Tom Perrotta on Becoming a Writer

Perrotta: A lot of it was just, you know, the transcendental experience that I had reading, you know.  I remember reading “The Lord of the Rings” in about 8th grade and just finding that and experience just a level of engagement and intensity in that experience that, you know, the rest of my life didn’t really match up to that.  But I always also had that impulse, if I liked something or was excited by something, I wanted to do it.  You know, I never was that comfortable in the role of fan, and I knew a lot of people who were, you know, like there are people I knew who just were fanatical baseball fans, and it really enriched their lives to kind of go to a lot of games, know more about statistics than everybody else, whereas if I, you know, if I liked baseball, I wanted to play baseball.  And certainly that happened to me with rock and roll, when I was about 12, 13, you know, I started listening to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith and David Bowie and, you know, really, to me, that was a center of my high school experience was just music and trying to make music, which is something that I had very little talent for, though I knew a lot of talented musicians.  I could play a little bit, but not well.  At the same time, I was reading really intensely and starting to think about writing, and when I picked up a pen and tried to write a story, I had a feeling that was completely different from the feeling I had holding a guitar and feeling like, you know, this is not my native language.  You know, I don’t know how to do this.  If somebody showed me I could kind of, you know, I could make my fingers do what they told me to do but I couldn’t intuitively feel the music.  But when I started to write stories I immediately felt I know how to do this.  I know where you’d go now.  I knew when to start.  I knew when to stop.  You know, it came relatively easily, and I would say that that feeling of I know how to do this, that kind of…  It’s the first thing that I really loved in life that I felt like I could do at the level I wanted to do, and I did discover that in high school.  So by the time I got to college I was very clear with everyone.  I knew that…  “Well, what do you want to do?”  “I want to be a writer.”  So, I guess that is relatively early, but I’d be surprised if a lot of other writers didn’t say the same thing. 

Question: Is a literary childhood an essential to become a writer?

Perrotta: I read as a kid, and my mother certainly encouraged it but they weren’t educated people.  They were working class people.  So, you know, and I often meet writers who have similar stories, you know.  I remember in high school going to the librarian and asking for “The Magic Mountain.” I discovered Thomas Mann and the librarian kept telling me that I must be mistaken, that I didn’t want to read “The Magic Mountain” because, you know, nobody in this high school probably ever had taken “The Magic Mountain” out of the library.  But I said, no, no, I’ve been reading Thomas Mann.  I read “Death In Venice.”  I read, you know, “Mario and the Magician,” the seven short novels.  I thought they were great and I want to read “The Magic Mountain,” and I…  So, I mean, it seems funny now, but I certainly didn’t have a particularly literally childhood.  What I had, I had some very good English teachers in a sort of, you know, perfectly average public high school in New Jersey, but once they knew that I liked to read, they certainly had suggestion, you know.  I had a teacher probably in 11th grade who said, “Oh, you’ve got to read Raymond Chandler,” and then, you know, I went on a binge of reading hard-boiled detective fiction back then.  I still feel the influence that that had on my writing, you know.  I think I found Chandler so stunningly good and I found that writing so bold and funny and colorful, and I still think it was a kind of ideal for a [pro style] and, like, you know, so that was just a recommendation from a high school teacher but I was just the kind of kid who took it if my English teacher said read “Moby Dick,” you know, I’d go and read “Moby Dick” and if they said read Raymond Chandler, I read Raymond Chandler, because I was just hungry.  It was the same, same thing… I think a lot… there are a lot of kids who do this with music.  You know, if your friend says, “Hey, you’ve got to listen to King Crimson,” or, you know, “You’ve got to listen to Radiohead,” or whatever, they’ll go out and listen to it.  But I was like that with books and that to me is a, that’s the one sign, I think, when I meet a young writer, I feel like if they read really passionately, that to me is the one mark of, you know, you’ll be all right.  I’m always mystified when I meet writers who, they want to write.  They have this urge to express themselves but they don’t want to read.  It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Tom Perrotta recounts a childhood immersed in books.

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Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

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Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.