Publishers only became interested in author Tom Perrotta's most famous work, Election, after it had been made into the hit 1999 hit film by Alexander Payne. Since then, agents (not to mention his adoring fans) have salivated over anything he writes — most recently his new novel The Abstinence Teacher, on which Perrotta is already, of course, hard at work on a film adaptation. He spoke with Vulture during a brief stopover in New York on his national book tour.
Your book just came out this week, and people are already talking about casting for the film. Who would be the leads in your dream version?
I think there is some actual casting going on — discussions, at least — and I'm really not allowed to talk about it. They don't like when I do that. They're very sensitive. I mean, it's not my feelings that are going to get hurt!
Understood. So, what inspired The Abstinence Teacher?
I was trying to write a culture-war novel. It was really trying to get at both sides of this divide in America. I wanted to get it into a single town and have the characters really interact. I started with a much sort of broader sense of what I wanted to do and then narrowed it down to sex education, rather than evolution, or abortion, or gay marriage, which could have structured something similarly.
At the end of the novel, there's a big Promise Keepers rally, which I almost didn't believe was real until I Googled it. How'd you come up with all the details?
I actually went to a Promise Keepers rally in Baltimore with a couple of my college roommates. It was a pretty wild thing. There's like 3,000 or 5,000 men or something in a big civic center and it's really a mix between a political rally, a rock concert, and a gigantic church service. And a self-help rally. It's a whole night long of multimedia inspirational stuff about how to be a good Christian, husband, and father.
That does sound wild.
It is! When it first started some years ago, I think it was kind of on the forefront so it had a lot more energy. It felt a little tired. I think there's a kind of confusion on the Christian Right at this point, since it wasn't as militant as it was, and some of the political and cultural stuff had been toned down. Nonetheless you get 5,000 Christian men in a big auditorium, and it's certainly unlike anything that I'd ever been to.
What was your response to the experience?
That's a good question. It's a complicated one. We all wore these purple bracelets that were sort of our admission tickets, and so all through the weekend men were sort of checking each other out looking for the bracelets, so it was sort of a weird, almost kind of gay experience: You'd be walking down the street and you'd make eye contact and they'd be looking and you'd be looking and there'd be this sense of, hey, we're in on the secret. But then when it was over the first night, it was late and my friends and I needed to find some place to eat, and we were in Baltimore where not a lot of places were open. We ended up at a Hooters, and the funny thing was, we weren't the only ones. [Laughs.] There were a lot of people who'd gone straight from Promise Keepers to Hooters. And that's really what the book is about: how you can do that.
Do you prefer working on books or screenplays?
What I've been liking is moving between the two. What you get with the books is, you know, it's my book. I write every word of it, and I live with it for a long time. It's my version of the story. What I've really been enjoying in terms of screenwriting is that I've been collaborating with other writers and directors, and that's such a nice antidote to the solitude of writing a novel. There's just something interesting about letting other people kind of take the lead or at least bring what they bring to the table. My current analogy is that it's like playing in a band. If the other people are good, then you get to be a little better.
And if they're bad?
You try not to get involved. —Sara Cardace