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Interview: The Big Read author Tim O’Brien on ‘The Things They Carried’ and finding truth in fiction

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Author Tim O'Brien will be in Wilmington next week as part of this year's Big Read of Greater Wilmington. Photo courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Author Tim O’Brien will be in Wilmington this week as part of this year’s Big Read of Greater Wilmington. Photo courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

An absolutist, Tim O’Brien is not.

The author has spent as many decades exploring the ever-elusive existential dilemma of truth–as it applies to history, memory, perception, storytelling and humanity, itself–as he has exploring the moral and emotional complexities of the Vietnam War.

O’Brien, who was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968 and served in Vietnam between 1969 and 1970, has written several novels tied to the conflict–”Going After Cacciato,” “The Things They Carried” and “In the Lake of the Woods.”

Most notably in “The Things They Carried”–a memoir that isn’t really a memoir, after all–he challenges readers to push the boundaries of belief, to blur the lines between reality and fiction and to ultimately decide whether it really even matters if something is true or fabricated.

That book has been this year’s selection for The Big Read of Greater Wilmington. The annual event is part of a national program designed to revitalize the role of literature in American culture and to encourage reading for pleasure and enlightenment. It is spearheaded locally by The Cape Fear Museum, which has partnered with a host of area arts organizations, schools and businesses.

Focusing on one novel, area organizations sponsor a host of exhibits, activities and discussions centered around the book’s central plot and themes.

As the culminating event of The Big Read, O’Brien will give a keynote lecture at UNC-Wilmington’s Kenan Auditorium at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15. A welcome reception for the writer is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14, at the Northeast Branch of the New Hanover County Library.

Admission to the lecture is free but tickets are required. More information can be found here.

In a phone interview with Port City Daily last week, O’Brien talked about the Vietnam War, the process of writing and the legacy of “The Things They Carried.”

The following is part one of a two-part interview with O’Brien.

The Vietnam War–and, I guess, really any war–is often very difficult to talk about. What compelled you to write about this subject?

Well, I had been a soldier there. I was drafted right out of college and found myself in the Army and then, in Vietnam. And I served as a foot soldier, an infantryman, for, you know, the standard tour over there. And I never forgot it. It stayed with me. I guess that’s true of almost anybody who’s been in a war.

What struck me reading this book for the first time was your unique voice–you’re sometimes a character, sometimes a narrator, sometimes the writer yourself. What I love about that is the same thing I love about a writer like Vonnegut–this idea that the writer and reader are engaged in a conversation–you know, a dialogue–that there is, I guess, an accessibility there. The book always seemed to be as much about writing, to me, as the Vietnam War. Is that the case? And if so, what prompted you to write it that way?

Well, it’s certainly the case. I wanted to write a book that was, on the surface, you know, about Vietnam but underneath the surface, I wanted to write about storytelling itself–’Why do we make things up? Why don’t we just report what happens in the world?’

There must be a reason, you know, with all the novels and short stories and plays and fairy tales. And that interested me as a writer. But it also has to do with Vietnam itself. The war was just full of stories happening to me as a soldier and to all the men around me and to the country itself and to the Vietnamese. And the war will be remembered through stories. Histories only go so far, and novels–fiction in general–are a way of trying to breathe some life and faces into the abstractions of dates and, you know, historical events.

Another question I had you just touched on a little bit–the idea you explore in the book of real truth versus seeming truth, I guess–you know, what happened versus the perception of what happened–and really the idea of truth versus fiction. Can you talk about that a little–how fiction can be used to get at the truth the same way, if not better than, sometimes the facts themselves?

Yeah, I mean, history or biography will give you a sense, I suppose, of one kind of truth–a literal truth, or what I call ‘happening’ truth. But even that is suspect.

Any history book, textbook or look at history is selective. It doesn’t present every thought of every soldier who fought in the war. It doesn’t present even a puny, infinitesimal fraction of all the firefights and ambushes and wailing mothers and silent fathers and decapitations…It’s selective. It presents a seeming truth. It seems to be a, you know, recitation of what happened, but it’s only a portion of the truth. Well, is that the truth? A portion of it? That’s suspect to me.

So, that’s part of my response to this whole issue of truth…The line between fiction and non-fiction is not as absolute as we think in our common-sensical world. And you find yourself in a war, or with breast cancer in a hospital–what you took as true about the world goes upside down. It gets very cloudy and very ambiguous, you know–’Do I value what I thought I valued before the breast cancer hit? Do I believe the things I used to believe?’

