“The Things They Carried,” 20 Years Later

Question: Do you look back on "The Things\r\n They Carried" with\r\nself-criticism or pride?

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Tim O’Brien: I don’t think pride is the \r\nright word.  I look at the book now, 20 years \r\nafter\r\nhaving written it, with a sense of dissociation.  I\r\n 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\r\n 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 \r\nperson 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\r\n 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 \r\nstranger’s,\r\nthe voice does.  And in a way, I am\r\na stranger to the person who wrote that book.  I’m\r\n 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 \r\nold.

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Question: How does that dissociation \r\nrelate to the book’s\r\nthemes of continuous or discontinuous identity?

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Tim O’Brien: No, in a way, life is eerily \r\nand uncannily\r\nechoed in that final chapter in the book where the Timmy, that little \r\nkid 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 \r\nMinnesota and\r\nfound himself entangled in Vietnam. But not just in Vietnam, in hard \r\nmoral\r\nchoices that it never would have occurred to me that I would have ever \r\nfaced in\r\nmy life.  And the little naive,\r\nLone Range-playing Timmy that became that soldier in Vietnam was a kind \r\nof\r\nstranger to the guy who wrote that book, the middle-aged me, just as now\r\n the\r\nauthor of the book seems a bit of a stranger.  By \r\n“bit of,” I’m not talking mysticism.  I’m simply \r\nsaying 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 \r\nwould\r\nhave been impossible.  Didn’t want\r\nkids, I didn’t think it would be very much fun.  Didn’t\r\n think it would challenge me.  I thought I would \r\nbe kind of bored by\r\nit and now that is more my life than writing.

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Question: Why does the book seem to \r\nresist categorization as\r\nnovel, story collection, or memoir?

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Tim O’Brien: It’s nothing intelligent\r\nbehind it, and it wasn’t a rationally planned operation, but rather it’s\r\n 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\r\n and\r\nwhat it will be like, and I’ve never done a video interview before, and \r\nwhat\r\nwill the physicality of the place be and all of these, and partly the \r\nreal\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 \r\nor 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 \r\nin your\r\nface, and partly there’s the wistful call of girlfriends and home and \r\nall the\r\nthings you don’t have but yearn for. \r\nOr your living partly in your imagination and not in a war and \r\nyou’ll\r\nflow in and out of these two the way you would maybe in a cancer ward, \r\nor if\r\nyour marriage is collapsing, or your father has died, or you partly have\r\n the\r\nstark reality of that corpse in that coffin, and you’re partly \r\nremembering your\r\ndad’s face as he threw you a baseball, or even more poignantly in my \r\ncase, the\r\nwish that he were throwing you a baseball, the invented throwing of what\r\n wasn’t.\r\n 

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So, I guess what I’m saying is that, like \r\neverything, 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 \r\npretty\r\nnatural to me.  I live in at least\r\nthose two worlds of imagination and the world we all live in.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Two decades after his masterpiece, the author reflects on war, fatherhood, and the passage of time that’s made him feel like "a stranger to the person who wrote that book."

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