The Leftovers, Our Town, and the Brutal Power of Ordinary Details

Author Tom Perrotta, co-creator of a much-hyped new HBO drama, says Thornton Wilder's play taught him to write about finding meaning in the banal.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

The Leftovers, the acclaimed Tom Perrotta novel whose 10-part TV adaptation will premiere on HBO this Sunday, begins with the extraordinary. The book’s catalyzing event, which will come to dramatic life in the show co-created by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame, is part catastrophe, part cosmic mystery: Without fanfare or explanation, two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishes.

But despite the dramatic premise, The Leftovers is really about the everyday experience of griefand for Perrotta, literary power lies not with sound and fury but in small details. As he explained in our conversation for this series, writers need quiet, daily moments to open the door to greater themes and feelings. To illustrate, Perrotta turned to Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town, which takes great pains to build the quotidian social fabric that it ultimately intends to tear apart.

Tom Perrota’s work has been on screen before; his novels Election and Little Children both became feature films. He spoke to me by phone.

Tom Perrotta: When I was a kid, I got a lot of my information from Reader’s Digest—and I first saw Our Town referred to in a copy my parents had lying around. The magazine didn’t excerpt the play directly, but used a few details to craft an uplifting little life lesson. It explained how, in the play, a dead woman relives her 12th birthday and discovers how much in life she took for granted. The goal was to remind people that every day is precious; appreciate the time you have, it said, and love the people in front of you.

Though the takeaway was banal—carpe diem!—something about it still made a big impression on me. There was a compelling, Twilight Zone-like quality to the idea of someone coming back from the dead, looking on in anguish and regret at her own life. I remember thinking Our Town was something I should try to read.

But I never came across it in high school. I took the advanced English seminars, and Our Town was relegated to the basic courses. In college, I never had Wilder on an English syllabus. I’m sure if I took “American Playwriting” I would have come across it, but I didn’t. I was in my late 20s when I first saw the play performed—the Spalding Gray version put on in New York in the late '80s—and I loved it. When I went to see a new production about a year ago in Boston, I made sure to bring my kids.

And something caught me totally off guard—I just lost it. During the third act, I started to weep. I think I scared my kids, but I simply couldn’t help it.

Our Town can take you by surprise that way. If you know the play, you know how it builds from an innocuous premise towards a cosmic, emotionally punishing finale. It works the kind of magic that certain works of art achieve in that it forces you to do the very thing it says is impossible. The play laments the fact that we can’t see our lives from the perspective of the dead—and that’s exactly what it makes us do.

Our Town is a play in three acts. There’s an ordinary day, then three years later a wedding, and then nine years later there’s a death. So an ordinary day, a celebration, and a death—using just those three elements, he provides a crushing sense of how quickly and irrevocably time slips by. It’s an amazing work from an artistic standpoint. The play strips away almost everything. The stage directions suggest a bare-bones set, and there are no props—characters mime their actions. The characters are mostly boiled down to stock types, and there’s really no plot. It all boils down to this essential fact: These people live, and then they die. The play generates an enormous amount of emotion from just that basic fact of existence.

But there’s no way to make the cosmic moves that Wilder pulls off unless we first believe in the mundane reality of the characters. That’s why the first two acts mostly serve to build the world and make the characters feel real. Act One depicts daily life in Grover’s Corners using a series of vignettes: children getting ready for school, local housewives complaining about their husbands, the milkman delivering milk, the country doctor returning from his rounds. The kids banter, the adults discuss and gossip, and though most of what we see is wholesome, innocent—Our Town prefigures Happy Days in this senseall the little moments ring so true.

Act Two deals with love and courtship—with a focus on the deepening relationship of two characters, George and Emily. Again, Wilder builds upon the small moments. We get this touching flashback when Emily accuses George of growing too conceited—as George resolves to be better, and Emily apologies for calling him out, we begin to realize this mundane teenage confession is really a marriage proposal. There are so many small gestures surrounding the wedding that convince completely: the parents’ awkward dispensing of advice, the cold feet felt by both bridge and groom. It’s fairly conventional stuff, but that’s the sleight of hand—the play only works if the small moments feel completely real.

It’s by building this believable, mundane world, that Wilder can pull off a radical move in Act Three. Suddenly, we’re in the cemetery. It’s nine years later, and many of the characters we’ve come to know are dead. The cemetery functions like a town all on its own—the inhabitants gather and converse with one another, beyond the grave. Though they’re able to watch what the living do, they feel it’s too painful to do so; slowly, they learn to turn away from that world.

It’s a terrible, frightening thing to imagine your life from the perspective of the dead, but that’s what Wilder asks of us. And then we’re dealt this emotional blow: Emily, who we’ve seen grow up, fall in love, and get married, enters the cemetery—a fact the other dead greet with indifference. She died giving birth to her second child. Suddenly, the play’s innocence—it’s light and laughter—becomes cast in a completely different light.

What we don’t expect is how painful it will be for the dead to watch the living. And Emily, a new arrival who still clings to the life she had, learns the hard way. “How can I ever forget that life?” she says. “It’s all I know. It’s all I had.”

The other dead people, who have been in the cemetery longer, know it’s best to forget. But Emily insists on going back to relive a day from her past, even though all the ranks of dead citizens warn against it. Of course, she wants to choose a happy day—maybe the day she fell in love with George. But Mrs. Gibbs, Emily’s mother-in-law (killed by pneumonia) warns her that she shouldn’t choose something so special—it will be too intense.

Mrs. Gibbs: At least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.

When Emily reluctantly goes back to watch her 12th birthday—a day she thinks will be commonplace enough—she’s shocked to find every moment suffused with great significance and a terrible sense of loss. The simple scene—her mother giving her presents, relatives paying their respects—is the kind of thing we watched, blithely, in the play’s first two acts; glimpsed from inside the cemetery, though, that everydayness has a kind of terrible power. Emily wants to savor every moment, because all of it’s gone for good. She becomes completely overwhelmed:

Emily: I can’t bear it. They’re so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old? Mama, I’m here. I’m grown up. I love you all, everything. I can’t look at everything hard enough.

“I can’t look at everything hard enough”: the tragedy is that, while we’re alive, we don’t view our days in the knowledge that all things must pass. We don’t—we can’t—value our lives, our loved ones, with the urgent knowledge that they’ll one day be gone forever. Emily notices with despair that she and her mother barely look at one another, and she laments our self-possession, our distractedness, the million things that keep us from each other. “Oh Mama,” she cries, “just look at me one minute as though you really saw me! … Let’s look at one another.” But mother and daughter remain self-absorbed, each in a private sea of her own thoughts, and that moment of recognition, of connection, never comes. Eventually, Emily has to turn away.

Some people think of Our Town as being sentimental. Obviously, there’s a wish fulfillment aspect here: the character who returns to the past, in a sense conquering death for a moment. But what’s unsentimental is that it’s too much, the way the experience is heartbreaking for the character. There’s a real emotional courage in the fact that there’s not a catharsis: only an unflinching acknowledgement of the gulf between the town and the cemetery. The living don’t appreciate the dead; the living don’t even appreciate the living. For me, that’s not sentimental—it’s unbelievably tough. The play presents us with a difficult truth, and forces us to take a long, hard look at it.

I think also there’s a question of the artistry with which Wilder pulls this off. One of the things that makes sentimentality sentimental is that you see it coming. This play, I think, is sneaky. It makes you think this is a familiar, friendly world, where everybody is basically kind and sweet and not too curious—and then it sucker-punches you with this brutal, cosmic truth. This element of surprise or unexpected emotion is different from sentimentality, which I think of as formulaic emotion being elicited in a predictable way.

I wonder at what point I became aware of how deeply Our Town influenced the way I thought about The Leftovers. Once I started to deal with these questions of loss, and remembering the dead, and figuring out how to keep living in the wake of this loss, I was clearly in dialogue with Wilder in a way I didn’t fully understand. As a writer, I would rather not be consciously aware of everything I’m doing at each moment. It’s a play that has imprinted itself so deeply on me that it can exert that kind of subtle, unconscious influence.

But, at some point, I did become aware of it and slipped in a few overt nods. My character Jill, for instance, is neglecting to read Our Town in her English class. In the same way that the Wilder’s living can’t really appreciate their lives, the students who are made to read Our Town in English class—high school kids—are too caught up in what they’re doing. They probably haven’t lost enough yet to understand what’s profound about the book—just like Wilder’s living haven’t lost enough to see what’s profound about their lives. There are a few direct shout-outs like that.

But there are other ways that the play informs The Leftovers, and my work more generally. I have a very democratic sense of literature, for instance, that stems in part from Wilder. I get a little nervous when I read novels about extraordinary people, or privileged people. I’ve always tried to make a principle out of writing about ordinary people and ordinary things—and this play, to me, is one of the great democratic products of American literature. It gives you the sense that the same profound and horrible truths hold true whether you’re a sophisticate in Paris or a farmer in Grover’s Corners.

There’s a kind of political corollary to this. We’ve all heard the expression “one person, one vote,” used to promote the idea that every human being deserves a voice in the political process. Well, I like literature that’s “one person, one truth”—that each person’s experience, no matter how marginal, has the power to tell us something vital about what it means to be human. It’s true that, in many ways, fiction has not been universal: It’s probably been a middle-class form, and there are definitely forgotten people whose lives have not been chronicled. I don’t think writers should be self-congratulatory. But that’s one of the important ideological things that the novel form helped accomplish was to expand literature’s focus. The novel tends to show us that the lives of “ordinary” people are as full of drama, emotion, and even political significance as the lives of the great. This play is one of the building blocks I’d use to make that case.

If this idea—that ordinary lives are as important as extraordinary lives—is at the heart of my values when I try to write fiction, it also helps express my relationship to details. In writing, the power is in the ordinary details. It’s the small stuff that allows us to build up to the scenes of great drama, or to the big important truths. My impulse as a writer is this: The bigger the stakes are in a moment, the smaller I need to go to make those moments real. This approach goes back to the heartbreak at the center of Our Town, the fact that what overwhelms Emily is the great beauty of the small moments she overlooked. As a writer, I try to find ordinary moments with that kind of power, and present them to the reader.

This was part of the challenge of The Leftovers, as I wrote about characters left behind in the wake of the disappearances. The last moments of the disappeared people became supercharged with significance—even though that was not a special day, even though they disappeared while doing ordinary things. You might say the line from Our Town—“choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough”—helped inform these histories, because I looked to simple, everyday moments. Nora’s daughter spills some juice, so she goes into the kitchen for some paper towels—when her daughter disappears. Jill is in the room with an old friend of hers watching a YouTube video, and suddenly the friend is gone. So, cleaning a spill or watching a dumb video: It’s the through minutiae of everyday life these moments come alive.

I don’t think I planned this consciously, but I’m realizing now that when these people disappeared, the characters with them weren’t watching. It’s in that sense—we don’t even look at each other—that we’re so brutally reminded of in Our Town.

I’ve written a bunch of screenplays over the years, and I’ve adapted my work for film before—I co-wrote the script for Little Children, which was based on my novel. But this was a different project, because we weren’t turning my book into a two-hour feature film—we were turning it into 10 hours of television. That meant we really got to open it up, using the book as a jumping-off point. One way that the series is different, then, is that the town becomes more a of character than it is in the book. The books really works in microcosm, remaining focused on the family. But the show does use the town like a kind of collective character—and here, for cues, I looked again to Our Town.

To write dramatically about any group, you need some kind of conflict and division. A sub-culture, even a cult of some kind, that threatens the dominant way of thinking. In Our Town, that division occurs between the living and the dead. The living are actually pretty harmonious; it’s an idyllic portrait of an American backwater. But the dead are deeply separated from them, and radical perspective shift causes us to see the whole town differently. In The Leftovers, the rebellious faction, the cult, also is dead—the disappeared who have completely separated themselves from the living. (Though they make pests of themselves, constantly reminding the living, through their absence, that life isn’t what they think it is.) I would say this dual perspective in Our Town is transferred to The Leftovers in this funny way—the group of people who have left life give us a fundamentally different sense of what life is.

Finally, I looked to the play for the way it beautifully represents the passage of time. Our Town captures the cruelty of time’s brutal swiftness in a way I think is singular. And this was crucial for me in The Leftovers, because so much of my book is about how the disappearance divides time into this distinct “before” and “after”—with an unbridgeable gulf between them. One of the reasons I chose to start the book three years after the event is because that’s kind of murky period of time—enough time has passed that the characters can no longer agree how to respond to the mystery. For some people, those three years feel like forever—this thing happened three years ago, I don’t know what, but now I’m getting on with my life. For others, it’s as if some new era started—they see those three years as the steps in a new timeline of a brave new world. For still others, it’s as if no time has passed—they are stuck in the moment of the disappearance, and can’t accept that others have started to move on. The various subjective, mutually exclusive ways that people view that three-year span becomes a major source of the story’s conflict.

Our Town divides time into the stark “before” and “after” of life and death, exploring that gulf from the perspective of the dead. I think I was influenced this approach, in my story of the before and after of a widespread disappearance, exploring the aftermath from the perspective of the living. It’s my unconscious answer to Wilder in some ways—if Our Town is about the cruelty of time, The Leftovers explores how time’s passage can mean so many different things to different people.