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Local Author Tim O'Brien Wins Lifetime Achievement Award

'The Things They Carried' author on life, fiction, and truth

By R.U. Steinberg and Paul Steinberg, 9:30AM, Thu. Nov. 14, 2013

Austin author Tim O'Brien sits on a chair fit for a king on the set of his latest magic show.
Austin author Tim O'Brien sits on a chair fit for a king on the set of his latest magic show.
photo by R.U. Steinberg

The Austin Chronicle caught up recently with Tim O’Brien, an Austin-based author perhaps best known for The Things They Carried, a 1990 collection of fictional stories inspired by his experiences in Vietnam War in 1969-70.

In June, it was announced that O'Brien would be the 2013 recipient of the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing – the first time in the history of the award that a fiction writer has won the $100,000 prize. O'Brien will receive the award at a banquet in his honor on Nov. 16 in Chicago.

O'Brien has served on the faculty of Texas State University in San Marcos' master of fine arts program, and his archive is at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. His many accolades include a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Book Award, the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction, the Katherine Anne Porter Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize lifetime achievement award, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.

His books have sold more than 3 million copies. One of the stories in The Things They Carried, called "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," was made into a film for Showtime in 1998, titled A Soldier's Sweetheart, starring Kiefer Sutherland.

But as if all that weren't enough, as my son and I arrived to interview O'Brien earlier this fall, he was preparing to put on a magic show.

Austin Chronicle: Tell us about the magic show. Does anyone know about this side of you?

Tim O'Brien: I’ve been doing this for many years. … There are nine of us in the show. My wife is in it, a psychiatrist friend of ours, a guy who works at Freescale, and some former students of mine. We’ve been practicing now for six months. … It's just all that work for three shows; it’s a lot of work.

AC: Why do you do it?

TO: It’s for fun. … My other cast members say it’s fun, but they don’t realize how much work it is.

AC: So you like to entertain, to have big parties?

TO: I like magic. I’ve got a storyline that goes through it, through the whole show. … There’s like a thousand tricks all over the place – they’re part of the story. It takes place in kind of a dead-end casino in the middle of the desert somewhere on a New Year’s Eve, but it’s in August. The casino got a break on decorations so they’re going to celebrate it early. Some of us are patrons and others are the staff – the bartender, a blackjack dealer, and a roulette dealer. And then just tricks happen for an hour and a half along with a story. People falling in and out of love. It’s really fun. A couple people vanish and reappear.

AC: That’s wild.

TO: I’m more excited about that now than I am about writing. Because it’s coming up on us. In a way it’s extremely scary, even though we know everyone who is coming to the show.

AC: Regarding you winning the Pritzker Award, your book is the first work of fiction to win the award. It made me think of depictions of war in recent years like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers: Both of these are works of fiction presented as memoirs. What do you think it is about that genre that makes a fictional story so believable in popular culture as among the best representation of what war is really like?

TO: I’ve thought about it, but I’m puzzled. The Things They Carried is labeled right inside the book as a work of fiction, but I did set out when I wrote the book to make it feel real. … I use my own name and I dedicated the book to characters in the book to give it the form of a war memoir. I followed the conventions of a memoir hoping I could seduce the reader into thinking, "Maybe I’m reading nonfiction." And then to periodically interrupt that thought by reminding the reader that this is fiction. So there was a playful element involved in the decision to do the book this way. It just sounded like the fun thing to do – write a book in which I am a character.

There was also a challenge, a technical aspect that had to do with "Why do we make up things at all?" Why do fairy tales exist and why do movies exist? Why do novels exist? There has to be a reason for it; otherwise, none of these things would be there. And it has to do with some of the themes of the book. It has to do with invention and making things up. You can sometimes get closer to the approximate feel of something than you can through a straightforward presentation of the facts. So I can say to you, for example, I was drafted in 1968 and spent the summer playing golf and worrying about Vietnam and dying and killing. But it’s abstract. Whereas if I make up a story, the "On the Rainy River" story, even though it’s invented, you hope the reader will feel the pressures that were on me. That character is bobbing in the boat in the river and being pulled both ways and not sure of the right thing or the wrong thing.

AC: Guilty conscience?

TO: Yeah, guilty conscience. And not even knowing the right thing to do is. You serve your country – that’s a good thing to do. [But] do you always do it? Well, what if your country said to invade Toronto tomorrow? Do you say, "OK, will do" like a good patriot?  Is it absolute? What if your country said to kill a bunch of Albanians? Do you just go do it? So those are some of the questions you can kind of get at through a story that abstractly wouldn’t get into people’s hearts.

AC: Is it easier to write about your memories by giving a fictionalized story of what happened to you?

TO: Not really. Most of the things in The Things They Carried didn’t happen to me. Ninety-five percent of it’s invented. It’s not what occurred. My first book was a nonfiction book back when I was very young just back from Vietnam that is a war memoir. The characters and the events in this book are almost entirely invented. There are a couple of exceptions, but that’s it. And even those that were invented did come out of reality, but were so radically changed that they have almost no relation to what really happened. The purpose of the book is to get at those elements of war that aren’t talked about much. Things like, "Who are you to find yourself in a war in the first place?"

Let’s say that you were brought up like I was as a Methodist in southern Minnesota, very conservative town and taught, "You shall not kill." And then you find yourself not much later in Vietnam where you’re told, "You better kill or we’ll court-martial you." It turns everything upside down, everything that you took as a bedrock or belief in how you should conduct yourself in the world, how you should behave, what’s moral and what’s not. War turns it upside down. … What is true about yourself and the world and your country? It’s undermined in the most radical ways. It’s like going into the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland.

AC: I imagine that when you went to war, you didn’t take along a notepad and think to yourself, "Oh boy, I’m going to take some notes and turn it into a book some day."

TO: No, I sure didn’t.

AC: But if you say 95 percent of the book is invented, you have a remarkable way of capturing the sense of what was going on around you.

TO: I had a sense of the milieu that was Vietnam because I lived through it. Absurdities, that upside-down feeling I was talking about. But having written a memoir that was very faithful to the real world that I lived in, it didn’t feel successful. It didn’t feel as if readers, myself included, would be struck the way I was struck by a sense of what’s true in the world and what’s not. And not just Vietnam, but at myself – I felt upside down. Everything I was doing was contrary to what I believed in. Every step I took, every breath I took, every time I would frisk an old man, watch a lieutenant kick somebody around … Those aren’t even atrocities in the large sense. They’re petty, minor atrocities on a daily basis. Peeing in wells. Shooting animals. Burning down people’s houses – we didn’t know if they were friends or enemies, we were just angry, angry because people were dying all around us and you could never find the enemy and you didn’t know who to shoot at or who not to shoot at. You didn’t know who was your friend and who was not your friend. And when you’re 19, 20 years old and you’re watching your friends die in that kind of situation, frustration turns into real anger – not at people, but you’re angry at everything. God and Vietnam and the soil and the trees, the villages, your own officers, because in so many different ways, there were uncertainties that I didn’t hear about from my dad about World War II: "There’s the enemy, just kill them." Here we couldn’t even find the enemy. They found us, but we didn’t find them.

AC: My dad fought in World War II in the Pacific and he wouldn’t talk about it. Did your dad talk to you?

TO: Not a lot. He was on a destroyer in the Navy in the South Pacific. He talked about it in a funny way, though, a kind of Gene Kelly kind of way. Everything is kind of "On the Town." Everything was funny. … The only time he wouldn’t talk about funny stories was when he would talk about kamikaze attacks. He said he was just totally terrified of those. But he dwelled more on the humor in uniform kind of Reader’s Digest stuff.

I grew up with the Gene Kelly look at war. The cheerful kind of stories you tell about a horrendous war. And I grew up on the movies, John Wayne and Audie Murphy – those kinds of mythologies that war was a great cause and we’re only good guys and never bad guys. And even in that "good" war, there was atrocity all over the place.

AC: Did he say anything about the Vietnam War while it was happening?

TO: He was against it and he didn’t want me to go, but everyone has to lead his or her own life. A father can’t tell a kid what to do.

AC: I notice that you have children.

TO: Yes I do, Timmy and Tad. Timmy is now 10, and Tad is 8.

AC: I understand your next book is about an older man who has children later in life. It sounds like it’s kind of mirroring your own life.

TO: It is. This book that I’m working on now is partly nonfiction. It’s a mix of stories that I tell my kids at night. I’m a writer, so I just don’t read stories to them – I make them up. Some of them are good, and the ones that are good are finding their way into the book rewritten. …

But in general, it’s a book about an older father with two little kids and the squeeze of mortality that’s on you. Where am I going to be in 20 years? I’m 66 now. When I’m 86, basketball is going to be a big problem [laughs]. It feels a little bit like 'Nam in that you’re aware of your mortality. By and large, we can all move through life not thinking, "I’m going to die some day." But there are times in your life when it’s right in your face. One of them is at war. And another one is when you’re at my age. These are my only kids, these two little kids. And then you are aware of it. And that’s the heart of the book: That squeeze on your soul when you have to look directly at the reality of things. So, I’m midway through it, and God willing, I’ll finish it in a couple of years. I hope I do.

AC: What was your interest in writing growing up?

TO: I wanted to be a writer from the time I was 8 or 9. But I didn’t major in English in college. It was a dream, but it didn’t evaporate entirely.

I was from a small Minnesota town. People said I couldn’t be a writer because I hadn’t experienced anything. So I kind of pushed it away. It wasn’t until Vietnam collided with this childhood desire to be a writer. When I was in it, I knew I was going to write about it. When I got back, I began right away. Went to grad school, worked at The Washington Post. And all that time, from the moment I got back from Vietnam, I was writing. I had material to write about that wasn’t military stuff necessarily. It was all that interior stuff of fighting a war you didn’t believe in. I felt like a Nazi, conscripted to fight for them. If I were living in Vietnam, living in a little village there, I would have been a Viet Cong soldier. All my friends would have been.

AC: I take it being a teacher keeps it all fresh, retelling, re-examining? It must be wonderful to have all that energy around you.

TO: I don’t teach much any more. I’m on the faculty at Texas State, but I only go over three times a year. … Six months ago, I quit. It was so time-consuming that I was having trouble finding time to write. I finally had to say, "I can’t do this any more." So I’m doing a little bit there, but I had to quit the main work I was doing. If you take teaching as seriously as I do, it’s all-consuming. I was getting big novels from students. Reading all of them, making comments, one after another, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph. It just ate up all my time. But it is completely fulfilling job to have. But it’s fulfilling in a different way from writing. Writing is what I was born to do and what I want to do. It was getting to the point I was only putting in a half an hour a day writing. It was time to quit.

AC: It’s almost like being a parent. Not quite as intimate, but you’re fathering other people’s writing.

TO:  It is. It is pretty intimate. If you work with an editor, it’s pretty intimate. And they put in boatloads of time. That’s their main job. And teaching was not my main job although I really enjoyed it. And I miss it in a lot of ways, but not enough to want to do it again. I want to finish this book.

AC: How do you formulate it all? Do you use a typewriter? Or a Big Chief tablet of paper to write it in long hand and type it in after?

TO: I just start with a scrap of language. Some sentence comes to me that is intriguing. There aren’t even characters. There’s a chapter "How to Tell a True War Story." I remember typing the first sentence, "This is true." And I stopped and I didn’t know what the "this" referred to. It had no reference. It was just a sentence. Then the word "true." I thought, "What do I know that is true?" For everything I can say is true, I’m immediately faced with a million complications. So you can say now that it’s true that it’s 4:15 p.m. Well, it’s true here, maybe, but it’s not true in Tokyo or on Neptune. So there’s a temporal component. What about the fluidity of truth? That occurred to me right away. What was true when I was 4 years old wasn’t true when I was 22 and when I was 22 isn’t true now.

Truth can be contradictory. You can believe America is a great country or America is a country that committed genocide against the American Indian. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, Hollywood black lists. And the truth can live, even though they’re contradictory, can both in certain circumstances depending on context, be true even though they’re contradictory. And what about half-truths? When you write a newspaper piece, you know what you do. You throw away that quote and that quote and that quote, shorten, and tighten. What you’re doing is throwing away bits of truth. I’m speaking from my days as a Washington Post reporter. You go to cover a press conference – most of the truth you just discard. And so is part of the truth the truth? Well, kinda. But it’s not the whole truth. And even the whole truth may not be the truth. So there are those issues.

And then that thing I mentioned about "Thou shalt not kill" versus "You better kill or we’ll court martial you." Who is telling the truth? Or are they both and to what degree? So I write those three words and a story is born because of all the things I just talked about. And the characters are born out of "I don’t trust truth." I don’t trust the word – never have. If anybody tells they’re telling the truth, I think that the person is a despot, absolutist. That’s what I think when I hear that word. And I don’t like absolutism. Throughout the whole course of that story, I had to pitch "truth" – I don’t know how many times the word appears, maybe a hundred. And used in different kinds of ways and different meanings each time I’m using it just to play with the word.

AC: It’s interesting how you can start a story just based on a sentence, kinda like how Tolkien started a book with "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit."

TO: Makes you wonder if when he wrote that sentence if he even knew what a hobbit meant. Maybe he thought he was going to invent something that will be a hobbit.

I think of Camus when he started The Stranger. "Today, mother died" – "Aujourd'hui, maman est more." I don’t think he knew he was going to be writing about a man without affect and a man who didn’t care about finding certitude in the world. I think he just wrote a sentence – I really think so – then discovered with the next sentence, "Or was it yesterday." In that sentence, he sorta brackets something but still doesn’t have it.  Or if you start a novel, "Jack and Jane took their honeymoon in Fiji," you don’t know Jack, you don’t know Jane, you may not know very much about Fiji. You’re just throwing in Fiji because it sounds cool. And if the story gets attention that something interesting happens along the way watching these characters as you’re writing the sentence.

Another way of saying this is I don’t know any novelist who outlines novels, except maybe John Irving, a little. He says he outlines but he needs to know the epilogue before he can write the story, which means he’s thought about it in more detail than I do. He knows kinda where it’s going. And I’m totally the opposite. I have no idea where a story is going because I wouldn’t write it if I knew where it was going no more than I would read it if I read that book before. I want to be surprised and discover things as I go along. There’s something about life itself that you can’t outline your own life. Too much serendipity. Things just happen. You can say, "I’m going to go do this," but things get in the way. You might have come here planning to ask certain questions and decided not to ask them now because of whatever reason.

AC: Maybe the dad in the book you are writing is going to talk about the horrors of war to his children. Who knows?

TO: That’s what’s going to happen at some point. That’s one of the chapters, the one I’m working on right now. They haven’t asked yet, but they’re going to and I don’t know what I’m going to do except tell them little stories and let them know how God-awful it is. Beyond what anyone knows, it’s not the bombs and the bullets and the death and the blood. It’s that, but it’s worse than that, because underneath it, when all that stuff is not happening, and you’re sorta waiting for it to happen or it did happen, there’s this grimy, sooty, oily, rotten stink just in the daily stuff. Racism and the way you treat other people. The little, petty atrocities along the way. It’s almost minute-by-minute. The absence of courtesy, politeness, and decency, this ability that we practice as a matter of course in our relations. We’re basically nice to people – at least there’s a veneer of it. There’s no veneer out there. It’s gone. And that’s the stuff that through a novel you can get at in a way that it would be really hard for me to get at abstractly by sorta doing the way I am now. [It's] one thing to display a thing happening. It’s another thing to talk about things happening. In fiction, you have to display it through scene. And that’s what appeals to me writing fiction.

AC: It’s a way to get at the truth better than if you were writing nonfiction?

TO: You’d be getting at a different kind of truth. You’d get the feel of the thing and the emotional, moral context you can get through scenic work. Put a reader in a story so you’re watching the characters do their thing. Look at the river, look at the mountains, and the reader is in it. Now, you identify with the character. Whereas, nonfiction, you’re watching somebody do it. You’re not in it the same way. If I’m reading a biography about Jefferson or John Adams, I’m watching them, but I’m not Thomas Jefferson. Fiction can beguile you into it, being part of it, as if you were watching a movie. If it’s a good one, you’re with the character. The easy word is "identify," but that’s too easy a word. You’re with them. You kind of are the character in a book you like or in a movie or a play. There are two different enterprises. One’s not more valuable than another; they're just different ways of accessing the world.

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