“Writing about sex may have led me to writing about religion”: Tom Perrotta on theocracies, “The Leftovers” and why “The Scarlet Letter” is a coming-out story

Salon talks to the "Leftovers" author about Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing for TV, sex, guilt and America

Published January 16, 2016 12:00AM (EST)


In his foreword to the newly released Penguin Classics edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "The Scarlet Letter," Tom Perrotta admits at the outset that he found the book boring when he read it in high school. Rereading it as an adult, he found it “far stranger and more beautiful than anything I’d read in a long time.” When looked at in the context of other 19th century novels about women who commit sexual sins, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne emerges as “a hero,” Perrotta writes, “a strong woman at peace with her own conscience.” In his own novels, from "Election" to "Little Children" to "The Leftovers," as well as the movie and television projects based on all three, Perrotta has wrestled with many of the same issues that preoccupied Hawthorne: sex, sin, guilt and punishment.

In your foreword to this new edition, you write that you “totally misunderstood and woefully underestimated” "The Scarlet Letter" when you first read it in high school. I have a feeling you’re not alone. But why do you think that is? Should we all go back and reread it?

Well, yes we should! And I think that it’s both a question of my being in high school, and being in high school, in my case, in the 1970s. I think what happened back in the seventies is that puritan America seemed somehow further away than it does now. I think that it was like, maybe a kind of a high or low point depending on how you look at recent history in terms of the sexual revolution, in the sense that we had liberated ourselves from our religious past. I mean, that’s how it felt to me as a lapsed Catholic kid.

You couldn’t relate to that overarching theme of everyone being driven by guilt?

I think I was probably too young to see it as a metaphor for other things. I really saw it as a book about the terrible old days where a sexual transgression that seemed completely innocuous to me would ruin this woman’s life, and that a whole society would need to punish her for eternity. I just saw it as sort of, “thank God we’re not there anymore.” And then there’s this scrim of archaic language. It’s one of the things I talk about in the foreword. I don’t think I understood that Hawthorne was writing about events 200 years earlier than when he lived. So he was writing a historical novel.

Right, because it’s written in 1850, but it was set in 1650 …

Yeah, so he’s writing one kind of historical novel. And I’m reading another kind of historical novel. I couldn’t see that this was Hawthorne looking back, feeling a kind of similar relationship to the past that I did. So yeah, I think it’s those two things: the sexual attitude seemed completely antiquated to me, and the language felt antiquated. I think that I missed the ways in which it was a book with real current significance. And I will just say, in the intervening years I grew up, and I became much more aware of the oppressive weight of religion on even this culture, let alone cultures in other parts of the world. And I had to understand that lots of women are living even a crueler version of Hester’s fate where a sexual transgression will lead not just to shame, but to death.

It feels like we’re going backward since the seventies in a lot of very real ways, especially in terms of sexual morality, or just the consequences of getting caught on the wrong side of that equation if you’re a woman.

Yeah. And theocracy, which seemed like such a strange and distant idea to me, is in fact a reality in a lot of the world right now. And we’ve had our own struggles with the religious right attempting to impose their version of theocracy on the rest of us. I don’t think that’s happened, but I’ve certainly felt the weight of it in a way I didn’t in the 1970s.

In a 2013 New York Times interview, you say "The Scarlet Letter’s" only real competition is "The Great Gatsby," “another short, nearly perfect book that illuminates something essential about the American character.” And I’m curious: If you had to boil it down, what is the essential American thing that "The Scarlet Letter" illuminates?

Well, "The Scarlet Letter" to me is almost the flip side of "Gatsby." "Gatsby" is really about the individual freeing himself from community and finding that freedom as the way to wealth and power and happiness. And "The Scarlet Letter" really is about the community weighing down the individual. So you can almost say, “this is where we started, and this is where we got to later.” But they’re both stories about individuals kind of, I wouldn’t say at war with their community, but in a very complex attempt to liberate themselves from their community so that they can live their lives. In the larger sense, they’re both about freedom.

The difference between "Gatsby" and "The Scarlet Letter," isn’t it to some extent just a difference of what you need to survive? I mean, in the 1920s you could kind of place yourself outside the community if you had enough money. In the 1650s, how would some woman with a child – I mean, she needs her community for basic survival.

Interestingly, Hawthorne does deal with that in the book. He says that she could leave. She could go to another place. She could go back to Europe and kind of blend in somewhere else. Or she could head into the wilderness. He even suggests that she could probably find a place with the native people, which seemed like a pretty interesting thing to propose.

But she stays?

The narrator speculates that there is something that draws people back to the place where a defining event occurred, that she almost had to live out her story among the people who were defining her. And in fact she does, and she wins that battle over the long term. They come to value her and to forget her past. She outlives the shame, in effect.

And she outlives both of the dudes who have tried to ruin her life. It’s kind of a shockingly hopeful ending given how dark the story feels at times. 

Yeah, it’s kind of remarkable. In this new foreword I compare it to both "Madame Bovary" and "Anna Karenina." All three of them are 19th century novels of the adulterous woman. It’s just that, of course, Hester’s not a 19th century woman, she’s a 17th century woman. But oddly she’s the one who manages to find a way forward. The other two women are trapped and end up killing themselves. And Hester endures and, in an interesting way, prospers and transforms her shame into a kind of power.

One thing that I sort of framed the foreword around, because I was talking about the way the world has changed since the mid-seventies when I read the book, was that I could read it as a sort of a coming-out story. Hester has to wear her letter and everybody knows who she is, and the fact that she doesn’t hide it, I think allows her to… it causes her suffering, it isolates her, but it also gives her strength. And the book is very clear about the strength that comes from the letter. It almost reads like a Puritan superhero. She’s got an A on her chest like Superman has an S on his. And Dimmesdale [the minister who fathered her illegitimate child] is in the closet, and his shame and guilt eat him from the inside.

Issues of faith, guilt, fear and freedom come up a lot in "The Leftovers," the HBO series based on your book, which you also write and executive-produce. While it’s not an exact parallel with "The Scarlet Letter," there are so many concerns that feel shared, especially an interest in religion – both the part of religion that attempts to explain the unexplainable, and the part of religion that’s about social control. I know a lot of your earlier work is about ethical and moral questions. But I feel like the really explicit stuff about religion has only occurred in the last two books. Is this a new interest, or an interest you always had?

I don’t think I have a personal interest in the sense that – I’m not a religious person, I don’t feel the need for it – but I have felt it as a political force. So think my way into religion, especially in "The Abstinence Teacher," was to think about religion as a political and cultural force, and that led to "The Leftovers." But in a funny way, it’s another thing I talk about in this foreword, when the people at Studio 360 got in touch they were like, oh your work really overlaps with "The Scarlet Letter," and they were talking about "Little Children" and the sex offender. It’s such an interesting thing to think of Hester as a sex offender, because by our standards she’s not a scary person – she’s not endangering children. But of course to her community she was a very dangerous, destabilizing force. I think that writing about sex may have led me to writing about religion!

I know you’ve worked on previous projects that went from page to screen before, but this is your first ongoing series. How terrifying is that freedom, to keep pushing the story forward? Is it exhilarating, exciting, frightening?

It’s all those things! Last year was really a roller coaster for us, because we had created this new ad hoc family of Kevin and Nora and Jill and the baby. So we could do anything with them. And you know, I’ve never had that experience of just sort of making things up so quickly, not living with it over time. As a novelist, I was a little more terrified of than Damon [Lindelof, the show’s other executive producer], who has worked in TV and is always sort of on the high wire, because you have to start telling a story without really knowing where you’re going to take it. I just noticed that he was much more calm about what he didn’t know than I was. It didn’t comfort me. I think his feeling is just to be patient and the answer will come to you. He’ll wait till the very last second, but the answer does come. He’s been doing it for so long that he understands that’s just part of the process, and I just needed to learn that.

So, you didn’t map out the whole arc of season two before you started shooting episodes?

No, I think any form of writing you can know something, but you don’t even know what you don’t know sometimes. The story leads you to the next question. Some of those questions you can anticipate far in advance and some of them really are I think built into this process of discovery. There was a lot of discovery and improvisation, which in retrospect is really the exciting thing about it, but when you’re in the throes of it it’s quite frightening.

Have you already started working on season three?

I’m heading to LA in just a few days. It’s the standard TV configuration. We have about five or six writers on staff, and we go to an office, and we meet every day and talk our way through the story. Once we get to writing the episodes, Damon cowrites every one of those and the rest of us share writing duties.

Is it fun? You’ve been writing alone for years.

That part has been great. In some ways my writing life was exactly what I dreamed of. I got to go downstairs, eat my breakfast, and then go up to my office and stay there for as long as I felt like; it’s a real luxury, but then it starts feeling lonely. I started to be excited by the idea of collaborating, which I came to through screenwriting projects before, but this has been much more like a job. You know, I have an office, I have a bunch of coworkers. That’s a lot of fun. It also involves the usual human friction, which can be good and bad. But on the whole it’s exactly what I hoped for.

By Kate Tuttle

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