Tom Perrotta: “I knew that a foray into Christian sex was going to be funny.”

The National Post profiles Tom Perrotta, author of Election, Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher — all of which have been made into films or, in the case of that last title, are about to be:

The Abstinence Teacher is a funny two-hander about people on opposite sides of the culture war. Tim is a recently remarried soccer coach and screw-up who’s valiantly trying to correct his mistakes with the help of the Tabernacle, a church growing in power in Stonewood Heights, the fictitious all-American town where the novel is set. Ruth is a single mother and human sexuality teacher who has come under fire from the Tabernacle for teaching that “pleasure is good.” As usual, Perrotta’s protagonists have a hard time staying clothed. “Infidelities allow you to write about adult characters, even married characters, and catch them at a moment when they’re in flux,” he says, observing that Updike, Tolstoy and F. Scott Fitzgerald trod similar ground. “Who you fall in love with is both a very real thing and a metaphor for irrevocable life choices. ‘They got married and lived happily ever after’ is not a line you’ll likely see in my work.”

In 1993, Perrotta, then teaching at Harvard, wrote Election. No one would publish it, and he figured he’d wear chalk on his sleeves forever. “I was a composition teacher, struggling financially, and thought I’d go on to an academic career,” he says. He produced two more unheralded works of fiction, Bad Haircut, a fairly autobiographical collection of stories set in ’70s New Jersey, and The Wishbones, about a greying wedding singer who doesn’t want to settle down. It was a Hollywood producer who turned Perrotta into a successful commodity. After hearing him read at a college book store, she helped make Election, then unpublished, into the hot film of 1999.

“Total fluke,” he says of his book’s success on the big screen, which he followed up on by publishing Joe College the next year. “That experience, to say the least, changed things.”

Perrotta left Harvard, which allowed him to concentrate on Little Children, his 2004 novel about the secret lives of the denizens of an outwardly ordinary neighbourhood. “I thought I had a straightforward comic proposition — a sexy love story set on a playground, the least sexy place in the world,” he says. “The story, however, wound up telling me what it wanted to become.”

It became a tale of longing and violence told with a dry wit, and then, in 2006, it was transformed into an Oscar-nominated film starring Kate Winslet. But Perrotta isn’t quite ready to go Hollywood–not yet.

“Doing films is fun because it’s a collaborative process, but I couldn’t wait to work on this book,” he says of The Abstinence Teacher, which was inspired both by the Christian right’s influence on the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush and Perrotta’s years on the sidelines of the Belmont Freeze [his 10-year-old son's soccer team]. And though the novel presses a few hot buttons — gay marriage, abortion and religion in school — it remains rooted in Perrottaland. “I knew that a foray into Christian sex was going to be funny,” he says. “I seem to be able to find humour in these things.”

OCT 14 UPDATE: The New York Times profiles Perrotta, too:

TOM PERROTTA, perhaps best known for the pointed, celebrated film adaptations of his novels “Election” and “Little Children,” might seem out of place in a crowd of 300 or so young people gathered at an evangelical Christian church in the strip-mall suburbs of northern New Jersey for a rally on why they shouldn’t have sex before marriage. . . .

Early in “The Abstinence Teacher,” which Mr. Perrotta is adapting into a screenplay for the directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife team behind “Little Miss Sunshine,” the author depicts a similar scene. In it a 28-year-old woman who “wasn’t just blond and pretty; she was hot” boasts of her virginity while lecturing the students on venereal disease and unwanted pregnancies. In a titillating finale, she promises them that when she finally has sex on her wedding night, “mark my words, people — it is going to be soooo good, oh my God, better than you can even imagine.” . . .

“The Abstinence Teacher” kicks off when Ruth Ramsey, a sex-education teacher and divorced mother of two young daughters, makes an offhand remark to her students about oral sex that draws the ire of local evangelical church members. Seeking to placate them, the school board invites a “virginity consultant” to supervise Ruth in class. The rest of the novel revolves around the budding relationship between Ruth and Tim Mason, a newly remarried soccer coach and recovering drug addict who has recently found God and wants to share him. . . .

Raised Roman Catholic (he has since lapsed), he was exposed to the self-abnegating form of religion that the evangelicals, he said, had turned on its head, particularly in regard to sex. “Catholic theology is that sex should be for procreation,” he said. “But this evangelical culture really embraces orgasms and pleasure. I was really interested in that strain of Christianity that didn’t want to fight American culture and that’s a vibrant, prosperous and actually kind of sexy culture.” . . .

While he was working on “Little Children” and attending his daughter’s soccer games, an idea popped into his head. “The soccer coach,” he wrote on an index card. “A man is upset to see the coach of his 8-year-old son’s team praying after the game. Why is he angry?”

That brief note eventually morphed into a pivotal early scene in “The Abstinence Teacher,” with the sexes changed. Ruth Ramsey attends a nail-biting soccer match in which her 10-year-old daughter, Maggie, makes a crucial play. In the jubilant aftermath, Tim Mason and another coach lead the girls in a prayer. Ruth goes ballistic.

But as in “Little Children,” in which he gave depth to a disaffected and uninspired young mother (as well as to the aging mother of a pedophile), here Mr. Perrotta takes a simplistic character who on first appearances is easily dismissible and makes him hard not to like. . . .

After the abstinence rally in Wayne, Jason Burtt, the national director of Silver Ring Thing, the organization that mounted the event, approached Mr. Perrotta in the lobby and started chatting with him about the novel. When Mr. Perrotta explained the plot, Mr. Burtt said he didn’t believe in coercing teachers. “It is so unconvincing when someone in school is forced to teach abstinence if they don’t believe it,” Mr. Burtt said.

As he prepared to drive back to his mother’s house, Mr. Perrotta said he was struck by how courteous and nonconfrontational Mr. Burtt had been. Over all, he said, evangelical Christian culture seems mostly polite, as well as extremely un-ironic. In response, “a certain kind of collegiate irony is like a reflex,” Mr. Perrotta said. “And it’s a reflex of superiority and condescension. It just wells up. But when I write, I try to quiet it down.”

OCT 16 UPDATE: And now it’s Entertainment Weekly‘s turn:

What kind of research did you do? Did you go to any of the faith conferences you describe in the book?
I did, I went to a Promise Keepers thing, but that was more for ambiance. I only went to church a couple times. Which, again, really helped me in terms of details. The ongoing research throughout was, I would start almost every day with a little Bible reading. Then I’d go and search Christian websites. I felt like, more than anything, that gave me direct access to the language they use and to the things that are challenging to them. The inevitability of failure is built right into the religion, the way they talk about it.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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