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.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • The French government initially invested in a rural solar roadway in 2016.
  • French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.