Big Think Interview With Tim O’Brien

A conversation with the National Book Award-winning writer.
  • Transcript


Question: What is your working method like?

Tim O’Brien: I write every day.  I get up around 5:00 or so and get two little kids off to school, and then I go to work around 9:00 and work until 4:00 or so.  And then do it pretty much every day.

Question: Does the work ever get any easier?

Tim O’Brien: Oh, I wish.  No it doesn’t get any easier.  It gets harder, in fact, because you can’t write the same book, and that’s always tempting.  The making of sentences is hard work.  You can’t copy your own sentences and you can’t copy those of others, and so you’re searching for a certain grace and a certain rhythm and melody that’s underneath the prose that carries the story.

Question: What mistakes do you try to avoid in writing?

Tim O’Brien: Great question.  The first answer that pops to my head is absolutism, certainty.  I am certain about very little in this world and I distrust those who are.  If I feel the stink and the smell of blinders and of pomposity and pretentiousness that for me accompanies certainty—a little bit of hypocrisy also weaves its way through absolutism.  And there’s so much of it around, it’s on television, every talk show seems to have it.  And in the real world, I’m always encountering people who declare things about the world I live in with a certainty that I just don’t see around me.  And in my writing, that shows.  That’s why the issue of truth appears so much throughout all of my books, that I’m skeptical of what’s declared to be true.

Question: Do you look back on "The Things They Carried" with self-criticism or pride?

Tim O’Brien: I don’t think pride is the right word.  I look at the book now, 20 years after having written it, with a sense of dissociation.  I find it hard to believe that those stories are mine and those sentences are mine.  And in a way they aren’t any longer.  They’re part of the world of literature.  A book goes out and it takes on its own—I won’t say its own life, but its own aboutness, an identity that is divorced from the person who made it.  And I feel sometimes, even now, a bit like a fraud.  I know I wrote the book and intellectually I know it—but to read it, it surprises me at times.  A phrase will surprise me or an event will surprise me, and it will come at me as a bit as a stranger’s, the voice does.  And in a way, I am a stranger to the person who wrote that book.  I’m 20 years older; I’ve got 20 years of new experiences; children, and things I never had before that make that old voice seem old.

Question: How does that dissociation relate to the book’s themes of continuous or discontinuous identity?

Tim O’Brien: No, in a way, life is eerily and uncannily echoed in that final chapter in the book where the Timmy, that little kid at the end of that book, was a foreigner to the author who wrote the book.  It’s an effort, as the story says at the end, “To save little Timmy’s life.”  The little boy who grew up in a small cow town in southern Minnesota and found himself entangled in Vietnam. But not just in Vietnam, in hard moral choices that it never would have occurred to me that I would have ever faced in my life.  And the little naive, Lone Range-playing Timmy that became that soldier in Vietnam was a kind of stranger to the guy who wrote that book, the middle-aged me, just as now the author of the book seems a bit of a stranger.  By “bit of,” I’m not talking mysticism.  I’m simply saying that, you know, 20 years is a long time to pass, and one’s sense of self changes.  I think of myself now primarily as a father and secondarily as a writer.  And I’ve heard those words come out of my mouth 20 years ago, it would have been impossible.  Didn’t want kids, I didn’t think it would be very much fun.  Didn’t think it would challenge me.  I thought I would be kind of bored by it and now that is more my life than writing.

Question: Why does the book seem to resist categorization as novel, story collection, or memoir?

Tim O’Brien: It’s nothing intelligent behind it, and it wasn’t a rationally planned operation, but rather it’s how the world comes at me.  It comes at me in a mix of my imagination.  Coming over here to do this interview I’m imagining who I’ll meet and what it will be like, and I’ve never done a video interview before, and what will the physicality of the place be and all of these, and partly the real world.  And I think that I’m not all that uncommon in that.  I think we all live partly in our daydreams.  Daydreams is the wrong word because it makes it sound syrupy and mystically…but I partly mean daydreams, and I partly mean just thought or anticipation of an event that hasn’t occurred.  And I think we all live there, and you certainly live there in a situation such as a war where you’re partly—the reality of the world is in your face, and partly there’s the wistful call of girlfriends and home and all the things you don’t have but yearn for.  Or your living partly in your imagination and not in a war and you’ll flow in and out of these two the way you would maybe in a cancer ward, or if your marriage is collapsing, or your father has died, or you partly have the stark reality of that corpse in that coffin, and you’re partly remembering your dad’s face as he threw you a baseball, or even more poignantly in my case, the wish that he were throwing you a baseball, the invented throwing of what wasn’t.  

So, I guess what I’m saying is that, like everything, I don’t and didn’t plan in a cerebral way the form of “The Things They Carried.”  I took advantage of what was natural to me.  I intentionally knew what I was doing, but I was taking advantage of what really was pretty natural to me.  I live in at least those two worlds of imagination and the world we all live in.

Question: How do you resolve the tension between the impossibility of conveying war’s horrors and the need to try?

Tim O’Brien: Well, through story, essentially.  The hope is that, when you do what I do, and you write novels, you are hoping for a sense of feeling to come through in the end.  That through non-fiction, the brain is engaged and the head is engaged primarily.  Not always just that, but primarily.  And with fiction, telling invented stories, the hope is that through the story, the reader lying in bed at night, or reading the book on the subway, or the bus, will sort of leave the bus or leave the bed and be transported to Madame Bovary’s bedroom.  And you’re kind of there, half a witness and half a participant in a story.  And my hope is that those who read "The Things They Carried," to my other books too.  You hope that they’re feel a certain identification thing that happens in a story, where you’re rooting for people, you know, or hoping the villain is caught, or your emotional take on—you’re in it, not just observing it the way you observe CNN, or observe the Fox Channel with disgust.

Question: How do you resolve that same tension in your own life?

Tim O’Brien: I don’t think I’ve ever tried to resolve it.  It’s just one of those things that just kind of resolves itself.  When I speak about Vietnam, or when I write about it, I’m not—my own selfhood kind of evaporates.  I’m interested in what’s occurring on the page and I’m interested in what’s going to become to these characters and I’m interested in the moral struggles they’re going through.  And I don’t—My attention is on the making of an object, in a way.  In an artifact, the way a sculpture may look at a piece of stone.  And you may have a vision for what you want that stone to become, but part of what you do is just, the stone kind of leaves you to what it’s going to become.  A vein of minerals may run through it, and ah, that’s there, that could become this.  And that’s a bit like writing fiction.  A bit of dialogue may pop out of a character’s mouth that’s unplanned, and unintentional on my part.  I have no volition over it, it seems to appear.  I know that it’s coming from somewhere inside my head and my history and my imagination, but it doesn’t feel as if I’m willing it and making it happen by volition; it’s appearing. 

Stories have a way of pulling you along, kind of chasing the story as you are writing it, and it doesn’t feel as if I’m playing that old childhood game of connecting dots, that they’ve all been planned and I’m just going to write sentences to connect it all.  It feels more as if I’m on a riverboat and watching people and scenery go by, and the novel, or story, as that feel of a voyage in which I’m partly a participant and partly a witness.

Question: Do you feel fresh anguish when writing about anguishing experiences?

Tim O’Brien: I wish I could say yes, because it would sound so much "Big Think-y," but the act of writing for me is largely the act of following sentences and making sentences.  And for most people that probably is the time to click off and look at something else, but unfortunately for me, stories grow out of a sentence.  For example, the sentence, "This is true," began one of my stories.  I wrote the sentence and had no idea what was true, true in what sense I had no idea.  Then I wrote another sentence to follow that: "A buddy in Vietnam named Bob Kiley."  Well, I’m partly discovering and I’m partly just curious about or fascinated about issues of what could be true and what is the character going to say is true, and does this character really mean it?  Does he really mean it’s true?  And to what degree does this character think it’s true?  And how can anybody say "this is true" without a little tongue-in-cheek action going on?  So, it’s a discovery, and what I think is one of my better stories grew wholly out of the unplanned, out of a scrap of language.  It’s forgotten by readers, I think, or largely forgotten, that there are 26 letters in the alphabet and some punctuation marks and that’s all we’ve got.  And that is what I work with sitting in my underwear, day after day, year after year.  I use 26 letters and these punctuation marks.  And out of that, characters come and moral quandaries are explored.  But in the end, the work of writing unfortunately is really the battling with A, B, C, D, and that comma which is so incalcitrant.

Question: Do readers frequently misunderstand your work?

Tim O’Brien: There are those, and it’s not a function of age, and it probably isn’t even a function entirely of education or political leanings.  But there’s a temper in probably America for sure, I know in America and maybe worldwide for the literal.  A literal take on everything that reality TV has taken advantage of and incorporated as part of itself.  And the literal take on things is a take without irony and without edge and without... it’s usually a fairly—there’s a certitude to it.  Why don’t you write a book that has nothing to do with war?  As if that’s a certain possibility, you should certainly try to do it as a way of recovering from the war.  And you want to say a number of things.  That this is just not a book about war, you idiot.  It’s a book about love and a book about storytelling.  But you also feel overwhelmed by the knowledge that you’re not going to get through, that the literal-minded are going to remain literal-minded.  And maybe someone else can help them, but someone else is not this guy.  So, there’s a wave of anger, or bitterness.  It has to do with Vietnam, and it has to do with a kind of mindset of the literal all around me that doesn’t fit my take on the world and my experience in the world where it’s hard for me to take anything very literally. 

The words “I love you.”  As soon as they’re uttered, I’m suspect.  How much?  And when will you stop?  And will you?  In what way do you love me?  And what is love to you, by the way?  Is it forever or is it until the next person who passes you?  All this stuff complicates.  Whereas someone else will say, well, love is love.  If you don’t know what it is, then really, poor guy.  And that’s their take.

Question: Is fiction’s job to find the truth behind that kind of cliché?

Tim O’Brien: It partly is that.  I probably skew it, parody it, make fun of it, ridicule it and put it in its place.  Partly I’m sympathetic to the literal.  That is, I’m sympathetic with some mom who is holding a dead kid in their arms, and how else is she going to take it?  But "Here’s my dead child."  And so there’s a part of me that understands it and is sympathetic to it.  And probably the better part of me is that way, or I have at least some capacity—I think as novelists kind of have to have to imagine otherness.  Outside oneself.  And as a consequence, my books are filled with characters who bear no resemblance to me and who can be villainous in ways that I’m not villainous and be good in ways I’m not good that I think the capacity for empathy, or understanding goes with a successful book because you have to create other characters and other angles of vision on material for a book to ring with some kind of authenticity. 

Among my fellow soldiers in Vietnam, I mean there was and remains to this day a kind of absence of that kind of empathy.  A dead child is a dead gook, and a dead Vietnamese woman, or one of their legs blown off is a gook with her legs blown off.  And it pretty much remains that way to this day, 40 years later: these same buddies I served with in Vietnam don’t have much empathy for the so-called enemy.  And I doubt they would be capable of—because that's there—writing “The Things They Carried.”  They’d write another book, but it would be a much different book.

Question: Would you tell a “true war story” that’s not found in "The Things They Carried?"

Tim O’Brien: Yeah, I mean, I ran into a kid in Seattle, or kid, 26-year-old, at a book signing.  And I saw him out of the corner of my eye standing in the corner, and was kind of frightened by him.  Not physically, but I mean, “Oh God, I hope it’s not a manuscript he’s got to give me,” and that... which is hell of course.  And the guy—finally the reading ended and he hung around and I could feel him out of the corner of my eye approach me, and he had me sign his book and I did.  He began to leave and then he turned around and he said, “I think you knew my father.”  And as soon as he said those words I knew who the kid was.  I saw it in his face.  I could see his dad in that kid’s face; it was my platoon leader in Vietnam.  He told me over the course of the next, I don’t know, 20 minutes or half hour that he, the kid, had been searching for his father ever since.  His father had committed suicide soon after Vietnam and had looked for his dad in very brave and cool ways.  He had joined the Army just to see what his father had gone through.  He had become a Green Beret to see what his dad had been, a Ranger, and all this tough snake-eating stuff.  And he had picked up my first book and his father figure is in the book.  Not always in the most laudatory ways, in fact not in laudatory ways.  Well, that encounter made me want to cry.  If I weren’t on camera I’d have tears in my eyes now because it’s an example of why I began writing in the first place.  I wanted to touch people in a way that stories can touch 'em.  And I helped in a modest way this fellow to fill in a gap where this man had been who had committed suicide, before he even knew his father.  His father had killed himself when he was very; I think he was like six months old, eight months.  Very young. 

Encounters like that remind me of why I began.  It’s easy to forget why you become a writer.  Letters I'll get from the girlfriends of people in Iraq or Afghanistan or the children, which all say the same thing basically.  I don’t know my dad; he won’t talk about it; or my mom in some cases, but largely men.  And I read your book and now I know at least something of what he’s carrying around with him and what he won’t talk about.  And sometimes the book will be shared with the veteran and conversation will ensue.  And that is way beyond anything I had intended in the writing of the book.  I didn’t intend to bring people together or start them talking, but to show you the power of literature, it really touches individual people with real lives in the real world and contributes to their lives.  It does something to their lives that that’s what I dreamed of when I was writing.  I dreamed of touching some 15-year-old kid in Dubuque, or some grieving mother in Harlem. 

Literature makes you feel, if it’s any good, it can make you feel less alone in the world.  Someone else has gone through this and it gives you some late-night company with your memories and your sorrow.  Literature does touch people; it’s not just to be read in English classes.

Question: What can’t art convey about the experience of war?

Tim O’Brien: You can’t physically put a person—I mean, I’ve often thought what a cool movie, for example, if you go to a war movie and out of the screen came real bullets, and you’re ducking and you not shielded by the knowledge that I’m not going to die in this movie house, or else not a bullet’s going to do it.  And you can’t do that.  You rely, as you probably do in anything, you’re relying on the human—the reader or the audiences’ imagination to sort of suspend the knowledge that I’m not going to die inside this book, or at this movie, but you almost try to seduce the reader, or the audience, into almost forgetting that.  Almost forgetting that feel of danger.  And a good work of art—there’s a movie called “The Messenger” that’s recently come out about—with Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster.  And it’s a war movie, in a way, although none of it happens in war.  It’s the notification of next of kin where they knock on doors and say, “Your son’s dead,” or "Your husband’s gone."  And although you know in the theater it’s not—they’re actors and so on, there’s a bluntness and a brutality and a horror to it that’s something that goes way beyond the John Wayne stuff and the actual war stuff, which has you kind of expect what’s coming.  It’s a war, people are going to die and you harden yourself to it and they do.  It’s a different experience to watch those knuckles on the door and door open and that person die in front of you, that mother.  That is what art is for.  That’s what it’s for.  It’s for cutting through rhetoric and cutting through politics and cutting through convention to open a trapdoor in your soul.

Question: What is your opinion of our current wars in the Middle East?

Tim O’Brien: Well, the avowed purposes behind our pre-emptive war in Iraq was to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, I think I’m pretty clear on my memory on that.  Well, there weren’t any.  And it’s a bit like, let’s go to war because we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, except that Pearl Harbor hadn’t happened.  And I’m astonished that it seems largely forgotten.  It seem erased from the public discourse about the war.  I don’t hear many people going on television saying that we went to war on reasons that didn’t exist.  I don’t feel any outrage coming from anybody.  And not only don’t I feel it now, I never felt it.  I find that stunning.  And what I do hear instead is, well we got rid of a tyrant.  Saddam Hussein.  The problem with that is, in the first place, that isn’t the reason we went to war.  Powell didn’t go before the United Nations saying, “Let’s get rid of a tyrant.”  He went before it saying there are weapons of mass destruction.  And there was no tyranny stuff there except in the most second-hand and trivialized kind of way. 

Beyond that, there’s a thing called consistency, and there’s another thing called hypocrisy.  And if the object is to get rid of tyrants around the world, why aren’t we nuking "Red China," or what the Republicans used to call “Red China.”  And why aren’t we at war with half the countries in Latin America, and why aren’t we attacking half the countries in Africa, if not more than half.  And there’s no answers to those questions.  Sort of cherry-pick your war, and you’ll get rid of that tyrant.  And then there’s the question of "tyrant" in whose eyes?  And what if, for example, Al-Qaeda were to declare George Bush was a tyrant and we’re going to attack.  Are we all going to say, okay, come attack us?  It’s okay to attack tyrants.  Who declares who the tyrant is?  Have we been elected as the country to decide on who the tyrants are and who the good guys are? 

Those are complicated questions and they’re not addressed.  They’re not even looked at anymore.  And that’s part of where my frustration comes, I think, in writing about this subject is that I feel that things have been de-elevated and that the discourse is aimed at a really low, low, low place.  And difficult questions are just not answered, they’re not even asked.  And they aren’t asked by, or don’t seem to have been asked by the people who are uttering the bellicose rhetoric of war.  They seem to be elided and evaded.  And then there’s the final issue that kind of attends to your question which is the issue of personal... I don’t know how to phrase this... but a personal commitment to one’s own rhetoric, that the rhetoric of bellicosity that has surrounded, especially the initial phases of our intervention in the Middle East.  These people aren’t there.  The Cheneys—the public face and the public explainers of our presence—too often they are hiding their kids away at Yale or wherever, and they’re not putting their bodies where their rhetoric is. 

It’s one thing to sit in a TV studio in your cute bow tie and say, “Let’s go kill people.”  And it’s another thing to go and do it.  And if you don’t go, send your daughter, or your son.  They’ve got to go.  And they’ve got just go and walk the streets and drive the vehicles and risk maiming and death.  And the hypocrisy of saying, “It’s a great thing to go kill people, but you go do it.  I’m not and my kids aren’t, but you go do it.”  But after having gone through a war myself, that still stirs in me in the same way it did 40 years ago an anger that’s hard to keep my voice under control as I’m talking about it now... because it seems so dishonest and so cowardly, and so evil in the end.

Question: Is the cyclical structure of “The Things They Carried” meant to mimic the recurring nature of combat memories?

Tim O’Brien: It is.  And part that and part to mimic our collective memories, all of us.  Memory's a strange thing.  If you think about it, how much of today do I remember?  Well, I could—it’s already abstracted, but I’ve already of course utterly obliterated every syllable that comes out of my mouth.  It’s gone, it’s history.  What about yesterday?  I can’t remember every dish I washed, every scab I picked, every person I encountered, every meal I ate.  There’s hundreds and thousands of them.  And I would say that, out of my life, 99%, probably a lot more than that has been erased.  That is, it’s obliterated, erased, can’t remember a detail.  And I’m not just talking about childhood.  I’m talking about adulthood, and people I’ve cared deeply about and I remember them in loving ways, and yet have a few snapshots of memory.  We hold on to those and we call them memory.  And that’s memory?  That little remnant of a lifetime, that’s what’s left to us?  And we attach this word “memory” to it, which has a sound of encompassing all, but it doesn’t.  And that certainly applies to “The Things They Carried.” I mean, it’s a book partly about memory.  The author of that book is an older guy, and he’s looking back and he’s recycling events from different angles and sometimes inventing things as a way of seeking that which is gone. 

I had a good friend named Chip Merricks, who had stepped on a landmine and was blown into this tree, and he’s been dead a long time.  And yet in the writing of “The Things They Carried,” I tried to in some way to resurrect through imagination what his last thoughts may have been as he soared into that tree.  “The sunlight is killing me.”  I know I’m making it up, but I’m trying to sort of cast a light on that which has been darkened by history and the passage of time, to let Chip keep soaring.  As long as that book is read, that guy is going to keep soaring into that hedge, or into that tree.  And as long as the book is read, little Linda, at the end of the book, is going to keep skating on that ice, little Timmy will be in love with her and skating along.  And that is what—I’m not saving their bodies, and I’m not even saving the memories of these people really, but I’m saving something that you hope is essential and enduring in the human spirit.  The love of a little boy for a little girl, and a good friend that soared into a tree in a terrible war.  And that’s something, it’s not everything, but it’s something. 

Question: Are you satisfied or angered by the way Vietnam is remembered?

Tim O’Brien: Yeah.  Mostly pissed off.  I mean it comes down on that side.  There’s a mythology that a company’s memory of an event, and by and large for my fellow soldiers in Vietnam, the mythologies of betrayal.  We were betrayed by our government.  We were betrayed by the liberal press.  It wasn’t our doing, it was their doing. 

In the same way that after World War I, the Germans were preached to by the forces of what became Hitler, you were betrayed at the end of World War I and Germany was sold down.  And by at large my buddies feel that way, that we could have won the war if more people were killed and more women raped, and more houses burned, we would have won it.  I don’t think they’re right, but they feel that way.  I think you could have paved the country with concrete and put up a big fence around it and you’d still have all these people who don’t want you there.  "You’re Americans and we’re Vietnamese, and this is our country and you may have the concrete and the bombs and the technology, but you’re not going to win us.  You may have won a war, in a way."

Well, so there are mythologies of memory.  And my dad carried with him out of World War II a mythology of America, the Lone Ranger, the doer of good, and the carrier of the democratic flame, and it had an undercurrent of almost a soundtrack of Frank Sinatra...Gene Kelly soundtrack running beneath it of buoyancy and of virtue.  And the soundtrack that ran beneath the movie of Vietnam, you know, and all the people who are going to watch this know is not that “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Sentimental Journey” soundtrack.  It was a soundtrack of The Doors, and The Stones, and it was edgy and critical, and much more ambiguous soundtrack that more or less accurately reflected the ambiguities and the absence of certain moral underpinnings to that enterprise.  Those are two pretty different edifices of this called mythology about a war.  And mythology is a way of eliminating all that doesn’t fit into it.  You sort of eliminate that part of it.  And certainly that has happened, certainly for my generation as well as my dad’s.

Question: Has the rebelliousness surrounding the war gained its own kind of allure?

Tim O’Brien: Yeah, I think there’s probably some truth in the notion that there’s an insidious and dangerous side to the mythology that surrounds Vietnam. It has a slight stink of the "hip" and the "cool" and of the “walking the dangerous line.” And I think there was an exotic feel to the war in this far-off jungle and that was part of the mythology around it.  It sort of beckons one anew to the adventure when we have my exotic experience and dangerous moment that manages to erase the absolute horror of it all...the dead people and the dead children, and just the horror. 

That may be part of what every writer about war has finally had to come to terms with in one way or another, that pretty great books have been written, including "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," that haven’t ended wars.  They haven’t ended the appetite for it and it probably won’t.  Though you always hope. 

This little son of mine, who’s now four, his name is Tad.  A week or two ago I said I was going on a book tour, and he said, “About what?”  And I explained what “The Things They Carried” was, and for the first time he had encountered out of my mouth the word “war” in a personal way. That is, he’s probably heard me say it before.  He said, “War?  You mean really killing people, like for real?”  And I said, “Yeah, for real.”  He said, “Really?  Really killing people?”  And I began by saying that people get into disagreements, and trying to simplify it.  But the astonishment on a four year old’s face that people are killing one another.  And he said, “For what?”  And boy that was had to articulate an answer to it.  I didn’t have an answer.  The answer I really had was, “I don’t know.”  I don’t really know for what.  Though I’m a person who has thought about this stuff for his entire adult life, I really haven’t yet plumbed the 'for whatness' of killing people.  And I don’t think I ever will plumb it.

Question: What’s different about the American soldier’s experience now as opposed to when you served?

Tim O’Brien: Well, one of the huge things, of course, is there’s no draft and the people that are fighting are in the armed forces out of volition or of their own will, decisions.  And that’s pretty huge.  It attracts a certain temperament that wasn’t mine.  A kind of “can-do,” macho, adventurous temperament.  And patriotism feeds in very strongly as well.  That’s a pretty big difference from the people who went to fight; I mean there were many volunteers, of course, that went to Vietnam.  But the bulk of us were draftees who probably more or less went reluctantly.  And in my case, a lot more than less.  And so the two wars are being fought by American soldiers on each side of pretty different temperaments. 

I, for example, did an article for a big magazine, where I was sent to Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where the terrible amputees are sent and the burn victims.  And I felt great compassion for these young men and one young woman.  But out of their mouths, there was none of the irony that accompanied the war from my generation.  There’s no questioning of the rectitude of the war whatsoever.  It was just—it wasn’t even thought about as far as I could tell.  In fact, in response to my question, do you ever wonder about there were no weapons of mass destruction?  Did that bother you?  And the answer was uniformly from many, many mouths, a flat, “No.  It doesn’t bother me. I don’t even think about it.”  But even the “don’t think about it” wasn’t there.  It was just, “No, it doesn’t bother me.” 

