Tim O'Brien

Big Read author, National Book Award winner
Tim O'Brien
Photo courtesy of Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien: The Things They Carried is in part a book about the Vietnam War, and in part it's a book about the power of stories in our lives. In part it's a book about re-imagining events and revisiting events thirty years or more after they've occurred. But and, you know, as I say each of these things it's a little bit like pulling a strand out of a piece of cloth, that in the end it's a book about all those things and the, the human heart as well.

Josephine Reed: That was writer Tim O'Brien talking about his 1990 novel, and Big Read selection The Things They Carried.

Welcome to Art works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works, I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

In 1968, Tim O'Brien was drafted into the Army at age 21. Although he opposed the war, he reported for military service, and in February of the following, he was sent to Vietnam. When he returned home, after a stint in graduate school, Tim O'Brien became a reporter for the Washington Post. In 1973, O'Brien published his memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone. Although Vietnam and its aftermath continued to be his subject, Tim O'Brien turned from non-fiction to fiction, winning the National Book Award in 1979 for Going After Cacciato, a novel about a soldier in Vietnam who attempts to walk from southeast Asia to Paris. The Things They Carried is a work of fiction presented as a memoir. A finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Things They Carried depicts the men of  the fictional Alpha Company, including  a character named Tim O'Brien, who  survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three.

In The Things They Carried,  O'Brien plays with facts to get at truths. In fact, the narrator of the book differentiates between the "story-truth" and "the happening truth."  When I spoke with Tim O'Brien, I began by asking him about this distinction.

Tim O'Brien: 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 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, as a way of trying to get at an emotional or spiritual or psychological truth.

So for-- as in one 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. Spends six days on the Rainy River, which separates Minnesota from Canada; trying to decide should I cross that river and go to Canada or should I 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. Had trouble sleeping. And that pretty much be it. I could tell you about my pars and my bogeys and it'd all be- 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- that I felt on my psyche or my soul. That's a- probably as close as I can get to explaining the difference between the two. It has to do in the- in the end with why I write fiction. I'm not, I make things up, yes. And invent a whole- whole bunch of stuff but it's an effort to get at you know, certain emotional or spiritual truths that you just, I can't get at by recitation of fact.

Josephine: So you're saying that fiction allows you to tell a truth that nonfiction doesn't.

Tim O'Brien: It allows you to get at a kind of truth that- that nonfiction doesn't or sometimes doesn't. There's a reason that fiction exists. Well, why don't we just tell the literal truth about everything? Why does anybody make anything up? In fiction you can write about what almost happened but didn't happen. Or you can write about what could have happened. I mean, I could have walked away from the Vietnam War and gone to Canada. I didn't but I could have. And fiction could also be about in some cases what should have happened. I probably should have walked away from that war but didn't. And so, fiction is a, opens a door to a world that's not the world that we've literally lived in all, all cases. But a world we could have lived in, should have lived in.

Josephine: In The Things They Carried, I do want to talk about the structure and also the placement of you, not you but the fictional you. A character named Tim O'Brien who was a young soldier in Vietnam and who also appears in the book as a 43-year-old writer. Why did you choose to place yourself in the book in this way in a fictional version of you?

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Tim O'Brien: Well, in- in a way …. My answer is- I can give you an answer that's intellectually probably honest and would make sense. But the deeper answer is I'm not entirely sure. Something occurred to me at the typewriter one day. A little burst of "what if-ness." Probably a little giggle came and you know, to my throat and why don't I try this in a playful sort of way. The same way that I suppose when any writer stumbles across an idea for a new form or a new way of telling a story. Some of these things can't be explained intellectually but I'll make a stab at it. I know that I embarked on writing a book that I wanted to make this book even though I knew it would be largely invented, I wanted to make it feel true in the literal sense, real; as if one were reading a memoir, a work of nonfiction. And if that's what you're objective is and to use one's own name and refer to a real hometown and a real college I went to a real war that I served in. The object was to make a work of fiction that felt as if it could have actually have happened.

Josephine: You- you dedicate the book to the men of Alpha Company. And you name them and their characters in your book but that's what they are. They're characters in the book.
Tim O'Brien: That's right.
Josephine: Explain why you did that.

Tim O'Brien: Well, for the same reasons I use my own name. I wanted to follow the conventions more or less, of a memoir. And in a memoir, one would dedicate the book possibly to the characters in the book; the real people you're writing about. Especially if one's writing about a war and you're close to your buddies and you remember them fondly, living or dead. You would more than likely at least contemplate dedicating a book to those people. So it was part of this effort that reaches in a small ways and then large ways throughout The Things They Carried, to write a work of fiction that had the feel of a waking dream and it could be based on real events of that day or that afternoon. Most fiction is cast by convention in a way that the reader is pretty much always aware that they're in the world of make-believe. And it was my hope that I could somewhat blur that line.

Josephine: Was it important to write about the Vietnam War particularly in a way that blurred that line?

Tim O'Brien: Yeah, of course. The- the war in Vietnam at time on the ground didn't feel literally true. It didn't feel as if it could be true. It felt as if one had tumbled through a Black Hole and landed in Wonderland. And right was wrong and wrong was right and civility was savagery and everything went upside-down. "Thou shalt not kill" turned into you'd better kill or we'll court martial you. Everything felt like to me, as if I were in a kind of waking dream. Uhm.. fantasy. And not asleep but I'd look at my hands at times and I'd think my hands on this gun, is this happening? And I must say that even 30, 40 years later, I'll sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and wonder did I really serve as a foot soldier in that war? And did I really get wounded? And did I really watch friends die? Or is it a dream?

Josephine: You begin the book, The Things They Carried with a story, The Things They Carried or the chapter entitled "The Things They Carried" because this book is-- it's a series of linked stories. It's sort of-- it's like a necklace of different stones put together that each are related to the other and makes a very compelling and very powerful whole. And in The Things They Carried, part of what happens in that opening is a listing of all the paraphernalia that the soldiers carried with them; both from army-issue to personal talismans. Can you talk about why you began there seemingly in the world of information?

Tim O'Brien: I think the book needed an- an overture. A kind of opening movement of- of sort to introduce the world of Vietnam, the world of- of horror and a world of fear and a world of superstition. The world of holiness and hellishness and pity and all this. And it seemed by naming objects-- much as Hemingway talked about naming rivers and towns or events that occurred, one opens a door. Especially when you begin assigning weights to these things. A letter weighing ten ounces and a round of ammunition, you know, weighing a quarter of an ounce. And a hand grenade weighing this.


The things they carried were largely determined by ne­cessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, ciga­rettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man's habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover.
Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. Be­cause the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent.

With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost 2 pounds, but it was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away.

Tim O'Brien: And as these physical objects over the first five or ten pages begin to build up and the burdens get heavier and heavier my hope is that a reader feels the other burdens that are weighing a soldier down. And it's not just 85 pounds or 100 pounds of equipment. It's this memory of a fellow who died last night and a girlfriend back home and an enemy soldier that you killed. And the physical and the emotional weights throughout that opening movement of the book I hope pound the reader into the Vietnam soil. That you feel the orange clay on your feet and hands and the sun on your face. And it all presses you down, a kind of gravity that again, 40 years later still seems to press me down.

Josephine: Well you say in that chapter that among the things they carry, you talk about grief and terror, shameful memories but also the common secret of cowardice. Those are your words. And you say that these soldiers carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to.

Tim O'Brien: Yes. I think that's more true than a lot of soldiers want to acknowledge. We tend as we get older to turn a little bit sentimental and a bit nostalgic about our wars and our experiences. And what's forgotten, I think too often by veterans at VFWs and American Legion Conventions and so on is that horrible "God help me, God help me" terror and frustration and anger and abandonment; all these sensations combined. The line actually is
‘cowardice barely restrained'. I mean in- in Vietnam and probably in life itself, men feel a burden on them to present a macho front, or façade to the world. Even though inside you know, the adenoids may be quaking and your kidneys are trembling and everything's going haywire. And yet, on the surface there's an effort to compose one's features and voice to tell a joke even in the worst of situations. There's a way of surviving, of maintaining a sense of your own dignity, a sense of your humanness in the midst of this awful stuff. There's a lot of acting that goes- that goes on and it's to just wars but lots and lots of situations but certainly in a situation in which life and death is at stake pretty much every second of every day.

