Tom Perrotta has expanded his audience through film adaptations of his novels (Little Children, Election), but The Leftovers, the novel that we called “his most ambitious book to date,” merits a popular breakthrough before it inspires a movie.

As he’s done before, Perrotta treats his characters with empathy, illuminating the human dimension of issues that often prove polarizing. Here, he focuses on those left behind by “the Rapture” after the predicted ascension comes true and leaves big holes in the characters’ lives as they struggle to deal with the ineffable.

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The Leftovers shares some similarities with my two previous books—the suburban setting will certainly be familiar—but it felt to me like a big departure. Partly, this a function of genre—the book is both dystopian and mildly futuristic—and partly a function of the Rapture-like event at the heart of the story. Basically, every character in the book is traumatized to one degree or another; the town of Mapleton is suffering from an epidemic of grief and uncertainty.

At the same time, once readers get over the initial shock of the premise, I think they’ll find themselves in surprisingly familiar fictional territory—a down-to-earth story about parents and children, broken marriages and fragile romances. This isn’t a post-apocalyptic novel in which the civilized world has been destroyed. The physical world is essentially unchanged. Only the psychology of the characters has been altered.

The very first paragraph of this novel describes a central character who “hadn’t been raised to believe in much of anything, except the foolishness of belief itself.” What role does faith play in the novel?

Laurie, the character who was raised to be skeptical of religion, ends up leaving her family to join a Rapture cult called the Guilty Remnant, a group of fanatics who dress in white, chain smoke and take a vow of silence. Her embrace of the cult is rooted in her sense of bottomless loss—the daughter of her best friend disappeared in the event known as the Sudden Departure, and she simply can’t get over the shock. To the extent that the book is fascinated by religion, it wants to consider faith as a response to the incomprehensible, an attempt to impose meaning on the terrifying mysteries of life and death.

Why did you decide to offer no explanation for what had happened and focus solely on those left behind?

The main reason I didn’t explain the cause of the Sudden Departure is that the book is about the experience of not knowing. To me, that’s the essential human condition—we don’t know why we’re here, and we don’t know where we’re going. One of the functions of religion in general, and End Times theology in particular, is to insist that it all will make sense someday—Jesus will return, the faithful will be lavishly rewarded, the unbelievers eternally punished, etc. But in The Leftovers, even the apocalypse doesn’t clear things up.

Why do you think the whole idea of the Rapture resonates so strongly within contemporary culture.

I can’t speak for the culture as a whole, but my own fascination with the subject is both personal and political. On the personal front, I think there’s a natural tendency to think about mortality as we get older and to egotistically conflate the end of one’s life with the end of the world. Also, the Rapture feels like a great metaphor for getting older and thinking about all the people who are no longer with us. They were there and now they’re gone. It’s possible to think of life as a slow-motion Rapture.

On the political side, I think there’s been a definite turn toward the apocalyptic in American culture. There’s a sense that we can no longer see our future—will America as we know it exist 50 years down the road? Or will we collapse under the weight of debt and demographics and global warming or whatever? Of course, even the most superficial study of the subject will reveal that people have been predicting the end of the world since the beginning of history. But someday someone’s going to be right, right?

Some predicted that the world would end on May 21. Did you breathe a sigh of relief that you would still have a readership when it didn’t?

Even if the Rapture had occurred on May 21, I suspect that a good portion of my readership would have been left behind.