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Tom Perrotta explores a small town's loss in HBO's 'The Leftovers'

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TORONTO - Author Tom Perrotta says he wanted to explore how communities cope with inexplicable loss in "The Leftovers."

He collaborated with "Lost" writer Damon Lindelof to adapt his bestselling 2011 novel into a HBO series premiering Sunday. The show centres on a small town's grief after two per cent of the earth's population suddenly disappears without warning — leaving those left behind to grasp for meaning and closure.

"I would not say that 'The Leftovers' is an allegory for 9-11, but it was very much informed by the experience of going through that and realizing that these moments of great tragedy and cataclysm look different as time goes on," he said in a phone interview.

"A year later, two years later, five years later, that event has become absorbed into the flow of history, at least for a lot of people. There's a real deep human impulse to just move on, to live in the present and the future and not linger on the past. But those events are for some people deeply traumatizing and transformative and they can't move on."

"The Leftovers" is about a community divided between people trying to move on and those who refuse to let go. Justin Theroux stars as Kevin Garvey, a police chief trying to reunite his family and town amid the chaos. But a cult-like group called the Guilty Remnant has emerged to constantly remind residents of the past: members dress in all-white, chain smoke and have taken a vow of silence.

Perrotta's inspiration for the novel struck when he was researching small-town America for a different book and began ruminating about the idea of the Christian rapture. But in "The Leftovers," what becomes known as the Sudden Departure appears to have no rhyme or reason behind it — it is not only the good or religious people who vanish.

"It seemed like a random rapture, and that was as confusing to Christians as it was to the secularists who didn't think anything like the rapture could happen. It was just a 'what if?' thought experiment that led me down some very interesting religious and psychological paths," he said.

"Because I'm not religious, I tend to look at prophecy as a sort of metaphor, a story we tell ourselves. That's a happy ending story. If you have faith, your faith will be rewarded. I understand why faith generates narratives like that. I guess the idea of a meaningless rapture comes closer to how my own sense of how the universe actually works."

He said one of the consequences of the Sudden Departure is that existing religions don't seem to have any way to explain the event. As Perrotta thought about what a contemporary American religion might look like, he came up with the idea for the Guilty Remnant and their symbolic smoking habit.

"We don't smoke because we have a faith in the future. They're saying, 'We don't care. We don't think we have a future. We don't care about our health,'" he said. "They're also saying. 'We don't care if it offends you. We want you to be confronted by our presence and our presence is a reminder of that thing you're trying to forget."

Perrotta was a fan of fantasy series "Lost," especially for its use of flashbacks to explore characters' back stories. Lindelof was interested in producing "The Leftovers," but HBO had optioned it and the writer-director was under contract with ABC at the time, so the two began e-mailing back and forth in earnest.

"Finally, when he was a free agent again I flew out to L.A. and we started to talk about the show and what it would be like to work together. We hit it off pretty well right from the start," Perrotta said.

"It's almost like a blind date or something. It was very exciting to talk to him. I think he clearly loved the book, he's got a very quick mind and ... he was making me think about the book in fresh ways," he said. "It just felt to me like this would be fun. It felt as simple as that."

The two hit a minor snag when writing the pilot, however. Theroux's character Garvey was the mayor of the fictional suburb Mapleton in Perrotta's book. But when they found municipal politics didn't make for exciting television, they decided to make him the chief of police instead.

The Sudden Departure is a global event, but "The Leftovers" focuses on a small town's loss. Perrotta said the structure of the book worked well for an episodic television series, as opposed to a movie. He added that if HBO orders a second season, the show could move beyond the scope of the book — exploring other characters or even towns.

Perrotta, who also wrote acclaimed novels "Election" and "Little Children," said that he typically chooses to tell stories on a smaller scale.

"That's just the way my imagination works. I could imagine how another writer more ambitious and global writer would tell that story across countries and across continents. That interests me, but I don't know how to write that story. I always like fiction that tells the social story through the story of an individual or a family or a small town," he said.

"All our stories are ultimately experienced personally. I told the story in the way that I knew how to tell it, but I also was aware that as I was doing it that way, there are huge parts of the story that I haven't told. That might be a real opportunity for us in the course of the show if we end up going beyond one season."

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