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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,[…]

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.”

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

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Tim O’Brien: I don’t think pride is the rnright word.  I look at the book now, 20 years rnafterrnhaving written it, with a sense of dissociation.  Irn 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.  Arn 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 rnperson 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 surprisesrn me atrntimes.  A phrase will surprise mernor an event will surprise me, and it will come at me as a bit as a rnstranger’s,rnthe voice does.  And in a way, I amrna stranger to the person who wrote that book.  I’mrn 20 years older; I’ve got 20 years of new experiences;rnchildren, and things I never had before that make that old voice seem rnold.

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

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Tim O’Brien: No, in a way, life is eerily rnand uncannilyrnechoed in that final chapter in the book where the Timmy, that little rnkid 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 rnMinnesota andrnfound himself entangled in Vietnam. But not just in Vietnam, in hard rnmoralrnchoices that it never would have occurred to me that I would have ever rnfaced inrnmy life.  And the little naive,rnLone Range-playing Timmy that became that soldier in Vietnam was a kind rnofrnstranger to the guy who wrote that book, the middle-aged me, just as nowrn thernauthor of the book seems a bit of a stranger.  By rn“bit of,” I’m not talking mysticism.  I’m simply rnsaying 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 rnwouldrnhave been impossible.  Didn’t wantrnkids, I didn’t think it would be very much fun.  Didn’trn think it would challenge me.  I thought I would rnbe kind of bored byrnit and now that is more my life than writing.

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Question: Why does the book seem to rnresist 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’srn 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 meetrn andrnwhat it will be like, and I’ve never done a video interview before, and rnwhatrnwill the physicality of the place be and all of these, and partly the rnrealrnworld.  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 rnor 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 rnin yourrnface, and partly there’s the wistful call of girlfriends and home and rnall thernthings you don’t have but yearn for. rnOr your living partly in your imagination and not in a war and rnyou’llrnflow in and out of these two the way you would maybe in a cancer ward, rnor ifrnyour marriage is collapsing, or your father has died, or you partly havern thernstark reality of that corpse in that coffin, and you’re partly rnremembering yourrndad’s face as he threw you a baseball, or even more poignantly in my rncase, thernwish that he were throwing you a baseball, the invented throwing of whatrn wasn’t.rn 

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So, I guess what I’m saying is that, like rneverything, 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 rnprettyrnnatural to me.  I live in at leastrnthose two worlds of imagination and the world we all live in.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen