Tim O’Brien is an American novelist best known for his writing on the Vietnam War. He received the National Book Award in 1979 for his book “Going After Cacciato.” In 1990, his novel “The Things They Carried” won France’s prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Award. “In the Lake of the Woods” won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction in 1995.
The Daily interviewed O’Brien on Monday during his visit to Stanford. An edited excerpt is below.
The Stanford Daily (SD): You are best known as a war writer, but have been known to resist the label. How would you choose to describe yourself?
Tim O’Brien (TO): I don’t think I’d call myself a war writer, but I would probably say I’m a writer who has written about war. I mean, it’s inevitable that the word “war” is going to be used. When writing I’m not thinking about war, even if I’m writing about it. I’m thinking about sentences, rhythm and story. So the focus, when I’m working, even if it’s on a story that takes place at war, is not on bombs or bullets. It’s on the story. For me, war is a way of putting pressure on characters. It’s life and death stakes and moral choices and plot tension. But at the same time I’m realistic enough that I know how I’m viewed, and it’s not a terrible thing to be called a war writer, I suppose.
SD: In “The Things They Carried,” your last line is “trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.” Could you talk about what stories can achieve? Is there a healing, life-saving potential in stories?
TO: Well, that’s a terrific question and that means that there’s not a good answer. Stories do all kinds of things, some of which seem very small and even trite. Stories can encourage us and embolden us to face ourselves and to feel. Stories can make us feel less alone. If we’re reading a story that moves us, we can feel that emotion that I feel towards my father or mother or girlfriend. So they can give us late-night company.
Stories can offer models of behavior to which we aspire. I know my little boys – I have a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old – look at stories look at stories largely that way: “I want to be like…Spongebob, and do this or that,” or, “I want to go on an adventure like Alice in Wonderland.” And I think even adults, in a more subtle way, read stories to have that effect.
What’s making me reluctant to say much more is that I’m of the view that stories don’t require defense, that we don’t have to articulate why they’re helpful. Because if they didn’t tantalize and tempt us to read them, they wouldn’t exist. They just wouldn’t be told. There’s a self-evident import to story, and when you start explaining why they’re important, you’re sort of pulling these threads out. You look at one thread, and then another, and another, and then the story seems to evaporate for me. For a person who tells stories for a living, it feels a little bit destructive to be asking myself, “Why am I telling this story?”
SD: Your attention to the rhythm and cadence of each sentence sometimes makes your writing sound like poetry. Do you see a distinction between prose and poetry when you write?
TO: Poetry is not an issue of form and enjambments. Poetry, as the word is classically used, has to do with sound and sense. It can be rhyme. It can be rhythm, pace, breath. All good fiction, in my own opinion, is distinguished by that very quality. You can feel that that author has joined the sound of language with the sense of it, and paid attention to both.
Now, bad writing, it’s all James Patterson or John Grisham. It’s all sense stuff. It’s all the world, desks and people and criminals and guns and pens and things, but little attention to sound. And really for me, distinguished writing is that which pays attention to both because, after all, in the end the sounds of things or words we choose determine sense. If you use the word “desk” or the word “table,” they’re two separate things. You conjure up different things in one’s head. When I think of my work, I don’t think of it as poetry. It is poetry.
SD: Do you have an ideal reader in mind?
TO: I know more of what it’s not than what it is. It’s not my next-door neighbor. I just went to a book club next door. I say no to these things constantly, but the lady next door said, “We have a book club. Please come over,” and I couldn’t think of an excuse. They were reading this book called “In the Lake of the Woods,” which is an extremely frustrating book for the neighbor next door because it’s a mystery without a solution. All they wanted to know was, does John Wade kill his wife? It’s all they wanted to know! But the whole point of the book is that you don’t know, and you’re never going to know, and even I, the author — I don’t know and I don’t care, because these are made-up characters and nothing happened and nobody killed anybody. It’s all invented. So it’s that kind of reader – I guess you could call them literal-minded readers that scare me because I know they’re going to find my work frustrating.
But there’s another side to that coin in that those are the people I’d like to shake up and make them like the book anyway. And in the end, they did. They liked it because they were frustrated. And they remembered in a way you wouldn’t remember a real mystery. Once you finish one of those things it’s all over. So I guess I’d like an open-minded reader, one who is attuned to the possibility of ambiguity in the world, who at least have a little door open to uncertainty.
SD: Over the years of writing about the Vietnam War, has your relationship to it changed?
TO: Not much. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now. I was extremely bitter in Vietnam, before Vietnam, and after, and I remain that way. I’m bitter about all kinds of things – the senseless slaughter, the plain absence of purpose behind it all, on the macro level but also on the day-by-day level that I lived through. What is the purpose of burning that house down? There was no purpose then, and on the larger political-economic front there was no purpose either.
SD: What are you working on now?
TO: A book about being an older father, a work of fiction. I mentioned I have a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old. Like Vietnam, that puts a squeeze on your mortality. You feel the press of death. When they’re 20, I’m going to be an old, old man, if I’m that lucky. Will they ever know their father? And though I don’t feel old, there’s the reality of those two little boys and there’s the reality of mathematics. Will they ever know me and what will they know?
It’s a book of stories to tell them: In case you never got to know me, here is who your father was. I tell them stories about my life and there are stories that are taken from the stories I tell them in bed every night. Some of them are wildly exaggerated and strange because they’re little kids, but some of them come right out of my life. So it’s a work of partly nonfiction, and it’s a work about storytelling as all my books are, and in this case it’s very particular because I want to tell stories that are what I wish my father had told me so I would have known more about his own life.
SD: How much do you plan out before you start writing?
TO: Nothing. It starts out with a scrap of language sometimes. The first sentence of “This is How to Tell a True War Story” starts with, “This is true.” I recall writing that sentence and having no idea what was true or what the story was. But I was struck by those three words and the word “true.” What does it mean? Does it mean anything? And the word “this” required a “what.” What is true? Which required a kind of story.
Other times a story can start for me with an image. Let’s say I leave this interview, and I go back to my room and I remember something you said, or something I said, or something I saw. And in life maybe 15 times, not a lot of times, something will happen, a little kernel that will intrigue me, enough to write it and follow it and see where it takes me.
SD: What advice do you have for student writers?
TO: I know that for sure you have to read a lot, but I think you have to read in a certain way to be a writer. I think you need to read with the heart of a thief – not stealing words, but stealing angles or a tack on things, and adding them to your repertoire of the way writers throughout history have done. It’s not the language that you steal – that would be plagiarism – but the angle of attack on the materials of life.
If someone were to walk into this room right now and hang herself, the standard story would be the sort of “Oh my God!” frenetic kind of death story. Another angle on it might be, “Thank God, at last that person’s done that,” or, “How funny.” An uncommon response would make it feel out of the ordinary. I think that’s how you should read.
Another thing is, of course, stubbornness. You’ve got to be so stubborn – a mule-like, donkey-like quality. I have to say, it’s so important to keep your butt down for a certain number of hours a day and not quit.