Arts

Extended Interview: For author Tim O’Brien, war is a setting, not a theme

By October 9, 2018 October 15th, 2018 No Comments

Tim O’Brien is best known for his war writing, specifically the National Book Award winning novel, Going After Cacciato (1978) and The Things They Carried (1990), a collection of connected stories, both set in Vietnam. His writing is fantastical, muddy, resolute and elegiac, sometimes all at once, while getting to truths about the gruesome and workaday realities of war. Presently, he is consulting and writing for the hit TV show, This Is Us, and took time to speak to the Pittsburgh Current from his home in Austin, Texas. (Answers have been edited for length and an expanded version of this interview can be found at www.pittsburghcurrrent.com)

Tim O’Brien is best known for his war writing, specifically the National Book Award winning novel, Going After Cacciato (1978) and The Things They Carried (1990), a collection of connected stories, both set in Vietnam. His writing is fantastical, muddy, resolute and elegiac, sometimes all at once, while getting to truths about the gruesome and workaday realities of war. Presently, he is consulting and writing for the hit TV show, This Is Us, and took time to speak to Current via telephone from his home in Austin, Texas.

 

Were you emotionally beaten up in mining your wartime experience to write fiction?  

No. Because time had passed between the actual events in Vietnam and when I wrote the books. The goal, really, was to let others, to hope others would feel through stories the stuff I had felt a long time ago. And still carry with me in a way. I still feel the grief and responsibility and the people dying all around me, and the fear and all of that. But the object wasn’t really me, it was to let others experience the emotions I’d gone through so long ago. You kind of lose yourself as a writer. At least I do. And you become the characters in the story. So you’re divorced, one step divorced from your own experience that shifts as you use somebody else’s name. You move a step away. And you do a bit of description. And you move another step away. You live in a world that isn’t as personal as you might think. It’s happening on the page or inside the computer, kind of. For me, it’s really trying to tell a story that would give people access to emotional material that has to do, not just with war, but with fear that you might feel in a cancer ward or ordinary civilian life. With a sense of lostness and ambiguity and why do I feel so alone. We all experience that stuff. Although on the surface it’s a book about my own experience in war, for me, The Things They Carried is the things we all carry.

 

PC:  Do you have a system for writing?

I like putting a book away. It’s a good idea to put a book aside for several months. Return to it. I sometimes rewrite a chapter over and over and over again until I think it’s the best chapter I could possibly make it and then move on to the next. But I often end up throwing away the chapter I’ve worked and worked on. I don’t outline. I don’t plan at all. I just trust the story will find a way if I sit on my ass long enough in front of the computer — something magical will happen. The story will start to tell itself. That’s the big goal. In one way or another, every writer awakes. Through different strategies. Putting things in drawers. Going on vacation. Sitting and editing over and over and over. We’re trying to find that magical daydream when things seem to unfold without your having caused them. But you have caused them, it’s happening in your head.

 

That’s as close as I can get to how I work — a daydream that is vivid and interests me. One of the chapters in The Things They Carried begins, “I had a buddy in Vietnam. His name was Bob Kiley, but everybody called him Rat.” When I wrote those sentences, I had no idea what I was writing about. I didn’t know who Rat Kiley was. I had no idea what the story was. The actual first line was, it was three words, the actual first line was “This is true. I had a buddy in Vietnam.” Well, I knew I didn’t have a buddy in Vietnam named Rat Kiley or Bob Kiley. I was intrigued by why the word true would be used and so you pursue that for a while. What is true? How do we know what’s true? How does true change over time? Our view of it? And in what ways does it change? Why does it matter if a thing is true or not, in a literal sense? Who cares? A thousand years from now, I’ll be dead, you’ll be dead. Truth will erase itself. And 10,000 years from now, who is going to know if a story is true or not? We have the Iliad, a little archeology and that’s it. The point of writing the story was waiting for the story, typing words, then sentences, deleting many of them. Finally, something will happen when you’re carried away in the world of a daydream where it seems to write itself. It’s kind of magical. I don’t understand what happens in my head. I don’t think a lot of writers do understand what happens in their heads. I don’t think you sit down to write a single sentence. Sometimes you have a phrase in your head. There is a single little phrase that’s like music in your head. And you get carried away to the next line, because there’s a music to it and imagery around it.

 

You’ve rejected the term war writer. One could argue that those ‘war books’ are about friendships.

They are. They’re books about telling stories, too. What do stories do to us? I did it pretty self-consciously in these books, especially in The Things They Carry. At least half the content of these books are stories about what stories do in our lives. How they console us, how they make us feel a little less alone in the world; how they give us some late night company, when you’re lying alone in bed at 2:00 in the morning reading a book. They do all kinds of things for us. Partly, I’m writing about what this process is of storytelling.

 

You often deploy unreliable narrators.

That’s because life is unreliable. Who can count the number of times any human being says, ‘man, that person surprised me.’ I believe that. All around us, there’s unreliability. That’s how the world is in my experience. I try to be faithful to that. There are shifting perspectives on the exact same event. You might think somebody is doing something kind, when in fact they’re doing something mercilessly terrible. And don’t recognize it until you recognize it. We’re unreliable even to ourselves. You can think of yourself as the Lone Ranger galloping off to help the needy and oppressed and orphans and widows and one day you wake up and realize that you haven’t behaved that way at all. And that you’re self-image isn’t reliable. So, part of what I try to do is deal with the ambiguities of the world we live in. In The Things They Carried I returned repeatedly to the scene of Curt Lemon getting blown up into a tree by a landmine. And look at it through different angles of vision, at least three times. And in a few sentences, even more times than that. But three major times. You look at the same event over and over and it changes time by time by time because it’s being apprehended by different characters at different points. So, you’re absolutely right. Part of what I try to do as a writer is try to subvert the notion that the world comes at us in a good, reliable kind of way. For me at least, it never has. I wish it would, but it doesn’t. I really care about that point you just brought up. Most often that question is a literary question — it’s technique. But to me it’s a crucial question that has weaved it’s way through my life.

 

When life is happening it doesn’t make sense while it’s happening and you force the reader to live in this difficult space.

In the Lake of the Woods (1994) is a very clear cut example of that. To write a story in which even the main character doesn’t know what really happened. The narrator of the story is flummoxed. Did he kill his wife? Did she walk out on him? Did she have an accident out on that lake? Did she run away with another man? All these scenarios are presented. That’s true, again, I think of how life is. What frustrates us, but also fascinates us, is what we don’t know for sure. It’s why you don’t see movies about Harry Truman dying of old age. We know how he died. But you do see movies about JFK. Was it a conspiracy? Was it not? It’s why we’re transfixed by Amelia Earhart. Thousands of pilots have died. But we’re transfixed by Amelia, not just because she was a woman, but because she vanished. People want to know what happened to her. And so you turn on the Learning Channel and there’s another Amelia Earhart, her boots have been found on some island in the South Pacific.

 

‘Why did I do the things I did?’ John Wade asks himself, and don’t we all, as we lie in bed at night, wishing we hadn’t told that little lie at that cocktail party, or exaggerated, or why did we do all kinds of things in our lives, even good things. It’s a mystery and mysteries, by definition are unsolved. We’re fascinated by them, including the mysteries of ourselves. Who really are we? What are our motives? We walk around with our self-images and our beliefs in who we are, but many times, again, lying in bed at night, you realize you violated your own sense of self, and behaved ‘out of character,’ as they call it. We all do it. That book was meant to explore the ambiguities of the human spirit, that sense we have of mystery. Things aren’t all tidily wrapped up. We don’t wrap stuff up. We don’t know what happened to this character. We don’t know. The story ends.

You’ve started working on the hit TV show, ‘This Is Us,’ recently. Can you talk about that with no spoilers.

I’ve never really been interested by it [television] and I’m still kind of dizzied by it. I’m a tyrant, in total charge of my books. I’m the producer, the director, the actor; I write the dialogue and the narration. I do it all. Television is so collaborative, it’s beyond belief how collaborative it is. It’s more collaborative than I even thought it was. It’s not just the writing that’s collaborative, the whole deal is collaborative. The actors toss in stuff that’s not in the script, the director does. The prop people — if they don’t have something, you have to change things. The cinematographer. I have the sense of being in Alice in Wonderland country. It’s upside down from what I’m used to. On the other hand, it’s a lot of fun. It was an amazing experience to join the collaboration. So I have two responses:  lots of fun, but weird.

Tim O’Brien is best known for his war writing, specifically the National Book Award winning novel, Going After Cacciato (1978) and The Things They Carried (1990), a collection of connected stories, both set in Vietnam. His writing is fantastical, muddy, resolute and elegiac, sometimes all at once, while getting to truths about the gruesome and workaday realities of war. Presently, he is consulting and writing for the hit TV show, This Is Us, and took time to speak to Current via telephone from his home in Austin, Texas. O’Brien will speak at the Peters Township Public Library on November 7th at 7:00 pm.

Were you emotionally beaten up in mining your wartime experience to write fiction?  

No. Because time had passed between the actual events in Vietnam and when I wrote the books. The goal, really, was to let others, to hope others would feel through stories the stuff I had felt a long time ago. And still carry with me in a way. I still feel the grief and responsibility and the people dying all around me, and the fear and all of that. But the object wasn’t really me, it was to let others experience the emotions I’d gone through so long ago. You kind of lose yourself as a writer. At least I do. And you become the characters in the story. So you’re divorced, one step divorced from your own experience that shifts as you use somebody else’s name. You move a step away. And you do a bit of description. And you move another step away. You live in a world that isn’t as personal as you might think. It’s happening on the page or inside the computer, kind of. For me, it’s really trying to tell a story that would give people access to emotional material that has to do, not just with war, but with fear that you might feel in a cancer ward or ordinary civilian life. With a sense of lostness and ambiguity and why do I feel so alone. We all experience that stuff. Although on the surface it’s a book about my own experience in war, for me, The Things They Carried is the things we all carry.

PC:  Do you have a system for writing?

I like putting a book away. It’s a good idea to put a book aside for several months. Return to it. I sometimes rewrite a chapter over and over and over again until I think it’s the best chapter I could possibly make it and then move on to the next. But I often end up throwing away the chapter I’ve worked and worked on. I don’t outline. I don’t plan at all. I just trust the story will find a way if I sit on my ass long enough in front of the computer — something magical will happen. The story will start to tell itself. That’s the big goal. In one way or another, every writer awakes. Through different strategies. Putting things in drawers. Going on vacation. Sitting and editing over and over and over. We’re trying to find that magical daydream when things seem to unfold without your having caused them. But you have caused them, it’s happening in your head.

That’s as close as I can get to how I work — a daydream that is vivid and interests me. One of the chapters in The Things They Carried begins, “I had a buddy in Vietnam. His name was Bob Kiley, but everybody called him Rat.” When I wrote those sentences, I had no idea what I was writing about. I didn’t know who Rat Kiley was. I had no idea what the story was. The actual first line was, it was three words, the actual first line was “This is true. I had a buddy in Vietnam.” Well, I knew I didn’t have a buddy in Vietnam named Rat Kiley or Bob Kiley. I was intrigued by why the word true would be used and so you pursue that for a while. What is true? How do we know what’s true? How does true change over time? Our view of it? And in what ways does it change? Why does it matter if a thing is true or not, in a literal sense? Who cares? A thousand years from now, I’ll be dead, you’ll be dead. Truth will erase itself. And 10,000 years from now, who is going to know if a story is true or not? We have the Iliad, a little archeology and that’s it. The point of writing the story was waiting for the story, typing words, then sentences, deleting many of them. Finally, something will happen when you’re carried away in the world of a daydream where it seems to write itself. It’s kind of magical. I don’t understand what happens in my head. I don’t think a lot of writers do understand what happens in their heads. I don’t think you sit down to write a single sentence. Sometimes you have a phrase in your head. There is a single little phrase that’s like music in your head. And you get carried away to the next line, because there’s a music to it and imagery around it.

You’ve rejected the term war writer. One could argue that those ‘war books’ are about friendships.

They are. They’re books about telling stories, too. What do stories do to us? I did it pretty self-consciously in these books, especially in The Things They Carry. At least half the content of these books are stories about what stories do in our lives. How they console us, how they make us feel a little less alone in the world; how they give us some late night company, when you’re lying alone in bed at 2:00 in the morning reading a book. They do all kinds of things for us. Partly, I’m writing about what this process is of storytelling.

You often deploy unreliable narrators.

That’s because life is unreliable. Who can count the number of times any human being says, ‘man, that person surprised me.’ I believe that. All around us, there’s unreliability. That’s how the world is in my experience. I try to be faithful to that. There are shifting perspectives on the exact same event. You might think somebody is doing something kind, when in fact they’re doing something mercilessly terrible. And don’t recognize it until you recognize it. We’re unreliable even to ourselves. You can think of yourself as the Lone Ranger galloping off to help the needy and oppressed and orphans and widows and one day you wake up and realize that you haven’t behaved that way at all. And that you’re self-image isn’t reliable. So, part of what I try to do is deal with the ambiguities of the world we live in. In The Things They Carried I returned repeatedly to the scene of Curt Lemon getting blown up into a tree by a landmine. And look at it through different angles of vision, at least three times. And in a few sentences, even more times than that. But three major times. You look at the same event over and over and it changes time by time by time because it’s being apprehended by different characters at different points. So, you’re absolutely right. Part of what I try to do as a writer is try to subvert the notion that the world comes at us in a good, reliable kind of way. For me at least, it never has. I wish it would, but it doesn’t. I really care about that point you just brought up. Most often that question is a literary question — it’s technique. But to me it’s a crucial question that has weaved it’s way through my life.

When life is happening it doesn’t make sense while it’s happening and you force the reader to live in this difficult space.

In the Lake of the Woods (1994) is a very clear cut example of that. To write a story in which even the main character doesn’t know what really happened. The narrator of the story is flummoxed. Did he kill his wife? Did she walk out on him? Did she have an accident out on that lake? Did she run away with another man? All these scenarios are presented. That’s true, again, I think of how life is. What frustrates us, but also fascinates us, is what we don’t know for sure. It’s why you don’t see movies about Harry Truman dying of old age. We know how he died. But you do see movies about JFK. Was it a conspiracy? Was it not? It’s why we’re transfixed by Amelia Earhart. Thousands of pilots have died. But we’re transfixed by Amelia, not just because she was a woman, but because she vanished. People want to know what happened to her. And so you turn on the Learning Channel and there’s another Amelia Earhart, her boots have been found on some island in the South Pacific.

‘Why did I do the things I did?’ John Wade asks himself, and don’t we all, as we lie in bed at night, wishing we hadn’t told that little lie at that cocktail party, or exaggerated, or why did we do all kinds of things in our lives, even good things. It’s a mystery and mysteries, by definition are unsolved. We’re fascinated by them, including the mysteries of ourselves. Who really are we? What are our motives? We walk around with our self-images and our beliefs in who we are, but many times, again, lying in bed at night, you realize you violated your own sense of self, and behaved ‘out of character,’ as they call it. We all do it. That book was meant to explore the ambiguities of the human spirit, that sense we have of mystery. Things aren’t all tidily wrapped up. We don’t wrap stuff up. We don’t know what happened to this character. We don’t know. The story ends.

You’ve started working on the hit TV show, ‘This Is Us,’ recently. Can you talk about that with no spoilers.

I’ve never really been interested by it [television] and I’m still kind of dizzied by it. I’m a tyrant, in total charge of my books. I’m the producer, the director, the actor; I write the dialogue and the narration. I do it all. Television is so collaborative, it’s beyond belief how collaborative it is. It’s more collaborative than I even thought it was. It’s not just the writing that’s collaborative, the whole deal is collaborative. The actors toss in stuff that’s not in the script, the director does. The prop people — if they don’t have something, you have to change things. The cinematographer. I have the sense of being in Alice in Wonderland country. It’s upside down from what I’m used to. On the other hand, it’s a lot of fun. It was an amazing experience to join the collaboration. So I have two responses:  lots of fun, but weird.

 

Jody DiPerna is a Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer. Contact Jody at jody@pittsburghcurrent.com.

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