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Who's in the Video

Tim O’Brien

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,[…]

A conversation with the National Book Award-winning writer.

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Question: What is your working method like?

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

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Question: Does the work ever get any easier?

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

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

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Tim O’Brien: Great question.  The first answer that pops to my head is absolutism,rncertainty.  I am certain about veryrnlittle in this world and I distrust those who are.  If I feel the stink and the smell of blinders and ofrnpomposity and pretentiousness that for me accompanies certainty—a little bitrnof hypocrisy also weaves its way through absolutism.  And there’s so much of it around, it’s on television, everyrntalk show seems to have it.  And inrnthe real world, I’m always encountering people who declare things about thernworld 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 appearsrnso much throughout all of my books, that I’m skeptical of what’s declared to berntrue.

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

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

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

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Tim O’Brien: No, in a way, life is eerily and uncannilyrnechoed in that final chapter in the book where the Timmy, that little kid atrnthe end of that book, was a foreigner to the author who wrote the book.  It’s an effort, as the story says atrnthe end, “To save little Timmy’s life.” rnThe little boy who grew up in a small cow town in southern Minnesota andrnfound himself entangled in Vietnam. But not just in Vietnam, in hard moralrnchoices that it never would have occurred to me that I would have ever faced inrnmy life.  And the little naive,rnLone Range-playing Timmy that became that soldier in Vietnam was a kind ofrnstranger to the guy who wrote that book, the middle-aged me, just as now thernauthor of the book seems a bit of a stranger.  By “bit of,” I’m not talking mysticism.  I’m simply saying that, you know, 20rnyears is a long time to pass, and one’s sense of self changes.  I think of myself now primarily as arnfather and secondarily as a writer. rnAnd I’ve heard those words come out of my mouth 20 years ago, it wouldrnhave been impossible.  Didn’t wantrnkids, 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 byrnit and now that is more my life than writing.

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

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Tim O’Brien: It’s nothing intelligentrnbehind it, and it wasn’t a rationally planned operation, but rather it’s howrnthe world comes at me.  It comes atrnme in a mix of my imagination. rnComing over here to do this interview I’m imagining who I’ll meet andrnwhat it will be like, and I’ve never done a video interview before, and whatrnwill the physicality of the place be and all of these, and partly the realrnworld.  And I think that I’m notrnall that uncommon in that.  I thinkrnwe all live partly in our daydreams. rnDaydreams is the wrong word because it makes it sound syrupy andrnmystically…but I partly mean daydreams, and I partly mean just thought or anticipationrnof an event that hasn’t occurred. rnAnd I think we all live there, and you certainly live there in arnsituation such as a war where you’re partly—the reality of the world is in yourrnface, and partly there’s the wistful call of girlfriends and home and all thernthings you don’t have but yearn for. rnOr your living partly in your imagination and not in a war and you’llrnflow in and out of these two the way you would maybe in a cancer ward, or ifrnyour marriage is collapsing, or your father has died, or you partly have thernstark reality of that corpse in that coffin, and you’re partly remembering yourrndad’s face as he threw you a baseball, or even more poignantly in my case, thernwish that he were throwing you a baseball, the invented throwing of what wasn’t.rn 

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So, I guess what I’m saying is that, like everything, Irndon’t and didn’t plan in a cerebral way the form of “The Things TheyrnCarried.”  I took advantage of whatrnwas natural to me.  I intentionallyrnknew what I was doing, but I was taking advantage of what really was prettyrnnatural to me.  I live in at leastrnthose two worlds of imagination and the world we all live in.

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

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Tim O’Brien: Well, through story, rnessentially.  The hope is that, when you do what Irndo, and you write novels, you are hoping for a sense of feeling to come rnthroughrnin the end.  That throughrnnon-fiction, the brain is engaged and the head is engaged primarily.  Not always just that, butrnprimarily.  And with fiction,rntelling invented stories, the hope is that through the story, the readerrn lyingrnin bed at night, or reading the book on the subway, or the bus, will rnsort ofrnleave the bus or leave the bed and be transported to Madame Bovary’srnbedroom.  And you’re kind of there,rnhalf a witness and half a participant in a story.  Andrnrn my hope is that those who read "The Things TheyrnCarried," to my other books too. rnYou hope that they’re feel a certain identification thing that rnhappensrnin a story, where you’re rooting for people, you know, or hoping the rnvillain isrncaught, or your emotional take on—you’re in it, not just observing it rnthe wayrnyou observe CNN, or observe the Fox Channel with disgust.

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Question: How do you resolve that same rntension in your ownrnlife?

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Tim O’Brien: I don’t think I’ve ever tried rntornresolve it.  It’s just one of thosernthings that just kind of resolves itself. rnWhen I speak about Vietnam, or when I write about it, I’m not—my rnownrnselfhood kind of evaporates.  I’mrninterested in what’s occurring on the page and I’m interested in what’s rngoingrnto become to these characters and I’m interested in the moral struggles rnthey’rerngoing through.  And I don’t—Myrnattention is on the making of an object, in a way.  Inrnrn an artifact, the way a sculpture may look at a piece ofrnstone.  And you may have a visionrnfor what you want that stone to become, but part of what you do is just,rn thernstone kind of leaves you to what it’s going to become.  Arn vein of minerals may run through it,rnand ah, that’s there, that could become this.  Andrn that’s a bit like writing fiction.  A bit of rndialogue may pop out of arncharacter’s mouth that’s unplanned, and unintentional on my part.  I have no volition over it, it seems tornappear.  I know that it’s comingrnfrom somewhere inside my head and my history and my imagination, but it rndoesn’trnfeel as if I’m willing it and making it happen by volition; it’srnappearing. 

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Stories have a way of pulling you along, kind of rnchasing thernstory as you are writing it, and it doesn’t feel as if I’m playing that rnoldrnchildhood game of connecting dots, that they’ve all been planned and I’mrn justrngoing to write sentences to connect it all.  It rnfeels more as if I’m on a riverboat and watching peoplernand scenery go by, and the novel, or story, as that feel of a voyage in rnwhichrnI’m partly a participant and partly a witness.

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Question: Do you feel fresh anguish when rnwriting aboutrnanguishing experiences?

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Tim O’Brien: I wish I could say yes, becausern it would soundrnso much "Big Think-y," but the act of writing for me is largely the act rnofrnfollowing sentences and making sentences. rnAnd for most people that probably is the time to click off and rnlook atrnsomething else, but unfortunately for me, stories grow out of a rnsentence.  For example, the sentence, "This isrntrue," began one of my stories.  Irnwrote the sentence and had no idea what was true, true in what sense I had no idea.  Then I wrote rnanother sentence to followrnthat: "A buddy in Vietnam named Bob Kiley."  Well,rn I’m partly discovering and I’m partly just curiousrnabout or fascinated about issues of what could be true and what is therncharacter going to say is true, and does this character really mean it?  Does he really mean it’s true?  Andrnrn to what degree does this characterrnthink it’s true?  And how canrnanybody say "this is true" without a little tongue-in-cheek action goingrnon?  So, it’s a discovery, and whatrnI think is one of my better stories grew wholly out of the unplanned, rnout of arnscrap of language.  It’s forgottenrnby readers, I think, or largely forgotten, that there are 26 letters in rnthernalphabet and some punctuation marks and that’s all we’ve got.  And that is what I work with sitting inrnmy underwear, day after day, year after year.  I rnuse 26 letters and these punctuation marks.  And rnout of that, characters come andrnmoral quandaries are explored.  Butrnin the end, the work of writing unfortunately is really the battling rnwith A, B,rnC, D, and that comma which is so incalcitrant.

Question: Do readers frequently misunderstand your work?

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Tim O’Brien: There are those, and it’s not a function ofrnage, and it probably isn’t even a function entirely of education or politicalrnleanings.  But there’s a temper inrnprobably America for sure, I know in America and maybe worldwide for thernliteral.  A literal take onrneverything that reality TV has taken advantage of and incorporated as part ofrnitself.  And the literal take onrnthings is a take without irony and without edge and without... it’s usually arnfairly—there’s a certitude to it. rnWhy don’t you write a book that has nothing to do with war?  As if that’s a certain possibility, yournshould certainly try to do it as a way of recovering from the war.  And you want to say a number ofrnthings.  That this is just not arnbook about war, you idiot.  It’s arnbook about love and a book about storytelling.  But you also feel overwhelmed by the knowledge that you’rernnot going to get through, that the literal-minded are going to remainrnliteral-minded.  And maybe someonernelse can help them, but someone else is not this guy.  So, there’s a wave of anger, orrnbitterness.  It has to do withrnVietnam, and it has to do with a kind of mindset of the literal all around mernthat doesn’t fit my take on the world and my experience in the world where it’srnhard for me to take anything very literally. 

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

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

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Tim O’Brien: It partly is that.  I probably skew it, parody it, make fun of it, ridicule itrnand put it in its place.  PartlyrnI’m sympathetic to the literal. rnThat is, I’m sympathetic with some mom who is holding a dead kid inrntheir 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 isrnsympathetic to it.  And probablyrnthe better part of me is that way, or I have at least some capacity—I think asrnnovelists kind of have to have to imagine otherness.  Outside oneself. rnAnd as a consequence, my books are filled with characters who bear nornresemblance to me and who can be villainous in ways that I’m not villainous andrnbe good in ways I’m not good that I think the capacity for empathy, orrnunderstanding goes with a successful book because you have to create otherrncharacters and other angles of vision on material for a book to ring with somernkind of authenticity. 

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

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

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Tim O’Brien: Yeah, I mean, I ran into a kid in Seattle, orrnkid, 26-year-old, at a book signing. rnAnd I saw him out of the corner of my eye standing in the corner, andrnwas kind of frightened by him.  Notrnphysically, but I mean, “Oh God, I hope it’s not a manuscript he’s got to givernme,” and that... which is hell of course. rnAnd the guy—finally the reading ended and he hung around and I couldrnfeel him out of the corner of my eye approach me, and he had me sign his bookrnand I did.  He began to leave andrnthen he turned around and he said, “I think you knew my father.”  And as soon as he said those words Irnknew who the kid was.  I saw it inrnhis face.  I could see his dad inrnthat kid’s face; it was my platoon leader in Vietnam.  He told me over the course of the next, I don’t know, 20rnminutes or half hour that he, the kid, had been searching for his father everrnsince.  His father had committedrnsuicide soon after Vietnam and had looked for his dad in very brave and coolrnways.  He had joined the Army justrnto see what his father had gone through. rnHe had become a Green Beret to see what his dad had been, a Ranger, andrnall this tough snake-eating stuff. rnAnd he had picked up my first book and his father figure is in thernbook.  Not always in the mostrnlaudatory ways, in fact not in laudatory ways.  Well, that encounter made me want to cry.  If I weren’t on camera I’d have tearsrnin 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 thatrnstories can touch 'em.  And I helped inrna modest way this fellow to fill in a gap where this man had been who hadrncommitted suicide, before he even knew his father.  His father had killed himself when he was very; I think hernwas like six months old, eight months. rnVery young. 

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Encounters like that remind me of why I began.  It’s easy to forget why you become arnwriter.  Letters I'll get from therngirlfriends of people in Iraq or Afghanistan or the children, which all say thernsame thing basically.  I don’t knowrnmy 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 atrnleast something of what he’s carrying around with him and what he won’t talkrnabout.  And sometimes the book willrnbe shared with the veteran and conversation will ensue.  And that is way beyond anything I hadrnintended in the writing of the book. rnI didn’t intend to bring people together or start them talking, but tornshow you the power of literature, it really touches individual people with realrnlives in the real world and contributes to their lives.  It does something to their lives thatrnthat’s what I dreamed of when I was writing.  I dreamed of touching some 15-year-old kid in Dubuque, orrnsome grieving mother in Harlem. 

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

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

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

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

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Tim O’Brien: Well, the avowed purposes behind our pre-emptivernwar in Iraq was to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, I think I’m prettyrnclear on my memory on that.  Well,rnthere weren’t any.  And it’s a bitrnlike, let’s go to war because we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, except thatrnPearl Harbor hadn’t happened.  AndrnI’m astonished that it seems largely forgotten.  It seem erased from the public discourse about the war.  I don’t hear many people going onrntelevision saying that we went to war on reasons that didn’t exist.  I don’t feel any outrage coming fromrnanybody.  And not only don’t I feelrnit now, I never felt it.  I findrnthat stunning.  And what I do hearrninstead is, well we got rid of a tyrant. rnSaddam Hussein.  The problemrnwith that is, in the first place, that isn’t the reason we went to war.  Powell didn’t go before the UnitedrnNations saying, “Let’s get rid of a tyrant.”  He went before it saying there are weapons of massrndestruction.  And there was norntyranny stuff there except in the most second-hand and trivialized kind ofrnway. 

