War Stories Are Also Love Stories

Question: Do readers frequently \r\nmisunderstand your work?


Tim O’Brien: There are those, and it’s not a\r\n function of\r\nage, and it probably isn’t even a function entirely of education or \r\npolitical\r\nleanings.  But there’s a temper in\r\nprobably America for sure, I know in America and maybe worldwide for the\r\nliteral.  A literal take on\r\neverything that reality TV has taken advantage of and incorporated as \r\npart of\r\nitself.  And the literal take on\r\nthings is a take without irony and without edge and without... it’s \r\nusually a\r\nfairly—there’s a certitude to it. \r\nWhy don’t you write a book that has nothing to do with war?  As if that’s a certain possibility, you\r\nshould certainly try to do it as a way of recovering from the war.  And you want to say a number of\r\nthings.  That this is just not a\r\nbook about war, you idiot.  It’s a\r\nbook about love and a book about storytelling.  But\r\n you also feel overwhelmed by the knowledge that you’re\r\nnot going to get through, that the literal-minded are going to remain\r\nliteral-minded.  And maybe someone\r\nelse can help them, but someone else is not this guy.  So,\r\n there’s a wave of anger, or\r\nbitterness.  It has to do with\r\nVietnam, and it has to do with a kind of mindset of the literal all \r\naround me\r\nthat doesn’t fit my take on the world and my experience in the world \r\nwhere it’s\r\nhard for me to take anything very literally. 


The words “I love you.”  As \r\nsoon as they’re uttered, I’m suspect.  How much?  And when will you stop?  And \r\nwill you? \r\nIn what way do you love me? \r\nAnd what is love to you, by the way?  Is it\r\n forever or is it until the next person who passes\r\nyou?  All this stuff\r\ncomplicates.  Whereas someone else\r\nwill say, well, love is love.  If you\r\ndon’t know what it is, then really, poor guy.  And\r\n that’s their take.


Question: Is fiction’s job to find the \r\ntruth behind that kind\r\nof cliché?


Tim O’Brien: It partly is that.  I probably skew it, parody it, make fun of it, \r\nridicule it\r\nand put it in its place.  Partly\r\nI’m sympathetic to the literal. \r\nThat is, I’m sympathetic with some mom who is holding a dead kid \r\nin\r\ntheir arms, and how else is she going to take it?  But\r\n "Here’s my dead child."  And so there’s a part of\r\n me that understands it and is\r\nsympathetic to it.  And probably\r\nthe better part of me is that way, or I have at least some capacity—I \r\nthink as\r\nnovelists kind of have to have to imagine otherness.  Outside\r\n oneself. \r\nAnd as a consequence, my books are filled with characters who \r\nbear no\r\nresemblance to me and who can be villainous in ways that I’m not \r\nvillainous and\r\nbe good in ways I’m not good that I think the capacity for empathy, or\r\nunderstanding goes with a successful book because you have to create \r\nother\r\ncharacters and other angles of vision on material for a book to ring \r\nwith some\r\nkind of authenticity. 


Among my fellow soldiers in Vietnam, I mean there \r\nwas and\r\nremains to this day a kind of absence of that kind of empathy.  A dead child is a dead gook, and a dead\r\nVietnamese woman, or one of their legs blown off is a gook with her legs\r\n blown\r\noff.  And it pretty much remains\r\nthat way to this day, 40 years later: these same buddies I served with \r\nin\r\nVietnam don’t have much empathy for the so-called enemy. \r\n And I doubt they would be capable\r\nof—because that's there—writing “The Things They Carried.” \r\n They’d write another book, but it would be a much different\r\nbook.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

Part of a writer's job is to puncture our clichés about subjects like love and war with irony, edge, and ridicule.

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