Skip to content
Who's in the Video

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,[…]

How to convey the horror of war to someone who’s never witnessed it? It’s language, not the pain of remembering, that makes the task so hard.

Question: How do you resolve the tension rnbetween thernimpossibility of conveying war’s horrors and the need to try?

rnrn

Tim O’Brien: Well, through story, rnessentially.  The hope is that, when you do what Irndo, and you write novels, you are hoping for a sense of feeling to come rnthroughrnin the end.  That throughrnnon-fiction, the brain is engaged and the head is engaged primarily.  Not always just that, butrnprimarily.  And with fiction,rntelling invented stories, the hope is that through the story, the readerrn lyingrnin bed at night, or reading the book on the subway, or the bus, will rnsort ofrnleave the bus or leave the bed and be transported to Madame Bovary’srnbedroom.  And you’re kind of there,rnhalf a witness and half a participant in a story.  Andrn my hope is that those who read "The Things TheyrnCarried," to my other books too. rnYou hope that they’re feel a certain identification thing that rnhappensrnin a story, where you’re rooting for people, you know, or hoping the rnvillain isrncaught, or your emotional take on—you’re in it, not just observing it rnthe wayrnyou observe CNN, or observe the Fox Channel with disgust.

rnrn

Question: How do you resolve that same rntension in your ownrnlife?

rnrn

Tim O’Brien: I don’t think I’ve ever tried rntornresolve it.  It’s just one of thosernthings that just kind of resolves itself. rnWhen I speak about Vietnam, or when I write about it, I’m not—my rnownrnselfhood kind of evaporates.  I’mrninterested in what’s occurring on the page and I’m interested in what’s rngoingrnto become to these characters and I’m interested in the moral struggles rnthey’rerngoing through.  And I don’t—Myrnattention is on the making of an object, in a way.  Inrn an artifact, the way a sculpture may look at a piece ofrnstone.  And you may have a visionrnfor what you want that stone to become, but part of what you do is just,rn thernstone kind of leaves you to what it’s going to become.  Arn vein of minerals may run through it,rnand ah, that’s there, that could become this.  Andrn that’s a bit like writing fiction.  A bit of rndialogue may pop out of arncharacter’s mouth that’s unplanned, and unintentional on my part.  I have no volition over it, it seems tornappear.  I know that it’s comingrnfrom somewhere inside my head and my history and my imagination, but it rndoesn’trnfeel as if I’m willing it and making it happen by volition; it’srnappearing. 

rnrn

Stories have a way of pulling you along, kind of rnchasing thernstory as you are writing it, and it doesn’t feel as if I’m playing that rnoldrnchildhood game of connecting dots, that they’ve all been planned and I’mrn justrngoing to write sentences to connect it all.  It rnfeels more as if I’m on a riverboat and watching peoplernand scenery go by, and the novel, or story, as that feel of a voyage in rnwhichrnI’m partly a participant and partly a witness.

rnrn

Question: Do you feel fresh anguish when rnwriting aboutrnanguishing experiences?

rnrn

Tim O’Brien: I wish I could say yes, becausern it would soundrnso much "Big Think-y," but the act of writing for me is largely the act rnofrnfollowing sentences and making sentences. rnAnd for most people that probably is the time to click off and rnlook atrnsomething else, but unfortunately for me, stories grow out of a rnsentence.  For example, the sentence, "This isrntrue," began one of my stories.  Irnwrote the sentence and had no idea what was true, true in what sense I had no idea.  Then I wrote rnanother sentence to followrnthat: "A buddy in Vietnam named Bob Kiley."  Well,rn I’m partly discovering and I’m partly just curiousrnabout or fascinated about issues of what could be true and what is therncharacter going to say is true, and does this character really mean it?  Does he really mean it’s true?  Andrn to what degree does this characterrnthink it’s true?  And how canrnanybody say "this is true" without a little tongue-in-cheek action goingrnon?  So, it’s a discovery, and whatrnI think is one of my better stories grew wholly out of the unplanned, rnout of arnscrap of language.  It’s forgottenrnby readers, I think, or largely forgotten, that there are 26 letters in rnthernalphabet and some punctuation marks and that’s all we’ve got.  And that is what I work with sitting inrnmy underwear, day after day, year after year.  I rnuse 26 letters and these punctuation marks.  And rnout of that, characters come andrnmoral quandaries are explored.  Butrnin the end, the work of writing unfortunately is really the battling rnwith A, B,rnC, D, and that comma which is so incalcitrant.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen