Lauren Grodstein, the author of A Friend of the Family, has always been an enormous fan of Tom Perrotta's. "Election, Little Childrenthose books aren't just amazing reads, they're great lessons in how to wring the most drama possible from what seem like everyday moments." But when she read The LeftoversPerrotta's 2011 novel about the apocalypse and the suburbsshe decided Perrotta might be more than a favorite author; he might be a kindred spirit.
Fortunately, Perrotta turned out to be a fan of hers, too. He calls Grodstein's new novel, The Explanation for Everything, "terrificvery smart and touching and unexpected." Here, they discuss faith, writing, and New Jersey.
Tom Perrotta: "The Explanation for Everything" is a novel about evolution and creationism, but it doesn't take sides. Why not?
Lauren Grodstein: I think it's easy to take sides on all sorts of things (I root for the Mets, for instance, and prefer my coffee black). But in this novel I wanted to do something more complicated, and maybe more interestingI wanted to try to figure out why people believe what they believe, and why they need their own particular sets of beliefs to operate in a complicated world. I also wanted to try out other faiths, as far as my characters went, and write about the beauty in them. It made my world a little bigger, creating people whose faiths are so far from mine. Besides, I never write fiction to take sides on an issue, or to push any particular agenda. I write stories to investigate other people. I'm kind of a voyeur that way.
Perrotta: Andy, your protagonist, is a biologist, but you've mentioned that you barely passed your high school science classes. What kind of research did you have to do to make Andy's job skills convincing?
Grodstein: A good friend of mine is a scientist at Columbia, and she hooked me up with a tour of the school's rodent labs. I saw the rodent cages, the rodent babies, and the rodent guillotine, which basically looked like a cheese slicer. I took lots of notes but found I didn't even have to refer to them, because the things I saw had become indelible. Once you see a bunch of rats (squeaking, scrabbling rats) with electrodes sticking out of their exposed brainswell, you know, it's hard to forget.
Perrotta: Most Americans believe in God. You, on the other hand, are an atheist. Did that present some tension in writing this book? Especially when you were creating Melissa, an evangelical student?
Grodstein: Well, I'm sort of a reluctant atheist. I've tried to consider all the possibilities, from an activist God to a sort of Deist watch-winder to a universe based on circumstance and luck. Based on what I've readand my own temperamentI come down on the side of circumstance and luck. But often I wish I didn't. What I mean is that I wish I had the imagination to believe in God. I admire people who do, while at the same time I find myself frustrated by their willingness to believe in the supernatural, which seems to me preposterous. It's a contradiction, and I was happy to write about that contradiction when I wrote about Melissa, the evangelical studentand in fact when I wrote about all these characters.
Perrotta: This is your third novel, and the third one told from a male point of view. What's up with that?
Grodstein: I have no idea. I just keep dreaming up these male characters. I've tried to psychobabble an excuse for it, saying that writing about men is a way to keep myself, my own personality, away from the narrative. This might be true or it might be b.s. All I know is that these guys keep coming to me fully formed, and though I try to ditch them, they just will not leave me alone until I've written down their stories.
Perrotta: This is also your third novel set in New Jersey. Why do you keep going back to the Garden State?
Grodstein: New Jersey's just inescapable for me. I grew up there, promising myselflike so many of my hometown friendsthat no matter what life did to me, I would never ever go back. Then, eight years ago, I got a job offer in the state, and I couldn't refuse, so after more than a decade in Brooklyn, I returned. But you know what? It's great. The small towns are great, with their holiday parades and their pizza places; and the shore is great; and the Pine Barrens are great, all mysterious and isolated and lovely. New Jersey's cultural diversity is great, its musical heritage is great, and the Indian food is totally to die for. There's nothing I need in a novel that New Jersey hasn't provided for me. Maybe the next time it'll be different, but somehow I doubt it. No one really escapes Jersey.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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