The Big Read Blog (Archive)


October 1, 2009
Washington, DC

Tim O'Brien read from his memoir-in-progress (on fatherhood) to a capacity crowd in the NEA Poetry and Prose Pavilion at the 2009 National Book Festival in Washington, DC. Photo by Tom Roster

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TIM O'BRIEN! O'Brien's The Things They Carried is certainly a book about the Vietnam War, but it is also a book about how to tell a story. In this interview excerpt, O'Brien shares his thoughts on fiction and the difference between what he calls "the story truth" and "the happening truth."

Well, I can make an effort to distinguish between the two. There are times in life when an event occurs and you go to tell about it. And you?re utterly and absolutely factual in your effort to recount what occurred.  But when you?ve finished, it feels as if, somehow, a part of the truth is missing, even though the facts are there.  And there are other times in life when you begin exaggerating and revving up the facts, maybe adding a little bit here, subtracting a bit there; it is a way of trying to get at an emotional or spiritual or psychological truth. 

So, for example, there?s a chapter in The Things They Carried called "On the Rainy River."  And it?s a story of a fellow who bears my name, Tim O?Brien, who gets drafted and heads for the Canadian border. He spends six days on the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada, trying to decide should [he] cross that river and go to Canada or should [he] go to the war.  Well that never happened.  I did not get in my car and drive to the Rainy River, although I was drafted.  I didn?t spend six days there.  In fact, I?ve never been there in my life.  The characters that are up on the Rainy River don?t exist. 

And yet, although the story is largely invented, it feels to me truer in a way than the literal truth that I could recount about that terrible summer I was drafted. The literal truth would be to say I played golf. I worried a lot [and] had trouble sleeping. And that pretty much would be it.  I could tell you about my pars and my bogeys, and it?d all be true.  And I could describe the golf course, and that would be true.  But it would have little to do with what was happening inside me the summer I was drafted.  That horrible squeeze that I felt on my psyche or my soul. 

And that?s probably as close as I can get to explaining the difference between the two.  It has to do in the end with why I write fiction. I make things up, yes. And invent a whole bunch of stuff. But it?s an effort to get at, you know, certain emotional or spiritual truths that I can?t get at by recitation of fact.       

 Here's who's reading, discussing, and celebrating The Things They Carried this month: Kaskaskia College Learning Resource Center Library (Centralia, IL); Lewis & Clark Library (Helena, MT); Scranton Public Library (Scranton, PA); Shrewsbury Public Library (Shrewsbury, MA); and West Plains Council on the Arts (West Plains, MO).

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