Josephine: You also write, Tim, that "a true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe." And that's the case, certainly, with the stories in this book. But for me, I think especially the trio "Speaking of Courage," "Notes" and "In the Field." I'd like you to speak to that because the chapter Notes is in fact notes on Speaking of Courage.
Tim O'Brien: Mm-hmm.
Josephine: Which is a coming home story actually.

Tim O'Brien: It is. Yes, it is. It's a- it is a coming home story and uh.. also a story about how hard it is if in a way you can't come home, just not the same person that you were before. When I talk about true stories making the stomach believe I'm trying to- I'm trying to write about the difference between, you know, fiction and nonfiction, that fiction is in general, not entirely but in general aimed at the head through argumentation and
what we're taught in high school and college about writing essays, uh.. making a case and then producing logical arguments on behalf of the case. And fiction operates not only on that level, it operates also on the level of making is us feel; that is eliciting laughter and eliciting fright and eliciting a whole- the whole gamut of- of human emotion, where you feel as you're reading. You're in the rice patty or you're in bed with that girl or you're having an argument with your father when he's dead drunk. And you're feeling, not just being argued to or at. And that's what I'm getting at by "making the stomach believe." So the goal of The Things They Carried is to- in large part, is to make readers feel something of what I felt all those years ago and after returning from the war, in a way that a 30 second clip on CNN can't and doesn't aspire to; the way a newspaper story is not going to make you feel what it is to be frustrated by never being able to find the enemy and man after man die and another man die and another man lose his legs and you can't find anything to shoot back at. And you don't believe in the war anyway. There's a feeling of frustration and where's God and why am I here? That goes beyond argumentation and it goes beyond nonfiction. It goes to our nightmares and our human both our human aspirations and our human fears. And so that's what the stomach business was about. And I'm hoping that the chapters that you mentioned, "Notes, In the Field and Speaking of Courage, which are at the heart of The Things They Carried, right in the middle of the book, are meant to get at this sense I had as a soldier, a personal sense of being stirred in the muck of all wars and all horror; the wars that preceded me and the wars that followed my time in Vietnam.

Josephine: There's also the way you recount a horrible event and then at the end say, well wait, no, I can't say the protagonist did this terrible thing. He didn't. That kind of shifting of reality like a kaleidoscope, to me, seemed very much like the war must have seemed. And I'm not sure if that's why you did that, but it's—

Tim O'Brien: It is why. It's exactly why.
Josephine: This is the way it happened. No, it's not the way. Yes it is. Maybe it is. Who knows?

Tim O'Brien: There's a shifting ground underneath your feet of ‘what am I responsible for'. For example, you have a battle, let's say. There's a firefight. Somebody's dead at the end, an enemy soldier. Are you responsible for the death? How do you know? Everybody was firing. They were firing. You were firing. Artillery was coming in. Gunships were firing. There's no way in the end of knowing w- with some exceptions but by and large, who shot whom and who killed whom is so chaotic and your eyes are closed anyway half the time and you're staring at the ground at a pebble of grass holding your weapon up and firing it automatic. You have no idea what you're hitting uh.. or not hitting. And it's all over and then where does responsibility begin? And in the end, that's what I'm- what I hope to get at is that sense of utter uncertainties that are at the- the center of this thing we call war; of personal un- uncertainty about it all. Is the war right or wrong? I'm uncertain. Who- what is certainty? Take a philosopher to tell you what a just war-- Aquinas tried, failed. I mean, we've been trying forever. One man's certainty is another man's utter uncertainty and so on. So, in a way the book is meant to be, in a large part the book, for me at least, is meant to be a cry of revulsion against the utter certainties that come out of the mouths of politicians and generals and admirals and beaters of war drums, just the utter certainty with which they'll declare this war as right and you ought to die for it, or at least your kid ought to. Not my kid, but your kid. Mine's at Yale. But yours ought to. The certainty that pious, holier than thou certainty that accompanies the rhetoric of war and infuses the rhetoric of war, in my opinion has nothing to do with the realities that I experienced in a war.

Josephine: Another story that I would very much like you to talk about is "Rat" Kiley's story, The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong, which reminds me of Heart of Darkness.

Tim O'Brien: Good. It's meant to because it's meant to be modeled on Heart of Darkness and it is modeled on Heart of Darkness. "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" is I guess you could call it my feminist story. I wanted to write a story in which a woman walks in my boots. And I wanted to, as a writer, watch what happened to her. Did she do what I did? Did she feel what I felt? That's in a way what fiction is about and- is for me, is- is uh.. kind
of a heuristic exercise, what- this kind of ‘what if' exercise. What if a woman were in Vietnam? Would she respond differently than I? the same? Would- these little gradations of difference? So, in "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," a fellow in Vietnam sends for his girlfriend fresh out of Cleveland Heights High School. She shows up in her culottes and pink sweater in Vietnam. And over the course of the next 30 pages of the story she- she becomes a soldier. She descends into this heart of darkness that you typically think of a male dominion, but of course is not. I think too often women feel that books about subjects such as war are- they're excluded from them by experience and by training and by, maybe even by temperament. And I wanted to at least make an effort at putting a hand out and saying, "Come on. yeah you are different. but we're not that different. We all know what horror is and love and fear and joy. And I think that you, for all our differences, would probably be a lot like, you know, me. You're going to feel something of what I felt in this situation. Maybe a lot of what I felt. And not just good stuff either, there's things you can be proud of. You're going to feel bad things too. You're going to learn bad things about yourself the way I did." And that's pretty much what happens to Mary Anne Bell in the course of that story. She- she in a way is seduced by war. You hate it, yeah. But your eyes don't hate it. Your eyes are commanded by it. The tracer rounds unwinding in the dark and the orange, yellow glow of napalm, even as it's frying people, it's- it's got its own beauty or a forest fire is beautiful in a strange way, even though it kills and destroys. And uhm.. to- to learn that one can be commanded by this stuff, the sound of your boots in a rice patty and moon over head and the proximity of your own death with every step you take, you're partly in a dream you can't quite believe in. And you're also hypnotized by the reality of the sounds of those boots.

Josephine: It's the paradox and the irony that- kind of that intimacy with death brings a heightened engagement with life.

Tim O'Brien: It does. You're never more aware of everything that you love and value than when you're almost dead and may lose it. All of us, our lives, I think take for granted so much, a Big Mac and a cold glass of water. But when you're lying in a rice patty, and drinking patty water with leeches in it and eating the C rations that you don't take those things for granted, your family and your hometown and peace itself is taken for granted. Here we are talking right now and you and I at least are at peace. The world may not be. But until you say that, you don't think, "Well, I'm at peace." Whereas, if you're in a war, you're aware every instant that you're in a war. It's loud and noisy. Takes you by the throat and squeezes the life out of you. And you know you're in a war and you're aware of every- every beat of your heart. And the repetitive proximity to death, which was what war in the end is in part. By repet- and repetitive is the key word, that is we're all gonna have proximity to death at some point in our lives, even if it's only once and the last time and the only time. During war it can happen 12 times a day, with every step you take if you're walking through, say a mined area, or if there are 15 little firefights a day. I mean, it may be only a few rounds fired but with each one your throat clenches and your fists tighten up and you feel you're almost dead. And it's over. You take a breath. And you're alive. You look at the trees and the sky and a few puffy white clouds and you're so aware of aliveness. Everything around you just sort of burns with aliveness, in a way you would not have appreciated 20 seconds before.

Josephine: That was writer, Tim O'Brien, talking about his novel, The Things They Carried. The Things They Carried is a big read selection, to see if a town in your area will be the reading the book, or to find out more about the program go to NEAbigread.org

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. Excerpts from:

Sir Edward Elgar's Elegy Op. 58, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Used courtesy of Naxos of America, Incorporated:

Excerpts from "Desolation" composed and performed by Todd Barton,
used courtesy of Valley Productions.

Readings from The Things They Carried were by Bradley Whitford.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U---just click on the itunes link on our podcast page. Next week, Keri Putnam, executive director of Film Forward.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


Tim O'Brien, who served in Vietnam, talks about his novel (and Big Read selection) The Things They Carried  and how fiction can often tell a deeper truth about war.  [29:34]