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Big Think Interview With Tim O’Brien
15 April, 2010
Tim O'Brien is an American novelist. His books include the National Book Award-winning "Going After Cacciato" (1978), as well as his debut novel, "If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home" (1973); his most recent novel, "July, July" (2002); and the Pulitzer Prize finalist "The Things They Carried" (1990), a combination novel/short story collection/memoir based on his experiences in the Vietnam War. A special twentieth anniversary edition of "The Things They Carried" was released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2010.
Question: Would you tell a “true war story” that’s not found\r\nin "The Things They Carried?" \r\n\r\n
In the same way that after World War I, the Germans were\r\npreached to by the forces of what became Hitler, you were betrayed at the end\r\nof World War I and Germany was sold down. \r\nAnd by at large my buddies feel that way, that we could have won the war\r\nif more people were killed and more women raped, and more houses burned, we\r\nwould have won it. I don’t think\r\nthey’re right, but they feel that way. \r\nI think you could have paved the country with concrete and put up a big\r\nfence around it and you’d still have all these people who don’t want you\r\nthere. "You’re Americans and we’re\r\nVietnamese, and this is our country and you may have the concrete and the bombs\r\nand the technology, but you’re not going to win us. You may have won a war, in a way." \r\n\r\n
Recorded March 22, 2010\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n
Question: What is your working method like?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: I write every day. I get up around 5:00 or so and get two little kids off to\r\nschool, and then I go to work around 9:00 and work until 4:00 or so. And then do it pretty much every day.\r\n\r\n
Question: Does the work ever get any easier?\r\n\r\n
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\r\nbook, and that’s always tempting. \r\nThe making of sentences is hard work. You can’t copy your own sentences and you can’t copy those\r\nof others, and so you’re searching for a certain grace and a certain rhythm and\r\nmelody that’s underneath the prose that carries the story.\r\n\r\n
Question: What mistakes do you try to avoid in writing?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: Great question. The first answer that pops to my head is absolutism,\r\ncertainty. I am certain about very\r\nlittle in this world and I distrust those who are. If I feel the stink and the smell of blinders and of\r\npomposity and pretentiousness that for me accompanies certainty—a little bit\r\nof hypocrisy also weaves its way through absolutism. And there’s so much of it around, it’s on television, every\r\ntalk show seems to have it. And in\r\nthe real world, I’m always encountering people who declare things about the\r\nworld 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\r\nso much throughout all of my books, that I’m skeptical of what’s declared to be\r\ntrue.\r\n\r\n
Question: Do you look back on "The Things They Carried" with\r\nself-criticism or pride?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: I don’t think pride is the right word. I look at the book now, 20 years after\r\nhaving written it, with a sense of dissociation. I find it hard to believe that those stories are mine and\r\nthose sentences are mine. And in a\r\nway they aren’t any longer. \r\nThey’re part of the world of literature. A book goes out and it takes on its own—I won’t say its own\r\nlife, but its own aboutness, an identity that is divorced from the person who\r\nmade it. And I feel sometimes, even\r\nnow, a bit like a fraud. I know I\r\nwrote the book and intellectually I know it—but to read it, it surprises me at\r\ntimes. A phrase will surprise me\r\nor an event will surprise me, and it will come at me as a bit as a stranger’s,\r\nthe voice does. And in a way, I am\r\na stranger to the person who wrote that book. I’m 20 years older; I’ve got 20 years of new experiences;\r\nchildren, and things I never had before that make that old voice seem old.\r\n\r\n
Question: How does that dissociation relate to the book’s\r\nthemes of continuous or discontinuous identity?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: No, in a way, life is eerily and uncannily\r\nechoed in that final chapter in the book where the Timmy, that little kid at\r\nthe end of that book, was a foreigner to the author who wrote the book. It’s an effort, as the story says at\r\nthe end, “To save little Timmy’s life.” \r\nThe little boy who grew up in a small cow town in southern Minnesota and\r\nfound himself entangled in Vietnam. But not just in Vietnam, in hard moral\r\nchoices that it never would have occurred to me that I would have ever faced in\r\nmy life. And the little naive,\r\nLone Range-playing Timmy that became that soldier in Vietnam was a kind of\r\nstranger to the guy who wrote that book, the middle-aged me, just as now the\r\nauthor 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\r\nyears is a long time to pass, and one’s sense of self changes. I think of myself now primarily as a\r\nfather and secondarily as a writer. \r\nAnd I’ve heard those words come out of my mouth 20 years ago, it would\r\nhave been impossible. Didn’t want\r\nkids, 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\r\nit and now that is more my life than writing.\r\n\r\n
Question: Why does the book seem to resist categorization as\r\nnovel, story collection, or memoir?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: It’s nothing intelligent\r\nbehind it, and it wasn’t a rationally planned operation, but rather it’s how\r\nthe world comes at me. It comes at\r\nme in a mix of my imagination. \r\nComing over here to do this interview I’m imagining who I’ll meet and\r\nwhat it will be like, and I’ve never done a video interview before, and what\r\nwill the physicality of the place be and all of these, and partly the real\r\nworld. And I think that I’m not\r\nall that uncommon in that. I think\r\nwe all live partly in our daydreams. \r\nDaydreams is the wrong word because it makes it sound syrupy and\r\nmystically…but I partly mean daydreams, and I partly mean just thought or anticipation\r\nof an event that hasn’t occurred. \r\nAnd I think we all live there, and you certainly live there in a\r\nsituation such as a war where you’re partly—the reality of the world is in your\r\nface, and partly there’s the wistful call of girlfriends and home and all the\r\nthings you don’t have but yearn for. \r\nOr your living partly in your imagination and not in a war and you’ll\r\nflow in and out of these two the way you would maybe in a cancer ward, or if\r\nyour marriage is collapsing, or your father has died, or you partly have the\r\nstark reality of that corpse in that coffin, and you’re partly remembering your\r\ndad’s face as he threw you a baseball, or even more poignantly in my case, the\r\nwish that he were throwing you a baseball, the invented throwing of what wasn’t.\r\n\r\n\r\n
So, I guess what I’m saying is that, like everything, I\r\ndon’t and didn’t plan in a cerebral way the form of “The Things They\r\nCarried.” I took advantage of what\r\nwas natural to me. I intentionally\r\nknew what I was doing, but I was taking advantage of what really was pretty\r\nnatural to me. I live in at least\r\nthose two worlds of imagination and the world we all live in.
Question: How do you resolve the tension \r\nbetween the\r\nimpossibility of conveying war’s horrors and the need to try?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: Well, through story, \r\nessentially. The hope is that, when you do what I\r\ndo, and you write novels, you are hoping for a sense of feeling to come \r\nthrough\r\nin the end. That through\r\nnon-fiction, the brain is engaged and the head is engaged primarily. Not always just that, but\r\nprimarily. And with fiction,\r\ntelling invented stories, the hope is that through the story, the reader\r\n lying\r\nin bed at night, or reading the book on the subway, or the bus, will \r\nsort of\r\nleave the bus or leave the bed and be transported to Madame Bovary’s\r\nbedroom. And you’re kind of there,\r\nhalf a witness and half a participant in a story. And\r\n\r\n my hope is that those who read "The Things They\r\nCarried," to my other books too. \r\nYou hope that they’re feel a certain identification thing that \r\nhappens\r\nin a story, where you’re rooting for people, you know, or hoping the \r\nvillain is\r\ncaught, or your emotional take on—you’re in it, not just observing it \r\nthe way\r\nyou observe CNN, or observe the Fox Channel with disgust.\r\n\r\n
Question: How do you resolve that same \r\ntension in your own\r\nlife?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: I don’t think I’ve ever tried \r\nto\r\nresolve it. It’s just one of those\r\nthings that just kind of resolves itself. \r\nWhen I speak about Vietnam, or when I write about it, I’m not—my \r\nown\r\nselfhood kind of evaporates. I’m\r\ninterested in what’s occurring on the page and I’m interested in what’s \r\ngoing\r\nto become to these characters and I’m interested in the moral struggles \r\nthey’re\r\ngoing through. And I don’t—My\r\nattention is on the making of an object, in a way. In\r\n\r\n an artifact, the way a sculpture may look at a piece of\r\nstone. And you may have a vision\r\nfor what you want that stone to become, but part of what you do is just,\r\n the\r\nstone kind of leaves you to what it’s going to become. A\r\n vein of minerals may run through it,\r\nand ah, that’s there, that could become this. And\r\n that’s a bit like writing fiction. A bit of \r\ndialogue may pop out of a\r\ncharacter’s mouth that’s unplanned, and unintentional on my part. I have no volition over it, it seems to\r\nappear. I know that it’s coming\r\nfrom somewhere inside my head and my history and my imagination, but it \r\ndoesn’t\r\nfeel as if I’m willing it and making it happen by volition; it’s\r\nappearing.\r\n\r\n
Stories have a way of pulling you along, kind of \r\nchasing the\r\nstory as you are writing it, and it doesn’t feel as if I’m playing that \r\nold\r\nchildhood game of connecting dots, that they’ve all been planned and I’m\r\n just\r\ngoing to write sentences to connect it all. It \r\nfeels more as if I’m on a riverboat and watching people\r\nand scenery go by, and the novel, or story, as that feel of a voyage in \r\nwhich\r\nI’m partly a participant and partly a witness.\r\n\r\n
Question: Do you feel fresh anguish when \r\nwriting about\r\nanguishing experiences?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: I wish I could say yes, because\r\n it would sound\r\nso much "Big Think-y," but the act of writing for me is largely the act \r\nof\r\nfollowing sentences and making sentences. \r\nAnd for most people that probably is the time to click off and \r\nlook at\r\nsomething else, but unfortunately for me, stories grow out of a \r\nsentence. For example, the sentence, "This is\r\ntrue," began one of my stories. I\r\nwrote the sentence and had no idea what was true, true in what sense I had no idea. Then I wrote \r\nanother sentence to follow\r\nthat: "A buddy in Vietnam named Bob Kiley." Well,\r\n I’m partly discovering and I’m partly just curious\r\nabout or fascinated about issues of what could be true and what is the\r\ncharacter going to say is true, and does this character really mean it? Does he really mean it’s true? And\r\n\r\n to what degree does this character\r\nthink it’s true? And how can\r\nanybody say "this is true" without a little tongue-in-cheek action going\r\non? So, it’s a discovery, and what\r\nI think is one of my better stories grew wholly out of the unplanned, \r\nout of a\r\nscrap of language. It’s forgotten\r\nby readers, I think, or largely forgotten, that there are 26 letters in \r\nthe\r\nalphabet and some punctuation marks and that’s all we’ve got. And that is what I work with sitting in\r\nmy underwear, day after day, year after year. I \r\nuse 26 letters and these punctuation marks. And \r\nout of that, characters come and\r\nmoral quandaries are explored. But\r\nin the end, the work of writing unfortunately is really the battling \r\nwith A, B,\r\nC, D, and that comma which is so incalcitrant.
Question: Do readers frequently misunderstand your work?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: There are those, and it’s not a function of\r\nage, and it probably isn’t even a function entirely of education or political\r\nleanings. But there’s a temper in\r\nprobably America for sure, I know in America and maybe worldwide for the\r\nliteral. A literal take on\r\neverything that reality TV has taken advantage of and incorporated as part of\r\nitself. And the literal take on\r\nthings is a take without irony and without edge and without... it’s usually a\r\nfairly—there’s a certitude to it. \r\nWhy don’t you write a book that has nothing to do with war? As if that’s a certain possibility, you\r\nshould certainly try to do it as a way of recovering from the war. And you want to say a number of\r\nthings. That this is just not a\r\nbook about war, you idiot. It’s a\r\nbook about love and a book about storytelling. But you also feel overwhelmed by the knowledge that you’re\r\nnot going to get through, that the literal-minded are going to remain\r\nliteral-minded. And maybe someone\r\nelse can help them, but someone else is not this guy. So, there’s a wave of anger, or\r\nbitterness. It has to do with\r\nVietnam, and it has to do with a kind of mindset of the literal all around me\r\nthat doesn’t fit my take on the world and my experience in the world where it’s\r\nhard for me to take anything very literally.\r\n\r\n
The words “I love you.” As soon as they’re uttered, I’m suspect. How much? And when will you stop? And will you? \r\nIn what way do you love me? \r\nAnd what is love to you, by the way? Is it forever or is it until the next person who passes\r\nyou? All this stuff\r\ncomplicates. Whereas someone else\r\nwill say, well, love is love. If you\r\ndon’t know what it is, then really, poor guy. And that’s their take.\r\n\r\n
Question: Is fiction’s job to find the truth behind that kind\r\nof cliché?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: It partly is that. I probably skew it, parody it, make fun of it, ridicule it\r\nand put it in its place. Partly\r\nI’m sympathetic to the literal. \r\nThat is, I’m sympathetic with some mom who is holding a dead kid in\r\ntheir 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\r\nsympathetic to it. And probably\r\nthe better part of me is that way, or I have at least some capacity—I think as\r\nnovelists kind of have to have to imagine otherness. Outside oneself. \r\nAnd as a consequence, my books are filled with characters who bear no\r\nresemblance to me and who can be villainous in ways that I’m not villainous and\r\nbe good in ways I’m not good that I think the capacity for empathy, or\r\nunderstanding goes with a successful book because you have to create other\r\ncharacters and other angles of vision on material for a book to ring with some\r\nkind of authenticity.\r\n\r\n
Among my fellow soldiers in Vietnam, I mean there was and\r\nremains to this day a kind of absence of that kind of empathy. A dead child is a dead gook, and a dead\r\nVietnamese woman, or one of their legs blown off is a gook with her legs blown\r\noff. And it pretty much remains\r\nthat way to this day, 40 years later: these same buddies I served with in\r\nVietnam don’t have much empathy for the so-called enemy. And I doubt they would be capable\r\nof—because that's there—writing “The Things They Carried.” They’d write another book, but it would be a much different\r\nbook.\r\n\r\n
Question: Would you tell a “true war story” that’s not found\r\nin "The Things They Carried?"
Tim O’Brien: Yeah, I mean, I ran into a kid in Seattle, or\r\nkid, 26-year-old, at a book signing. \r\nAnd I saw him out of the corner of my eye standing in the corner, and\r\nwas kind of frightened by him. Not\r\nphysically, but I mean, “Oh God, I hope it’s not a manuscript he’s got to give\r\nme,” and that... which is hell of course. \r\nAnd the guy—finally the reading ended and he hung around and I could\r\nfeel him out of the corner of my eye approach me, and he had me sign his book\r\nand I did. He began to leave and\r\nthen he turned around and he said, “I think you knew my father.” And as soon as he said those words I\r\nknew who the kid was. I saw it in\r\nhis face. I could see his dad in\r\nthat kid’s face; it was my platoon leader in Vietnam. He told me over the course of the next, I don’t know, 20\r\nminutes or half hour that he, the kid, had been searching for his father ever\r\nsince. His father had committed\r\nsuicide soon after Vietnam and had looked for his dad in very brave and cool\r\nways. He had joined the Army just\r\nto see what his father had gone through. \r\nHe had become a Green Beret to see what his dad had been, a Ranger, and\r\nall this tough snake-eating stuff. \r\nAnd he had picked up my first book and his father figure is in the\r\nbook. Not always in the most\r\nlaudatory 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\r\nin 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\r\nstories can touch 'em. And I helped in\r\na modest way this fellow to fill in a gap where this man had been who had\r\ncommitted suicide, before he even knew his father. His father had killed himself when he was very; I think he\r\nwas like six months old, eight months. \r\nVery young.\r\n\r\n
Encounters like that remind me of why I began. It’s easy to forget why you become a\r\nwriter. Letters I'll get from the\r\ngirlfriends of people in Iraq or Afghanistan or the children, which all say the\r\nsame thing basically. I don’t know\r\nmy 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\r\nleast something of what he’s carrying around with him and what he won’t talk\r\nabout. And sometimes the book will\r\nbe shared with the veteran and conversation will ensue. And that is way beyond anything I had\r\nintended in the writing of the book. \r\nI didn’t intend to bring people together or start them talking, but to\r\nshow you the power of literature, it really touches individual people with real\r\nlives in the real world and contributes to their lives. It does something to their lives that\r\nthat’s what I dreamed of when I was writing. I dreamed of touching some 15-year-old kid in Dubuque, or\r\nsome grieving mother in Harlem.\r\n\r\n
Literature makes you feel, if it’s any good, it can make you\r\nfeel less alone in the world. \r\nSomeone else has gone through this and it gives you some late-night\r\ncompany with your memories and your sorrow. Literature does touch people; it’s not just to be read in\r\nEnglish classes.\r\n\r\n
Question: What can’t art convey about the experience of war?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: You can’t physically put a person—I mean,\r\nI’ve often thought what a cool movie, for example, if you go to a war movie and\r\nout of the screen came real bullets, and you’re ducking and you not shielded by\r\nthe knowledge that I’m not going to die in this movie house, or else not a\r\nbullet’s going to do it. And you\r\ncan’t do that. You rely, as you\r\nprobably do in anything, you’re relying on the human—the reader or the\r\naudiences’ imagination to sort of suspend the knowledge that I’m not going to\r\ndie inside this book, or at this movie, but you almost try to seduce the\r\nreader, or the audience, into almost forgetting that. Almost forgetting that feel of danger. And a good work of art—there’s a movie\r\ncalled “The Messenger” that’s recently come out about—with Woody Harrelson and\r\nBen Foster. And it’s a war movie,\r\nin a way, although none of it happens in war. It’s the notification of next of kin where they knock on\r\ndoors and say, “Your son’s dead,” or "Your husband’s gone." And although you know in the theater it’s not—they’re actors\r\nand so on, there’s a bluntness and a brutality and a horror to it that’s\r\nsomething that goes way beyond the John Wayne stuff and the actual war stuff,\r\nwhich has you kind of expect what’s coming. It’s a war, people are going to die and you harden yourself to\r\nit and they do. It’s a different\r\nexperience to watch those knuckles on the door and door open and that person\r\ndie in front of you, that mother. \r\nThat is what art is for. \r\nThat’s what it’s for. It’s\r\nfor cutting through rhetoric and cutting through politics and cutting through\r\nconvention to open a trapdoor in your soul.\r\n\r\n
Question: What is your opinion of our current wars in the\r\nMiddle East?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: Well, the avowed purposes behind our pre-emptive\r\nwar in Iraq was to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, I think I’m pretty\r\nclear on my memory on that. Well,\r\nthere weren’t any. And it’s a bit\r\nlike, let’s go to war because we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, except that\r\nPearl Harbor hadn’t happened. And\r\nI’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\r\ntelevision saying that we went to war on reasons that didn’t exist. I don’t feel any outrage coming from\r\nanybody. And not only don’t I feel\r\nit now, I never felt it. I find\r\nthat stunning. And what I do hear\r\ninstead is, well we got rid of a tyrant. \r\nSaddam Hussein. The problem\r\nwith that is, in the first place, that isn’t the reason we went to war. Powell didn’t go before the United\r\nNations saying, “Let’s get rid of a tyrant.” He went before it saying there are weapons of mass\r\ndestruction. And there was no\r\ntyranny stuff there except in the most second-hand and trivialized kind of\r\nway.\r\n\r\n
Beyond that, there’s a thing called consistency, and\r\nthere’s another thing called hypocrisy. \r\nAnd if the object is to get rid of tyrants around the world, why aren’t\r\nwe nuking "Red China," or what the Republicans used to call “Red China.” And why aren’t we at war with half the\r\ncountries in Latin America, and why aren’t we attacking half the countries in\r\nAfrica, if not more than half. And\r\nthere’s no answers to those questions. \r\nSort of cherry-pick your war, and you’ll get rid of that tyrant. And then there’s the question of "tyrant"\r\nin whose eyes? And what if, for\r\nexample, Al-Qaeda were to declare George Bush was a tyrant and we’re going to\r\nattack. Are we all going to say,\r\nokay, come attack us? It’s okay to\r\nattack tyrants. Who declares who\r\nthe tyrant is? Have we been\r\nelected as the country to decide on who the tyrants are and who the good guys\r\nare?\r\n\r\n
Those are complicated questions and they’re not\r\naddressed. They’re not even looked\r\nat anymore. And that’s part of\r\nwhere my frustration comes, I think, in writing about this subject is that I\r\nfeel that things have been de-elevated and that the discourse is aimed at a\r\nreally low, low, low place. And\r\ndifficult questions are just not answered, they’re not even asked. And they aren’t asked by, or don’t seem\r\nto have been asked by the people who are uttering the bellicose rhetoric of\r\nwar. They seem to be elided and evaded. And then there’s the final issue that\r\nkind of attends to your question which is the issue of personal... I don’t know how\r\nto phrase this... but a personal commitment to one’s own rhetoric, that the\r\nrhetoric of bellicosity that has surrounded, especially the initial phases of\r\nour intervention in the Middle East. \r\nThese people aren’t there. \r\nThe Cheneys—the public face and the public explainers of our\r\npresence—too often they are\r\nhiding their kids away at Yale or wherever, and they’re not putting their\r\nbodies where their rhetoric is.\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n It’s one thing to sit in a TV studio in your cute bow tie and\r\nsay, “Let’s go kill people.” And\r\nit’s another thing to go and do it. \r\nAnd 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\r\nstreets and drive the vehicles and risk maiming and death. And the hypocrisy of saying, “It’s a\r\ngreat 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,\r\nthat still stirs in me in the same way it did 40 years ago an anger that’s hard to keep my voice\r\nunder control as I’m talking about it now... because it seems so dishonest and so\r\ncowardly, and so evil in the end.
It’s one thing to sit in a TV studio in your cute bow tie and\r\nsay, “Let’s go kill people.” And\r\nit’s another thing to go and do it. \r\nAnd 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\r\nstreets and drive the vehicles and risk maiming and death. And the hypocrisy of saying, “It’s a\r\ngreat 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,\r\nthat still stirs in me in the same way it did 40 years ago an anger that’s hard to keep my voice\r\nunder control as I’m talking about it now... because it seems so dishonest and so\r\ncowardly, and so evil in the end.
Question: Is the cyclical structure of “The Things They\r\nCarried” meant to mimic the recurring nature of combat memories?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: It is. \r\nAnd 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\r\ntoday do I remember? Well, I\r\ncould—it’s already abstracted, but I’ve already of course utterly obliterated\r\nevery syllable that comes out of my mouth. It’s gone, it’s history. What about yesterday? \r\nI can’t remember every dish I washed, every scab I picked, every person I\r\nencountered, every meal I ate. \r\nThere’s hundreds and thousands of them. And I would say that, out of my life, 99%, probably a lot\r\nmore than that has been erased. \r\nThat 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\r\nI’ve cared deeply about and I remember them in loving ways, and yet have a few\r\nsnapshots of memory. We hold on to\r\nthose and we call them memory. And\r\nthat’s memory? That little remnant of a\r\nlifetime, that’s what’s left to us? \r\nAnd we attach this word “memory” to it, which has a sound of\r\nencompassing all, but it doesn’t. \r\nAnd that certainly applies to “The Things They Carried.” I mean, it’s a\r\nbook partly about memory. The\r\nauthor of that book is an older guy, and he’s looking back and he’s recycling\r\nevents from different angles and sometimes inventing things as a way of seeking\r\nthat which is gone.\r\n\r\n
I had a good friend named Chip Merricks, who\r\nhad stepped on a landmine and was blown into this tree, and he’s been dead a\r\nlong time. And yet in the writing\r\nof “The Things They Carried,” I tried to in some way to resurrect through\r\nimagination what his last thoughts may have been as he soared into that\r\ntree. “The sunlight is killing\r\nme.” I know I’m making it up, but\r\nI’m trying to sort of cast a light on that which has been darkened by history\r\nand the passage of time, to let Chip keep soaring. As long as that book is read, that guy is going to keep\r\nsoaring into that hedge, or into that tree. And as long as the book is read, little Linda, at the end of\r\nthe book, is going to keep skating on that ice, little Timmy will be in love\r\nwith her and skating along. And\r\nthat is what—I’m not saving their bodies, and I’m not even saving the memories\r\nof these people really, but I’m saving something that you hope is essential and\r\nenduring in the human spirit. The\r\nlove of a little boy for a little girl, and a good friend that soared into a\r\ntree in a terrible war. And that’s\r\nsomething, it’s not everything, but it’s something.\r\n\r\n
Question: Are you satisfied or angered by the way Vietnam is\r\nremembered?\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n Tim O’Brien: Yeah. \r\nMostly pissed off. I mean\r\nit comes down on that side. \r\nThere’s a mythology that a company’s memory of an event, and by and\r\nlarge for my fellow soldiers in Vietnam, the mythologies of betrayal. We were betrayed by our\r\ngovernment. We were betrayed by\r\nthe liberal press. It wasn’t our\r\ndoing, it was their doing.
Tim O’Brien: Yeah. \r\nMostly pissed off. I mean\r\nit comes down on that side. \r\nThere’s a mythology that a company’s memory of an event, and by and\r\nlarge for my fellow soldiers in Vietnam, the mythologies of betrayal. We were betrayed by our\r\ngovernment. We were betrayed by\r\nthe liberal press. It wasn’t our\r\ndoing, it was their doing.
In the same way that after World War I, the Germans were\r\npreached to by the forces of what became Hitler, you were betrayed at the end\r\nof World War I and Germany was sold down. \r\nAnd by at large my buddies feel that way, that we could have won the war\r\nif more people were killed and more women raped, and more houses burned, we\r\nwould have won it. I don’t think\r\nthey’re right, but they feel that way. \r\nI think you could have paved the country with concrete and put up a big\r\nfence around it and you’d still have all these people who don’t want you\r\nthere. "You’re Americans and we’re\r\nVietnamese, and this is our country and you may have the concrete and the bombs\r\nand 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\r\nWorld War II a mythology of America, the Lone Ranger, the doer of good, and the\r\ncarrier of the democratic flame, and it had an undercurrent of almost a soundtrack of Frank Sinatra...Gene Kelly soundtrack running beneath it of buoyancy\r\nand of virtue. And the soundtrack\r\nthat ran beneath the movie of Vietnam, you know, and all the people who are\r\ngoing to watch this know is not that “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Sentimental\r\nJourney” soundtrack. It was a\r\nsoundtrack of The Doors, and The Stones, and it was edgy and critical, and much\r\nmore ambiguous soundtrack that more or less accurately reflected the\r\nambiguities and the absence of certain moral underpinnings to that\r\nenterprise. Those are two pretty\r\ndifferent edifices of this called mythology about a war. And mythology is a way of eliminating\r\nall that doesn’t fit into it. You\r\nsort of eliminate that part of it. \r\nAnd certainly that has happened, certainly for my generation as well as\r\nmy dad’s.\r\n\r\n
Question: Has the rebelliousness surrounding the war gained\r\nits own kind of allure?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: Yeah, I think there’s probably some truth in\r\nthe notion that there’s an insidious and dangerous side to the mythology that\r\nsurrounds Vietnam. It has a slight stink of the "hip" and the "cool" and of the\r\n“walking the dangerous line.” And I think there was an exotic feel to the war in\r\nthis far-off jungle and that was part of the mythology around it. It sort of beckons one anew to the\r\nadventure when we have my exotic experience and dangerous moment that manages\r\nto erase the absolute horror of it all...the dead people and the dead\r\nchildren, and just the horror.\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n That may be part of what every writer about war has finally\r\nhad to come to terms with in one way or another, that pretty great books have\r\nbeen written, including "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," that haven’t ended\r\nwars. They haven’t ended the appetite\r\nfor it and it probably won’t. \r\nThough you always hope.
That may be part of what every writer about war has finally\r\nhad to come to terms with in one way or another, that pretty great books have\r\nbeen written, including "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," that haven’t ended\r\nwars. They haven’t ended the appetite\r\nfor it and it probably won’t. \r\nThough you always hope.
This little son of mine, who’s now four, his name is\r\nTad. A week or two ago I said I\r\nwas going on a book tour, and he said, “About what?” And I explained what “The Things They Carried” was, and for the\r\nfirst time he had encountered out of my mouth the word “war” in a personal way.\r\nThat is, he’s probably heard me say it before. He said, “War? \r\nYou 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\r\ninto disagreements, and trying to simplify it. But the astonishment on a four year old’s face that people\r\nare killing one another. And he\r\nsaid, “For what?” And boy that was\r\nhad to articulate an answer to it. \r\nI didn’t have an answer. \r\nThe 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\r\nentire adult life, I really haven’t yet plumbed the 'for whatness' of killing\r\npeople. And I don’t think I ever\r\nwill plumb it.\r\n\r\n
Question: What’s different about the American soldier’s\r\nexperience now as opposed to when you served?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: Well, one of the huge things, of course, is\r\nthere’s no draft and the people that are fighting are in the armed forces out\r\nof 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\r\npatriotism feeds in very strongly as well. That’s a pretty big difference from the people who went to\r\nfight; I mean there were many volunteers, of course, that went to Vietnam. But the bulk of us were draftees who\r\nprobably more or less went reluctantly. \r\nAnd in my case, a lot more than less. And so the two wars are being fought by American soldiers on\r\neach side of pretty different temperaments.\r\n\r\n
I, for example, did an article for a big magazine, where I was\r\nsent to Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where the terrible amputees\r\nare sent and the burn victims. And\r\nI felt great compassion for these young men and one young woman. But out of their mouths, there was none\r\nof the irony that accompanied the war from my generation. There’s no questioning of the rectitude\r\nof the war whatsoever. It was\r\njust—it wasn’t even thought about as far as I could tell. In fact, in response to my question, do\r\nyou ever wonder about there were no weapons of mass destruction? Did that bother you? And the answer was uniformly from\r\nmany, many mouths, a flat, “No. It\r\ndoesn’t bother me. I don’t even\r\nthink about it.” But even the\r\n“don’t think about it” wasn’t there. \r\nIt was just, “No, it doesn’t bother me.”\r\n\r\n
There was none of the edgy feel of questioning or ambiguity,\r\nor that certainty thing we began with, was there in those young people. And these were horribly maimed\r\npeople. Horribly wounded. But, instead coming out of their mouths\r\nwere words such as, “wounded warrior,” and “war against global terror,” and it\r\nwas kind of military sloganeering. \r\nIt was part of who they were. \r\nAnd that was another one of the differences from my time. One of the odd things, I guess, one of the great ironies is\r\nthat “The Things They Carried” as a book is one of the things being carried\r\naround Iraq and Afghanistan and finding out that book is passed around from\r\nsoldier to soldier, which gives me a little hope that they’re getting something\r\nfrom another point of view, which is mine. And that’s good for me.\r\n\r\n
Question: How do you feel about the current generation of\r\nyoung people?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: I don’t know enough. I’m such a simple-minded guy; I just assume in most ways,\r\nthere’s no difference. The faces\r\nare younger and the bodies a leaner because the habits are better than in my\r\ngeneration. Nobody smokes any more,\r\nor very few. Everybody knows about\r\nthe right foods to eat. Everybody\r\nlooks a little sleeker than in my era. \r\nThe girls look prettier and the guys look tougher, well not tougher,\r\nbuffer. But aside from that, look,\r\nI can hang out with college kids or people in their 20’s and feel utterly at\r\nhome in a way that I don’t think I could have felt at home where when I was 26\r\nhanging out with Kurt Vonnegut, or I think I would have felt ill-at-ease. But there’s a poise among young people\r\nthat really does astonish me. \r\nReally astonishes me the way people can do something that was so\r\ndifficult for me. So, I’m not sure\r\nwhat to say, exactly.\r\n\r\n
Question: What’s your next book about—and do writers hate\r\nthat question?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: I don’t think I hate it, I fear it more than\r\nanything. Because you’re put on\r\nthe spot to articulate things about something in progress that have the danger\r\nof freezing you. That is, you say\r\nit enough times, “I’m doing this,” and then you damn well better do it. You start telling yourself, "Well, I\r\nsaid I’m going to write this book and it’s going to be that kind of book." And it freezes you where you are\r\nreluctant to go beyond it or push in another direction with the same book.\r\n\r\n
Having said that, I know enough about what I’m working on to\r\nsay it’s a book about being an older father, that I’m 63 and I’ve got these two\r\nyoung kids and I can say that it’s about some of the stuff that I was writing\r\nabout with “The Things They Carried,” the sense of your own mortality presses\r\nin on you in a war. And you know\r\nintellectually you’re going to die some day, but in a war you’re reminded pretty\r\noften, and it’s right at you. And I\r\nfeel that way as an older father. \r\nI imagine where I’m going to be 10 years from now. I mean, basketball’s going to be tough,\r\nand will I even be alive? And the two little boys who know nothing of tombstones\r\nand know nothing of the tick of biology or... you know, are facing it, as I\r\nam. And there’s a sadness to it\r\nthat’s accompanied by exhilaration of the moments matter and "By God I’m\r\ntaking advantage of them." Which is what I meant earlier about writing. That I’d rather—I mean, I could die\r\ntomorrow and as a writer be content with four or five of the books I’ve written\r\nas being good. But I can’t die and\r\nbe content about these two unformed lives that are too young to be good. And I want to be there to watch them\r\nbecome good and to do what I can to help. \r\nAnd so I’m writing about that.\r\n\r\n
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\r\ntell these kids and their sources. \r\nPartly in the world now and partly in the world long ago.\r\n\r\n
Question: What things do you carry?\r\n\r\n
Tim O’Brien: What do I carry? I carry a lot of years that I feel, that are—and that’s not\r\nall bad, it’s partly bad. I\r\ncarry—what I think will probably come through in this talk we’ve had today is\r\nprobably a delight in doing what I do, and a belief in doing what I do, along\r\nwith a sadness about doing what I do. \r\nAnd because two decades later, I’m fielding questions about war that I\r\nfielded all those years ago. I\r\nsay, oh my God, you know, it’s sort of back where we were and then some—that,\r\nthat feels like a tangible burden. \r\nBut I carry with me these two kids that I mentioned, and even though\r\nthey are not physically here, they’re all around me and the person I’ve\r\nbecome. And they’re living inside\r\nme. And I carry a slight, but\r\npalpable, feel of obligation to do justice to the savagery I witnessed and the\r\nsenselessness of it and the sadness of it. And that sense of obligation is with me, especially on\r\noccasions like this one where we’re trying to talk lucidly about this\r\nstuff. To do justice to Chip, my\r\nbuddy, and for the ghosts of the dead Vietnamese and dead Americans and\r\nespecially their mothers and dads who are still bearing the burden—even though\r\ntheir kids are long dead, I doubt they go to sleep many nights without some\r\npoor woman in Orlando remembering her son of 40 years ago that she never got to\r\never hold again. And that’s a\r\npretty solemn obligation.
Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
A conversation with the National Book Award-winning writer.
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