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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,[…]

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

Question: Do readers frequently rnmisunderstand your work?

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Tim O’Brien: There are those, and it’s not arn function ofrnage, and it probably isn’t even a function entirely of education or rnpoliticalrnleanings.  But there’s a temper inrnprobably America for sure, I know in America and maybe worldwide for thernliteral.  A literal take onrneverything that reality TV has taken advantage of and incorporated as rnpart ofrnitself.  And the literal take onrnthings is a take without irony and without edge and without... it’s rnusually arnfairly—there’s a certitude to it. rnWhy don’t you write a book that has nothing to do with war?  As if that’s a certain possibility, yournshould certainly try to do it as a way of recovering from the war.  And you want to say a number ofrnthings.  That this is just not arnbook about war, you idiot.  It’s arnbook about love and a book about storytelling.  Butrn you also feel overwhelmed by the knowledge that you’rernnot going to get through, that the literal-minded are going to remainrnliteral-minded.  And maybe someonernelse can help them, but someone else is not this guy.  So,rn there’s a wave of anger, orrnbitterness.  It has to do withrnVietnam, and it has to do with a kind of mindset of the literal all rnaround mernthat doesn’t fit my take on the world and my experience in the world rnwhere it’srnhard for me to take anything very literally. 

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The words “I love you.”  As rnsoon as they’re uttered, I’m suspect.  How much?  And when will you stop?  And rnwill you? rnIn what way do you love me? rnAnd what is love to you, by the way?  Is itrn forever or is it until the next person who passesrnyou?  All this stuffrncomplicates.  Whereas someone elsernwill say, well, love is love.  If yourndon’t know what it is, then really, poor guy.  Andrn that’s their take.

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Question: Is fiction’s job to find the rntruth behind that kindrnof cliché?

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Tim O’Brien: It partly is that.  I probably skew it, parody it, make fun of it, rnridicule itrnand put it in its place.  PartlyrnI’m sympathetic to the literal. rnThat is, I’m sympathetic with some mom who is holding a dead kid rninrntheir arms, and how else is she going to take it?  Butrn "Here’s my dead child."  And so there’s a part ofrn me that understands it and isrnsympathetic to it.  And probablyrnthe better part of me is that way, or I have at least some capacity—I rnthink asrnnovelists kind of have to have to imagine otherness.  Outsidern oneself. rnAnd as a consequence, my books are filled with characters who rnbear nornresemblance to me and who can be villainous in ways that I’m not rnvillainous andrnbe good in ways I’m not good that I think the capacity for empathy, orrnunderstanding goes with a successful book because you have to create rnotherrncharacters and other angles of vision on material for a book to ring rnwith somernkind of authenticity. 

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Among my fellow soldiers in Vietnam, I mean there rnwas andrnremains to this day a kind of absence of that kind of empathy.  A dead child is a dead gook, and a deadrnVietnamese woman, or one of their legs blown off is a gook with her legsrn blownrnoff.  And it pretty much remainsrnthat way to this day, 40 years later: these same buddies I served with rninrnVietnam don’t have much empathy for the so-called enemy. rn And I doubt they would be capablernof—because that's there—writing “The Things They Carried.” rn They’d write another book, but it would be a much differentrnbook.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen