Missy Schwartz
September 14, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In 2004, Tom Perrotta watched the results of the presidential election with utter befuddlement. ”The conventional wisdom was that George Bush had been reelected by evangelical morals voters. And I didn’t know these people,” says the best-selling author of Little Children. He’s sitting at the dining-room table of the Belmont, Mass., home he shares with his wife, Mary Granfield, and their two kids, ages 10 and 13. ”I felt ashamed of myself as a novelist that I had somehow managed to miss the story. I was just like, I’ve got to write about this.”

The resulting work, The Abstinence Teacher (due Oct. 16), is a meditation on the culture wars that Kirkus Reviews calls his ”most mature, accomplished work yet.” The title character is a high school sex-ed teacher who clashes with her increasingly conservative school board, then locks horns with her daughter’s soccer coach, an evangelical Christian. Like Little Children and Election, his send-up of high school politics that Alexander Payne adapted into an acclaimed 1999 film, Abstinence is set in suburbia and juggles multiple points of view. But unlike those books, this one isn’t a satire. And to Perrotta’s surprise, it was Tim the Christian, not Ruth the fight-the-power teacher, who ”took over the novel” as he was writing. ”His decisions are the ones that have all the consequences,” says Perrotta, 46, who researched the book by reading the Bible daily, visiting local evangelical churches, and surfing Christian chat rooms. ”So what started out as a writerly obligation — like, I have to know this character — became something else entirely. That’s a lesson fiction writers learn over and over again: The things you don’t know are more interesting.”

Embracing the unfamiliar has also helped the Yale grad navigate the jungle of Hollywood. Last year, he scored an Oscar nod for co-writing Little Children‘s script with director Todd Field. And now, in the weeks leading up to his book tour, he’s finishing his screenplay for Abstinence, to be directed by Little Miss Sunshine helmers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. The filmmakers have been impressed by how ”not precious” Perrotta has been in adapting his own novel. ”There’s always a danger that you’re gonna insult someone’s original work,” says Faris. ”But Tom’s so easygoing about that. He’s really confident, in a totally unpretentious way.”

Perrotta is the rare novelist who has yet to experience the soul-crushing, dumbing-down side of Tinseltown. ”I’ve managed to land very squarely in this indie corner of things, [where it’s much more] about the writing,” he says. It helps that the New Jersey native once harbored rock-star fantasies. ”Making movies is sort of a band experience: You get to work with other people and if they’re good, they make you better.” Yet despite his big-screen success, Perrotta remains ”first and foremost a novelist. Nothing beats novel writing because it’s a complete expression of you,” he says, breaking into a gentle smile. ”You just control everything.”

Tom Perrotta’s Must List
Four of the best-selling author’s favorite distractions from writing.

Three Easy Pieces
Buffalo Tom’s new album is a top-played hit on Perrotta’s iTunes. ”I just love it. To me, they’re the great, lost grunge band.”

Rabbit Redux
The second in John Updike’s Rabbit series ”just blew my mind. At times it goes way too far, but the courage to try and do it amazed me.”

Flight of the Conchords
HBO’s series about the Kiwi hipster-nerd band ”is killing me. The songs are brilliant. It’s my favorite show of the moment.”

The Life of Graham Greene
Norman Sherry’s ”monster, three-part” bio is ”fascinating. Greene had a very busy, secret life.”

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