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Author Tim O’Brien makes his way to Wilmington tonight for the culmination of The Big Read of Greater Wilmington.
O’Brien’s novel, “The Things They Carried,” is this year’s pick for the annual event, which is part of a national program that aims to highlight the importance of literature and encourage reading for pleasure and enlightenment.
Led locally by The Cape Fear Museum, area organizations have sponsored a host of exhibits, activities and discussions centered around the book’s central plot and themes.
A welcome reception for O’Brien is slated for 6 to 8 p.m. tonight at the Northeast Branch of the New Hanover County Library. O’Brien will deliver a keynote message at 7 p.m. Wednesday at UNC-Wilmington’s Kenan Auditorium.
Ahead of his visit, Port City Daily spoke with O’Brien by phone about “The Things They Carried” last week.
The following is the second part of that interview.
It sounds like even with things you would take as truth, that there is some kind of evolutionary idea behind it. I mean, truth is constantly evolving based on where you are in your life.
Of course. In all our lives. You bet it is. It’s a fluid and a mutating and evolving thing. I mean, do you still believe in Santa Claus? You believed it once. Or do you still love the person you loved when you were a senior in high school? It was true then; you were in love…But that changes. What was true one day could be untrue the next. And, boy, in a war do you find that out.
With actors, sometimes people confuse the actors themselves with the characters they are portraying. Do you experience the same thing sometimes with readers? If so, does that help or hurt, clarify or confuse, your intentions as a writer?
Well, I mean, I don’t know. It’s such a hard thing. I see both sides of it. On the one hand, I can understand being frustrated thinking, ‘Is this really O’Brien reporting on his own life?’ Because I am the narrator, I’m a character in the book, or at least my stand-in is; my name is in there.
On the other hand, in the front of the book it does say, ‘A work of fiction.’ It’s pretty blunt. I don’t know how you could get more blunt. That’s why instead of calling it a novel, I wanted to call it ‘A work of fiction’ so I’d be really up front about it.
In the end, I think it doesn’t matter. In the end, I’m going to die and 10,000 years will go by and somebody’s going to pick that book up off the shelf, you hope, and read it. And the literal truth of things–it’s import begins to evaporate as time goes by and we’re left finally with just the story. That’s what Homer left us with in “The Iliad”…You read it as a story. And that kind of combines with what I said earlier about this fixed idea we have of absolute truth–that it is fluid and it does evolve over time and in the end, even reality itself becomes secondary, less important than the story itself.
Vietnam will end up a footnote 20,000 years from now, if that, in a history book. It will be a little blip and all the 3 million dead Vietnamese and all the pain that families have suffered, both in Vietnam and here, it’s all going to go into this great mist the same way the Battle of Hastings…went into the mist. And they’re going to be left with a handful of stories that are going to have to somehow represent all that in conjunction with the reader’s own imagination.
I read an interview where you said you interned at The Washington Post and you weren’t necessarily interested in being a journalist but that did help hone your style.
It did. It was the single most important thing for just learning the craft of writing–clarity and lucidity and then storytelling itself…active verbs, and all that. I mean, you’re a journalist, so you know what I mean. A million things like that, that you learn, not in the abstract college setting but you learn them where you’ve got to have your name in the paper the next day and you want the story to be as well-written as you can make it…It’s not a little abstract ‘A’ or ‘B’ or ‘C’ on a paper. It’s people saying, ‘Man, was that awful.’
I thought I could write before I went to the Post, and I could in that kind of academic way…But I didn’t know what storytelling was, really. You know, I’d read a kabillion stories but until you’re actually sitting at a typewriter and a clock deadline is actually coming on you, and you’ve got to write clear, lucid sentences…
Yeah, I had a similar experience not having a journalism background and coming out of college thinking I knew how to write, and what I knew how to write was essays and short stories but, you know, not good short stories…really terrible short stories and terrible poetry.
That’s a lot of students. You know, if you want to get a crash course in writing, go be a journalist, for even a year or two. It’s enough to make you realize what you thought you knew about writing (laughing). I’ve got so many anecdotes and stories we could go to a bar and talk about it for like three hours and never run out of stories about how embarrassing it was. When I first arrived at the Post and not knowing what a lede was–oh, my dear God–but I learned fast.
I think that stereotype rings true [about editors], at least in my experience–they don’t waste a lot of time sheltering your ego.
No, that’s exactly right. I remember my very first story was a front page story in the Post. It was the announcement of where the 1972 Democratic National Convention would be held, what city. And it was Miami. And I went to cover this and I [had] the lead story…But that was it; my first one. I sat down–I worked like a dog on it after I had all the information, and so on.
And this editor at the national desk, Mary Lou Beatty–she was really kind of a hard ass. I gave her the copy and she just kind of read it over and took it with her hand and wadded it into a big ball and threw it on her desk in disgust. She didn’t say what was wrong; she didn’t say anything (laughing). She didn’t say a word.
I went back to my desk and I told this guy sitting next to me what had happened. And he said, ‘Yeah, she’s going to try to teach you by what some people call the silent treatment. She’s going to make you do it until you get it right. Until you can write a sentence you can actually read.’
Oh, I was just…I didn’t know what to do except do it over again. And finally after, I don’t know, the deadline was an hour, maybe less than an hour, away, she came over and said, ‘OK, now I’m going to have to help you a little bit.’ And then she explained what a lede was and that you didn’t need all these adjectives. It was amazing. It’s a good way to learn.
And I think, talking about that conversational style, I would imagine you got a lot of that [at the Post]–when you talk about being direct and what a lede is, and really knowing what to cut and what to keep in.
Absolutely. You know, I pride myself on my books being fairly short. They’re not, you know, dense, fat books. And that means I’ve cut a whole bunch. For every page that was there, I probably cut, I don’t know, 80, 100. I mean, I’d write a lot of stuff, and then I’d have the sense to pare back so it’s something memorable.
When things are lost amid verbiage, especially unnecessary verbiage, then you’ve got a big problem. And I think that’s as true of James Joyce and of Faulkner–people who do write kind of dense books–as it is of a Hemingway or Fitzgerald, who have a more sparse style. But it doesn’t mean the other guys aren’t paring back themselves. They do.
What is the focus of your keynote message here?
Well, I’m doing a couple of different things…I’m going to read a little tiny bit. Maybe five minutes or so. But I’m mostly going to talk. I’m going to talk about the power of story in our lives. I’m going to start with examples, not from war, but just from common [things]–what stories do that seems, to me, to be really important. And I’ve been working actually today on some examples of what I mean by that. So, I’m going to do talk about that for awhile.
And then I’m going to talk about why that seems important to me in the context of a war. Not just Vietnam, but the wars we’re going through right now. I’m going to talk a little bit about, kind of, lessons that stuck with me from my experience in Vietnam that may not seem too obvious until I talk about them. For example, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. You know, we forget that, that what we label people, they don’t label themselves that way. And in Vietnam, they’re labeled Communists. And, you know, the people we were fighting wouldn’t know Communism if it hit them in the head. So I’m going to talk about little things like that, that seem to me to not be emphasized in the evening news.
And then I’m going to talk in the end about what it is about literature that can help save us a species. It has to do with philosophy and religion, too, all those things combining. But literature, humanism–what it is that seems, to me, to be essential to being a human being and not a piece of machinery but a human. And then I’m going to end there. I always hate paraphrasing. I hope it’s more fun than I made it sound (laughing).
It struck me as we’re talking…I’m thinking Vonnegut and ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ and sometimes having to really go a roundabout way to talk about these atrocities. And ‘Maus’ is another one–just that idea that you’ve got to make things really simple and relatable and palatable because it’s such dark subject matter. And it’s not a trick. I guess I should have asked you–you don’t consider the way you wrote this book as a trick on the reader, do you? It’s more of a method to get your point across?
Yeah, it’s a form, a way of telling a story. ‘The Things They Carried’ is pretty simple, really. The form is a memoir. And I tried to be faithful to all the conventions of a memoir to make it feel to the reader as if this actually happened…And then to periodically subvert that, to remind the reader, ‘Look it’s a work of fiction, it didn’t happen that way. It happened this way.’ And then to do it again. As a way of, you know, trying, partly, to frustrate a reader. I mean, good books, for me, are frustrating. They’re not simple minded. They can be clear and simple in their story but there’s a complication underneath it all or else it’s not a very good book. That’s true of ‘Maus’ and true of ‘Slaughterhouse Five,’ too, I think.
It kind of tests you. You have to ask yourself, ‘Does it really matter if this person existed? Does it make it any less powerful?’
Right. When does it really matter and why does it matter? Why do you care if it never happened or did happen? Well, who cares? You don’t know me (laughing). What does it matter? A hundred years from now it sure as hell is not going to matter. Whether things really happened or not is going to be utterly obliterated from the world. Even yesterday for me is mostly obliterated. I can’t remember everything that happened. I couldn’t tell you the truth about yesterday–every word I spoke and everything I did. And what about eight weeks ago? Or 10 years? We walk around with this illusion that we know even ourselves when you can’t remember what you did yesterday. And you think you know yourself?
It’s unreliable truth. Even if you remember, you can remember incorrectly.
Right. You remember incorrectly. The chronologies are scrambled and they get more scrambled as time passes. And it’s this illusory notion we have of knowing things that’s partly related to philosophy that really intrigues me in an intellectual sense, but more so seems to me important emotionally. I guess it’s a response against absolutism, you know, that animals are absolutists, like squirrels, but human beings–absolutism can get you into trouble when you say you know something, especially when you use the word truth to describe what you know, including yourself. If I thought I knew myself, I’m not sure I’d want to live any longer.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or firstname.lastname@example.org.