By Erica Smith
© April 12, 2009
The Vietnam War certainly is not past, and perhaps no American writer
knows that better than Tim O'Brien.
A combat infantryman in Vietnam and the winner of a National Book
Award, O'Brien will speak Monday night at the Tidewater Community
College Literary Festival.
Reared by storytellers - a sailor and a WAVE who served in World War
II and who met in Norfolk - he started writing his own stories as a
child in Minnesota. He learned from his parents how stories about a
single event can differ. Over time, he learned that story can be more
truthful than "truth" itself.
It is through his own stories that he becomes the autobiographer of a
generation, a generation shadowed by a war. For those who have gone
to war, or whose loved ones have, he tells our stories in particular.
They are stories we ourselves cannot tell - because we often do not
quite know them, or fear to give them voice.
O'Brien explores not only issues facing foot soldiers - terror,
tedium, courage, rage, manhood, friendship, love, loss, guilt,
reality and illusion, absurdity - but also how traumas stay, and
replay, for decades. He explores how memory melds with events, how it
changes reality. He explores silence and its costs. He explores the
loss of idealism. At times he carries characters and situations from
book to book, signaling war's lasting effect on him. They linger with
us, too, watchful shades to our safe lives.
He crafts it all with a fanatical attention to detail and complexity,
best revealed by careful reading.
O'Brien, who opposed the Vietnam War, was drafted into the Army in
the summer of '68 and eventually decided against fleeing to Canada,
putting others' love for him above his convictions. Carrying guilt,
he arrived in Vietnam early in '69. His unit moved into the volatile
My Lai area about a year after the infamous massacre there, and it
was in that area that his best buddy was killed by booby-trapped artillery.
Today O'Brien receives letters from veterans and loved ones of Iraq
and Vietnam - not so many, yet, from Afghanistan. His books, still
strong sellers, are staples in classrooms. Now 62, he's writing his
ninth book, about becoming a father late. It will evoke his own
father and will be a gift to his sons - saying the kinds of things he
wishes his dad had said to him.
Tim O'Brien spoke with us from Austin, Texas, where he lives with his
wife, Meredith, and their sons, Timmy, 5, and Tad, 3. His comments
are edited for space.
On his talk at TCC:
It has to do with the power of story. What stories are for, what they
do for us, why we tell them, why it's important to tell them, how
they differ from, say, a newspaper piece or a documentary of some
sort, how fiction can console us and help us heal, how it gives us a
little late-night company. How it offers models, in how to live a
life or not to live a life. How it reminds us that we're finally all
part of something very mysterious, universal.
On the origins of his storytelling:
My whole family would tell stories at the table. Kind of like my
stories now: My dad would start a story in the real world, and
something happened, and by the time it was over, he was hunting
elephants somewhere. It would launch him out of the real world into
some tall tale and exaggerated story. And my mom did the same sort of
thing, and we did it as kids, my brother and sister and I.
We'd ask (their folks), how did you guys meet, and what really did
I don't know, we'd get 30 different versions, and I never knew which
one to believe! To this day, I still don't! (Laughing.)
I've intentionally used my own name (as a character) and tried to
blur the line a little more. To get my readers to think about what's
true or what's not, why does it matter to me, and to think about can
a story be literally true but emotionally false, or vice versa. Truth
is a fluid and volatile thing. Truths about our country that were
believed 150 years ago have evolved, and they evolve every day.
With our sense of what's true about ourselves and our country, we
learn things about ourselves that we didn't know yesterday.
On Vietnam and today's wars:
There are vast similarities; it's uncanny. At just the
foot-soldiering level: Who's your enemy, who do you shoot at, who do
you be afraid of, and noncombatant casualties; and war's the light at
the end of the tunnel, it was announced; how can you win; what is
victory; they're not gonna surrender any more than the Viet Cong are,
ya know. And there's these vast cultural differences, and there's
vast ignorance - "Who are these people?"
What we're living through now seems to have a much broader scale to
it, kind of a worldwide, Muslim-Christian scale. Vietnam didn't have
that colossal, 300-year-war feel. And the draft - the absence of the draft now.
On military readers' views of his books:
Because the books are anchored in the world of the foot soldier and
the detail of the march and the equipment and the daily pressures on
the soul and the detail of it all - that appeals to military people.
Did I get it right? By and large they say I do. The politics issue is
another matter. And my feelings toward Vietnam - I thought we were
making a big mistake, and I was part of that mistake and I didn't
feel good about it. Every veteran has a different take on that.
Surprisingly, the letters and comments that mean the most to me are
not those from veterans, because they know what they went through,
but from the daughters and the sons and the wives and the mothers.
Because they'll say, well, my husband won't talk about it or my dad
won't talk about it or my brother won't talk about it. And some of
these letters really make me tear up, and if I tried to read them
aloud I would cry.
(One woman's letter) said her father didn't talk about it, her mother
and dad got divorced, and things were horrible in the family, full of
tension. And finally she got him to read "The Things They Carried,"
and it got him to talk, not just about the war but what had happened
between her parents, how they had grown apart through his silence and
inability to talk about what he'd gone through and how he fell silent
in all kinds of other ways, too.
The price of silence and the price of secrecy is very, very high on
the psyche and on the family. That was kind of the subject of "In the
Lake of the Woods."
I get more letters now from people in the current wars. Mostly
soldiers who've served in Iraq, their families and friends and
girlfriends and so on.
On "In the Lake of the Woods" - which, with the similarly themed but
comedic "Tomcat in Love," is the book for which he most wants to be remembered:
I didn't talk about Vietnam, and I was secretive, and I didn't want
to think about it... except when I was writing, and even then I would
do it through other characters, and very rarely through myself. Even
when I used my own name, I was making stuff up.
It was a claustrophobic book, a macabre book, and had grim lessons to
it about the price of evading our own histories. The little
mythologies we'll build about ourselves and about our own country -
so that in both a large way and a small way we'll say, well, I'm a
good guy, I would never hurt anybody, and I would never do anything wrong.
It was hard to make it through that book. I came close to not making
it. Just not making it, period. Staying alive. I was really lost. I
felt so psychologically un-tethered, much like the characters.
Certain mysteries abide forever - who are we, where do we go, what
becomes of us. Why do we do what we do. To try to answer those
questions is always simplistic, and the job of a novelist is not to
offer little tidy morals and wrap things up. The job is exactly the
reverse, to stay at the mystery and make it deeper and more
mysterious. I think that by writing those concluding sections, I felt
that weight kind of leave and go into the pages of the book.
On the death of Curt Lemon in the novel "Carried," and a soldier's
A friend of mine stepped on a booby-trapped artillery round and was
blown up into - it wasn't really a tree, but heavy brush. That kind
of combined with the memory of the macabre humor that soldiers have -
it's not funny. It's a way of dealing with horror - try to joke it
away and act macho. That ("lemon tree, very pretty") thing didn't
happen, but it's like a million things that did happen. It's
emblematic of a weapon that a human being has - you can find ways to
put death in its little capsule and harden it up. So we try to find
ways to stand up and keep moving through our lives. And I don't think
that's just true in war.
On who was his best friend in Vietnam and why:
He was the kid who was blown into the tree, and he died pretty early
on. And after that I didn't have a lot of close friends. I had
acquaintances and... it's happened to most of us: Once you lost
somebody that close, you don't make a conscious decision not to make
friends, but you're more guarded about it and you're wider - you
don't just get one friend, you get a bunch of 'em. After (that) I had
friends, but not the way I was bosom buddies with this guy.
... The book I'm working on now, I'm touching on it again. One of my
kids asked (his wife), "War, what's that?" What is war? War is this
guy going into a tree, and he's going into this tree for the rest of
your life, in your memory. He just keeps soaring into a tree, dead.
And you keep climbing up to peel off. And that's war.
And for a 5-year-old, that's enough to digest.
On his parents' meeting:
My dad met my mom in Norfolk and sailed away to the South Pacific,
was attacked by kamikazes and was lucky to have stayed alive. My dad
died a few years back, but my mom took a sentimental journey (to
Norfolk) right after my dad died. And a former Navy captain that
lives there, he's a friend of mine, he took my mom under his wing,
helped her find places that were still there. He got the Navy to
throw a dinner for my mom, or a luncheon. She felt like a queen, ya
know? A 90-year-old woman going back there to basically visit her
youth.... I've been there a few times, and every time I go back it's
like going back to my birth.
On his book in progress:
It's about being an older father. Part of the book is to try to write
(for his boys) about the things I wish my father had talked to me
about and confessed about and opened up about.
What I once would want to be remembered for would be a sentence or a
chapter out of a book... or an image. Now I prefer to be remembered
as the father of Timmy and Tad.
You know, you can't make these bargains with fate, but if you could,
it'd be that I'd give up every syllable that I've written to spend
more time with these two kids. I'd give it all up. And that's a
pretty radical change for somebody who's devoted his whole life to
making books, to have his center of gravity be two little boys who
five years ago didn't exist.
I'm well overdue (past the contract deadline). Books have their own
demands. They can be just like people sometimes, they can be
recalcitrant, and there's nothing you can do except be patient and
say, "Please, please, please." There's nothing like talking to your own book.
Erica Smith is Books editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.