Question: Do readers frequently misunderstand your work?
Tim O’Brien: There are those, and it’s not a function of age, and it probably isn’t even a function entirely of education or political leanings. But there’s a temper in probably America for sure, I know in America and maybe worldwide for the literal. A literal take on everything that reality TV has taken advantage of and incorporated as part of itself. And the literal take on things is a take without irony and without edge and without... it’s usually a fairly—there’s a certitude to it. Why don’t you write a book that has nothing to do with war? As if that’s a certain possibility, you should certainly try to do it as a way of recovering from the war. And you want to say a number of things. That this is just not a book about war, you idiot. It’s a book about love and a book about storytelling. But you also feel overwhelmed by the knowledge that you’re not going to get through, that the literal-minded are going to remain literal-minded. And maybe someone else can help them, but someone else is not this guy. So, there’s a wave of anger, or bitterness. It has to do with Vietnam, and it has to do with a kind of mindset of the literal all around me that doesn’t fit my take on the world and my experience in the world where it’s hard for me to take anything very literally.
The words “I love you.” As soon as they’re uttered, I’m suspect. How much? And when will you stop? And will you? In what way do you love me? And what is love to you, by the way? Is it forever or is it until the next person who passes you? All this stuff complicates. Whereas someone else will say, well, love is love. If you don’t know what it is, then really, poor guy. And that’s their take.
Question: Is fiction’s job to find the truth behind that kind of cliché?
Tim O’Brien: It partly is that. I probably skew it, parody it, make fun of it, ridicule it and put it in its place. Partly I’m sympathetic to the literal. That is, I’m sympathetic with some mom who is holding a dead kid in their 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 sympathetic to it. And probably the better part of me is that way, or I have at least some capacity—I think as novelists kind of have to have to imagine otherness. Outside oneself. And as a consequence, my books are filled with characters who bear no resemblance to me and who can be villainous in ways that I’m not villainous and be good in ways I’m not good that I think the capacity for empathy, or understanding goes with a successful book because you have to create other characters and other angles of vision on material for a book to ring with some kind of authenticity.
Among my fellow soldiers in Vietnam, I mean there was and remains to this day a kind of absence of that kind of empathy. A dead child is a dead gook, and a dead Vietnamese woman, or one of their legs blown off is a gook with her legs blown off. And it pretty much remains that way to this day, 40 years later: these same buddies I served with in Vietnam don’t have much empathy for the so-called enemy. And I doubt they would be capable of—because that's there—writing “The Things They Carried.” They’d write another book, but it would be a much different book.
Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen