in suburban New Jersey��������had to work standing up because his hemorrhoids were so bad. I didn’t even last two weeks. Even still, I found myself reading articles about the Kennedy assassination in Ladies’ Home Journal and weeping.

BB: When did you realize you might have an actual shot at writing as a profession?

TP: That’s interesting, because to be a writer one has to have some delusions of grandeur. I just grew up always thinking that it was going to happen. The shock came about in my twenties when I realized it wasn’t going to be easy and I wasn’t going to be recognized immediately as the genius I believed I was.

BB: When did you start writing for the Goosebumps series? [This is a trick.]

TP: Actually, the one I wrote for was called Fear Street. And I had for many many years respected my oath of non-disclosure, but I guess the cat is out of the bag. I only wrote one of them back in 1993. I don’t even have a copy of it.

BB: Is there a formula to follow?

TP: Yeah, it’s essentially like being in an assembly line. It was very heavily outlined before it got to me. I just put it into complete sentences.

BB: What’s the downside to being a writer?

TP: The hours are good, but I’d say that writers are less out there in the world. We try our best to write about the outside world, to comment on it, but we spend most of our time in our rooms. It’s one of the reasons I’m getting more heavily involved with screenwriting. I’m starting to feel a little bit cloistered.

BB: Speaking of working from home, I read somewhere that you searched the internet for “Christian Sex Tips” when researching The Abstinence Teacher.

TP: Oh, The New York Times was a little bit glib. I went to Church services, a Promise Keepers rally, and I read the Bible. I really steeped myself in that Christian culture, actually. But there is a whole lot cyber Christianity, sermons and everything. BB: Glib or no, your name is now the second thing that shows up when one Googles “Christian Sex Tips.”

TP: [Laughs.] Well, that’s something to be proud of. I noticed that there’s a piece in Christianity Today called “Sexy Evangelicalism” where they’re talking about the book. They were so happy that I wrote about sexy church sex.

BB: Have you been shocked by some of the critical reception to your work, pleasantly or otherwise?

TP: I’ve never really been shocked. I can recount my grievances like anybody else, but in general, I feel like I’ve been treated fairly well. The thing that surprises me is how much your reputation precedes you. For example, I think Little Children is a dark, intense novel��������and there are critics who got that��������but there were also tons of readers who insisted on seeing it as this funny, lighthearted thing. I kept thinking, “Where did that come from? There are funny bits, but it’s pretty sad throughout, and it’s about thwarted longing and child molesters. BB: What about The Abstinence Teacher? Had you set out this time to make something a little lighter?

TP: It does have a romantic comedy frame to it. But for Ruth, I mean, she’s losing her kids, her jobs under attack, she’s feeling very lonely. It’s funny, I feel like I’m a pretty serious guy. I blame Election for all of this. BB: Tracey Flick is responsible?

TP: The movie was so damn funny that people are reading me through that screen. I love the movie, don’t get me wrong, but I think it leads people to overemphasize the comedy at times.

BB: Do you have stars in mind when creating your characters?

TP: I don’t, no. Although when I now read Little Children, I hear Kate Winslet or Patrick Wilson. I don’t do it before, but once an actor embodies the role, it’s hard to go back. That’s certainly a price you pay when a book gets adapted to film. But it’s true, I can’t read Little Children without thinking about Kate Winslet.

BB: Could be worse.

TP: [Laughs.] You’re right, I probably would have been thinking about her anyway.

BB: Why the recent renewed interest in suburbia in today’s literature?

TP: I don’t think it ever really went away, well, maybe in the ’90s. There was a neo-postmodernism happening at that time, much wilder fiction, but even then Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen were writing suburban novels. If jazz is the music that America invented, then suburbia is the geography that we invented. It’s the distinctive contemporary American way of living. I mean, we have our great cities, don’t get me wrong, but other people figured those out before us.

BB: Was the inspiration from this book culled from any real-life experience with sex education?

TP: I grew up Catholic, and even though it was the ’70s, which were radical in some ways, things were pretty repressed in the way that sex got talked about in public. I never really got any education. I feel like one of those old codgers who’s like, “We didn’t get any sex education and we were fine.” But, of course, we weren’t fine. I remember the first time Dr. Ruth said it was okay to masturbate, and I was like, Jesus, why couldn’t they have told me when I was sixteen?

So, I wasn’t reacting to personal experience, but this sort of culture war more generally. The book was started in 2004 when the Christian Right was gaining momentum. They reelected George Bush on the strength of their opposition to gay marriage, which really trumped the Iraq war. There have been political scientists who have since questioned that theory, but I didn’t when I was writing the book.

BB: When you set out to write, did you know how you were going to portray the Christian Right?

TP: No, not really. I knew I wasn’t simply going to take a side in the culture war. I wanted to portray both sides fairly, and I think that implies taking a sympathetic look at both. As sympathetic as I can be, anyway. Someone like JoAnn, my Ann Coulter-ish abstinence advisor��������she’s basically a comic figure. There’s no love for her in the book.

BB: There is, however, some skepticism centered on the Tabernacle.

TP: The pastor really does care for Tim, and he wants to help him back on his feet, but he has a very limited sense of what a good life can be. Basically, the skepticism comes from realizing how difficult it is to achieve a good Christian life. And the pastor is pretty uncompromising about that. He tells Tim, “If you’re going to do this right, you might lose your daughters. If you’re going to do that right, you may have to stop doing this thing you love.” And there’s a lot of Biblical justification for that. Jesus basically says give up everything you own and follow me; I come to separate a parent from his children. So, I think the skepticism comes from realizing that a lot of people live a very compromised Christian life. And I’m not judging anyone. God knows I wouldn’t be able to do it.

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