Other segments from the episode on August 25, 2011
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
After The Rapture, Who Are 'The Leftovers'?
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Tom Perrotta, wrote the novels "Election" and "Little
Children," which were both adapted into films. His new novel, "The
Leftovers," starts with this premise: What if suddenly millions of
people instantaneously vanished around the world in a scenario similar
to but definitely different from the Rapture?
The novel is about those people left on Earth or, as the title puts it,
the leftovers. Perrotta writes about how they cope with grief and loss
and why some see this as an act of God and believe it's the start of the
end times while others struggle to find ways to live with the
Tom Perrotta is in the process of adapting "The Leftovers" for HBO. His
previous novel, "The Abstinence Teacher," was about the culture wars,
focusing on a sex education teacher who's pressured to teach abstinence
Tom Perrotta, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your book isn't about the
Rapture per se, but to understand what's in the book, you have to
understand what beliefs about the Rapture are. So why don't we start
with that. What is your understanding of the Rapture?
Mr. TOM PERROTTA (Author, "The Leftovers"): Well, the Rapture is part of
pre-millennial end-times theology. It's actually a pretty recent part of
Christianity. I think it was a 19th-century invention or formulation,
and it's the beginning of the second coming, which is a seven-year
So basically, the Rapture is the first real occasion that Christians on
Earth rise to meet Jesus in the sky, and the people who are left behind
suffer through a seven-year period of tribulation, which is wars,
plagues, all kinds of suffering, and there's a big battle that involves
the Antichrist and Armageddon and finally the second coming and the
millennium, which is, you know, Christ's kingdom on Earth for 1,000
GROSS: So in the Rapture, the believers rise to heaven, and the
nonbelievers stay behind and have to deal with the tribulations, the
plagues and floods and all that.
Mr. PERROTTA: Exactly.
GROSS: Okay. So I want you to read an excerpt of the prologue to your
novel "The Leftovers," and this is from the point of view of Laurie,
who's an agnostic who lives with her husband. They have two children, a
boy in college and a girl in high school.
She never believed in the Rapture. She says that it always seemed like
religious kitsch to her, kind of like one of those black velvet
paintings. And then she's kind of hit with the fact that all these
people have disappeared. So why don't you pick it up from there?
Mr. PERROTTA: Okay. Then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true,
or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the
same time, all over the world. This wasn't some ancient rumor - a dead
man coming back to life during the Roman Empire - or a dusty homegrown
legend, Joseph Smith unearthing golden tablets in upstate New York,
conversing with an angel. This was real.
The Rapture happened in her own hometown, to her best friend's daughter,
among others, while Laurie herself was in the house. God's intrusion
into her life couldn't have been any clearer if He'd addressed her from
a burning azalea. At least you would have thought so.
And yet she managed to deny the obvious for weeks and months afterward,
clinging to her doubts like a life preserver, desperately echoing the
scientists and pundits and politicians who insisted that the cause of
what they called the Sudden Departure remained unknown, and cautioned
the public to avoid jumping to conclusions until the release of the
official report by the nonpartisan government panel that was
investigating the matter.
Something tragic occurred, the experts repeated over and over. It was a
Rapture-like phenomenon, but it doesn't appear to have been the Rapture.
Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged
to Christians themselves, who couldn't help noticing that many of the
people who'd disappeared on October 14th - Hindus and Buddhists and
Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos
and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever the heck they were - hadn't
accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior.
As far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing
the Rapture couldn't be was random. The whole point was to separate the
wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of
the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.
So it was easy enough to be confused, to throw up your hands and claim
that you just didn't know what was going on. But Laurie knew. Deep in
her heart, as soon as it happened, she knew. She'd been left behind.
They all had.
It didn't matter that God hadn't factored religion into His decision-
making. If anything, that just made it worse, more of a personal
rejection. And yet she chose to ignore this knowledge, to banish it to
some murky recess of her mind - the basement storage area for things you
couldn't bear to think about - the same place you hid the knowledge that
you were going to die, so you could live your life without being
depressed every minute of every day.
GROSS: And that's Tom Perrotta, reading from his new novel "The
Leftovers." So at the center of this is the idea if something
inexplicable happened, would you attribute it to God, or would you find
a scientific, secular reason to explain it. Who believes this is an act
of God? Who believes it's some kind of scientific or just inexplicable
phenomenon that is not related to religion?
Why did you want to pose that question in your novel?
Mr. PERROTTA: Well, that's a very good question. I think when you write
a book, you start, I think, in a much vaguer place. You're not really
sure what question you're posing. So in this case, I wrote a book called
"The Abstinence Teacher," it was my last novel, and it was about the
culture wars in the U.S. and centered around sex education.
I spent a lot of time thinking about contemporary Christianity and
reading about it, and obviously the Rapture kept coming up. And, you
know, my first impulse was like Laurie's, to sort of laugh it off. It's
sort of a funny idea, you know, people just floating away.
But I also kept thinking: Well, what if it did happen? You know, I'm
such a skeptic that I think even if it did happen, I thought I would
resist the implications of it, and I also thought three years later,
everyone would have forgotten about it that no matter what horrible
thing happens in the world, you know, the culture seems to move on and
keep flowing into the present moment.
And so the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a really
rich metaphor for thinking about the way that we react to, as you say,
incomprehensible events, horrible events, things that we can't
completely understand. They are these dueling impulses to, you know, to
remember and bear witness and to forget and move on. And this was the
scenario that I chose to explore those impulses.
GROSS: Now, your book is being published very close to the 10th
anniversary of 9/11, and in a way that seems like no coincidence because
I kept thinking about 9/11 when reading your book because many people in
New York, you know, did disappear. They disappeared into the rubble of
the towers. Their remnants, their remains were never found.
Mr. PERROTTA: And, you know, I certainly was thinking about it as I
wrote it. I didn't write the book as a kind of direct response to 9/11,
but I did keep getting hung up on this idea of seven years and that's
the period of the tribulation mentioned in the end-times theology. And I
kept thinking, you know, seven years is such a long time.
You know, I remember 10 years ago feeling like, you know, the world will
never be the same, we'll never forget this. And I think, you know, even
four and five years later, it started to seem like something that had
already been absorbed by history, that we had moved past it.
Now obviously for people who were directly affected, it's never absorbed
by history, it's always present. And so it was one of the really
contemporary examples I had of this process, but you can name any number
of traumatic 20th-century events and think about, you know, how quickly
people managed to - many people managed to move on.
GROSS: The mother in the book, whose point of view we heard represented
in the reading that you did, she joins this cult-like group called The
Guilty Remnant. Would you describe the group?
Mr. PERROTTA: The Guilty Remnant represents a very extreme reaction to
this event, the Rapture, the Sudden Departure. These people are kind of
a home-grown suburban cult, and they have taken over a development on
one side of town, that - eight homes, eight really big homes, and
they're living there as a commune.
They dress in white, and that makes them distinctive. They travel in
same-sex pairs throughout the town. The thing that makes them most
distinctive is that they are smoking constantly. This is a sort of a
declaration of faith and also a sense that they have that there's no
future, that they don't have to worry about their health or anything
And what they do is just follow people around, and they see themselves
as living reminders. They devote themselves to bearing witness, and
there is this guilty sense: They believe that they were in some way
rejected by God.
They're not - they don't necessarily identify as Christians, but they
have absorbed that viewpoint on the Rapture, that they were, in a sense,
left behind, judged and found wanting, and they don't - they dedicate
themselves to preventing a return to normalcy in the town.
GROSS: Yeah, and they're living with the idea that being alive on Earth
is more of a punishment than a gift.
Mr. PERROTTA: It's true, and yet, you know, the biblical context for
that, the wars and the disasters, hasn't really occurred. And so what
they have is a kind of voluntary renunciation of the world, and so
they're eating very badly, and they're sort of hungry all the time.
And there's a scene, for instance, where Laurie ends up in the
supermarket, and she's extremely hungry, and it's a completely familiar
supermarket, but, you know, it's almost more than she can take. And she
sees it as, you know, this garden from which she and everyone else has
been expelled, but not everyone seems to know that.
GROSS: You know, reading the book, you have to wonder what would make a
woman leave her husband and leave her two children. I mean, the marriage
hasn't been that great lately, but, you know, I know her son's away at
college, but her daughter really needs her.
Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, I know, and I think this has been, you know,
something that's come up with some readers. And to me, you know,
Laurie's reaction is rooted in - oddly enough in her friend's grief.
She - no one in the main family, the Garvey family in the novel, has
disappeared, and yet they're all - a number of them are seriously
haunted by losses. In Laurie's case, it's a fairly close one. It's her
best friend's daughter who is gone.
And somehow that disappearance has just shocked her out of her own life.
And she spends a lot of time helping her friend grieve, that's what's
recounted in the prologue. And that grief, she says, you know, feels
sort of right. It becomes the place where she needs to live. And she
can't find her way back to any kind of normal rhythm and normal life.
And it's true that her daughter needs her, and yet she's frustrated by
her daughter and ultimately decides that she needs to be in this place
where she can be silent and just focus on this new world that she
believes she's living in.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Perrotta. His new
novel is called "The Leftovers," and he also wrote the books "Election"
and "Little Children," which were adapted into popular films. Let's take
a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Perrotta. He's the
author of the novels "Election" and "Little Children," which were
adapted into films. His new novel, "The Leftovers," is set in a suburb
during a Rapture-like experience, when a lot of people suddenly
disappear from Earth.
Some people think this is the Rapture, that they've been raptured to
heaven as a precursor of the end times. Other people think it's a
mysterious phenomenon that needs further investigation. But everybody is
suffering from grief because nearly every family has lost someone.
Do you know why the people in your own novel disappeared?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PERROTTA: No, no, I didn't. Partly I'm always impatient in science-
fiction movies or books where there's this explanation, well, there was
a temporary disturbance in the Earth's magnetic field or...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PERROTTA: ...you know, tons of industrial waste were dumped into the
river, and that's why this monster was created.
Yeah, I understand that there may be social criticism embedded in those
sort of explanations, but they always seem kind of cheap and easy. And
in any case, for me the book was really about the experience of not
As I say, I'm a skeptic myself or an agnostic, whatever word you want to
put on it, and I do feel like, you know, the burden of living with that
sort of skepticism is that you are confronted with not having a story
about, you know, why terrible things happen or, you know, what the
meaning is of our time on Earth.
So to me, you know - and the apocalyptic religious stories are always
about, you know, imposing a final meaning on the mysteries of life, and,
you know, this is an agnostic's apocalypse where even this event that
should make everything clear just makes it all murky.
GROSS: Did you grow up with religion?
Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, though - yes, I grew up Catholic in the 1970s, and
it was not a very rigorous religious upbringing. I stayed in the church
right up to the point where I got confirmed at age 13, and that was
basically considered - that was basically what we did. It was like just
stay in, get confirmed. It's almost like I graduated from church.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Right. Right, so you didn't even need to have a falling out. You
Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, you didn't have to go anymore.
GROSS: But knowing what you know about Roman Catholicism and then having
done some studying of evangelical Christianity for this book and also
for your previous book "The Abstinence Teacher," what are some of the
differences that you see between the two approaches to faith?
Mr. PERROTTA: Well, that's sort of an enormous question. I mean, the
thing that most struck me in, you know, studying Evangelical culture for
"The Abstinence Teacher" was just how crucial the Bible was and one's
own reading of the Bible and one's understanding of the Bible and one's
personal choices. And I don't remember feeling like, you know, the
Catholic Church was encouraging, you know, one to independently read the
I'm sure that people are going to - people who are Catholics now will
tell me that I'm wrong about some of these things, but this is my own
experience at the time. It felt somewhat - it was more - I guess I
should say I was raised in the kind of Catholic culture rather than as
a, you know, religious person. So - but it was not encouraged to read
the Bible or make, you know, very personal religious choices.
GROSS: Since you're not someone who turns to the Bible for explanations
about life and death and other mysteries, do you find that fiction is
helpful in if not comprehending the world, at least finding people who
help explain living in the face of mystery?
Mr. PERROTTA: Oh, yeah. I mean, I would probably have to say that
reading fiction, you know, that's what - those stories fill the space
that, you know, other people might use religious stories for. You know,
the bulk of what I know about human life, I've gotten from novels.
And I think, you know, the thing about novels that make them important
to the people that love them is that there's always another perspective.
There's no novel that I think really works unless it has a kind of
internal dialogue and attention.
And I think that is obviously, you know, a real alternative to religion,
which tends to give you a unified perspective and isn't that interested
in the idea that there are competing ideas that are equally valid or
valid if you are a person in, you know, one set of circumstances and
less valid if you're a person in another set of circumstances.
It's very relative in that sense, as opposed to absolute, and that's
what drives, you know, religious conservatives crazy. They don't like
this idea that there are multiple truths for multiple people.
GROSS: Tom Perrotta will be back in the second half of the show. His new
novel is called "The Leftovers." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tom Perrotta. His
novels "Election" and "Little Children" were adapted into films. His new
novel, "The Leftovers," has just been published, but he's already
adapting it for HBO.
"The Leftovers" is about the people left on Earth after millions of
people instantaneously disappear in a scenario resembling the Rapture,
except it wasn't just Christian believers who disappeared, it was people
of every faith, as well as atheists.
Perrotta was raised in the Roman Catholic Church but now considers
himself an agnostic. When we left off, he was describing how he turns to
literature to help him understand the human condition in the way that
others may turn to religious stories.
So we're talking about how literature has filled a very important
function in your life. No one, I think, has turned to your novels in a
way that somebody would turn to the Bible, however...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Your stories have become very popular, and I'm thinking about,
like, your book "Election." When Hillary Clinton was running for
president, she was sometimes compared to a character in your novel
"Election" who's kind of ruthless when she's campaigning for, like, the
high school student council president.
What did it feel like to have this fictional creation of yours be used
in that kind of way, like people were using it to help explain who they
thought Hillary Clinton was.
Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, that was very interesting. I think when it first
happened, I was really flattered and kind of excited because I think
there's always this secret dream you might have as a writer that, you
know, you're going to influence the culture and that, you know, people
will use characters you've created as a kind of shorthand.
And I think, you know - so I actually was in the car and the radio, and
somebody was sort of talking about, you know, Hillary as a Tracy Flick,
and by the way, they then did it with Sarah Palin, and they did it with
Kirsten Gillibrand, and then I started to get nervous because I thought
Tracy Flick is just one character in this book "Election," and she's
been made memorable really by Reese Witherspoon's amazing performance in
that movie, but I did feel like she was starting to be kind of an anti-
feminist icon, that, you know, the idea that women of ambition were sort
of unpleasant and ruthless and goody-goody.
And that part of it made me uncomfortable. I think the two go together.
You know, you write something, and it goes out in the world, and then if
you're lucky, the world makes its own use of it. I wasn't all that
comfortable with the way Tracy has been used in public discourse.
GROSS: You feel that people were using the character to help stereotype
Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, and it didn't almost matter who they were. Any
ambitious woman suddenly was a Tracy Flick and was therefore sort of,
you know, unpleasant and a little scary.
