Interview: Tim O’Brien
The buzzwords around town these days are weapons of mass destruction, the scourge of terrorism, and united we stand. There’s a palpable fear, and weight of anxiety. We see kids in uniforms saying goodbye to mom, dad, sweethearts, and sons. The news is always on, and the president is always trying to reassure. It’s a tumultuous time, to be sure. Yet for those who came of age during Vietnam, it must feel sublimely similar. The Great Red Tide was sweeping over Southeast Asia, and a strange people seemed bent on our destruction. Our society struggled with moral ambiguity while our presidents struggled with legitimacy. We were divided, yet intent on standing together in the world’s eye. There were bombings and escalating military tensions. And there were people who lived through it.
Tim O’Brien easily won the praise lauded upon him as the Vietnam generation’s greatest writer. He wrote sublime stories of soldiers coping with the extremes of human emotion, and he managed to make his audience feel it at home. His brutal honesty not only stripped the Vietnam War of its shrouded legacy, but it gave consciousness to a generation. O’Brien writes with a personal and intellectual honesty so poignant and stark that meeting him felt like a bonus chapter from one his books. In southern Connecticut, along with a crew from Scissor Press, I got the chance to chat with the writer who is beginning to be recognized as so much more than a chronicler of a generation.
O’Brien’s newest book, July, July, published by Houghton Mifflin, is a new direction for O’Brien. This novel is the story of a college reunion, and a look at the lives of Vietnam-era kids in their middle age. It’s not, as O’Brien assures us, a political book. The characters in this novel struggle with marriage, identity, morality, and forgiveness, but their overarching drive is human love. It is a reckoning of ten people’s lives, their failures and successes. What makes it an O’Brien novel are the ever present themes of courage, fear, and a search for the absolutes which escape all of us. In the character’s journeys in July, July we see strains of Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, but instead of soldiers we have characters from the home front, living their lives with the same bravery and fraternity as the boys on the front line. Once again, O’Brien has shown himself to be the premier author of his age and this one with his naked honesty and modern relevance.
I found Mr. O’Brien to be soft spoken, with gentle, focused responses. We discussed his latest book, the emotions of war, and the splintered current events that we share. Along the way, he gave insights into his own ambitions, telling us the story of his first book, Timmy of the Little League, written in one sitting at the local library during his childhood. We spoke frankly about his decision to go to Vietnam, and the regret that he still carries with him. We were also fortunate to catch a glimpse of his work to come, as he described being inspired by the FBI transcripts of the Jonestown tragedy. It was an intensely personal interview, as is his writing, and the most rewarding that I have conducted. Read on, and you will find an artist whose life has at time imitated his art, but whose art has always embraced life. -Douglas Novielli
So what are we going to talk about today?
My new book.
That’s a good place to start. I was wondering what your catalyst was for taking a look at the lives of the Vietnam Generation today.
The catalyst was a short story I wrote for Esquire Magazine several years ago, about a college reunion. Just a little tiny story that fit on one page of the magazine that they asked for. And after I finished it I was curious, curious about these other people, name tags kind of bobbing in the background, you know, who they were, and it was mostly just a human curiosity to learn about these people.
Anything in particular give you the idea for the short story, to move away from the war and deal with what happened next?
Well yeah, I mean, I’ve written so much about the war, I wanted to write about people who didn’t necessarily go to it, because for every guy who went, or who went to Canada, there were countless girlfriends, mothers, and wives, and a lot of women, and men who didn’t go, too. They had their own healing to do, and tragedy they went through. Because so much of the fiction, and nonfiction that has been written about that time was just solely with the war, I thought god, it’s time to give some attention to people who were peripherally or marginally affected by it.
Do you think this is part of the healing process, after all these years?
Yeah, a little. Although, I don’t think of it so abstractly, I think of it more as just stories. It’s the story of Marv telling his big lie, and Spook’s double marriage, and Dorothy taking her shirt off, telling her husband ‘Look at me, touch me,’ after the breast cancer. I think it’s more human stories for each of the characters instead of a grand scheme, I’ve never had those; just stories about these ten lives.
Did you finish the book before or after September 11th?
Did that have an effect on the book?
It did, yeah, it did. If you remember the Johnny Evers character who appears in different guises throughout the book — he’s a blackjack dealer, and he’s a TV evangelist at the end, Dorothy’s next door neighbor, the guy who says “you’re going to die in the next five years”; that was in the book, but it wasn’t necessarily such a strong strain, and September 11th made me put this angel in the book. The voice of conscious, the voice of history, reminding us the way we talk to yourselves, you know, “If you don’t stop smoking you’re gonna die in five years,” when you lie awake at night, so it’s meant to be that kind of voice.
It’s funny because all I could think of when I read the name Johnny Evers was Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance.
I remember that, I didn’t think anyone else remembered that.
With the book set in the present, how do you think Vietnam dictates the American lifestyle? How does it reverberate through the culture?
You can turn on any radio station, even coming down here and you hear the music from that era, still around. It’s certainly in the political rhetoric, you know, “Don’t forget Vietnam.” No matter what we do politically around the rest of the world, Vietnam is there as a reference point: “If we don’t repeat those mistakes, we’ll win this war,” something like that. I’ve been traveling for several weeks now, and it’s weird that at least half, probably more than half of the people who come to these things are high school and college people. Probably they’re assigned the book, but probably they like the book too, or else they wouldn’t come. I just think they’re curious about that time. I don’t know quite where that comes from, probably their parents.
Is that an appropriate message to take from Vietnam? “Don’t repeat these mistakes.”
I think so. Be cautious. We went into Vietnam as a culture, but also in a personal way, very ignorant about Southeast Asia. My hometown draft board literally couldn’t have found it on a map. I saw a few days ago on the news a study that said something like 13 percent of high school kids — but I’m not sure of that — could find Iraq. Isn’t that amazing? That kind of colossal ignorance when you can’t even find a place, much less know anything about it’s history, politics, language, culture, religion, all those sorts of things. It’s just a colossal ignorance I see being repeated now. Until September 11th happened you couldn’t have found more than a hundred thousand Americans who could’ve told you who the Taliban was, you really couldn’t have. The next day they wanted to kill them, and go to war. That can get you in a lot of trouble.
Is that what the generation coming of age today should learn from Vietnam?
Partly that. Partly it’s to educate, and understand these things, before you go to war. To understand that the other side might have legitimate grievances. Doesn’t mean that you justify what happened, but it means that they have legitimate grievances, and so you address them if you can, and you just don’t go off killing people. It seems to me that there is, as there was in Vietnam, a great sense of frustration in our country that we can’t find the Al-Qaeda, Bin Laden, and it was the same thing in Vietnam. We couldn’t find the Viet Cong, and just like in Vietnam we struck back at what we could find. We could find Afghanistan, so we struck back there, and we can find Iraq, so we’ll strike there, but that’s not striking back at the people who are doing these things to us, that’s striking back at babies and old men and women who are going to die in the bombings.
It’s reminiscent of Vietnam where you’d get so frustrated that you gotta strike back at something, and we’d do it. You gotta be more selective than that. Otherwise you’re going to make a lot more enemies, like we did in Vietnam. We’d go from village to village and just waste the place. If we took any sniper fire we’d call in gun-ships and artillery and just waste it, because we were scared of the place. Just blow it up, and yeah, VC would die, but so would countless kids and old men and women, and for every one that died you’d make more enemies, there’d be more VC. You were killing their families. Before they were apathetic and apolitical, but boy, when you start killing their kids, they aren’t apathetic anymore. That’s basically what happened, we were just generating more and more enemies to fight.
You see that happening today?
Yeah. It’s gonna be a nightmare; the Muslim world is not going to forget. Attacking over there, when you start killing people, thirty, forty, a thousand years down the pike, there’s gonna be a lot more terrorists, and it’s gonna be bad. You’ve got to find some way of addressing the problem without making a bigger one.
Looking at this pragmatically, is there a place for morality? Who is in the right now, who will be right later, how do you deal with the issue of moral authority?
You do it through standard diplomacy and education. What happens when you go back to Vietnam? We’re far enough removed from it now, and our passions, that we can say “God, if only,” early on. After World War II ended, and the French began occupying the place, and when the trouble began a really long time ago, we helped the French, we totally supported their military re-entrance into that area with massive amounts of aid, and what if we had just said, “Let’s not do that,” let’s let the Vietnamese determine if the French come back in, and that means you have to have some foresight into the future. What would you want if you lived in a country called Vietnam and the war ended and the Japanese had occupied you, and suddenly you’ve got a new occupier, the French? You wouldn’t like it. We wouldn’t like it if somebody tried to do that in our country.
We made a big mistake early on, and then we kept compounding it over and over and over again with this Cold War rhetoric thing going on, on top of it. Present day, we gotta have a lot foresight about what’s gonna happen; I mean, there area lot of Muslims in the world. You start going over there killing a lot of people, and it’s just the US doing it, not a massive coalition. I’m not saying do or don’t, I’m saying be cautious, and you try diplomacy, you get a big coalition so it doesn’t look like just the United States is doing it, and then you try other methods, selective methods.
Is there a moral requirement there?
I think there is.
What I’ve seen a lot are people who are just looking for revenge, and then people who are against war simply out of principle. Do you think that’s just as dangerous?
I think so. I can understand why people want revenge. Who doesn’t, you know, for what happened, but what if I were to take it out on you? You’d say, “I didn’t do it,” if I just reached across the table and started pulling your eyeballs out, and that’s what a lot of these people in Afghanistan and Iraq are going to do. [They're going to] say, “I didn’t do it! My kid didn’t, or my dad, it was those zealous, fanatic Al-Qaeda people who did it. What are you bombing me for?” And they’ve got a point. So I think that, although I understand the revenge thing, I think you have to take it out on the people who actually committed the act, and that means you gotta find them, and that means you have to be patient and not just strike out willy-nilly.
And the other thing that strikes me is that I watch all this CNN and especially the Fox channel with all these men, and they’re almost always middle-aged, and they’re all these “back to war” people, and I keep thinking, Why the hell aren’t they signing up if they’re so hot for the war? It’s a free country, you can say what you want, but if they’re so keen on killing people they can buy an airline ticket and fly on over. Or send their daughter. Or their son. But they’re not, and they’re not putting their own bodies where their rhetoric is, and it really ticked me off during Vietnam, and it does again today. All these guys calling for war and they’re sitting in these safe studios in the business suits and they wouldn’t dream of actually doing it themselves, physically. Instead they’re gonna draft some poor fucker from Harlem, or New Hampshire, and that person’s gonna die. Why not them?
In the old days, Crazy Horse led his troops, and Geronimo led his, and Julius Caesar led his. There’s something wrong with this bellicosity without personal investment. I’ll believe them when they send their own kids over to do it, and say “Yeah, I made my son sign up for the Marine Corps,” then I’d believe them.
Truth is often inconsequential in war stories in your books, but is it important for the media to portray war truthfully?
Yeah, it’s important. Truth is an elusive word, because most Americans take it with a capital T, like there’s one monolithic, homogenous truth; of course truth is a very subtle, evolving, fluid thing. There are multiple truths, and often they’re contradictory. You could say for example that America is a great country, which it is in many ways with its Constitution, Bill of Rights. Then you could also say in the next breath that America is a country of slavery, and genocide against the American Indian. Truly contradictory, but they’re both true. To say that there is one truth is really simplistic, so in my fiction I try to have an ambiguity in everything, because things are ambiguous and there are multiple, contradictory truths. I do it on a small scale, with characters, but I also think it can be applied to the general world, and the country shouldn’t be quite so absolutist in the truths we utter about ourselves and about the rest of the world.
Do you think the characters in July, July are suffering from absolutism and a lack of foresight?
I think they’re by and large after what, finally, everybody is after. It’s not a political book. They’re after love in one way or another. Marv lies for love, and Jan poses for those dirty pictures so men will look at her and pay attention because she’s been homely her whole life, and every character is looking for love and to repair a relationship. It’s not about politics, it’s about the personal things that human beings will do, good and bad, when searching for love.
It seems like you taken characters at home and put them in situations similar to those faced by your characters in combat, where what is most important becomes focused, and I found that interesting.
A lot of parts of the book come out of real things in my own life. The Marv story for example. I got a letter from a woman in South Carolina, I think about ten years ago, and the letter began, “To the real Tim O’Brien,” so naturally, I was pretty curious, I mean, who’s the unreal Tim O’Brien? I read on, and it was a long letter, 20 pages, handwritten on that long, yellow, legal paper, so it was the equivalent of a 50-page letter.
She told me about this guy she met, and he told her his name was Roger and he sells life insurance. Later on he tells her, “I don’t just sell life insurance, I also write novels, and I write under the pen name of Tim O’Brien.” So they started dating, and then they got engaged to be married. She announced to her friends and her family that she was marrying me, alias Roger, or whatever his name is. Apparently he was feeding her paperback copies of some of my books that didn’t have photographs on them, and you know why he was doing that. She got suspicious, and she went to a library and checked out a hardcover of one of my books and realized this wasn’t the guy she was engaged to. So she brought it home and pointed to the picture and said, “That’s not you.” And he said “Oh god, I know I’ve been meaning to confess this for a long time. Actually, there are two of us who write these books. This guy’s my coauthor.” And she totally believed him. And who wouldn’t, when you think about it, because who would tell such a weird, gross lie, and marry the person on top of it?
Then she got suspicious again, this time because he claimed to be a writer, but he never wrote anything. He just sold life insurance. So she confronted him again, and he said, “I’ve been meaning to confess this, I’ve had writers block for a long time,” and she believed him again. Then the marriage was getting closer, and she was about a month away from marrying this guy and she got suspicious one last time. She confronted him because he wasn’t getting anything literary in the mail, and he told her, “Yeah, this guy and me, we had a falling out, and they assigned to him all the rights, and the name,” and she believed him again. So finally, about a week before the marriage, he came to her, completely under no pressure, and admitted the whole thing. She dumped him and called off the marriage, but then she enclosed a copy of a letter that he wrote to her, explaining what had happened. What he said was that he had a terrible self-esteem problem, fat and bald, so he made up this lie, and he said that he kept trying to suck it back in, even as it was coming out of his mouth. Then he said this weird, wonderful thing happened: he fell in love with her, and from that moment he knew he was trapped. He knew for an absolute certainty that the love would die because either she would find out, or he would tell her, and he said that he woke up every morning wondering if today was the day. And he lived like that for a year.
It was a really heart-breaking letter. And that’s just an example of where a story comes from. I made up all the dialogue, and I made him fat and put him on the diet and all that, but the central part comes from life, and that’s pretty much how all the stories happen. More or less, they come out of something real. As a fiction writer you rev it up, so in the book I had him get married, so he had to keep living it.
Do you think you would have pursued writing if you hadn’t gone to Vietnam?
Probably. It probably would’ve been something different. If I’d gone to Canada I’d be writing about that. Life provides you plenty of material, with girlfriends or whatever.
Some of it less subtle than other.
Do you think you romanticize Vietnam at all?
No. I think a lot of veterans think I haven’t done that enough, but I refuse to do it.
Is there a reason they think it should be romanticized?
Yeah, they look back on it as more heroic, and with nostalgia, and they talk about the fellowship or fraternity among men, and there’s some truth to that. But it’s an artificial one; it’s borne of necessity. Even if you don’t like someone, you’ve got to trust them at night when they’re on guard and you’re sleeping. And you learn who to trust and who not to trust, and you bond that way. But I never found it very heroic, I just found it stone-man, gotta stay alive stuff. And that’s all there was to it.
Are soldiers heroes?
In some ways. It’s heroic just not to stop. Physically, there are always alternatives. I mean, just stop walking. What can they do? Court martial you, but they’re not gonna kill you. It looks pretty attractive, especially in bad days when guys have been dropping like flies, and you think, Christ, should I just shoot myself? But you don’t, you just keep humping. There’s a weird heroism in that. Unglamorous kind of valor to just keep going, knowing you might die with every step, and just keep walking.
Is the heroism there in your books to be interpreted if the reader wants it, or is it directly implied?
I remember one part in The Things They Carried when I was talking about humping and just taking one step after the next, and at one point I called it a kind of courage, which it is, just to keep your legs moving. I’m kind of explicit about that kind of courage, but there are other kinds of courage just like there are kinds of truth. It took a lot of guts, for example, to go to Canada. Your whole hometown is going to think of you as a sissy or a coward, even though it’s totally conscientious. So I admire the heroism and courage it took, I didn’t have the guts to do it, to cross over the border.
Do you still regret that?
Yeah, you can’t live your life over, but it would have been the right thing to do. I mean, think how hard it would be. Even now it would be hard, and I’m grown up. It was the thing that was worse than anything about the war, just going to it. Once you’re in the war, it’s pretty much what you’d expect. But, boy, making that decision, because you’re in control of things. You can go in the army, or you can go to Canada. I never actually made that drive and went to the Rainy River, that’s invented. But it did happen in my head all summer long, I thought about driving to Canada.
Cacciato made it to Paris.
Yeah, yeah, well said.