There was none of the edgy feel of questioning or ambiguity, or that certainty thing we began with, was there in those young people.  And these were horribly maimed people.  Horribly wounded.  But, instead coming out of their mouths were words such as, “wounded warrior,” and “war against global terror,” and it was kind of military sloganeering.  It was part of who they were.  And that was another one of the differences from my time.  One of the odd things, I guess, one of the great ironies is that “The Things They Carried” as a book is one of the things being carried around Iraq and Afghanistan and finding out that book is passed around from soldier to soldier, which gives me a little hope that they’re getting something from another point of view, which is mine.  And that’s good for me.

Question: How do you feel about the current generation of young people?

Tim O’Brien: I don’t know enough.  I’m such a simple-minded guy; I just assume in most ways, there’s no difference.  The faces are younger and the bodies a leaner because the habits are better than in my generation.  Nobody smokes any more, or very few.  Everybody knows about the right foods to eat.  Everybody looks a little sleeker than in my era.  The girls look prettier and the guys look tougher, well not tougher, buffer.  But aside from that, look, I can hang out with college kids or people in their 20’s and feel utterly at home in a way that I don’t think I could have felt at home where when I was 26 hanging out with Kurt Vonnegut, or I think I would have felt ill-at-ease.  But there’s a poise among young people that really does astonish me.  Really astonishes me the way people can do something that was so difficult for me.  So, I’m not sure what to say, exactly.

Question: What’s your next book about—and do writers hate that question?

Tim O’Brien: I don’t think I hate it, I fear it more than anything.  Because you’re put on the spot to articulate things about something in progress that have the danger of freezing you.  That is, you say it enough times, “I’m doing this,” and then you damn well better do it.  You start telling yourself, "Well, I said I’m going to write this book and it’s going to be that kind of book.And it freezes you where you are reluctant to go beyond it or push in another direction with the same book.  

Having said that, I know enough about what I’m working on to say it’s a book about being an older father, that I’m 63 and I’ve got these two young kids and I can say that it’s about some of the stuff that I was writing about with “The Things They Carried,” the sense of your own mortality presses in on you in a war.  And you know intellectually you’re going to die some day, but in a war you’re reminded pretty often, and it’s right at you.  And I feel that way as an older father.  I imagine where I’m going to be 10 years from now.  I mean, basketball’s going to be tough, and will I even be alive? And the two little boys who know nothing of tombstones and know nothing of the tick of biology or... you know, are facing it, as I am.  And there’s a sadness to it that’s accompanied by exhilaration of the moments matter and "By God I’m taking advantage of them." Which is what I meant earlier about writing.  That I’d rather—I mean, I could die tomorrow and as a writer be content with four or five of the books I’ve written as being good.  But I can’t die and be content about these two unformed lives that are too young to be good.  And I want to be there to watch them become good and to do what I can to help.  And so I’m writing about that. 

But, it’s funnier than that.  There are funny things in it too.  The discovery of language and the storytelling.  Part of the book is about the stories I tell these kids and their sources.  Partly in the world now and partly in the world long ago.

Question: What things do you carry?

Tim O’Brien: What do I carry?  I carry a lot of years that I feel, that are—and that’s not all bad, it’s partly bad.  I carry—what I think will probably come through in this talk we’ve had today is probably a delight in doing what I do, and a belief in doing what I do, along with a sadness about doing what I do.  And because two decades later, I’m fielding questions about war that I fielded all those years ago.  I say, oh my God, you know, it’s sort of back where we were and then some—that, that feels like a tangible burden.  But I carry with me these two kids that I mentioned, and even though they are not physically here, they’re all around me and the person I’ve become.  And they’re living inside me.  And I carry a slight, but palpable, feel of obligation to do justice to the savagery I witnessed and the senselessness of it and the sadness of it.  And that sense of obligation is with me, especially on occasions like this one where we’re trying to talk lucidly about this stuff.  To do justice to Chip, my buddy, and for the ghosts of the dead Vietnamese and dead Americans and especially their mothers and dads who are still bearing the burden—even though their kids are long dead, I doubt they go to sleep many nights without some poor woman in Orlando remembering her son of 40 years ago that she never got to ever hold again.  And that’s a pretty solemn obligation.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen