A Conversation With Tim O’Brien
Since the appearance of his war memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone in 1973, Tim O’Brien has been widely regarded as not only a major new voice in American writing, but also as an important witness to the day-to-day realities of the Vietnam conflict and to war in general. His novel Going After Cacciato, set in Vietnam, won the 1979 National Book Award; and more recently, The Things They Carried (1990), a novel composed of interlinking stories about a group of American foot soldiers on patrol, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was selected by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best works of fiction in 1990. The recipient of awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation, Tim O’Brien has published two other novels, Northern Lights (1975) and The Nuclear Age (1985), and is currently at work on his next book of fiction, an excerpt of which appeared in the January 1992 issue of The Atlantic under the title “The People We Marry.”
The following interview, however, contests the classification of Tim O’Brien as solely a war writer. Instead, O’Brien’s choice of dramatic landscape provides “a way to get at the human heart and the pressure exerted on it — ” for instance, how in Going After Cacciato fear and desire open the door to imaginative possibility, or how stories can save us, as O’Brien writes in The Things They Carried. As the latter example shows, O’Brien is deeply concerned with the many faces of storytelling itself — the relationship between fact and fiction, the creation of what he calls “happeningness,” the way language is incommensurate with reality, the way form shapes belief. Tim O’Brien’s gift is to explore these questions through lyrical, deceptively spare, casually immediate prose. His fiction puts a spin on human experience to reveal the unexpectedness in our most intimate feelings. Fear and love, longing and guilt, violence and the urge for vengeance — all these are landmarks on the terrain of our common humanity: glimpsable, but not necessarily knowable. Addressing a gathering of writing teachers a few months after the interview with Artful Dodge, O’Brien explained the openendedness of his exploration this way: “the purpose of writing is to enhance mystery, not solve it.”
The following conversation took place on October 2, 1991, during Tim O’Brien’s residency as a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writing Fellow at The College of Wooster.
Daniel Bourne: Do you think you would have been a writer if you had not gone to Vietnam?
Tim O’Brien: No. At least I don’t think so. These things are always mysterious and so any answer has to be equally enigmatic.
Debra Shostak: But had you thought about writing before you went?
O’Brien: I’d thought of it, but never as a career, never as a profession. It wasn’t the material that Vietnam presented me with so much as it was a revolution of personality. I’d been an academic and intellectual sort of person, and Vietnam changed all that.
DB: After the war, when you did start to write about your experience, did you make a conscious decision to start writing about Vietnam through nonfiction, through a war memoir as in If I Die in a Combat Zone?
O’Brien: No. At the time, and to this day really, I couldn’t care less that the book was nonfiction. It is presented in this way, but any person with an I.Q. over 84 knows that any narrative has to be — at least in part — invented. That is, who’s going to remember every scrap of dialogue? Most of that speech has to be made up. And events get reordered in the course of writing, recounting. Also, reality did not come at me the way it comes at you in the book: in the war, back at home when still a little boy, then in basic training, back to the war. There’s a scrambling of the chronology which isn’t totally real to the world as I lived it. Also, parts of the book, although it’s technically nonfiction, are utterly invented, in the same sorts of ways as in The Things They Carried. Not a lot of it, but now and then in the course of writing I took a scrap of event and put it together with another scrap, or I took something from an account, when I wasn’t personally present to witness it, or sometimes I would take a conflicting account and choose it over my own, blending everything together to make what seems to be a convincing and coherent story about things I hadn’t born witness to in their entirety. By and large the book is a representation of the kinds of reality I lived through, but the picture is also changed by the dialogue, the storytelling technique, things I wasn’t aware of at the time. I did this intuitively, sort of saying “I think basically that this is true,” but knowing, at the time, I had to do things that weren’t strictly nonfiction to make the account possible.
DB: Was there any point in Vietnam where you woke up as a writer? Do you remember saying “I need to write about this” or “There is no way I can write about this?”
O’Brien: There was one incident I wrote about while I was still there. Something may have happened inside of me that said, “Tim, you have to write about this,” but the voice there was a mute one, speaking in gesture to me, through my genes or something. I guess something just happens when one day a guy hits a land mine and he’s a friend of yours. The horror brought me to put some words down on paper, and having written those words, new words came to me, and having written new words other words, until I had a six or seven page piece that went beyond this one man’s death and the death of those around him to death in general, almost outside of Vietnam, and I was examining myself essentially, my own terror inside.
DB: I was really struck with the story “Step Lively,” that it had for me the feeling of something actually written there in the field. Again, I realize it was indeed fiction—
O’Brien: Well, part of it was fiction. As a matter of fact, that was the story I’m referring to, the death of a friend by a landmine. I wrote some things down, and then the story was put aside for some time, and subsequent events — when I became the radio guy for the squad and had to call for medical evacuations and deal with this stuff head on — actually made me go back to the story. Later on, after I got out of the field, I began rewriting it, adding more things to it. So it was written over a course of three months, four months. But it was written mostly in Vietnam, almost entirely in Vietnam. Just a couple of lines were added afterward. It’s one of the few things in If I Die in a Combat Zone that was written there.
DB: You mentioned the other day that while you were there you hated the idea of writing out in the field, that you were paranoid you would be killed and there would be this writing discovered in your pockets.
O’Brien: I did hate to write, and by and large I didn’t. Writing those six or seven pages was one of the very few times. Words didn’t seem adequate to the experience. I had this thing with drowning and gore and blood and terror, and words seemed superfluous. I didn’t want to write about it. I also felt a kind of superstition that if I were somehow to write about these things, they would happen to me, to me personally. I’m not sure why I felt that way. It might have been some old movie I’d seen where a body’s lying there and they find the guy’s diary and it’s Joe Schmoe bending over the corpse, and he’s reading these sad, self-pitying journal entries. I don’t know what the source of my superstition was, but I know I felt a pretty strong sense of “I don’t want to be writing now.” But now and then I was overwhelmed and did start writing. What I’m trying to say, though, is that there was nothing conscious going on. I wasn’t looking for literary material.
DB: Now that you are looking at the war in that way, how have you found this terrain of Vietnam a convenient metaphor?
O’Brien: That’s mostly how I look at it — though I’m not sure I’d call it a convenient metaphor. I’d say an essential metaphor or a life-given metaphor that, for me, is inescapable. And I’m grateful for it in a sense. I’ve used it in the way Conrad writes about the sea, life on the water, stories set on boats, from Heart of Darkness to Lord Jim, from Nostromo to Typhoon to Youth. But Conrad is no more writing about the sea than I am writing about war. That is, he’s not writing about marine biology and dolphins and porpoises and waves. He’s writing about human beings under pressure, under the certain kinds of pressure that the sea exerts, life aboard vessels, the discipline of living aboard a ship at sea, the expectations of behavior that are a part of a ship’s life. Lord Jim and his act of cowardice and so on. Conrad uses the sea the same way I use Vietnam, as a way to get at the human heart and the pressure exerted on it. He’s not writing literally about sailing and sailors. At the same time, this life aboard vessels carries with it a framework for storytelling that he uses beautifully. My content is not bombs and bullets and airplanes and strategy and tactics. It is not the politics of Vietnam. It too is about the human heart and the pressures put on it. In a war story, there are life and death stakes built in immediately, which apply just by the framework of the story. There is a pressure on characters that in other kinds of fiction one would have to meticulously build. So, in a way, using the framework of war is a short cut to get at things without having to engage in some of this mechanical work that I don’t particularly like, to get bogged down in plotting. I don’t like reading heavily plotted stories. I like a situation to have an instant sort of pressure.
DS: Is that why The Things They Carried is anecdotal, not a sustained, plotted narrative?
O’Brien: It is. In any case, that’s the form of the book, anecdotal. But the anecdotes have a kind of pressure on them which is automatically there. If two guys are sitting in the middle of a war, talking about their girlfriends, that’s not the same as two guys sitting in a cafeteria at a college talking about theirs. There’s a sense of the unexpected or the unanticipated happening at any second, a sense of one’s own imminent death being just beyond the next word that’s uttered. But that’s a metaphor that goes beyond war. It has to do with our own mortalities we aren’t always aware of. When we lead our lives, when we fall in love or our fathers hurt us or our mothers forget to feed us, by and large we forget that we’re going to die pretty soon. But in a war story, when the mortality is right on you every moment, those subplots of our lives take on an added resonance and an added existential tension. And that’s part of why I like writing war stories.
DB: I was going to ask what you thought about that old adage that a writer has to suffer, but what you’ve just said pretty much answers my question — that writing war stories isn’t so much about theme but the fact that dramatically you’re almost immediately on this terrain of life and death.
O’Brien: Yes, that’s true, a writer does have to suffer. As we all do. We all stub our toes, we all have people who don’t love us enough. There are all kinds of suffering; life is a bunch of suffering. There are a lot of other things too, of course, but we all suffer. And stories are ordinarily made out of suffering. I’m trying to think of one that isn’t, and I can’t. Bambi? Well, Bambi loses his mommy, right? Burned up in a forest fire? I think that’s what happens. All the fairy tales we grow up with, these little things we think we treat our kids to are just filled with suffering. Goldilocks, lost in the woods. What could be more terrifying: a little girl lost in the woods with a bunch of bears? That’s essentially what stories are about. That is not to say it’s the suffering alone; but it’s the premise of a certain way of storytelling, how we deal with conflict and with struggle and tensions in our lives.
DB: Were you aware at any time of particular images from the war taking on significance in your writing, becoming larger than life?
O’Brien: Sort of yes and no. All my answers are kind of yes and no. I feel funny analyzing things I can’t quite remember and at the time didn’t even understand because they were happening. I didn’t understand these things at all-and still don’t, in a way. All I can do is talk about examples, and I’ll only mention one. A recurring image, not only in the books about Vietnam, but in other stories and books I’ve written, has to do with the death of animals. The kind of raw, up close, detailed butchery of animals, of water buffalo in particular, though in Northern Lights there’s the death of the deer up close, a dead deer examined closely. Why I’m doing this, why I did this, in part I don’t know and in part I do know. In part I know it has to do with a kind of human fascination with mortality. What is it, what does it look like? What does it feel like to be dead? Well, I know on one level, biologically, it probably feels like nothing, right? A nothingness. But questions then occur to me like what were the last thoughts of the dying animals; do animals think? What kinds of flashes occur in the brain as things dissolve? What I’m trying to say here is that these questions get increasingly philosophical and increasingly perplexing. Is death purely a biological thing or do spiritual things happen too — an awareness of one’s own demise or pending nonbeing? But to represent these questions in a feeling way requires a proximity to death, a kind of looking at death occurring now or having already occurred. There’s a kind of wonderment.
DS: You talk generally in your stories about death, but your images are also specifically violent. Some of the most memorable passages in The Things They Carried involve really horrific violence: Curt Lemon, scattered in pieces up in the tree; the face of the Viet Cong warrior who has a star-shaped hole where his eye should be. How do you avoid turning those images, that material, into a sort of pornography? Do you worry about that?
O’Brien: No. I think that violence itself is pornographic in a way, and this pornography has to be described in raw, physical, truthful terms. If one’s subject matter, as mine often is, has to do with the taking of life, it would be an act of obscenity and pornography even more to try to describe it in anything but the most horrific, detailed and graphic terms. For me, one of the objects among many in writing about violence has to do with reaffirming the truth of the cliches that “war is hell,” or “death is horrible,” something we all so often tend to forget. Body counts, casualty rates, our politicians have made it all so abstract. And this isn’t to say that I’m trying to prevent war exactly, though I’d love to do that, but I know I never will, I don’t think any writer will, at least not any one writer. But my writing is a reminder that war is hell for a particular reason. That star-shaped hole where an eye ought to have been is something pretty ugly, and, hopefully, the image shows that ugliness ought to be, by and large, in our lives avoided. And I also think that this detailed portrayal of the horrors of violence is a reaction to the myths I grew up with as a kid: John Wayne movies and Audie Murphy movies and the little GI Joe comic books I used to read where death was inconsequential because it didn’t seem very horrible at all. No blood, they’d all just “drop” dead. War and violence didn’t seem all that horrible as it was portrayed back then. My object is not to wallow in blood and gore. The object is to display it in terms so that you want to stay away from it if possible.
DS: In “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” you describe Rat Kiley, an inveterate liar, as a man for whom “facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around.” Do you work like that?
DS: Are there aesthetic risks?
O’Brien: No, but I’m willing to hear what they may be. In general, though, for me one of the fundamental things to be accomplished in fiction is to convince. That is, to convince the reader of the stuff that is happening in the now that it’s occurring, whether it’s a fairy tale, something fabulous, or something realistic. No matter what it is, fiction requires a sense of underlying credibility. And so when one’s inventing fact, and the so-called invented facts aren’t convincing, then there’s a problem. But, when you’re inventing things, what you try to do is to make them seem as if they are truly occurring. I guess every fictional writer runs the risk of invention all the time. I’m sure Mark Twain ran into it, writing about trout or a kid going on a raft down the Mississippi. Much, almost all, of that story is invented, though Twain does draw on remembered images, remembered dialogue. Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? That stuff can’t happen at all. You can’t go back in time that way. Here especially you have to develop this sense of things happening, and that requires good technique, that requires keeping the dream alive, the way dreams are alive when we’re truly dreaming, a state that we’re constantly at risk of disrupting if we lose the sense of credibility. This disruption can be done in a million ways. You can lose your readers’ faith by putting a stone here rather than there, or by having a comma in the wrong place. You can do it by melodrama, by making your stuff seem too cartoonish. You can lose the sense of credibility in all kinds of ways. And what one tries to do is not to make those kinds of mistakes.
DS: Speaking of credibility, in The Things They Carried there are numerous devices — come-ons, enticements, snares for the reader — such as starting out stories with “It’s time to be blunt” or “This is true,” having one story supposedly give the facts about the evolution of another story, or naming the narrator after yourself. It seems to me that an appropriate metaphor for talking about this aspect of the book would be that you’re seducing the reader, and that obviously the reader can have ambivalent feelings toward such a seduction. Do you see that?
O’Brien: I’d say that maybe it is an appropriate metaphor, probably not one I would use, but it’s certainly appropriate. I guess that’s what I was trying to do, to make the reader feel those sorts of ambivalences. Hearing a story, being seduced, then having the seducer say “by the way, I don’t love you, it all isn’t true.” And then doing it again. And then saying, “that also isn’t true, just kidding,” and doing it again. It’s not just a game, though. It’s not what that “Good Form” chapter is about. It’s form. This whole book is about fiction, about why we do fiction. Every reader is always seduced by a good work of fiction. That is, by a lie, seduced by a lie. Huckleberry Finn did not happen, but if you’re reading Huckleberry Finn you’re made to believe that it is happening. If you didn’t believe it, then it would be a lousy work of fiction. One wouldn’t be seduced. And I’m trying to write about the way in which fiction takes place. I’m like a seducer, yet beneath all the acts of seduction there’s a kind of love going on, a kind of trust you’re trying to establish with the reader, saying “here’s who I am, here’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. And in fact I do truly love you, I’m not just tricking you, I’m letting you in on my game, letting you in on who I am, what I am, and why I am doing what I am doing.” All these lies are the surface of something. I have to lie to you and explain why I am lying to you, why I’m making these things up, in order to get you to know me and to know fiction, to know what art is about. And it’s going to hurt now and then, and you’re going to get angry now and then, but I want to do it to you anyway, and for you. That’s the point of the book.
DS: It strikes me as interesting that your first book is a real memoir, while your last is a pseudo-memoir. How do you see that development, the relation between the way you want to accomplish those seductions in nonfiction and in fiction? Would you write nonfiction again?
O’Brien: There are all kinds of things that occur to me in answer to your question. One is that I don’t form my career, my writerly interests, consciously. I don’t outline a novel and say “Here’s where I’m going next” in terms of form and so on. The language just takes me there. A scrap of language will occur to me that seems interesting. And one of the first scraps of language that occurred to me in writing The Things They Carried was the line, “This is true.” When that line was written, “This is true,” the form of the book wasn’t present by any means, but the thematic “aboutness” of the book was there in those three words. “This is true.” I had no idea what I was going to do with it, or where it would take me, but I knew in my bones as well as intellectually that this was important, these three words are important words. I didn’t know important in what way or how I’d be exploring them, but I knew they were important. In the way I’m responding to your question, I guess I’m not trying to evade it exactly as much as I’m trying to speak in terms of heart. In terms of heart I don’t think about these things much, and don’t want to think about them. I prefer to look at writing as a heroistic act, finding out what I care about through writing stories. “Why do I care about truth? I don’t know why I care about it!” And I’ll write a story like “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” for example, in which the guy Rat Kiley is telling the story and within the context of the story the matter of truth gets talked about. All along I’ve cared about this, but now in writing the story I wanted to know how I cared. That is, I always wondered, “Why am I making this stuff up? Why am I writing these stories?” But I never pursued it intellectually. I just said, “Well, I am.” But I always wondered, and by writing those words down I began to realize there’s a way you can begin to ask yourself a question seriously, methodically.
DB: So you are talking with yourself, then, while you’re writing, especially with the stories in The Things They Carried.
O’Brien: In a way I am talking to myself, although it doesn’t feel like that. The way it feels is as though I’m composing a story. It feels as if something else is talking to me. I’m not sure what it is. The characters? I’ll write a line, fully believing in it. Then, once it’s written, I’ll believe it’s been uttered by this person, Mitchell Sanders or Rat. They would say to someone else, “You guys are sexist. What do you mean you can’t have a pussy for president?” Meanwhile, I’ve just written this line and I’ll say, “What pussy? where did this come from?” Then I’ll think, “This guy said this!” He accuses these other guys of being sexist and then he himself uses language like that and it jars a little in my head, but in a good way. Here’s a guy talking about being sexist while he’s doing it himself. It shows me the complexity of the material until I don’t feel I’ve written it, though I know I have, and so I consciously keep the word “pussy,” knowing it bounces off the “You guys are all sexist.” But, at the same time, I don’t feel as though I’ve written these words, as though the phrase had been directed toward me. Instead, I ask what some character in the story might say in response. Once a story is underway I no longer feel in complete control. I feel that I’m at the whim of my creations. I’ll be pulled by them as much as I’ll be pulling them. It sounds mystical, probably too mystical, but that’s really how it feels. I think you can understand why I feel that way. Your questions here, for example, are tugging me, while I’m partly responsible for these enquiries because of the consequences of the things I’ve written. But I no longer feel in control of your responses to the things I’ve written.
DB: Given your statement that everything in The Things They Carried is fiction, can we believe “Notes” is nonfiction, when at least the surface assumption is that here you’re giving us the truth about what went on in the composition of another story?
O’Brien: You ought not to believe it. In fact, it’s utterly and absolutely invented. It’s an example of one more seduction on top of the rest. No Norman Bowker, and no mother. It’s a way of displaying that form can dictate belief, that the form of the footnote, the authority that the footnote carries, is persuasive in how we apprehend things. We think once again we’re locked into a factual world by form, and that process is a great deal what the book is about, including the next little note called “Good Form,” which is sort of the same thing. It says, “Well, I’m going to confess something to you. It’s time to be blunt. None of this stuff happened. I’m going to tell you no guy ever died, and here’s what really happened.” And then the next paragraph is going to say but that story too is invented. Here’s the real story. Of course, that one’s invented, too. I just don’t say so in the story.
DB: In some ways I am reminded of Borges and how in a story he will cite a book and give extensive bibliographical information about it, but he’s made the entire thing up.
O’Brien: I thought of using that device in fact but didn’t, because I realized that I’d be copying Borges too closely, but I sure wanted to. Forms of things determine the things we believe. For example, the form of a memoir determines one’s belief in a book. General fictional techniques do the same thing. Dialogue is a way of making us believe. Putting words in quotes is a way of representing reality. These words were once spoken. It’s the same way with narrative, characterization, the sense of setting, despite whether something’s invented or stolen from reality. Fiction is a compilation of ways of making things believable. And belief, as I began by saying, is one of the fundamental aspects of storytelling. One wants to develop a sense of vivid, continuous dreams. It’s not an abstraction; it’s a vivid continuous dreaming. But it’s not enough just to tell a continuous dream. I wouldn’t say, “Hey, I had this dream last night,” and just tell you what happened. I could make it very vivid for you, but it would be boring, probably with no thematic weight to it. It wouldn’t matter to you much. It might be very vivid to you but you’d say “Ugh, blah. I’m bored silly.”
DS: But maybe once you provided the context for it—
O’Brien: It may well become an interesting story.
DB: Have you found yourself consciously influenced by your reading knowledge of war? Say Stephen Crane, Tolstoy, etc?
O’Brien: Not really. But when I read the best things by Crane or Tolstoy, I feel a sense of confirmation. That is, Vietnam happened to me twenty years ago, or more, and I wonder sometimes what did happen then. Was it real? Am I writing bullshit? Are my memories accurate? And when I read a good piece of literature, it reminds me of what I’ve been through and what civilizations, not just people, have gone through — that in fact all of us, in all our lives, whether we’re personally serving in a war or not, have gone through the threat of war, the threat of annihilation, the threat of human violence. Good writing about the subject shows me that I’m not utterly mistaken, that I’m not wandering off alone, down this silly path. It tells me I’m not mistaken to pursue these emotions. But it’s not war so much I’m thinking about here. It’s violence, which is around all of us. It’s in our genes, this sense that we’re all going to die some day.
DS: Had you read those things before you went to Vietnam or did you find yourself seeking them out after you came back?
O’Brien: Some I’d read before going. Others not. I was so young when I went to Vietnam. I’d read A Farewell to Arms, and I’d read the Iliad and the Odyssey, War and Peace, probably some others as well. Today if I hear there’s a wonderful book about war I’ll read it, but I’ll also read a good book about anything. By and large, I don’t seek out books about war. As a matter of fact, I try to avoid them. They’re all so terrible, filled with melodrama, stereotypes, cartoons, predictability, cliches.
DB: I’m struck with how you’ve said writing — specifically your own writing — deals with a pondering of one’s own dying. There’s one episode in Going After Cacciato where a smoke bomb goes off and the whole platoon falls to the ground and instantly Paul Berlin feels like shit. His stomach hurts, his teeth hurt and so on. But he’s okay, because he’s in so much pain. It reminded me of a passage from Tolstoy’s Sevastapol Sketches, where during a cannon attack a bomb falls next to these two guys and both of them fall. One guy is going, “Oh my God, I’ve been hurt, I’m in pain. I’m going to die, I know it.” Right next to him, this other guy is going, “Boy, I’m so glad it missed me. I’m feeling fine. Everything’s so light and breezy.” Euphoria. What has really happened, though, is that the one who is in agony has only been grazed by the bomb, while the one who is feeling no pain has been mortally wounded. He’s in shock, dying.
O’Brien: Interesting, but I don’t remember ever reading it.
DB: I was very much fascinated with how you set up point of view in Going After Cacciato. While describing Vietnam, everything seems to be precise, authentic, at least to someone like me who wasn’t there. But when the imagination of Paul Berlin launches out onto the road after Cacciato, on the road to Paris, the details, although rich and deep, begin to seem like National Geographic information, self-consciously so. For instance, you even refer to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, The Road to Mandalay, and so on. Basically, it seems like the sort of information an intelligent guy who had not actually been to these places might hold, someone like Paul Berlin — or the author. Was this point of view conscious?
O’Brien: Yes, entirely conscious. I was trying to represent these places the way they’d be represented by someone who hadn’t in fact been there, but with all the details that a person who hadn’t been to a place might know if he were an intelligent, reasonably educated guy like Berlin who has had two years in college. Because, essentially, that is how we think. That is how we do our daydreaming, on the basis of what we know about a place. So I took this National Geographic India and particularized it in the way we do the landscapes in our dreams. That is, through unique event occurring against a predictable backdrop. Hence the Jolly Chand character. Berlin says bluntly, “This is the world I’d seen in photographs, in my imagination.” Bolts of cloth, cows roaming the streets of New Delhi, all these general images. But, in the midst of this, suddenly there’s a strange Americanized Hindu who studied at the Johns Hopkins school of Hotel Management, something unpredictable, which gives everything a unique, strange quality. In each of those cases, throughout the way to Paris, it started with a kind of standard backdrop, and then a character superimposed on this stereotype that changes everything. Iran is an example. If I had to choose a character in the book whom I’d most want to meet in the real world, it would be this man, Fahyi Rhallon. I’d want to have with him the discussion that goes on about purpose and how purpose guides our lives and drives us to do things, while the absence of purpose is awful. I love that. I’m not sure I believe a man like this exists. But, nonetheless, a man like this is not someone whom one would pick out of a National Geographic. In any case, that’s how I wanted to do those scenes. Start with the standard, ordinary, all-American knowledge of these places. Then impose on it a uniqueness as a consequence of the human imagination.
DB: You’ve talked a lot about how your experience in Vietnam has affected your literature. What about your rendering of the Midwest? It seems as if your landscapes of small towns in Iowa or Minnesota are as important in your fiction as the landscapes from Vietnam. Do you think readers have neglected this part of your writing?
O’Brien: No. In a way I suppose it has been neglected in terms of quantity. Not a lot of reviews or critical articles have centered on that stuff. But I don’t worry about it. I know that this Midwest stuff is important, and I know why it’s important. It’s backdrop material. I could talk about — if that’s what you’re getting at — what it means for me to use that sort of thing. One aspect is my sense of bitterness about small-town Republican, polyester, white-belted, Kiwanis America. The people who vote and participate in civic events, who build playgrounds and prop up our libraries and then turn around and send us to wars, oftentimes out of utter and absolute ignorance. And I’m bitter about it. I’m bitter about people who say with a knee-jerk reaction, “let’s go kill Satan.” The Middle America I grew up in sent me to that war. And it’s the same thing now with Saddam Hussein. He was portrayed by Bush with demonistic qualities, and right into the guts of bourgeois America it was digested. That know-nothing attitude really disturbs and angers me. The Midwest for me is not just a sweet background I naively grew up in full of innocence and romanticism. I have a real bitterness towards it that lasts to this day. As a result, it was very difficult giving that talk yesterday to the Kiwanis club here in Wooster. I was full of anger towards their pancake suppers and the singing of their little fight songs and the reading of their little stock market quotes for the day, all these little rituals they went through. And, just to finish this little tirade of mine, above all my bitterness has to do with my hatred of Middle American ignorance. These people didn’t know — in my case, in the case of Vietnam — Ho Chi Minh’s politics from those of the governor of Arizona. They didn’t know Bao Dai from the man in the moon. They didn’t know the first thing about SEATO. They didn’t know the first thing about French colonialism, about basic history. One of the questions I was asked at the Kiwanis club yesterday after I finished my little talk was, “How many Chinese did I fight?” Chinese! This person knew nothing about the history of Vietnam and China and their antagonism. It’s true, China supported the Vietnamese, but anyone who goes to a voting booth and whose rhetoric is belligerent and bellicose, “Let’s go kill the Commies, let’s go kill Hussein,” should know certain basic things. And the ignorance in these little towns is overwhelming. There’s a laziness and a complacency, a kind of Puritan sense of pious rectitude, that you can tell really pisses me off. So when I write about the Midwest, I’m writing about it in part out of a sense of real rage and anger, justifiable rage and justifiable anger. I’m certainly not portraying these people as holy and pious. Of course, I’m engaging in such all-encompassing statements partly rhetorically. There are some people out there who do read their newspapers carefully. But in my experience, by and large that is not the case, and I’d like to nail the bastards. In fact, in one of the stories in The Things They Carried, there’s a passage about a Kiwanis Club, a guy daydreaming how he’d love to go up to one of these people who do not know shit from shit and give them a piece of his mind. Remember that little fantasy: “I’d like to go talk to the Kiwanis and lay it all out”? I sort of lived that here in Wooster the other day.
DS: Does that make you feel rootless, then? Writers often write out of connectedness to a past.
O’Brien: Writers are connected. I’m connected to my past, but we’re connected to bad things, too. There were things about the Midwest that I liked. But my dominant recollection about growing up in this part of the country, in the Midwest, is one of a kind of seething, contained rage. Even as a kid I felt that way. Small town gossip and the values of these places. I don’t feel these things, this kind of rage, in my ordinary life when I return to Massachusetts, but when I return to the Midwest these feelings of resentment and rage do resurface.
DS: You mentioned in one of the classes you visited how you came to a number of writers, that some writers you saw as influential; others you just admire. You talked about Borges and García Márquez as being influential, but you also mentioned Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler, John Fowles. How do you see yourself writing among this company of writers? Who’s influenced you the most? Are you willing to say what you don’t like?
O’Brien: How do I see myself? As myself, I guess, that I can’t be mistaken for Toni Morrison or for Fowles, nor for any of the others, yet I’ve learned a great deal from each of these writers you mentioned. I’ve culled all sorts of different things. I can mention Morrison, for example, especially in her book Song of Solomon. Mystery and myth are intermingled in a way that I very, very much admire. We love the impossible, the mystery of things. People are flying, but it happens mythically. It doesn’t matter that it’s impossible — they just are. The key phrase here is that it doesn’t matter. You can do those sorts of miracles and not have to explain. That’s a little thing I learned — relearned, I guess — from reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and obviously applied it in my work. It’s something I’d done before, yet not taking the risks in the same way as after reading that book. But I don’t think I thought about Song of Solomon as I was composing any of my own work. I think it soaked in the way my father’s alcoholism soaked into my life. I’d never written much about it directly. But it soaked in and was distilled, transmuted. I could say the same things about the other writers. But they’re not conscious lessons. They’re tucked away far into the cells of my brain, then joined with other things.
DS: It seems to me that often in contemporary writing you see an immediacy in first person narrators, like that in your pseudo-autobiographical framework for The Things They Carried. Narrators who encourage the reader to think that there’s little or no distance between the first person narrative voice and the writer — for example, a whole slew of Philip Roth protagonists whom readers have confused with the writer. They seem to differ from the first person narrators of, say, Dickens or Faulkner, where there’s no.question that that they’re characters. It looks to me like a new convention in writing. Do you see yourself participating in it?
O’Brien: In other books of mine, though, I’ve done the third person, and I’ve done the first person obviously not me, the Dickens thing, which I like trying, I guess, like any writer. I don’t fall into one stream. I can’t imagine myself, for example, writing another book like The Things They Carried using that form, but I think The Things They Carried takes the form beyond what others do. Even with Roth’s first person narrators, I feel more of a distance between the author and narrator than I do with my book — the explicit naming of a name, the explicit use of material from one’s own life-the name of the college, hometown, particular events. Somehow it makes me feel that The Things They Carried is very different because of its audacity in going for the full memoir form, or pseudo-memoir, I should say. But I wouldn’t do it again. That’s a convention I would try once only. I can’t imagine a sequel to The Things They Carried. “The Things They Put Down”? “The Things They Married”? Not a bad idea.
DS: Have you ever been accused of writing about war so that you don’t have to write about women?
O’Brien: You can’t accuse me of that, because that would obviously, transparently be wrong. I have written about women.
DS: Right, you have. But the ways you have written about women, at least in war books, seem to make them rather peripheral.
O’Brien: They’re minor characters; is that what you mean? That’s true, they are in supporting roles. When one chooses a point of view to tell a story, say, from the point of view of Paul Berlin or the O’Brien character — this technical thing that one does — it means you’re locked by the rules of art, you’re locked into that point of view throughout. And I could have chosen, for example, an omniscient point of view to tell these stories, or I could have told The Things They Carried from the point of view of, say, a Vietnamese soldier thinking back on the war, or a Russian adviser thinking back on the war. Why didn’t I choose those things becomes the next question; why did I choose the point of view I did? That has to do with one’s sense of personal passion, one’s sense of knowledge. To choose to write things that I care about from the point of view of a Vietnamese soldier would be a horrible mistake. In fact, I have been accused of ignoring the Vietnamese in my fiction, ignoring their concerns and so on. It’s not a question of ignoring, though, but of not knowing. It involves the question of point of view. The books I’ve read that try to show how everyone feels — like in The Winds of War where the point of view is everywhere, first in the Pentagon and then at the battle front — strike me as melodramatic and stupid. Another thing that occurs to me when talking about representing the Vietnamese is that to try to represent them seems to me presumptuous. An experience that means a lot to me was when I met three Vietnamese writers in Boston a couple of years ago. This issue came up of American literature about Vietnam, of complaints about American writers like me not representing the point of view of the enemy, or what we called “the enemy.” I mentioned this to one of these guys, to Lei Lu, one of their most well-known fiction writers. He gave me a funny look and he laughed. He said, “Leave it to us. You don’t know what we felt any more than you know what your wife feels at this moment.” And the way he said that made me stop and think. “What was she thinking now?” I didn’t have any clue what she was thinking at that moment, and I realized that even beyond that I don’t know what she’s thinking lots of times. This whole problem is compounded with the basic problem of otherness. “What is Dan thinking now?” I have no idea, I really don’t. This problem of not knowing the other is compounded even more by problems of culture, problems of language, compounded by problems of not knowing the history behind this culture. With all the kinds of ignorances that were present in Vietnam, it would be more than presumptuous for me to jump into another’s psyche and personality on a large scale. On a small scale, now and then, yes. I did make this jump in The Things They Carried, jumping into the head of that dead man, for example, but only just to touch on a kind of humanity. Here’s a human being who had a history. I wasn’t trying to represent this history as factual, however. It’s imagined by the Tim character who has killed this guy. This Tim character is imagining a history for the dead man, knowing it probably wasn’t that way, but still he’s imagining it, and so to him it really was this way. That to me is a problem of presumption, but it’s the Tim character’s presumption, not the author’s. Then, another problem with having these broad points of view is melodrama. As I started to say before, books like The Winds of War tend to take an omniscient point of view. Oftentimes they don’t succeed because of a diffuse, less-than-intense, stereotypical feeling that comes from trying to represent everything from all sides. The great masters have gotten away with it. They’ve done it beautifully. But a contemporary writer would find it extraordinarily difficult to write about things the way Tolstoy did in War and Peace.
The same principles I’m talking about apply to writing about women — which is how your question got started. First there’s the problem of fact, that with the kinds of stories I’m telling it would be historically odd to have two or three women walking alongside, playing the roles of Henry Dobbins or the others. Much like in Conrad’s stories. By and large the people in Conrad come from the particular story he’s telling. On a sea vessel, there aren’t many people named Mary. Similarly, if one were to write about Smith College, there would be women. The possible subjects in a story are constrained by choice of material — you can’t have Albanians in a story that takes place in the Bronx. I could think of a zillion examples. You get the point, right? My choice of material is sort of limiting, but it’s not in order to exclude women in general. This type of writing just requires that they play peripheral roles, except when one can do things as in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” where one can obliquely refer to the absence of women. And I’ve tried to do that not as obliquely as well, sometimes directly. For example, “How to Tell a True War Story,” where there’s a simmering anger and resentment on the part of this Tim narrator toward women. Remember the Rat Kiley story, where the sister never wrote back, “the dumb cooze,” the language used throughout, the reference to the wife lying in bed at night, the “older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics” who “hates war stories” and “all the blood and gore.” There’s a rage that goes through that story that was entirely intentional, but doesn’t represent my own rage necessarily, but the rage that could be the consequence of men doing all the fighting and women being excluded from it. Not a political rage, but a sense of “well, here we are in the war and there they are back home.” It’s a rage I saw exemplified on a lot of occasions. You can see it in the lingo in which women are talked about in the military. The language is pretty coarse. Women are treated in language, in conversation, as aliens, and in some ways women are aliens to that combat milieu. Exploring these issues is important to me, and even without having the lead characters be women, I can explore this.
DB: It’s interesting that in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” a woman actually comes from America to Vietnam.
O’Brien: Right, that story is an example of a woman’s presence, but this is striking only because women are so rare. The story’s also one of the few cases in the book that is based on reality. A woman did in fact come to Vietnam, an ex-cheerleader, just out of high school, pretty much as I described it. But the rest of the story I invented. I had fun doing it.
DB: The source of authority at the end of the story is legend. By the end the narrator is only reporting hearsay, that supposedly the woman did this or that. It’s a nice sort of fade.
O’Brien: It’s more than just a fade. It goes to what stories are, in a way. Stories, retold, carry the force of legend. There’s a sense of legend in that the story is still going out there somewhere. Huck is still going down that river, Ahab is still chasing that whale. Legends have to do with the repetition of things. Though there’s a narrative end to Moby Dick, there’s a sense, as in all stories, that everyone is still out there, still doing these things, forever and ever. Mary Anne Bell is still out there in the dark, chasing masculinity, an obsession with this stuff forever. She’s still wearing that necklace of tongues. I’m fascinated by the fact that every time this story is read, the whole thing happens again and again and again. I chose that ending for that reason. Again, the book itself is about stories and this one story is about storytelling. Rat is telling the story and is being interrupted. “This can’t happen; a woman can’t do those things.”
DS: Given that, as you say, you’ve used the images and material of war in your work as metaphors, are you interested in using other metaphors to talk about those same things?
O’Brien: Yes. The novel I’m writing now, for example, is set in peace time, but some of the issues that I’ve written about, that I always will write about because they’re things I care about, will be present in these other dramatic situations. For me, the intersection of story line and abstraction, a set of concrete events against abstract values, is what moral fiction is about, what storytelling is about. A guy loves his wife. His name is Ed. One day he finds her dead on the carpet and the maid, someone he’s been having an affair with, is holding the gun. What does he do? That’s a story line: there’s Ed, there’s Mary dead, and the maid holding the gun. That’s concrete stuff, sort of hokey, but the question what does he do next is what’s important. Does he turn her in, does he beat her up, does he marry her, does he cover it up? The events of the story intersect with value questions. They have to do with love and rectitude and law, and that’s what makes storytelling interesting. I wanted to find different kinds of stories to get to the same value issues. For me those value issues are stable. The story line is put up against them, but the values are there, always floating around.
DB: You said that your new novel started with a sentence that “came” to you. How did you know that was the right sentence?
O’Brien: Because a whole bunch of other sentences preceded it that weren’t the right one. I put those aside, the same way you might do when you’re writing a poem, until a sentence like “This is true” occurs to you. I guess a sentence like that came to me with the new book. On one level it seemed simple. On the storytelling level it seemed directional — as well as full of mystery. The word “unhappy” is in the sentence. But at this point the thing isn’t formed enough. It’s only eighty or ninety pages. If I were at two-hundred pages, I’d be more sure. That’s really all I have to say about it, though. What I’ve found as I’m getting older is that when you start talking too much about a thing — I’m not superstitious about it, but you find yourself locking yourself in. “I told Dan and Deb that the book is going to be about this.” And it’s not. Then I have to force it to be that way. You find yourself telling your publisher this and telling other people that, and then you feel especially locked in. So not talking about present work is not superstition so much as it’s a fear of being confined. You start thinking it’s about this or that, rather than discovering more and more and more. When I tend to abstract or analyze too early on I find myself locked into connecting the dots. I try to avoid that.
DS: But did that sentence come to you before anything else did?
O’Brien: Yes. I had this general sense of “stuff,” but it was nothing formed. I’d been writing sentences for three months, until a sentence came that lasted. Each of the sentences I had done before attracted me a little bit, but then I’d cast it aside after an hour or two and try another possibility. Like fishing. I don’t know if I was fishing for tuna or carp or minnows. I had no idea what I was fishing for. I just wanted to fish for a little bit. Then I came up with something that’s a possibility.
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