“Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are.”
- Tim O'Brien
One formula for great literature is the combination of a brilliant writer rendering his or her own extraordinary experience. Author and combat veteran Tim O'Brien brings those elements together masterfully in books like Going After Cacciato (winner of the National Book Award) and The Things They Carried, which has sold millions of copies and is widely hailed as a contemporary classic.
O'Brien is visiting Louisville this week as the Diana M. Raab Distinguished Writer in Residence for Spalding University's Master of Fine Arts in Writing program. He'll be giving a public presentation on Thursday evening at 6:30 at the Brown Hotel.
One distinction of O'Brien's work is the blending of fiction and nonfiction, though the author takes pains in his writing and in interviews to clarify that he always labels his fiction as fiction, even if, as in
The Things They Carried, his narrator is a soldier named Tim O'Brien and the names on the book's dedication page also appear in stories told within. In a recent conversation, O'Brien talked about
the power – and limitations – of storytelling to reconcile trauma, the goal of fiction and what may be his greatest satisfaction as a writer.
GRAHAM SHELBY: What made you decide to give the main character in The Things They Carried your own name?
TIM O'BRIEN: I know for some people it's very frustrating. Is it fiction or nonfiction? “Why don't you just tell us the absolute truth of what you went though?” Sometimes an invented story can be more powerful than the truth. By using devices like my own name, I'm trying to give a sense of authenticity, is to make it feel as if the reader is in a vivid dream with the goal being to make the readers feel as if they are participating in the book. And also it was a challenge for me as a writer. To use my own name and then to invent stories around that, trying through those stories to tell a kind of truth that can't be told through just (telling) what really happened.
SHELBY: So is what you're saying that war is, itself, an unrealistic experience, but yet you really lived through it? And so, is the idea that combining fiction and nonfiction recreates a sense of that uncertainty for the reader?
O'BRIEN: Absolutely. One loses when you're in war a sense of the definite, of what actually, physically happened. You're in a firefight, it's chaos all around you. It's a blur. And there are all these other human beings, some your fellow soldiers, some the enemy soldiers. So when you go to talk about the experience afterward, you're getting if not contrary recollections, you're getting disparate ones. So there's a question of what is truth? What is the true story of the firefight of that day? One of the themes of the book is, what do we mean when we say a thing is true?
SHELBY: Does writing about painful experiences lessen the pain?
O'BRIEN: It objectifies the pain in some ways. It's not greater or lesser. You write a scene in which a guy is blown into a tree, say. There was a real guy who was really blown into a tree – Chip Merricks, who really died. He was a good friend of mine. And I really had to go up with a couple of other guys and peel him off. The pain is the same. I feel myself tearing up, just talking about it right now. But there's this sense that it's in a book and that story is on on a page, I've drawn on a real experience. So there's something that endures.
SHELBY: You're writing about these horrible moments. But at some level a writer is a technician and thinking about structure and different elements; how do those things come together when you're writing about such intense feelings and memories?
O'BRIEN: They come together through story. When I'm writing, my mind isn't on my own experience, except maybe subconsciously, it's on the story. Will the story be gripping? Will the reader care? The object of fiction, for me at least, as an author, is to move people's hearts, to make them feel something. Laugh, feel sadness, grief. To ask themselves, 'What would I do if I were in these circumstances.'
SHELBY: You've won numerous awards and praise from critics. What are the pieces of feedback you've gotten from any source that have been the most meaningful for you?
O'BRIEN: The most meaningful have been letters I've received, not from veterans, but from the wives and children of veterans. One letter in particular, this 26-year-old woman wrote me and said, “I had a terrible childhood. My dad wouldn't talk. He was silent and angry all the time.” She said, “My mom told me one time, 'I never loved your father.'” The daughter said, “Why's that?” The mom said, “How can you love somebody who won't talk to you?”
The girl wrote, “One day, I was assigned The Things They Carried in an AP English class. I brought it home and left it on the kitchen table by accident. My dad read it. And he started talking. At first, just a couple of words. Then the next night a few more words. And a few more words.” And it ended up that a father was kind of saved, and a family started talking and at the end of this letter the girl said, “My mom and dad aren't perfect, but they're still together. And I don't think they would be if that book hadn't been sitting on that table that day. So I guess I'm writing to say thanks.”
There haven't been thousands of letters like that, but there've been hundreds. These are the responses that make me really glad I did what I did. I'm really glad I spent all those years all by myself in front of a word processor, sitting in my underwear trying to write a sentence. That's the real gratification of it all.