Below is a “salvaged” Q&A from a telephone interview with author Tim O’Brien, who for years I’ve been pestering to read W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn because I think he’ll discover a kindred spirit. He finally downloaded it to his iPad. His answers are unedited; my questions are heavily paraphrased. Our conversation took place in anticipation of his February 6, 2017 appearance at Gonzaga University as part of the school’s Visiting Writers Series.
Will you be talking or reading at the Visiting Writers Series? And will you focus on new or published work?
The answer is that it’ll be a mixture of all the above. I’ll be talking—not really reading—from The Things They Carried. That’s the book that I think they most want me to talk about. But I’ll also be talking about and maybe reading a little bit from new work. And I’ll be talking about writing in general as well for those students who are thinking about maybe being writers someday.
Why specifically The Things They Carried?
It’s taught at the school. That’s one of the reasons. And the people who invited me like the book, I guess. Or so it seems anyway.
It appeared close to three decades ago and you’ve published three novels since then. Do you ever get tired of revisiting it?
Well, you’d be something of an ingrate to not be happy that people like one of your books a lot. And most often what I find happening is that people will start with The Things They Carried because it’s the best known but will then move on to other books. I guess The Things They Carried in a way is for a lot of people an entree into my other books. But I like The Things They Carried a lot and I’m delighted that, you know, so many people also like it.
It’s really amazing. It’s what every writer really wants when you begin writing, is a book that will reach into the hearts of a bunch of people. And it’s really a blessing for me.
What is it about The Things They Carried in particular that has such popular appeal?
I don’t really know the answer to that. If I did I’d keep doing it. I think it has in part to do with the book being not just about war. I mean, on the surface, the stories do take place in Vietnam in a war. But based on the letters I receive from so many people, they apply it to their own lives. Their fathers dying and divorces and all the troubles that people carry in their lives carry, memories good and bad, and there’s something about that title and about the content of the book that moves beyond just war to other things, including just writing stories. The subject of storytelling itself is a big part of the book — what stories are for and how they help us heal and help us reflect on our own lives.
But war, directly or indirectly, is a common theme throughout all your work, no?
For me, war is an introduction to mortality. You go to war young, romantic and naive, and suddenly when you’re in it, your naïveté is gone, and you realize emotionally for the first time that you’re going to die. And it happens to everybody. The things that happen to a solider are the things that happen to all of us — the sense of sorrow and grief and recognizing your own mortality. The joys of just seeing a simple sunrise when you didn’t expect to see one.
I’d hope that the title and the book itself would touch people who’d never been to a war and had no interest in it, because in the end we’re all going to end up where soldiers end up. We’re going to be looking at our own deaths and realizing it’s real. We’re going to be looking back at our lives and recognizing what we value the way soldiers do when they’re in a foxhole at night: their mom and dad or their McDonald’s cheeseburger, whatever it might be, big and small.
When you’re almost dead all the time, or you think you may die in the next minute or the next day or whatever, you look at the world in a way that you hadn’t before. Eventually you will. When you get old you’ll start doing what soldiers do, looking back at things and doing a summary of your life, and so on. The thing about war is that you do it very young. You recognize your mortality the way most of us just ignore it throughout our lives. We know it intellectually, but we do cocktail party chitchat and we wash the dishes and we care about the oil level in our cars and things like that. We find that we do whatever we can do to erase it. And war does not let you erase it.
Back at Get Lit! in 2011, you previewed some writing in progress. Are you still working on that now? Long form or short form?
It’s as I’ve always done. Each chapter has a beginning, middle and end. And so it’s both [long form and a short story] for me. I’m working now, I’ve been working since last May—close to three-quarters of a year now—on a long chapter, but it’s also an essay that I hope will stand alone. And this new one, this new book is a work of nonfiction — some kind of a memoir, maybe I should call it? A very strange memoir, but it’s a memoir filled with stories.
A continued practice of verisimilitude?
That’s how I’ve always written. I try to mix the real world that we all live in with the fictional world, because that’s how the world feels to me all the time. I’ll be doing something real, but I’ll begin daydreaming as I’m doing the real thing. And that’s what happens when I write stories. I’ll start with my dad throwing me a baseball, and it’ll be real, and I’ll begin writing. But then something will happen where I move from reality into dialogue. He’ll say something to me that didn’t actually occur but feels like something that could’ve occurred and maybe should’ve occurred. And they blend together the way our daydreams blend with the real world we live in. You might be driving your car somewhere and see a billboard, and it’ll make you think of something that happened to you fifty years ago. Or something that never happened but you wish had happened fifty years ago. And for five seconds a little bit of fiction will go through your head. You call it daydreaming. And the same thing of course happens when we dream at night, in our night dreams where usually they come out of something in the real world — a bad meal that we had last night might start the dream, but it will move into things that never actually occurred. And that’s how the world feels to me. It’s a mixture, there’s a blur between the actual and the imagined. It’s blurry and they happen in all our lives. It’s not just me. I think all human beings are that way.
The essay I’ve been working on is a mixture of being about my father, my children, their names are Timmy and Tad, and Ernest Hemingway. And the essay, which is now way too long, it’s like 90 pages long and I’ll have to cut it, actually now it’s over 100 pages long, but it’s structured around four of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. Very tiny stories, all of them. But I use the stories as a way of writing about writing itself. I use it as a way of writing about my children, and as a way of telling my children a little about myself — the things I care about, what I’ve done in my life, and so on. So that’s why I say it’s kind of a bizarre, very hard-to-describe memoir, because it’s not just a memoir. It’s also about other people: Hemingway and my dad and my mom and my children. So somehow, for me at least, it all hangs together, but I bet it doesn’t sound that way.
Hemingway the writer or Hemingway the man?
Hemingway the writer. It’s totally these few stories that I write about. One of them’s called Cat in the Rain, another one’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, another one is The Killers—and what is the fourth one? I can’t believe it, I’ve been working on this for a year, why does it escape me?—oh, Soldier’s Home. Those four stories. And all one hundred pages are organized around those stories. But I move from the stories to what the stories mean to me and what I want them to mean to my kids and how a story as I’m reading it doesn’t belong to Ernest Hemingway anymore, it belongs as much to the reader. A reader reads the story and in terms of his or her own life. That’s always true of my work. I’ll give a reading somewhere and, I don’t know, 20 or 30 times, somebody will come up to me afterward, a young man of about 20, and he’ll say to me, ‘Well, I could tell you that was hard going, and you were kind of choking up a little bit,’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah,’ and he’ll say, ‘Thanks,’ and he’ll start to move away, and he’ll come back and say, ‘Listen, I’ve been thinking about joining the Marines, but having listened to you, I now know I’m going to for sure.’ And I’m thinking, ‘God, that’s not how I read my story. I would’ve read my story exactly the reverse — now I’m not going to.’
And that’s true of any writer. You can’t control everything as a writer. You have to leave room in the story for the reader to put himself or herself in the story. And what would I do? And what would I feel in these same circumstances? So that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last year or so. I mean, it’s one chapter. It’s really hard to talk about it, so that’s why I’m probably just going to read from it. Because it’ll explain itself, I hope.
Is this part of the same work you previewed in 2011?
I started years ago on this book. I’ve been at it for 12 years — more, 14 years? Because it’s about my kids. It began when my youngest, now my oldest kid was just 16 months old. I probably read something way back then that I’d written. That’s why it’s taken so long. You have to kind of wait for things to happen in your life. Especially with the children — to find connections to the children, and that means they have to do stuff that you can write about. So it’s taken a long time.
You said war makes you acutely aware of your own mortality, but so do children.
It’s a sad, bittersweet feel. There’s an endingness when you have a child. The birth certificate is ultimately a death certificate. Because everybody dies. And as time goes by, even when they’re young, you can feel that slipping-away sensation that their youth will be gone, and they’ll become a teenager, and then that’ll be gone, and they’ll be 23, and that’ll be gone, and they’ll be 35, and that’ll be gone, and they’ll be an old man. That’s what I was talking about when I was getting at this mortality thing that I find in all of Hemingway’s work. All of it. Underneath it all there’s the firm foundation of it all is in all of his stories—usually pretty pronounced but sometimes subtle—there’s this feel of mortality that I get having my children around my own death. Where will I be in 30 years? Well, I’m not going to be here. I’m an old man. And what’s it going to be like for them without a father in ten years or five or whenever it happens? So there’s that aspect to it.
But there’s also the aspect of how youth itself gets erased. They remember nothing from age zero to age eight or seven. Somewhere in there there’s very little memory about things — broken legs, things like that. They don’t remember it. And I was the same and probably you were the same. And how that’s true even as an adult, where if I were to ask you to recount for me what happened to you yesterday, how much could you really tell me? And how much could I tell you? You could do a vague version, but what about if I were to say, ‘September 2, 2014?’ — a couple of years back. The odds are you’d remember zero. And yet we act as if we know ourselves and know our own lives and know who we are when we’ve erased most of who we are. Shopping at the Safeway and doing dishes in the morning. It’s totally gone. One dish is all the dishes in our memories. And yet we behave as if we somehow know everything about ourselves when in fact we’ve erased almost everything about ourselves the way children do. So it’s partly about that as well.
It sounds very abstract, but that’s why I said earlier on I try to do it through stories, like an anecdote. And you can carry that feeling of forgetfulness and of erasure, of the passage of time. If you can do it through a story that a reader can pay attention to what’s occurring in the story, it’s a lot better way to talk about this sort of thing than the way I’m doing it right now.
In light of all that transience, does writing provide a bulwark against mortality?
I think there is no bulwark against mortality, unfortunately. I’m not a Faulkner, mankind-will-prevail sort of guy. I think mankind is doomed — partly by ourselves, partly by astrophysics. We are human and we have the capacity to know what’s coming down the pike, unlike the chipmunks and the gophers and the wolverines. And so, in a story, if it’s touching and makes your heart feel something, and if it makes you or helps you recognize something in yourself that’s ordinarily ignored, for me at least, that’s what a story is for. I wouldn’t say fiction alone necessarily. I’d say any kind of story. A story that you hear on the playground about something that happened that day. Or a story you heard at a dinner party. If it’s good enough, it’ll resonate in the same way that a written story will. The difference for me is that a written story is labored over enough to make it move vivid and more intense and more carefully wrought, getting rid of the unnecessary. So I think all stories are a way of reminding us all that we’re part of this universal journey down the birth canal and out into the light and then toward the grave. Stories, in one way or another, if they’re to touch me anyway, have to have that kind of foundation. Even if it’s invisible it has to be beneath a story. Even a comedy. It doesn’t have to be a tragic, grim story. It can be a funny story too.
And so, even when faced with cosmic-scale futility, you keep writing.
I think you can tell in my voice the excitement I feel about a new book. I feel as I did after getting immersed in The Things They Carried or In the Lake of the Woods or my other books. I feel an excitement and also an anticipation as to how people will respond to this and to the connections between this book and The Things They Carried, which I think are pretty strong. But they’re certainly not identical. So it’s a mixture — I’m coming with excitement that I wouldn’t have had if I weren’t so far into this book now as I am. I feel like I’ll be talking not just about old work but about how the old work connects to who I am now.
Doesn’t some of that excitement also stem from the fact that it’s been 15 years, your longest quiet period, since July, July?
Never write a book about your children if you can help it. You have to wait so damn long for them to do anything that’s worth writing about. You can’t just write about changing diapers. Not for long, anyway.
I’ll give an example. This was, oh, six years ago. That would’ve made my oldest kid about seven. And we were in the south of France at a very, very ritzy resort that we accidentally — we didn’t know it was this — it felt like we were in a Clark Gable movie or something from the 1950s. It was full of rich people, well-mannered and hoity-toity. Nobody felt at home there. And we were outside one day and the kids are playing ping-pong out on this densely green lawn. Everything was incredibly well manicured. And my wife and I were having a drink. And my cellphone rang. It was my sister. And she was calling to tell me that my mother had died. And I remember looking around at this glitzy hotel and these glitzy people, and I’m just a plain old Midwestern small-town kid in my heart. Even though I’m 70 years old, that’s the main person I am. And I’m thinking how odd it was to be hearing of my mother’s death at a place like this of all places on the planet. So I hung up and one of my kids came over and asked me to play ping-pong. I batted the ball for, I don’t know, an hour without much emotion, really. I mean, I felt sad but I wasn’t crying and I didn’t go insane like I thought I might after hearing something like this, the foreverness of a death. And maybe 2 or 3 hours later, when we—the four of us, my two kids and my wife and I—were walking down into the town, my wife said to Timmy, the oldest kid, ‘Are you thinking about Grandma?’ And there was a long pause. And he said, ‘No. I’m thinking about Dad thinking about Grandma.’
The otherness of that comment, and the beauty of how it’s said, those moments don’t happen much. And so you spend 14 years waiting for something like that. They do happen. Our children amaze us and surprise us with their… I mean, Donald Trump doesn’t have the capacity to say a fucking thing like that. But that kid did. At 7 or 6 years old.
And just a little thing like that gives me a sense of hope against all the horrible things that happen in this world we live in. It makes me think, well, maybe mankind is not born evil and born greedy and born egotistical. I think I’m more inclined toward innocence corrupted — corrupted as we get older, which you notice in your children. As they get older they grow distant and they start doing bad stuff intentionally and not unintentionally. So that’s an example, and that’s what I mean — you see how the story almost made me cry just telling it. But it’s not abstract. It’s just a story. But it’s a story with a beautiful bit of language at the end. And the setting is vivid. And the circumstances are peculiar, which audiences and readers alike both require. You require something out of the ordinary. Stories aren’t made about eating Cheerios, and if they are, the Cheerios are unusual or something unusual happens when you’re eating the Cheerios. So that’s what I’m getting at. The power of the story is much more than… a story can make you tear up or laugh, but what I was doing earlier when I was trying to describe this book, it was just abstract. And that’s why I’m putting such a premium on story. And that’s a good way to end, I think.