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Tom Perrotta on ‘The Leftovers’ and how we behave in times of fear and loss

Tom Perrotta at home.
Tom Perrotta at home.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

In his 2011 book “The Leftovers,” the novelist Tom Perrotta wrote about the aftermath of a world-changing loss when 2 percent of the world’s human beings vanished inexplicably in one day. In the midst of our coronavirus pandemic, we talked to him about loss and fear, and what happens after a great crisis. Perrotta spoke to the Globe by phone from his Belmont home.

Books: In “The Leftovers” it’s 2 percent of the population that disappears without a trace. How did you come up with that number?

Perrotta: I think — I hope I’m right about this — it’s something like the annual death rate for global humanity. In any given year, 2 percent of us die. And so it’s clearly a number that we can withstand in the normal order of things. But if it all just happened in a single day, without any explanation, what would that mean? I was definitely pushing against this convention in apocalyptic fiction, which is that 99 percent of humanity is wiped out and this small band of survivors is left to kind of preserve society. It was kind of flipping that, saying how little did it take to really shake our faith in the future and in ourselves?

Books: What kind of research did you do to try to work out how the world would be changed by a loss of that size? Did you read about those who survived the Spanish Flu epidemic, or the Civil War?

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Perrotta: I was mainly interested in religious history. And especially the Second Great Awakening, a lot of which took place around the Boston area. Where you had in a short period the Shakers, the Mormons, all these utopian socialists, and the group that we talked about in “The Leftovers,” the Millerites, who picked a date through this biblical scholarship that Miller did, that said the world will end on such and such a date in 1840-something. And people gave away all their possessions and just waited for the rapture. What was so interesting there was it wasn’t tied to any particularly destabilizing event. It wasn’t a pandemic or anything that triggered it; it was almost this communal fever for some transformative religious event.

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Books: In “The Leftovers” when this event happens, religion is one of the ways that people try to make sense of it. I’m wondering if you think people will have similar instincts as we face this crisis, depending on how bad it gets. What do we do when we face this kind of fear and loss?

Perrotta: This is the thing that’s so interesting to me. In “The Leftovers,” there was this event that had no scientific or religious explanation. It looked like the rapture, but it wasn’t the rapture; it didn’t choose Christians over anybody else. The scientists had no idea what happened. So it was like all of our systems for making sense of the universe had fallen apart. What’s so interesting about this, and what makes it an imperfect parallel to “The Leftovers,” is that we know what’s happening: We know what a virus is, we know what a pandemic is. But it’s happening at a time when lots of people had started to question science anyway, so there’s this ongoing desire to find some explanation that isn’t scientific, and usually that’s paranoid political conspiracy these days. So I don’t know, I honestly don’t know, how this plays out. I’d love to see that it actually restores people’s faith in scientific expertise and maybe make skeptics look again at global warming and think about how we prepare. But I’m not sure — I think people rally when the crisis is happening, but I think the trauma after is often extremely irrational and destabilizing.

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Books: Often, great crises become the source material for great art. How does the artistic landscape change when sickness and death preoccupies us as heavily as it seems to now? I guess what I’m asking is, do you think there’ll be a wave of coronavirus novels?

Perrotta: The weird thing is they’re already here, some of them. We have already a body of work that was imagining this event, whether it’s something like “The Stand” or “Station Eleven.” I just read that Lawrence Wright has a novel coming this fall that’s a pandemic novel. But I wonder if it’ll be different from that sort of speculative thing — I remember with 9/11, it took awhile for those books to come out and a lot of them dealt with it in a very elliptical way. And I assume it’ll be the same with this. Maybe somebody will write a great family saga about being quarantined. I’m sure there’ll be a bunch of them. And people may be working on them right now! That’s the crazy thing about this shutdown. The book business is a little bit paralyzed, but all of these writers are at home with nothing but time on their hands. I think there’s going to be a baby boom of books, and some of them will have pandemic DNA.

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Books: How are you personally handling the current situation? As someone who has thought a lot about fear and loss and faith, what are you doing to deal with it?

Perrotta: I’ve always been somebody who’s lived a very routine, orderly life, I think a lot of novelists do. I get up in the morning and I’ve been working on something new, and I’ll go for a walk in the afternoon, do some kind of exercise. It’s like every day has become the same day. And my feeling is like, I can get through any day — I mean, barring one of us getting sick — I can get through any day, it’s more when I try to ponder the future that I get this kind of vertigo. I try not to think down the road. I can get through today, and that’s good enough.

Books: What are you reading during this time? Are there any books that are giving you comfort?

Perrotta: Interestingly, when the lockdown began I had just started Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove,” which is a very long book. A lot of it is spent outside — it’s about a cattle drive in the 19th-century west. And I was just thinking how expansive it was, and what a sense of the sky and the landscape the characters have. And it was kind of comforting to me in that sense that there’s a big world out there, I’m just not seeing much of it right now.

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Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.