Truth itself becomes very murky and hard to pin down. That is, for me, the abiding memory of Vietnam–that sense of ambiguity. It’s like a big swirl, you know…That sense of all those ambiguities…is a big part of what a war is. You get scrambled and you lose your gyroscope and there’s a sense of murkiness, even about yourself…And that’s why I tried to write the book the way I did.

Rereading the book recently, something that struck me this time is the theme of listening. Do you find that it is often as difficult for people to really hear about war as it can be to tell it?

I think all writers about war have encountered this incredible obstacle of ‘people don’t want to hear.’ For all kinds of reasons. Some people just don’t like the blood and gore and don’t want to wallow in it. Some people feel no identification with it. If you’re a librarian in Dubuque, Iowa, and nobody you knew had been in a war it doesn’t mean a lot to you.

There’s also a hardening of views about war that makes people not listen, you know–’The war in Afghanistan is right and we are fighting against Al Qaeda and that’s the end of it.’ There is a hardened feeling that you encounter about war to say, ‘Hey, it’s not that simple. It’s not that easy.’ And people don’t like challenging their own conceptions…of what a war is. They don’t want to feel challenged by things.

And so there are all kinds of obstacles to trying to write as honestly and bluntly as you can about war that it makes you feel sometimes that it’s all kind of futile (laughing). It doesn’t mean you stop, but there is that sense of battering your head against an ancient wall.

There is a chapter in the book when the character Norman [Bowker] is driving around the lake over and over, and he just keeps imagining, ‘If someone asks, if someone wanted to know, this is what I would say.’ And you just get this idea that this is someone desperately wanting to talk about the war, and it’s just something no one around him does or can even relate to.

Absolutely. That is so common. I think if you talk to 10,000 veterans, 9,999 would say, ‘That’s my experience.’ People want to pat you on the back and they want to say, you know, ‘Thank you for your service,’ but they don’t want to hear much. They don’t want to hear about, you know, somebody’s head lying on the ground, especially if it’s a four-year-old baby. They don’t want to hear that. And they don’t want to hear that, ah, you did it–by accident or intentionally. They don’t want to hear that, either, because they want that heroic narrative of war. They want to hold onto it.

It’s a standard American, you know, narrative–’We’re the good guys and they’re the bad and we’re always right and they’re always wrong.’ And, if it were only that simple. It’s not. Good stories are just the opposite of simplicity. Stories attack the margins of things, those ambiguities I was talking about.

Did you always want to be a writer? Or did Vietnam influence you in that direction?

I always wanted to be a writer…And, you know, I wrote things all through junior high and high school and college years but there was nothing…I didn’t know much about the world. And that doesn’t just mean facts.

But I was feeling my way into the world of looking for a story worth, for me, worth the telling. And Vietnam collided with that passion and desire to be a writer, where I felt I had material to write about that wasn’t the war stuff, so much. The bombs and the bullets didn’t interest me much, but the moral issues really interested me. What do you fight for? Does patriotism mean we automatically say, ‘Yeah, let’s go kill no matter whether the cause is right or wrong?’ I hope not, but there are a lot of people who believe that…And that’s a moral issue I have big problems with, and partly because of Vietnam. And it’s worth the time and the agony of sitting down every day trying to tell a story that somehow includes that within the story, whatever the moral issue might be.

You just recently won the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award. I think you are the first fiction writer to have won it. How did you feel about winning that award, kind of going back to this idea of the truth versus fiction?

O'Brien as a young man serving in the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.

O’Brien as a young man serving in the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.

Well, I feel good about it. I feel that ‘Going After Cacciato’ and ‘The Things They Carried’ and ‘In the Lake of the Woods,’ those three books, all of which deal in one way or another with Vietnam, are as necessary to understanding the war–and even the word ‘understanding’ is not the right word, but having a feel for the war–as the work of the historians who had won the prize earlier. The object, in a way, of a novel is to, in the end, to make you feel something that you hadn’t felt before. And that abstraction only gets you so far.

But when you’re reading a story, there’s a sense of participation, that you’re actually in the event…And it doesn’t have to be a novel about war. It could be a love story or a father-son story. If it’s well written and the characters are absorbing and there is a certain moral struggle going on, you’re in it, rooting for people and kind of talking to yourself–’What would I do? Why didn’t that character do this?’ That helps you in the end to feel something. A novel will bring a tear to your eye and you feel something. Or it’ll make you chuckle and you feel something.

That’s not going to happen in history. That’s not to say that history doesn’t have it’s very important place, because it surely does. But it’s not our only avenue toward approximating the events. You might not have the truth of them but it widens our understanding.

Sure, because history can leave out the human aspect.

And it does. I mean, we don’t get the dreams of Ho Chi Minh late at night when we read history because they’re unknowable. History is limited by what can be known. And history is also limited by what is held secret. Witness the Pentagon papers until they came out. And witness [Edward] Snowden right now. You can only write about what you know, historically. And a whole bunch of stuff, including the lives of all those three million dead Vietnamese are largely unknowable.

In ‘The Things They Carried,’ there’s a little chapter where my character…throws a grenade and kills [a Vietnamese soldier]. And yeah, it’s made up; it’s invented…But it gives a little story for that one dead person. And you hope the reader will do the multiplication–that there are a lot of those stories out there, not just about the dead enemy soldiers but our own soldiers, as well–all that’s not known. And most of it is personal stuff.

What do you think it is about ‘The Things They Carried’ that has contributed to its continued appeal over the years? You know, it’s more than two decades after it was published–and four decades after the Vietnam War–and here it is now, a featured book for the Big Read this year.

Well, I think it’s probably the same thing that appeals to me when I read ‘War and Peace’ or ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’ I wasn’t in those wars…And yet, there’s something about a story that makes me feel as if I’m present.

When Henry Fleming in ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ runs from battle, I can identify with him. Even before I went to war I read that book, and I didn’t know what fear would be–how I’d want to get the hell out of there. And I didn’t know the feelings I’d feel afterward of embarrassment–’Am I a man? Have I let down my friends?’ And all those feelings that would come crushing down, as they do on that character.

Stories have a way of putting us places we haven’t been and situations we haven’t encountered, not exactly yet…There’s something about a story that makes it present for us and vivid and morally engaging. It gets our bodies–just our biology–moving. Our blood pressure goes up and the nape of the neck responds to a story. Those are personal responses to what would otherwise be abstract. And I think that’s probably why ‘The Things They Carried’ has lasted this long.

Have you been traveling other places for the Big Read?

Oh my God, lots. I mean, I’ve got to cut back (laughing). It’s getting hard to write. I’d say 50 places in the last five years or four years, maybe more; I mean, that’s conservative. It’s been a lot of towns and cities.

It’s a great program, especially for sort of smaller-size towns. By that I mean 200,000 as opposed to seven million people. They get writers in L.A. and New York coming through all the time, but places like Wilmington, or Homer, Alaska, where I went, or Santa Barbara, where I was not too long ago, or northern Michigan–I mean, they don’t get writers everyday.

And this program gets the whole community to read one book, talk about it, debate, you know, and argue and have book clubs talking about it and high schools and colleges reading it.

That’s pretty amazing. It takes people away from their damned computers. You know, they’re all reading the same book. And it’s amazing to go to these places and hear a dialogue about a book…It makes you feel like there is some hope in the world.

And I think the way it’s constructed, it builds so much excitement to this visit. I know with your book, one of the things that the university and the community college here did was an exhibit with veterans around Veterans Day. At UNCW, it was a photo exhibit called ‘The Things WE Carried’ and it was sort of a tribute, I guess, to that first chapter in the book–that idea that what you carry says something about who you are. 

What we carry says a lot about the people we are…It’s telling, the things that we carry. And on top of that, it’s one of those overlooked things about combat that really, as far as I know, hasn’t been written about much…which is just that incredible weight that soldiers bear in wars, and what it does to your psychology and your judgment. You get tired enough and you’re lugging around a hundred pounds and it’s, you know, 90 degrees out and you’re exhausted and you’ve been walking all day with your stuff–you get careless and make killing mistakes, I mean, mistakes that kill people and sometimes yourself.

And there’s a moral fatigue that accompanies it that you’re carrying. It’s intangible but it’s there–body after body, grisly scene after grisly scene–and it feels like you’re bearing the whole of Vietnam or the whole of Afghanistan or whatever the war might be. You’re bearing it, and it’s an intangible weight that you basically carry for the rest of your life. You don’t set it down. You don’t recover from it all.

You shouldn’t expect that of people who do these sorts of things. It’s there forever. Just as it would be there forever if you had cancer and made it through it. You don’t forget it. And somehow people think we should just forget it. ‘Oh, move on with your life’ is that kind of standard advice that, boy, is asking the impossible.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@hometownwilmington.com

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Posted by on January 13, 2014. Filed under Brunswick County,Education,Local News,New Hanover County,Wilmington. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

One Response to Interview: The Big Read author Tim O’Brien on ‘The Things They Carried’ and finding truth in fiction

  1. Andrea Duarte Reply

    March 13, 2014 at 10:26 am

    Tim O’Brien is such a great writer! Would anyone know when he will appear back home in Worthington,Minnesota or will he be near Minnesota anytime soon? I’m a student and would love to meet him as well as my classmates!

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