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

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Those are complicated questions and they’re notrnaddressed.  They’re not even lookedrnat anymore.  And that’s part ofrnwhere my frustration comes, I think, in writing about this subject is that Irnfeel that things have been de-elevated and that the discourse is aimed at arnreally low, low, low place.  Andrndifficult questions are just not answered, they’re not even asked.  And they aren’t asked by, or don’t seemrnto have been asked by the people who are uttering the bellicose rhetoric ofrnwar.  They seem to be elided and evaded.  And then there’s the final issue thatrnkind of attends to your question which is the issue of personal... I don’t know howrnto phrase this... but a personal commitment to one’s own rhetoric, that thernrhetoric of bellicosity that has surrounded, especially the initial phases ofrnour intervention in the Middle East. rnThese people aren’t there. rnThe Cheneys—the public face and the public explainers of ourrnpresence—too often they arernhiding their kids away at Yale or wherever, and they’re not putting theirrnbodies where their rhetoric is. 

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It’s one thing to sit in a TV studio in your cute bow tie andrnsay, “Let’s go kill people.”  Andrnit’s another thing to go and do it. rnAnd if you don’t go, send your daughter, or your son.  They’ve got to go.  And they’ve got just go and walk thernstreets and drive the vehicles and risk maiming and death.  And the hypocrisy of saying, “It’s arngreat 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,rnthat still stirs in me in the same way it did 40 years ago an anger that’s hard to keep my voicernunder control as I’m talking about it now... because it seems so dishonest and sorncowardly, and so evil in the end.

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

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Tim O’Brien: It is. rnAnd part that and part to mimic our collective memories, all of us.  Memory's a strange thing.  If you think about it, how much ofrntoday do I remember?  Well, Irncould—it’s already abstracted, but I’ve already of course utterly obliteratedrnevery syllable that comes out of my mouth.  It’s gone, it’s history.  What about yesterday? rnI can’t remember every dish I washed, every scab I picked, every person Irnencountered, every meal I ate. rnThere’s hundreds and thousands of them.  And I would say that, out of my life, 99%, probably a lotrnmore than that has been erased. rnThat is, it’s obliterated, erased, can’t remember a detail.  And I’m not just talking about childhood.  I’m talking about adulthood, and peoplernI’ve cared deeply about and I remember them in loving ways, and yet have a fewrnsnapshots of memory.  We hold on tornthose and we call them memory.  Andrnthat’s memory?  That little remnant of arnlifetime, that’s what’s left to us? rnAnd we attach this word “memory” to it, which has a sound ofrnencompassing all, but it doesn’t. rnAnd that certainly applies to “The Things They Carried.” I mean, it’s arnbook partly about memory.  Thernauthor of that book is an older guy, and he’s looking back and he’s recyclingrnevents from different angles and sometimes inventing things as a way of seekingrnthat which is gone. 

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I had a good friend named Chip Merricks, whornhad stepped on a landmine and was blown into this tree, and he’s been dead arnlong time.  And yet in the writingrnof “The Things They Carried,” I tried to in some way to resurrect throughrnimagination what his last thoughts may have been as he soared into thatrntree.  “The sunlight is killingrnme.”  I know I’m making it up, butrnI’m trying to sort of cast a light on that which has been darkened by historyrnand the passage of time, to let Chip keep soaring.  As long as that book is read, that guy is going to keeprnsoaring into that hedge, or into that tree.  And as long as the book is read, little Linda, at the end ofrnthe book, is going to keep skating on that ice, little Timmy will be in lovernwith her and skating along.  Andrnthat is what—I’m not saving their bodies, and I’m not even saving the memoriesrnof these people really, but I’m saving something that you hope is essential andrnenduring in the human spirit.  Thernlove of a little boy for a little girl, and a good friend that soared into arntree in a terrible war.  And that’srnsomething, it’s not everything, but it’s something. 

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

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Tim O’Brien: Yeah. rnMostly pissed off.  I meanrnit comes down on that side. rnThere’s a mythology that a company’s memory of an event, and by andrnlarge for my fellow soldiers in Vietnam, the mythologies of betrayal.  We were betrayed by ourrngovernment.  We were betrayed byrnthe liberal press.  It wasn’t ourrndoing, it was their doing. 

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In the same way that after World War I, the Germans werernpreached to by the forces of what became Hitler, you were betrayed at the endrnof World War I and Germany was sold down. rnAnd by at large my buddies feel that way, that we could have won the warrnif more people were killed and more women raped, and more houses burned, wernwould have won it.  I don’t thinkrnthey’re right, but they feel that way. rnI think you could have paved the country with concrete and put up a bigrnfence around it and you’d still have all these people who don’t want yournthere.  "You’re Americans and we’rernVietnamese, and this is our country and you may have the concrete and the bombsrnand the technology, but you’re not going to win us.  You may have won a war, in a way."

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Well, so there are mythologies of memory.  And my dad carried with him out ofrnWorld War II a mythology of America, the Lone Ranger, the doer of good, and therncarrier of the democratic flame, and it had an undercurrent of almost a soundtrack of Frank Sinatra...Gene Kelly soundtrack running beneath it of buoyancyrnand of virtue.  And the soundtrackrnthat ran beneath the movie of Vietnam, you know, and all the people who arerngoing to watch this know is not that “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “SentimentalrnJourney” soundtrack.  It was arnsoundtrack of The Doors, and The Stones, and it was edgy and critical, and muchrnmore ambiguous soundtrack that more or less accurately reflected thernambiguities and the absence of certain moral underpinnings to thatrnenterprise.  Those are two prettyrndifferent edifices of this called mythology about a war.  And mythology is a way of eliminatingrnall that doesn’t fit into it.  Yournsort of eliminate that part of it. rnAnd certainly that has happened, certainly for my generation as well asrnmy dad’s.

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

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

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That may be part of what every writer about war has finallyrnhad to come to terms with in one way or another, that pretty great books havernbeen written, including "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," that haven’t endedrnwars.  They haven’t ended the appetiternfor it and it probably won’t. rnThough you always hope. 

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This little son of mine, who’s now four, his name isrnTad.  A week or two ago I said Irnwas going on a book tour, and he said, “About what?”  And I explained what “The Things They Carried” was, and for thernfirst time he had encountered out of my mouth the word “war” in a personal way.rnThat is, he’s probably heard me say it before.  He said, “War? rnYou 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 getrninto disagreements, and trying to simplify it.  But the astonishment on a four year old’s face that peoplernare killing one another.  And hernsaid, “For what?”  And boy that wasrnhad to articulate an answer to it. rnI didn’t have an answer. rnThe 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 hisrnentire adult life, I really haven’t yet plumbed the 'for whatness' of killingrnpeople.  And I don’t think I everrnwill plumb it.

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

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Tim O’Brien: Well, one of the huge things, of course, isrnthere’s no draft and the people that are fighting are in the armed forces outrnof 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.  Andrnpatriotism feeds in very strongly as well.  That’s a pretty big difference from the people who went tornfight; I mean there were many volunteers, of course, that went to Vietnam.  But the bulk of us were draftees whornprobably more or less went reluctantly. rnAnd in my case, a lot more than less.  And so the two wars are being fought by American soldiers onrneach side of pretty different temperaments. 

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I, for example, did an article for a big magazine, where I wasrnsent to Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where the terrible amputeesrnare sent and the burn victims.  AndrnI felt great compassion for these young men and one young woman.  But out of their mouths, there was nonernof the irony that accompanied the war from my generation.  There’s no questioning of the rectitudernof the war whatsoever.  It wasrnjust—it wasn’t even thought about as far as I could tell.  In fact, in response to my question, dornyou ever wonder about there were no weapons of mass destruction?  Did that bother you?  And the answer was uniformly fromrnmany, many mouths, a flat, “No.  Itrndoesn’t bother me. I don’t evenrnthink about it.”  But even thern“don’t think about it” wasn’t there. rnIt was just, “No, it doesn’t bother me.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 Irntell these kids and their sources. rnPartly in the world now and partly in the world long ago.

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Question: What things do you carry?

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Tim O’Brien: What do I carry?  I carry a lot of years that I feel, that are—and that’s notrnall bad, it’s partly bad.  Irncarry—what I think will probably come through in this talk we’ve had today isrnprobably a delight in doing what I do, and a belief in doing what I do, alongrnwith a sadness about doing what I do. rnAnd because two decades later, I’m fielding questions about war that Irnfielded all those years ago.  Irnsay, oh my God, you know, it’s sort of back where we were and then some—that,rnthat feels like a tangible burden. rnBut I carry with me these two kids that I mentioned, and even thoughrnthey are not physically here, they’re all around me and the person I’vernbecome.  And they’re living insidernme.  And I carry a slight, butrnpalpable, feel of obligation to do justice to the savagery I witnessed and thernsenselessness of it and the sadness of it.  And that sense of obligation is with me, especially onrnoccasions like this one where we’re trying to talk lucidly about thisrnstuff.  To do justice to Chip, myrnbuddy, and for the ghosts of the dead Vietnamese and dead Americans andrnespecially their mothers and dads who are still bearing the burden—even thoughrntheir kids are long dead, I doubt they go to sleep many nights without somernpoor woman in Orlando remembering her son of 40 years ago that she never got tornever hold again.  And that’s arnpretty solemn obligation.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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