GROSS: Did you feel like going on all the talk shows and saying wait a
minute, you're misinterpreting the character. You're using her to
stereotype people in ways I never intended.
Mr. PERROTTA: If I got a chance, as I am now having a chance, I will say
that I think we should be careful about that. But we'll see if my
warnings will have any effect.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I don't think so.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Perrotta, and he wrote
the novels "Election" and "Little Children," which were adapted into
films. His new novel is called "The Leftovers," and it's about a
Rapture-like experience, where suddenly many people in a small town just
disappear in an instant, and some people think this is the Rapture or
something like it, that it's a religious experience that is a precursor
to the end times and the second coming, and other people just think it's
like a mysterious phenomenon. But everybody is grieving in their own
Because grieving is so central to your novel, I was wondering, like,
what have been some of the biggest absences in your life?
Mr. PERROTTA: Well, I've been pretty lucky, I think. I was into my 40s
before I lost anyone in my immediate family. You know, my grandparents
died when I was younger. So it feels like my life is sort of unfolding
according to, you know, the natural schedule of things, meaning, you
know, that there have been no - nobody dying sort of well before their
But I will say, you know, my father died nine years ago now, and, you
know, life I think is just a series of entirely predictable shocks. I
mean, my father died. I think that - you know, he was in his 70s. He
died in a car accident, so it was a sudden event. You know, it was a
sunny day. I was out for a bike ride, and I came home and got a phone
call and, you know, learned that my father had just died.
And I think obviously that sense of someone just being there and being
gone is connected with that. But I think - so I think yes, there's grief
in that very real sense of, you know, my father died, and then there's
just that other sense, I think, of, you know, living long enough that
some parts of your life are behind you.
I mean, there are many people who are really close to me at various
times that I no longer see. I think, you know, as you get older, you
just start to feel the absences around you take on the kind of
importance that they didn't have earlier.
And some of those absences are absences because people are truly gone,
and others are just, they belong to some part of your life that no
GROSS: Well, one of the characters in your novel, this is the daughter
in the main family, she thinks about how easy it is to romanticize the
missing. And somebody who - one of her friends disappears during this
Rapture-like experience. And everybody assumes that they're best friends
and that Jill, the daughter, must be in a terrible state of grief.
But Jill and this other girl, it turns out, really weren't close. It's
their mothers who are very close. And she didn't even like her all that
much and so all these, like, feelings of grief are being projected on
her that she doesn't quite feel. And she also thinks about, in
romanticizing the dead, how her friend would be described, you know,
that God missed her blue eyes and her beautiful smile and wanted her
And I was wondering if you've been to funerals or memorials where you
felt that the person who was deceased was being romanticized in ways
that weren't honest or - yeah.
Mr. PERROTTA: Well, I think that part happens all the time. And
sometimes it happens the other way, where people's lives are just
reduced, and their complexity is reduced. And I think, you know, what
Jill is trying to figure out is, you know, how do you hold on to the
truth of your life at this moment when everybody, you know, as you say
is projecting things onto her.
She's what's called an eyewitness in the world of the novel; she
happened to be there when someone disappears. And eyewitnesses have a
sort of privileged place in the hierarchy of grief. But she feels that
just as the disappeared person, Jen, is being sort of unfairly glorified
by the language of grief, I think she also feels that her own experience
is being erased, and she wasn't that close with Jen.
She doesn't want to live the rest of her life or at least the next few
years being thought of as, you know, the girl who lost her best friend.
And so she's really, in her own mind, just saying she wasn't my best
friend, I didn't even like her, she was mean to me.
And, you know, to me it just - there's this impulse to make the past
simpler and easier to hold onto and this impulse to hold on to the
complexity of our experience. And to me that is, you know, the way to
respect life and the way to respect an individual is to try and remember
them in their complexity.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Perrotta. His new novel is called "The
Leftovers." He also wrote "Election" and "Little Children," which were
adapted into films. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Tom Perrotta, the author of "Election" and "Little
Children," which were adapted into films. His new novel is called "The
Although your book isn't really about the Rapture, it's inspired by
belief in the Rapture, not your belief but other people's belief. Did
you do any research for the book or go to churches or other forms of
meetings, gatherings where people who do believe talk about it?
Mr. PERROTTA: You know, I haven't. I read the first "Left Behind" book,
but I didn't spend a lot of time, you know, researching that firsthand.
I had done a lot of research into contemporary Christian life for my
last book, and this book was in a way more idea-driven.
There were a couple books that really mattered a lot to me. One was
called "Pursuit of the Millennium" by a historian named Norman Cohn,
which was about these sort of medieval, apocalyptic, medieval cults.
Some of them were flagellants, and others were cults where people
decided that they were, in effect, you know, the second coming of Jesus
Christ. And it was really about the way in which these sort of
apocalyptic cults emerged from times of great social upheaval and
actually political unrest, as well. And so that was a book that was
really in my mind.
There's a biography of Jim Jones called "Raven" by Tim Reiterman, which
was also a really important part of my thinking about the way new
religions or, you know, really charismatic, dangerous prophets might
GROSS: There's a character in your book who is a charismatic religious
leader who, in the face of this sudden disappearance, creates a cult
around him. Would you describe him a little bit?
Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, this guy's name is - at first he's Mr.
Gilchrest(ph). He's a father who has lost his eight-year-old son and has
discovered that he has a certain kind of gift, which is to comfort
people by hugging them.
And the member of the family - the son in this Garvey family is a guy
named Tom, and he goes to college. And Tom is really shaken by the news
of the loss of a childhood friend of his, someone he hasn't seen for
years, but somehow this loss, he takes it far more personally than Jill
takes the loss of her best friend Jen.
Anyway, Tom is in college. He's lost. He's sort of falling apart. And a
friend takes him to hear Mr. Gilchrest speak, and, you know, Mr.
Gilchrest at this point, I think, is a really genuine, grieving man who
discovers that he has this power to comfort people. But over time, he
becomes intoxicated by his power, and, like many, you know, dangerous,
self-appointed prophets, uses this power to start controlling people and
also, you know, gratifying himself sexually with a lot of young women
that he meets at these rallies.
And Tom's story is, in a sense, the story of his disillusionment with
Mr. Gilchrest, who, in his charismatic phase, becomes known as Holy
Wayne. So Tom is a follower of Holy Wayne.
There are basically three cults that spring up in the book. One is The
Guilty Remnant that Laurie Garvey belongs to, and then there's the Holy
Wayne movement that Tom Garvey gets involved with, and then there's a
sort of neo-hippy group called The Barefoot People, who are a kind of
hedonistic alternative to these more religious groups that spring up.
GROSS: The world's going to end, so let's have a good time now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PERROTTA: Let's have a good time, exactly.
GROSS: So your new novel "The Leftovers" is being adapted into an HBO
series. Are you working on the adaptation?
Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, I'm going to write the pilot.
GROSS: So what are you going to have to do to make this into television?
Mr. PERROTTA: That's a very good question. I think one of the things
that I'm pondering right now, and I haven't really done the writing yet,
the book has an interesting time frame. It basically does not focus on
the Rapture-like event that's at the center of it. It begins some months
after it happens, and the bulk of the action takes place three years
after the event.
So, you know, one of the things I'm really pondering is just where do I
begin my story? And the thing I love about serial TV drama is that you
can really let a story breathe. And, you know, when you're adapting a
book for a film, a feature film that's two hours, you're just always
compressing and cutting. And I think what TV offers you is the ability
to maybe open things up, take events that are just mentioned in passing
in the novel and develop them.
So I'm really thinking that there's a lot of material that takes place
in this three-year period that I kind of skip over that I might be able
to, you know, break open and explore and let breathe.
GROSS: You know, when I first opened your new novel "The Leftovers," I
was kind of expecting it to be a social satire about the Rapture and
people who believed it. And I don't think that's what it is.
I mean, there are satirical elements in it, but I think what you're
really doing is looking at why some people believe, why some people
don't believe, how we live in the face of mystery, how we grieve for
people who we've lost.
Can you talk a little bit about the tone you wanted and the tone you
wanted to use to describe those people who do believe in the Rapture?
Mr. PERROTTA: Yeah, no, that's a - I'm really glad you said that because
I don't feel like I'm a satirist. I don't even think I ever was. But
that label has stuck to me probably because the movie "Election" was a
brilliant satire, and it kind of amped up some elements that were muted
in the book to do that, and that was the first way people became
familiar with my work. And so labels tend to stick, and first
impressions tend to stick.
But I will say that I think what happens for me is that I do start in a
place that feels like it might lead to a satire, and then the process of
spending time with characters, getting inside their heads, trying to see
the world the way they see it, pulls me away from satire.
And I think a lot of times, you know, you can't see where you're going
to end up. So I think I did - if you asked me the day I started writing
this book, I think I would have told you that it was going to be a lot
funnier than it turned out to be. The problem was that to choose the
Rapture as your subject matter means that you're dealing with characters
who are grieving for the missing.
And the story is the story of an epidemic of grief and loss, and, you
know, if there's a religious impulse in the book, it's to me, you know,
what must have been the original religious impulse, which is, you know,
that faith is a response to incomprehensible loss. And so I don't think
that any of the characters who embrace the various faiths that are
available in the book are ridiculous. I think that feeling of loss and
that need for comfort is a completely human response to what's happened.
GROSS: Tom Perrotta, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. PERROTTA: Oh, thank you, Terry. I really enjoyed it.
GROSS: Tom Perrotta's new novel is called "The Leftovers." You can read
an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
The new Kanye West/Jay-Z collaboration has a track that samples a track
by soul singer Syl Johnson. Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward has a Syl
Johnson retrospective. This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
The 'Complete Mythology' Of Syl Johnson
TERRY GROSS, host:
The new Kanye West/Jay-Z collaboration, "Watch The Throne," has a track
that samples the song "Different Strokes" by soul singer Syl Johnson.
But Johnson says the sample was not authorized by him. You can hear a
lot more of Johnson's music on a career-spanning collection of his work
called "The Complete Mythology." Rock historian Ed Ward looks at
Johnson's career, which dates back to the blues clubs of 1950s Chicago.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. SYL JOHNSON (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible) my baby, I wonder
where did she go. (Unintelligible) my baby, I wonder where did she go.
Yes, when I find my baby, I won't be blue no more. I wake up every
ED WARD: Syl Johnson was born Sylvester Thompson near Lamar, Mississippi
in 1936, the sixth child of a harmonica-playing farmer and his wife.
When Sylvester was almost 10, his father migrated to Chicago, where he
found work, and he sent for his wife and kids one by one.
Sylvester and his brother Mack arrived in 1950, and almost before they
were in the house discovered their 13-year-old next-door neighbor
sitting on his porch playing a guitar.
The kid was Sam Maghett, later known as Magic Sam, and he was amazed at
how well this new kid played guitar. Soon, Mack, Sam and Syl had a
little band. Sam's uncle, Shakey Jake Harris, an established player on
the Chicago blues scene, grabbed Syl for his band in 1955, and soon Syl
was in demand as a studio guitarist.
One day, at a session for Vee-Jay Records, Calvin Carter, whose sister
co-owned the label, heard Syl singing and said he'd like to make a
record with him. Syl went home and wrote a couple of songs, then stopped
by a record-your-voice machine to make a little demo.
Then he got on the bus and was walking from the bus stop to Vee-Jay to
remind them of their promise. Halfway there, he saw the King Records
office, and decided to go in there instead.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) (Unintelligible). I used to be so happy until I
fell for you. Now I'm full of misery (unintelligible) teardrops,
teardrops (unintelligible) why do you treat me this way?
WARD: Ralph Bass, who oversaw King's Chicago operation, took the
homemade record into his office, played it a couple of times while Syl
waited in the lobby, made a phone call to the home office in Cincinnati,
and came back and told Syl he had a deal.
The label boss, Syd Nathan, didn't like the name Sylvester Thompson, so
he changed it to Syl Johnson. Syl signed to King's subsidiary Federal,
where he cut 14 sides between 1959 and 1962 that were very much in the
style of Federal's big star, Freddie King.
The later ones sounded more like the music that was big in Chicago's
West Side clubs where Syl played, music halfway between blues and soul.
Chicago in those days was a jungle of tiny record labels, and Syl
recorded for a number of them. If these records had sounded better, he
might have had hits.
(Soundbite of song, "Falling in Love Again")
Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) When I'm with you, I feel so fine, yeah. When
you're away, I'm lonely all of the time, yeah. But you've got something
that I just can't explain, maybe I'm falling in love again. I think I'm
falling in love again.
WARD: "Falling in Love Again" paired him with Barry Goldberg, who ran
with the University of Chicago blues crowd, which also included Paul
Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield and Nick Gravenites. But the tiny TMP-Ting
label it was on didn't have a chance. It wasn't until 1967 that Syl ever
saw the charts.
(Soundbite of song, "Different Strokes")
Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Baby, you're laughing, but I'll be around for a
while, yeah, yeah, yeah. Can't you dig it, honey (unintelligible)
alright, oh yeah, so many ways..
WARD: "Different Strokes" made the Top 20 soul charts and grazed the
bottom of the pop charts in 1967, but it would turn out to be the most
important record he'd ever made. It was on Twilight, a label he
partially owned, although it soon changed its name to Twi-night for some
reason. Syl spent 1967 and 1968 looking for another hit and got one
after some recording in Memphis.
(Soundbite of song, "Dresses Too Short")
Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) I said baby, you're wearing your dresses too
short. Baby, baby, baby, you're wearing your dresses too short, yeah.
Just because I whistle at you, you said that I'm doing you wrong. Why do
you blame me, baby? I didn't tell you to put it on. You're looking good,
you're looking so good now. And (unintelligible) one more time, I
couldn't stand it, I'm going out of my mind. I said baby...
WARD: "Dresses Too Short" was the product of a growing friendship with
Memphis producer Willie Mitchell and was recorded with the same band
that would make Al Green famous, but Syl still wasn't making enough to
justify moving, and in 1969, in Chicago, he created his first
(Soundbite of song, "Is It Because I'm Black")
Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) The dark brown shades of my skin only add colors
to my tears, oh, oh. That splash against my hollow bones, that rocks my
soul. Looking back over my false dreams that I once knew, wondering why
my dreams never came true. Is it because I'm black? Somebody tell me
what can I do, oh lord. Oh, something is holding me back, uh-huh. Is it
because I'm black? Yeah...
WARD: "Is It Because I'm Black" is reminiscent of Marvin Gaye's "What's
Going On," although it's more conventionally played, and the album
version, over seven minutes long, is a landmark. The song sold too, but
the album didn't, despite its amazing version of The Beatles' "Come
Together" and several more socially conscious tracks.
It was about this time that Willie Mitchell snapped Syl up, and he spent
the '70s making hits for him on the Hi label. When that was over, Syl
returned to the Chicago clubs. He'd done OK, but he was about to become
rich. With the coming of hip-hop, someone discovered the first six
seconds of "Different Strokes."
(Soundbite of song, "Different Strokes")
WARD: It's been sampled legally more than 50 times and Syl's gotten paid
GROSS: Ed Ward's new e-book is called "The Bar at the End of the
Regime." You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Our
thanks to Maria Yugoda(ph) for research assistance. I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.