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Q & A with Tim O'Brien, author of 'The Things They Carried'

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Author Tim O'Brien speaks at Dickinson State University as part of the NEA Big Read, Wednesday. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)

As part of Dickinson State University's NEA Big Read Grant, "The Things They Carried" author Tim O'Brien came to campus for student workshops and a speech to the community.

O'Brien's novels have received distinctions including Outstanding Book of 1972 by the New York Times, 1979 National Book Award and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction. O'Brien has received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation's Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award and the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award.

Prior to becoming a novelist, O'Brien was drafted into the US Army in 1968 and sent to Vietnam, where he served from 1969 to 1970 in 3rd Platoon, Company A, 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment, 23rd Infantry Division — an experience which would heavily inform his writing.

We spoke with O'Brien about the book, his writing and his experiences.

Critics often consider ' The Things They Carried' to be a war novel. What would you say ' The Things They Carried'
is about?

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First, I would call it a peace novel. Although I depict the ugliness of war, I do it to show how brutal and nasty, and I think, evil, war is in general; no matter how righteous the cause, it’s still an evil thing. Killing people, including children, is bad. It’s also a novel about writing and how do you tell stories about a war that aren’t cliche and haven’t (been) seen before or read in a book. It’s about the struggle to write honestly and I hope beautifully about something as ugly as war ... Thirdly, it’s about looking back on war, not just in it, but the novel is organized so that an older man is looking back on his experiences and trying to draw something out of a thing that had happened so many decades earlier, and so it’s about memory, about how wars go on and on and on even after their over, in the head of a person who’s been in a war, but also for the children of the soldier. My own kids, I have a 16 year-old and a 14-year old, and in a way they’re casualties of the war, when I go silent and get sad. For an old woman, 96 years old down in Orlando, Florida. She wakes up at 2 in the morning, and says, ‘Where is my baby?’ Her baby’s been dead 50 years, but the war is not over for her, and it never will be. I think we forget the wives and mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, of soldiers — especially when they’ve been killed, the war just goes on for those people.

Many writers have played with the ideas of truth and fiction and how they relate to one another. Albert Camus wrote that “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” Stephen King said, “Good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” How do you think ' The Things They Carried' fits with these ideas?

There’s a thing I call ‘story-truth’, which is the truth of Huckleberry Finn; it has its own truth. There’s another kind of truth, which I call ‘happening truth,’ and I think they’re different. One can look at a painting, for example, and feel truths out of it, even though it’s not literally true. It’s not a photograph; you’re not actually there, but you get emotional content from it. Your heart responds, and your stomach responds, and those responses are true; they’re real. When you’re lying in bed late at night, and you’re reading a Stephen King novel, and your blood pressure goes up during those tough, scary moments. Even though you realize intellectually it’s not really happening, it’s happening inside you, and that’s what a writer or any kind of artist tries to do through a kind-of lie to get at the truths beneath the lie, the emotional truths that are pretty universal.

Did you go into the novel with the idea of blurring the lines between reality and fiction, or did it come naturally in trying to relate your experiences?

It comes out of my life. I look back 50 years ago, and I think how could that be real? Did I do that? Did my legs keep moving, walking through minefields and watching people blown up all around me? I look at my hands and I think, did these hands really pull a trigger? It seems impossible. I’m a general nice guy. I remember once when my dad was in his 90s, we were sitting on a porch in his retirement home, and I asked what had happened to his medals from World War II. He said, ‘What medals?’ I said, ‘From Iwo Jima and Okinawa when you were in the Navy.’ He said, ‘Was I in a war?’ That’s what happens as you get distance on the thing. Even when I look back at my childhood, the little boy I once was has changed so radically to the person I am now that it seems I could never have been that little boy. I feel the same way about my days as a soldier. It feels impossible, that I couldn’t have happened, even though I know it did. That’s why I blur those, because memory blurs it for us.

What understanding do you think fiction such as 'The Things They Carried' might give a reader about the Vietnam War that a nonfiction account might not or could not?

Most nonfiction books are abstract. They give statistics and dates of battles. The camera lens is a long-way (away); it’s not inside the head of people. In a novel, you’re in the head of someone. You’re not looking at them from a distant perspective. You can’t literally put cameras in people’s heads and record their thoughts. You can’t read what’s happening in people’s minds, but in a novel, you can do that. You can feel the moral tensions that a character is under. Should I kill that person or should I not pull the trigger? You can feel the character’s emotions in the way that you can’t from an abstract distance with dates and statistics and that sort of thing.

Your first published novel wasn’t many years after you came home from Vietnam. What made you decide to write about your experience?

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I began writing in Vietnam. Not a lot, but maybe 20 handwritten pages, maybe the equivalent of five typed (pages); not very much. At the end of the day, while the rest of the guys were horsing around (and) kind of getting ready for the night, and we’d sit in our foxholes. While they were talking, I’d sometimes write little vignettes about what had happened that day … I kept those pages in my rucksack where they got mildewed and wet and finally turned to mush because everything was so wet over there, but I remembered what I had written. When I came home, I wrote my first book based on my memory of those 20 pages or so that I’d handwritten.

One is to try to dispel the illusion that war is a glamorous, adventurous, good thing. It’s the opposite of glamorous … It’s boring a lot of the time. That’s not very glamorous. It’s not very glamorous to have bullets coming at your head or to watch people writhing on the ground without a leg. That’s not very glamorous … Another was a cautionary note. Let’s not kill people, including children, unless we’re pretty sure it’s the right thing to do, and in Vietnam we weren’t pretty sure. The whole country was divided, right in half, some for the war, some against it. My only family was divided. Fifty years later, having lost the war, none of the reasons for the war are even remembered. I go to colleges, and they raise their hands (and ask) ‘What was it all about?’ They have no idea. They don’t even know who won, quite literally. There are three million dead people. It happened five decades ago, which in one way is a long time ago, but in the course of human history, it’s not that long ago. These are the daughters, the grand-daughters, the grand-sons and the sons of the people who were there. All the reasons for fighting the war aren’t even remembered. No one wakes up thinking, ‘Oh. We lost the Vietnam War. My life is ruined. I’ve lost all my liberties and the Communists have taken over Seattle.’ None of that happened. Killing people is a terrible thing, especially when children are among the casualties, and you better be pretty damn sure it’s the right thing to do — and we weren’t.

(Someone) had described to me the experience of watching a war film in a theater after he returned home. Although it was triggering, he continued to watch war movies and told me he had found them cathartic. Have you had this experience with your writing?

I’m not sure the answer. I know for sure I didn’t do it for therapy. I did it for other reasons, but I think it was therapeutic, even though I didn’t do it for that reason. All the bad memories remain. They’ll never go away; it’s like having cancer. You don’t forget you had cancer. Or divorce. You don’t forget you got divorced, or all the other tragedies in life. Writing does lighten the burden a little bit. It’s on a piece of paper. Others are reading it, so you feel like you’re sharing, dispersing the pain and the memories with other people, your readers. "The Things They Carried" has been read by 6 million people in our country; that’s a lot of people to share the load with — and a couple million more in other countries. That’s a good feeling, to lighten the load, and it’s not just all mine to keep in my head and keep silent.

How did you get involved in The Big Read?

The organization that runs it called me one afternoon and said, ‘You’ve been chosen. Your book has been chosen.’ Of course, I was delighted because I wanted to share the load … There was an irony with it. There’s a list of books that towns like Dickinson or universities can choose, but most of the writers are dead, so they can’t do what I’m doing … I feel like I’m doing something for other writers, in a funny way. When I go and talk about a book, I’m really not just talking about my own book; I’m really talking about all books and how they can do these miraculous, wonderful things in the world.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

Making good sentences … I think people have this strange impression that it’s somehow easy, that you’re born with a gift and it’s just easy, but of course, we know it’s not. It’s hard to stay seated and face a blank piece of paper and compose the first sentence and have it be clear and grammatically correct, efficient as sentences should be. It’s the making of sentences that’s really the most challenging, and that’s how I spend 99 percent of my time. It’s not on the big stuff that you’d think it would be about. It’s really about making the sentences that express the big stuff. You have to make sentences that feel fresh and original.

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Your novel is read in schools, in colleges. I read it in high school. What do you think makes a novel something that we teach to other people, something that we think is worthy to be in the NEA or to be remembered long after you’re gone?

I think for high schools and colleges, it boils down to do students respond or don’t they. Enough students have responded to this book — not always positively. Some say, ‘Oh, it’s frustrating. What’s real and what’s not? Why doesn’t he just tell me the truth?’ But by asking those questions, teachers love talking about those questions. Why does it matter if a thing happened or didn’t happen? You liked Thumbelina, didn’t you? You know that never happened. It can’t; nobody can be that (small). The same with all fairy tales, the same with every novel ever written. They’re all invented. Mine is no different. The only difference with mine, really, is that I admit it. I remind the reader periodically that this is invented, but if I took all of those reminders out, it would be like any other book. I wanted to remind the reader you’re reading a work of fiction to make them think about what it is stories are for, what do they do, why do you make anything up? There has to be a reason, otherwise there’d be no novels; there’d be no short stories; there’d be no movies, unless they’re documentaries. Broadway would go dark. Fathers would stop telling bedtime stories to their children. Just think what an impoverished world it would be if we always had to be faithful to what actually happened. We don’t have to be; we can also write about what almost happened, or what could have happened, or what should have happened, and that’s what novelists are interested in.

Kayla Henson is a former Dickinson Press reporter.
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