On a humid day last August, best-selling Little Children author Tom Perrotta invited Entertainment Weekly into the spacious Cambridge, Mass. home, where he, his wife Mary Granfield, and their two young kids had moved just the day before. Despite some post-relocation chaos (half-unpacked boxes were scattered around the kitchen), Perrotta gamely chatted about his new book, The Abstinence Teacher, a culture-wars novel about a high school sex-ed teacher and single mom who clashes with both a conservative school board and her daughter’s evangelical soccer coach. He also talked about moonlighting as an Oscar-nominated Hollywood screenwriter: The New Jersey native got a nod this year for co-writing Little Children with director Todd Field, and he’s now working on a Teacher script, to be directed by Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Best of all, we got the guy to fess up about a little piece of ghostwriting he did way back when.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the genesis of your new book?
TOM PERROTTA: There’s a coalescing of things to make a novel, but the real energy came out of the 2004 election. The conventional wisdom was that George Bush had been reelected by evangelical morals voters, and I didn’t know those people. I felt a little ashamed of myself as a novelist that I had somehow managed to miss the story, that I had not investigated this thing. So that was a kind of wake-up call for me. I was just like, I’ve got to write about this. I didn’t understand America — or that part of America.
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.
Like Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher takes place in an unnamed suburb. What is it about American suburbia that interests you?
My mythic version of America is very much about parents and children, and in my experience, the suburban setting is where that particular drama plays out. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t parents and children in cities or on farms. I just don’t know them. [Laughs] Also, I grew up in suburbia.
In Garwood, New Jersey, right?
Mmm-hmm. It was white working-class, mostly. It was a factory town, and now the factories are all gone. They were all along the railroad tracks and now they’re just one big strip mall. Outback Steakhouse smells better than the perforating company!
A perforating company? Wow.
Yeah. There was the metal perforating company and then there was a place called Spray Drying, where they freeze-dried foods. So one week, they might be doing tater tots, but the next week they’d be doing fish sticks. There was actually a [newspaper] headline: ”Garwood smells better and can prove it!” [Laughs] We loved that. It was a strange town. You would just go around like [sniffs], Mmmm! Tater tots tonight?
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was writing very early, like I was involved in our high school literary magazine, which was called Pariah. The football team was the Bears, and the literary magazine was Pariah. It was great. It was definitely a real sub-culture. But I wrote stories for them. I was also known as Frodo because I was an early adopter of The Lord of the Rings.
NEXT PAGE: ”I got $5,000 for writing that teen horror novel. When my first book got published, I got zero.”