“The Things They Carried,” 20 Years Later

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.”
  • Transcript


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.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen