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AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talk to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Tim O'Brien.
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He's an award-winning author who's best known for his fictional portrayals of the Vietnam conflict. O'Brien spent most of his youth in the small town of Worthington, Minnesota. After graduating from McAllister College in 1968, O'Brien served as infantryman with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. After that, he returned to the states and pursued graduate studies in government at Harvard. He then worked briefly as a national affairs reporter for The Washington Post. Tim O'Brien is the author of The Things They Carried, which was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It's a collection of interrelated stories about the men of an infantry platoon in Vietnam and its title page calls the book a work of fiction, but it is narrated by a character named “Tim O'Brien.” The blurring of fact and fiction in storytelling is a recurring feature of his writing. O'Brien stopped writing almost two decades ago when he started a family, but he recently completed his first book in 17 years, Dad's Maybe Book - a blend of memoir, letters to his young sons, and meditations on the humbling nature of parenthood. Recently, Tim O'Brien was on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington as part of IU's 11th annual Themester - this time exploring the theme "remembering and forgetting." While he was here. He joined me for a conversation in the WFIU studios. Tim O'Brien, welcome to Profiles.
TIM O'BRIEN: What a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
AARON CAIN: I was wondering if we could start by talking about magic. Like writing, it was one of your early loves, as I understand, one of your hobbies. You were passionate about both stories and magic as a youngster. Do you remember when magic first came into your life?
TIM O'BRIEN: I do. I don't remember a specific incident, but I remember standing in the basement of my house in southern Minnesota where I had set up table with my magic tricks on it. And I remember turning some oranges into scarves - you know, silk scarves. This began around the age of I'd say eight, maybe seven, somewhere in there - pretty young. And it was a way of escaping a pretty tense household. My dad was a bad alcoholic. He was institutionalized twice that I know of and maybe more. The house was full of bitter arguments with my mom. And as a young kid, the tensions in the house drove me down into the basement. It was a relief to live in this world of miracles and magic in which I could cut my father's tie in half and restore it and make white mice appear in the palm of my hand - and this kind of illusory world of happiness opposed what was going on upstairs. I've since taken up magic again. I left it for years to become a writer doing other kinds of illusions - writing novels. But about 10 years ago I took it up again pretty seriously. I learned to do really difficult sleight of hand. And every two or three years, about 10 friends, along with my wife and sometimes my two kids, put on a pretty extravagant magic show - a two-hour show with dancing and music and a storyline running through it, maybe 180 or 90 tricks - so they come one after the other, which is good because it doesn't give anybody a time to say, “now, how did he do that?” Because the next one's already happening. The idea is to kind of create a world of magic in which everything you touch is magical in some way or another. It explains a little bit about why I've become a writer. As a writer, you're living in a different world. You can be going down a river - the Mississippi - or you can be on the other side of the world with your characters. And although it's not real, it certainly feels that way when you're writing the scene and you're deeply into it.
AARON CAIN: And this is just at your house, right? These evenings of magic that you host.
TIM O'BRIEN: Yeah, we bought a house because it had a huge living room where we could put on magic shows. That was the main determinant when we bought this house - a huge living room where we can put in maybe 100 people. I'm not sure all my friends enjoy magic or even like magic, but they know I do, so an A-plus to them for being so generous as to spend eight or nine months practicing for a two-hour show.
AARON CAIN: It seems to me that there are any number of ways in which magic and creating stories intersect - that they have so much in common. But what's popping into my head right now is the magicians that I have known have often had trouble articulating how much they loved the craft versus how much they loved the result.
TIM O'BRIEN: Yes.
AARON CAIN: And it seems they need to really love both.
TIM O'BRIEN: You do. It’s the same with writing. You need to love working with sentences. You need to love individual words that will strike you - the word, “ineffable,” or whatever the word might be. Even the word, “house,” when you're using it in a certain context - such as - I'm making this up now, but, “the house of my heart” - takes on a special meaning. So that's the craft part of writing - putting sentences together. You can't have one declarative sentence after another. It gets boring. So you have to vary sentences. And you hope that your sentences are lucid and clear so that things can be seen in the sentence and voices can be heard in the sentence. But underneath that, you also hope for, in my case, a kind of Midwestern conversational diction to it all. I don't use fancy words often. Or if I use them, I put them in the mouths of characters who would speak fancy words. I take great joy in the language itself - our English language. On the other hand, I'm looking through those words as I'm writing and I'm seeing things happen: A man and a woman falling in love off on their honeymoon aboard a yacht, and the yacht sinking, and the new husband grabbing the only life jacket in reach and then floating alone on the ocean. I'm seeing that through the words and he's pondering how cowardly he is and - how much have I been in love to have done what I did? So you're seeing things through the language. I might write that story. It appears in my new book as a little anecdote. But as I wrote it, I thought maybe someday I'll actually write that story.
AARON CAIN: Also, the similarities between magic and writing - another thing that strikes me is it's illusory, but it needs to be real. You know, it needs to be an illusion, but needs to absolutely be so convincing, in fact, to even call it convincing - it doesn't seem right. It needs to be real. It needs to ring true. Is that something that you think about as well, when you…
TIM O'BRIEN: Constantly. I picture someone, myself included, lying in bed at 2:00 in the morning, reading a book that - we know, intellectually, the events aren't happening, that they're imagined. But you forget that, and so you’re rooting for a character or hoping that something - don't let that happen, don't let that happen. And your heartbeat and your blood pressure respond, and your stomach can respond to a story. A story can turn your stomach or it can lighten and buoy up your heart. And for me, stories appeal to the head, partly, but they also appeal to the nape of the neck and to tear glands and whatever the glands are that make us laugh. They appeal to the whole human being - a good story does. The muscles can tighten up when things get tense in a story. And the object for me is, more than anything, to make a reader feel things that may not have quite been felt in the same way before. Similar to things that you feel in the real world, but heightened. I think that it was Joseph Conrad who said that, beyond anything, he wants his readers to feel freshly the world around them and the things happening in a story.
AARON CAIN: Could we talk a little bit about Worthington, Minnesota? I know that Minnesota has made its way into your novels. I'm thinking especially of In the Lake of The Woods. But apart from as an occasional setting, how has that place and your upbringing there influenced your work? I'm thinking specifically of the idea of a sense of place, because all writers need to be able to relocate their audiences in their stories. And if I may say so, you're a writer who is really good at that. So is it just an ability, do you think? Or is it that indelible places teach a writer how to create a sense of place?
TIM O'BRIEN: I think - for me, at least - and I'm not speaking for any other writer but myself - Minnesota in general, and my hometown in particular - a town called Worthington - was really important, not just to my writing, but to my life. It was a small 9,000 population town in the prairie of southern Minnesota. Minnesota's many states, really, it's…mine was soybeans and corn and turkeys. Worthington called itself the turkey capital of the world.
AARON CAIN: A dubious honor.
TIM O'BRIEN: Which was a dubious honor. And I can remember as clearly as I can remember flying on an airplane today - as a six-year-old or maybe a five-year-old, standing on the street watching herds of turkeys marched up Main Street – on an event called Turkey Day – our Big Day in town. And I remember some teenagers with their peashooters shooting little peas at these turkeys. Then we went home - just watched turkeys for an hour. And that was the big event in my hometown. It was one of the most boring places on the planet. If you like soybeans, you're going to love my hometown. It was important to me because I wanted out so badly by the time I'd become a teenager and it felt cloistered. It felt small, which it was. It felt isolated, which it was. There were no bookstores in town. There was only one theater that would play the same film for a couple of weeks or longer. So it was a place I wanted out of. On the other hand, the northern parts of Minnesota to me were mysterious, full of woods and trees and endless lakes - chains of lakes, one hooking into the next - where, in a canoe, you could go for miles and miles and never see another human being and never see another structure of any sort. It was wilderness. Back then, in the '60s and '50s and early '70s, that country was the last true wilderness in the continental United States. It was vast, stretching up way into Canada. And we would go there on vacation, sometimes. I belonged to a thing called Indian Guides, which was sort of like Boy Scouts, where I was Little Bear and my dad was Big Bear. And we'd go up there for two or three weeks and, you know, pretend we're American Indians - Chippewa - following each other's trails through the woods, and so on. And the mystery of the place - how I got lost at one point as a young kid - for a couple of hours, I was really lost. My dad was trying to find me, and then all the fathers and sons who had accompanied us up there - everybody looking. They found me crying under a tree. So it impressed me as a little boy, this place where you could get lost. And the book In the Lake of The Woods is about - partly about getting lost, in the physical sense - a woman vanishes and she's gone forever. The reader never finds out what happened to her. And I don't know, as the author, what happened to her. The story occurs up in this vast wilderness that, as a little boy, had so entranced me. The main character is lost, spiritually. He's a Vietnam veteran. He had been present at the Mai Lai massacre when about 500 civilians were shot dead by Americans. None of them were armed. Mostly they were kids, old ladies, women, teenagers, a few old men. My main character is a veteran of that. He's had to hold that inside him his whole life, so he's spiritually lost. And it seemed an appropriate setting for a story that's so much about lostness.
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AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is Tim O'Brien, award-winning author of Going After Cacciato, In the Lake of The Woods, and The Things They Carried.
Your new book, Dad's Maybe Book, is about a lot of things because it's about you, it's about your children, it's about memories and feelings and life lessons. Could you talk a bit about how this book came about and why this particular book is maybe the first example in the genre of a maybe book?
TIM O'BRIEN: Right. Well, in a way, every book is a maybe book until it's finished. There is that to say. And that's kind of why my son, Tad, who at the time was eight years old, looked at a small stack of pages I had written. They were little messages that I had written to my - little love letters to my children that I put in a drawer. I'm now 73 years old and I'm an old father, and it occurred to me when my kids were born that, when they began to know me, they would know an old man. And that's what's happened. And I wanted to leave something behind for them because for me, at my age, every day is a maybe day. You get to be 73 - every hour is a maybe hour. And at some point, my kids are not going to have a father. It's inevitable. And I wanted to leave behind the sound of their dad's voice, through telling them about my own life as a writer, as a father, as a veteran of Vietnam - a combat veteran and what that was like. Little stories. So the book is, in a way, a memoir that I'm telling to my children, but it's also the stories of their own lives - the things they've said and done that have instructed me in very special ways. I became a dad so late in life. I was 58, I think - or 56 when I had my first kid. And I thought I'd end up teaching my children about the world, but the reverse has happened as often as that's happened. They've taught me so much about myself and about kindness and civility and being a decent person. They're very generous kids. They don't have the hot temper that I have. They've taught me to temper it down the hard way. And a thousand other lessons, too. And so occasionally in the book, I'll tell a story about how I've been taught by my own kids.
AARON CAIN: As I read this book, I found it very touching, I found it very moving, and I often found myself thinking, I wish it were traditional for every parent to do this for their children - what you did - you know, essentially leaving many, many notes that say, “love, Dad” at the end of them. And your own reflections on who you are and what you've done. Think about all the things that we don't know about our parents just because of any gap in age. That led me to wonder, though, would you, Tim O'Brien, still have done this for them had you not been a writer?
TIM O'BRIEN: I'll never know. I think not. See, I made a decision when I had my first kid at 58 or 56, and the decision was to stop writing. I was spending 15 - 12 hours a day writing minimum, sometimes more. I'd get four hours of sleep and go back. My whole life was writing. I'm a slow writer. I care about sentences and I care about fresh sentences. They've got to feel fresh to me. And you can't be a good father if you're spending 12 hours a day or 15 at a computer, and the rest of the day worrying about the book. Are my characters coming alive? Is the story compelling? Things like that. And I knew I had to stop. I was determined, because of my own childhood and my dad, who I'm not sure even liked me, much less loved me - that I had to be present. And I quit. I quit for about 10 years. And it wasn't any big sacrifice, it was good for me to stop. I was able to be that father I wanted to be. I did occasionally write these little three - four-page letters to my children. And then those are the pages my son Tad saw and said, you should call this book your "Maybe Book." Because I had told him, maybe it'll be a book, maybe it won't. And he said, call it that. And then for the next seven years or eight years, I really wrote a book. I turned it from a maybe book into a book-book, with longer pieces, essays about Vietnam and about my war buddies, about Ernest Hemingway - a bunch of other topics - as a way of talking to my kids from the grave. My wife and I both think this is my best book. I think it's the equal of The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato and In the Lake of The Woods. I think it's as good as any other book I've written. It's non-fiction, so it's a different kind of book from my others, which are almost all novels. I had to be faithful to the real world in a way a novelist doesn't have to be. I couldn't make things up anymore. And so it made me notice the real world around me much more than I would have otherwise. My ears were perked to what happened around me over those 10 years when I stopped writing. And as a result, memories were sharper than they would have been, I could remember bits of dialogue.
For example, there's a little anecdote in this new book about my wife and I and my two boys being on vacation in southern France at a way-too-ritzy hotel. I mean, it was way beyond our means. We didn't know that when we booked the place. Everybody in the place looked like George Hamilton. They were all bronzed and beautiful, you know, capped teeth, bejeweled - all the fancy jewelry. And I'm there in my blue jeans and sweater and baseball cap. We did not fit in. And one afternoon, my wife and I were having a drink at an outdoor bar on the grounds of this ritzy place watching our kids play Ping-Pong. They were, I think, seven and nine at the time. And my cell phone rang and it was my sister calling from San Antonio to say my mom had died. And what a feeling to be on the other side of the planet, looking down at the Mediterranean, surrounded by all these rich people in France, a place where I can barely ask for a Coca-Cola, much less get one, and how dislocating and disorienting. It made me feel so Midwestern to hear this terrible news in France. I went over to my kids who were playing Ping-Pong and I said, my mom died. They didn't say much. They were young. And I didn't say much. And for the next two hours, we just played Ping-Pong. And the ball - I can remember going back and forth, back and forth - was a lot like what was happening in my head. My memory would jump to my mom as a young woman, then to an old woman, and middle aged - just jumping around in history with little memories. After this Ping-Pong event, it got to be dusk and our family - because we couldn't afford to eat at the restaurant at this place, we went down this long sloping hill to a village about a quarter of a mile away to have dinner. And I can remember so vividly the purple twilight coming in, the yachts bobbing on the ocean down below the Mediterranean. And I reached out and I took Timmy's hand - my older son, who was nine - and I said to him, “are you thinking about Grandma?” And Timmy said, “no, I'm thinking about you thinking about Grandma.” And as any human being, especially a father, would know, the sophistication of the language and deep empathy from a 9 year old – “I'm thinking about you thinking about Grandma” - astonished me. I thought the kid was completely wrapped up in his little boy world - Ping-Pong and things like that. It made me realize that I didn't know my own son very well. The other thing I noticed was the beauty of the language. That's a terrific sentence. It's simple. But those two “thinking's,” to a writer – “no, I'm thinking about you thinking about…” the two “thinking's” and the two “about's” - that's good writing. It's clear, and to me it was extremely moving. So that's what I try to populate this new book with - it is memory. And I can indelibly remember certain things like that event, but vast swaths of my life have been completely eradicated. What happened before that walk down the hill in a phone call from my sister, I don't remember what we did. It's all gone. And I don't remember afterward what we did. So as a memoirist in this case - a guy trying to tell the truth - I'm left with a few clips and not much else of the last 17 years as a father.
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AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. I'm speaking with Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried and Dad's Maybe Book. Tim O'Brien was on the campus of Indiana University for its annual Themester, this time exploring the theme, “remembering and forgetting.”
I think in any given month of the year, you can read some news study or other about memory and the evidence that suggests that memory is, in a word, unreliable. In your own work and in talking about your work, you've embraced the power of story as something that is more compelling and more convincing than argumentation or analysis. Could you talk a bit about the difference between the unreliability of memory and the malleability of real events in a compelling story?
TIM O'BRIEN: Well, there a few things I can say. I'm not a theorist or philosopher, I'm a practitioner of writing - I write stories and I don't think much about how.
AARON CAIN: And yet, in your work, you write about writing.
TIM O'BRIEN: I do.
TIM O'BRIEN: Yeah.
TIM O'BRIEN: I do. But that's after the fact. When I'm actually writing, I'm really thinking about how can I write a sentence that people won't find disgusting…and that I won't. I do believe in story. As you just said, I believe that it's more powerful than abstraction and analysis. For example, I could say "war is hell," but it's an abstraction. Even the word “war” is kind of an abstraction. War on poverty, war on drugs, war on terror - the word has become almost a euphemism for what it really means, which is killing people, including children. There's an example, by the way, of how one word captures my attention. Just the word, “war,” which we use all the time; it certainly comes out of the television set all the time. So, there's this desire to move from abstraction to specificity. Rather than say "war is hell," I would much rather tell an anecdote - which I do in Dad's Maybe Book - about the day in Vietnam when my company received intense fire. We were in a rice paddy surrounded on all sides by these hedges. We were taking fire from the front and from both sides. And it went on for eight minutes. We returned fire. It was horrible. It was machine gun fire, rifle fire and mortar rounds coming on us. It felt like the Battle of Bull Run. It felt like I was going to die. But as it turned out, after eight or nine or 10 minutes, no casualties. I wasn't hurt and nobody else was. Nor did we find any enemy dead. No blood trails. But as we continued, after the fight was over, walking up that rice paddy, I looked down and there lay a dead little girl, 12 years old, I think, or 11 - somewhere in there. And I stopped and a buddy of mine was near me, and we both looked down at her body for a long time. She was the only casualty of these two armies colliding, and it's a dead little girl. And after a time I said to my friend - I said, “well, the world must be a better place.” And he looked at me as if I were nuts, but I said - I was angry. I said, “well, that's what wars are for, right? Make the world a better place? That's why we have them - preserve our liberties and our honor and all the other reasons we have for making wars. They're all godly, great reasons. To make the world a better place - you don't have wars to make the world a worse place.” But I said it with irony, of course. I was angry because I felt as if I personally had made the world a worse place with this dead little girl. I pulled the trigger. I was terrified. I shot back. And that consequence is this dead little girl. Well, that's a story. It's specific. It's a story out of the real world. It's a true one. It's not imagined. But it carries power in its specificity that the words "war is hell" - those words don't have that power. And that's why I believe in story and why, when I give talks around the country, especially at colleges - sometimes high schools, I do everything I can to avoid abstraction. It puts people to sleep if you're abstract too long. And I prefer to indulge in it almost not at all, but just go from story to story to story. I had seen Elie Wiesel give a speech years and years ago. I think I was in college. I know for sure. All he did was get up there and put his hands on the podium and say, “let me tell you some stories.” And that's what he did. It was not abstract at all. It was story after story after story. And yet the message and the morality and the things you wanted us to gather were crystal clear through the story.
AARON CAIN: And there was no big coda where he said, “and this is what it all means, or should mean to you.”
TIM O'BRIEN: Never did that.
AARON CAIN: Speaking of avoiding abstraction, there's one chapter in Dad's Maybe Book, and in that chapter you impart one of many lessons to your young sons. And it's a history lesson. It's about taking stock - perspective - about how, I guess, the more things change, the more they stay the same - about April of 1775 and May of 1969. And it's the longest chapter in the book, at least I think it is, and I was really struck by how it's almost like a centerpiece - almost like a fulcrum in this book. You said in the past that what you write about tends to be personal. It needs to be fashioned from your life experience. And what you just said about the power of stories seems to certainly bear that out. You've also said that if it's something you have to research, you maybe shouldn't be writing about it. So important it is that it be personal. So could you speak for a bit about what went into creating this chapter about linking your experience in Vietnam to the battles of Lexington and Concord?
TIM O'BRIEN: Well, yeah. I came home from Vietnam. I ended up at Harvard in graduate school, where no one knew I was a soldier. I wasn't wearing a uniform. I looked like everybody else there. And I told no one. I didn't talk about it. At one point, I read in graduate school about the battles of Lexington and Concord. And as I read about them, it was a kind of deja vu, except I was the British soldier. The similarities between what the British went through in a single day in 1775 was uncannily - even eerily like what I'd gone through in Vietnam just a few months earlier, before I got there to Harvard. I had more in common with those British redcoats and the huge casualties they took in circumstances of a civil war much like my own - I had more in common with them than I had with my classmates who hadn't been in Vietnam. These soldiers were dead 200 years and I had more in common with them because we'd endured something that seemed unendurable. The fatigue that the guys went through in Vietnam - that I went through - we called it “humping.” It was walking and carrying 100 pounds - 85 pounds, going through rivers and up the mountains and down into the paddies, backup at - it was physically exhausting, and physical exhaustion burns out your moral gyroscope. If you're tired enough, you'll do pretty much anything. And if guys start dying along the way, you get angry, which was pretty much what happened at Lexington and Concord. The British walked close to 40 miles in a single day carrying 70 to 100 pounds of stuff. They started getting shot at. The enemy wasn't fighting the standard, you know, files and ranks and rows - same as in Vietnam with the V.C. sniping at us. The British had underestimated the enemy. They thought they were a bunch of colonial hayseeds and farmers and not trained to fight. In fact, they were very good fighters, just as the Viet Cong were. So the similarities and comparisons struck me, but it wasn't so much an intellectual thing, it was more visceral that I shared so much that, reading about it now and then, I'd tear up, especially as the atrocities started to happen late on in Lexington and Concord, where the British began killing civilians. They had been taking fire from houses and so on - they'd entered the houses and bayoneted 11 - 12 people dead - old men, old women. So that atrocities thing also reminded me of Vietnam - the terrible things that'll happen when you're fatigued and you're angry, you're frustrated, you can't find the enemy. So I decided to write about it. And it is the longest chapter in the book. At the end of it, there was homework I gave to my kids after I had them read it, and the homework was to lead them on a 12-mile march - one third of the distance that the British had gone, but load them up with these 15 pound sacks of sugar and a bunch of cans of fruit - anything I could get that was heavy - and have them walk those 12 miles in a march, and then afterward march home too, and I'd be waiting for them and my wife. And I gave them the assignment to write a five-page essay: “Is War Glamorous?” And I do that - it's the sort of thing that - I'm not going to tell my kids, go to war or don't. But I can tell them to write an essay - is war glamorous - and get their opinions on how glamorous their 12-mile march was.
AARON CAIN: This reminds me of another passage in your book about a similar notion: when you consider how things are looked at differently from different perspectives over time. I was wondering if you would mind reading one of your letters to your son about the nature of truth.
TIM O'BRIEN: Of course.
“Timmy, I want you to consider something. George Washington was once declared a terrorist in the halls of parliament. America's beloved patriot had become King George's detested criminal. It is not just beauty that resides in the eye of the beholder.
I want you also to bear in mind that truth has no patience for what is tasteful and what is not.
And I want you to ask: is one kabillionth of the truth the truth? Is three-quarters of the truth the truth? In fact, is the whole truth, to which we are pledged in courtrooms, ever truly the whole truth, and if so, how do you know? Can you read minds? Were you present at the creation? Does sunlight come equipped with earbuds through which it whispers to you, ‘I am truth, I am truth’? Do wars whisper, ‘I am righteous, I am righteous’? Or is it mankind who whispers these comforting words about sunlight and the wars we make?
There is no Easter Bunny, Timmy. Although your mother and I will do all we can to make you believe in generous rabbits, please don't forget that you once accepted as perfectly true something that was perfectly false.
As you grow older, Timmy, I want you to remind yourself that this true-false thing cuts both ways. What is accepted as false may later be accepted as true. And what is accepted is true may later be denounced as false. Planet Earth is not flat. Planet Earth is not located at the center of the universe.
I want you to remember, Timmy, that your country once went to war to get rid of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.
I want you to consider that the witches executed in Salem, Massachusetts, were probably not true witches, except in the heads of the people who executed them.
I want you to remember that the word ‘truth’ can kill.
I want you to remember that what is true in one place may not be true in another. Right now, for example, it's Christmas Eve, 11:52 p.m., on Friday, December 24th, 2004. That's true, I suppose. But it's not true in Tokyo, is it? Or in Baghdad? Or on Neptune?
Right now, Timmy, you are sound asleep in your crib, dreaming your true dreams, but at 5 a.m. tomorrow, when you awaken, what is true at this instant will no longer be true.
I want you to remember that truths can be contradictory. I could tell you, Timmy, that you live in a great and good country, and I would be telling the truth. But I could also tell you that ours is a country that once permitted the enslavement of human beings, and that too would be true.
Truth can be fluid, Timmy. People fall in love. People fall out of love. What is true on Thursday may not be true on Friday, or may not be true in exactly the same way.
I want you to remember that Newton was succeeded by Einstein.
I want you to remember that what we call the Vietnam War is called by others the American War.
I want you to remember that God did not receive creation instructions from the authors of Genesis or from the trustees of Oral Roberts University. Presumably the instructional flow went the other way.
I want you to remember that sometimes - in fact, many times - literal truth does not matter in the least, and should not matter. As you sit in a movie theater or lie in bed with a good novel, Timmy, I hope you will not mutter to yourself every few seconds: ‘that's not true, that's not true, that's not true, that's not true, that's not true.’ If anything of the sort occurs - if literal truth matters to you that much - please seek counselling.”
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AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest today is author Tim O'Brien, whose first book in 17 years is called Dad's Maybe Book.
Almost 20 years ago, a fellow a lot smarter than me - or at least someone who is a lot more qualified to talk about literature - someone who wrote for The Baltimore Sun back in 2001, Arthur Hirsch, once said something about you that I'd just love to have you react to. He referred you as someone who "has a deep skepticism about certainties."
TIM O'BRIEN: I do. I fear absolutism. And I fear the word “truth” because it can kill. It almost killed me. Out of the mouths not just of politicians, but out of cultural mouths, political mouths, military mouths, mouths at the Kiwanis club or at the PTA or the country club. All around us in small and medium and large towns, things are declared with such certainty that it frightens me. And I don't want my kids to end up in a wheelchair or dead because of someone else's slam dunk that turns out not to be true. Moreover, I'm terrified that my kids will, through some mistake of my own, end up with the same tendency toward absolutism. The word maybe is not evil. There's nothing amoral about saying "maybe I'm right." You're not going to go to hell for saying, "it seems to me" or "in my opinion," that for some reason, as human beings, we bring to the world such certainty about things that I just have never been able to summon - for whatever thought I have, I almost instantly think of some modification or some qualification, including about myself. As human beings, all of us change. I'm not the person I was before I had children, and I'm not the person I was before I went to a war. Our lives develop and modify themselves. Things we believed 10 years ago or 50 years ago we may not be so certain about anymore, and it's good to bear that in mind when we open our mouths, especially open our mouths in a certain kind of way. When we open our mouths in a way that means other people are going to suffer or die. War, for example. Be careful with it because you can't suck the words back. They're spoken and you can't suck back the bellicosity and the belligerence. It's out of your mouth. And I can't suck back my own history - pulling the trigger that day when that young girl laid dead there. I wish I could, but I can't. So watch out for absolutism. That's what I tried to talk to my kids about.
AARON CAIN: What do you think it is that leads to this need to be absolute? Is it fear? Is it in the wiring of human beings that we're just intolerant of the unknown?
TIM O'BRIEN: It's so mysterious to me that I don't have an answer. I fear, if I gave an answer, I would simplify something that is really mysterious to me. When you think back on - one of the examples in there - we all know from history the Salem witch trials, and they were so certain that these women were witches that adult human beings, including religious adult human beings - Christian adult human beings hanged them from trees and killed them - housewives and grandmothers. It was a kind of hysteria, according to historians, that swept through not just Salem, Massachusetts, but several other communities. But hysteria doesn't quite do it for me. I think it's a component of what happened, but how one could do such a thing - a grandma and a mother just being hanged from a tree because of hysteria? It is - it's mysterious to me. I want it to stay that way. That's kind of why I hesitate. I don't want to explain away evil. It could be done. But to explain away evil - what would you do with gas chambers at Auschwitz? Would you explain them away? And you could talk about the history of anti-Semitism stretching way back centuries earlier than the 1940s. You can do it and explain how that was transmitted through a populace. But the raw fact is so mysteriously evil to me that I don't want to explain it. The evil just is.
AARON CAIN: You said that - while you were serving in Vietnam - that there was a sense of unreality about it all; that you were, at the time, wondering if your body was really there - if you were really doing the things that it seemed that you were doing. And that, decades later, it feels even more unreal; more dreamlike. Do you think that that's just an example of the unreliability of memory in general? Or is this a way that we cope with trauma?
TIM O'BRIEN: I think it's both. I think it's a combination of the body almost encysting itself in a cyst to protect itself by - this can't be real, this nightmare happening around me. But there's also to it physical sensation of combat - when things are happening all around you. It is palpable. You can feel dreaminess all around you. Everything begins to go in slow motion, including your own thoughts. You want everything to be over - this horror - but it just seems to stretch on forever. So that two-minute firefight can feel like a two-hour firefight. It's just - time is so slow. The physical world you live in, when you're so scared and people are dying all around you and screaming and shouting and it's noisy and gunfire all around you - just goes through my thoughts over and over, “how can this happen? How can this happen?” And then, as you said, years later, when you look back at something that was pretty dreamy at the time, it becomes dreamier by the erasures of detail. Your mind drops that detail and that detail escapes you and then that - and I'm left with a few little clips of memory.
For example, I write about the day I was wounded and I really don't remember much. I remember looking down and seeing the hand grenade, and it was fizzling. It was a ChiCom - it was a homemade Viet Cong hand grenade, and it was - I don't know - two feet from me. I saw it. I turned my back I think, but I'm not sure if I turned or if, when the grenade exploded, it turned me. I'm not sure which it was. All I know as a fact is that, a couple hours later, I looked at my radio - which I was an RTO carrying a radio - a military radio - and it was, you know, full of holes. I was wounded, not terribly. I mean, I had little bee sting things like shrapnel in my - back of my leg and my hand. But it wasn't bad. But it's amazing how little I can recall of one of the most scary things of my entire life. You'd think it would be seared into your memory and be indelible, but for me, it's the reverse.
I remember talking to my dad when he was near death - he was around 94 or so, and then he'd be dead very soon afterward, but he was OK then. And we were out on a porch smoking cigarettes, and I asked what had happened to his war medals from World War Two that used to be in a drawer beneath his socks. And he looked at me and said, “was I in a war?” And I said, “yeah. Iwo Jima, Okinawa, you were on a destroyer.” And he kind of shook his head and changed topics for maybe a minute or two, and then he - a light went off and he said, “oh, yeah. Those damn kamikazes.” You sail off to war a young man, and then you sail home the oldest man on earth. So it had come back to him, but then he said – “oh, but that was Willie O'Brien. His name was William O'Brien. Now I'm Bill O'Brien.” When he was young, people called him Willie, now they - as if they're two separate people - they were both himself. So it's not just me.
There's just a very moving little email I received from a buddy of mine who was a buddy in Vietnam. His name was Bob Wolf. And he's in the book, so he wouldn't mind me saying this. He sent out an email to me one day saying, you know, “yeah, I can remember the names and hometowns and some of the faces of the men around me, but I can't remember any events that occurred.” And he said, “I guess that's the reason I'm sending emails around to the guys - to find some memories for myself.” It makes me want to tear up. That's how I feel - that so much has been blistered and eroded by the passage of time, and so much was dreamy in the first place that you're left with just a few faded photographs and a few faded memories for all that horror around you - day after day after day of horror and you're left with these little scraps. I'm pretty sure that, if you were to talk to somebody who had cancer or went through a bad divorce - all the things could happen in the civilian world - I'm pretty sure that something like that will happen - that all that trauma and fear attaches itself to a handful of indelible images, and that's kind of what you have to tote around with you.
AARON CAIN: I'm wondering if also this is part of just what it means to be human - the human power of imagination. It's something that we all have and that you, as a writer, have honed - this part of your craft. Do you ever find yourself thinking that maybe you need imagination to process the unimaginable things that can happen to us?
TIM O'BRIEN: I think you do. I think that that's the storyteller's main instrument for taking what is almost unimaginable and then imagining it where you do connect dots in a story. You do watch somebody fall in love and get aboard the yacht and sail off on the honeymoon and…where you're connecting in a linear way, things which, in memory, are not linear. My memory jumps around from item to item. If I think about marriage, I'll think about talking to my wife's father, the minister, then I'll go backwards in time to the day I proposed and I'll go - I jump all around in my memory. I think most of us do. I don't think we think in a necessarily linear way - a little bit occasionally, but oftentimes not so. To me, memory is more like starbursts that go off in the dark: Bam! There's the face of my kid, Timmy, lying in his crib. Bam! There he is as a teenager behind a locked door, probably playing video games. Bam! There he is as a seven-year-old, you know, going to third grade. It jumps around, and then the darkness comes around. That's how my memory operates. It skips around in time and in content. I've talked to enough people who more or less agree. Occasionally, there'll be a little linear thing that will happen - well, you will remember a sequence of events. But for me, they're much more rare than the starbursts of memory I get.
AARON CAIN: You teach writing in the MFA program of Texas State University, San Marcos. And this is something I think you started doing back in 2003 or so. Would this be around the time that you stopped writing - when you started your family?
TIM O'BRIEN: Yeah, almost - it doesn't overlap entirely, but almost. I had my first child. Timmy came around 2003, and I had been teaching already for three years and was writing up until his birth. We got to this university in 1999. I don't teach much. When you say “teach,” it makes me think of real teachers. I don't want anybody to think I am one. They go to school every day and they really work. I do it six times a year. I go in for an hour or so, six hours a year. Real teachers are going to laugh at me. That's not even a day for them. The thing about writing is I can say everything that matters to me in those six hours. I don't have a lot that I can do to advise a writer because so much of it is - in fact, almost all of it, I think, for me, is sitting down and making a sentence and then trying to make a good one. Well, sentences can be bad in all kinds of ways, but a writer has to sort of hear when the badness appears and throw it away and try to make goodness appear. Beauty. Unless I sat beside the writer as the writer worked kind of advising - I - well, you can't do that. I have a life to lead. So I can really say pretty much everything that I think needs to be said in those six hours. And the whole point of being a writer is to be an individual. You have to speak to the world through your words in whatever book you write. It's such a personal, individual act that, for a teacher to advise a student, seems to me slightly on the corruptive side. So I do not do it much.
AARON CAIN: Also, maybe to teach is getting dangerously close to certainty - to absolutism…
TIM O'BRIEN: That's why, yeah.
AARON CAIN: …to say prescriptive things about writing. In Dad's Maybe Book you talk about trusting a story, like we've been talking about. And you say - if I can quote you in the book - "to trust a story is to trust your own imagination, not the imagination of some literary predecessor." So it seems to me that maybe it's kind of hard to teach when one of the first lessons you have is don't trust your influences too much. So I'm wondering, speaking to us - whether we are writers or whether we're just folks you know - what can we, as people, do to nurture our imaginations?
TIM O'BRIEN: To notice the world. That's hard to do in the hectic, frenzied world a lot of us live in, where you're doing jobs, you have to make dinner and all the things we have to do. And to be alert to the world is probably the primary thing. I've done it since the time I was a little boy because that's the kind of person I was. I didn't have to train myself to notice the world, the world kind of grabbed me by the throat and made me notice it. You know, a father who's an alcoholic - you can't notice it when there are vodka bottles all over the house. And when he won't speak at the dinner table and when he doesn't come home at night. The world grabbed me and made me notice it and Vietnam grabbed me and made me notice it. And fatherhood and old age have grabbed me and made me notice it. I notice it in particular, though, not in general. Certain things will occur.
For example, one night, Tad and I - he's my younger son - we're watching this basketball game - Celtics-Lakers. Tight, great game. Out of the blue - Out of nowhere, Tad said, “hey, dad, that guy, Methuselah - the one in the Bible - how old was he?” And I said, “I don't know, Tad.” And I said, “1,000 years old, I think.” And he said, “wow.” And then maybe 45 minutes go by and I'm still watching the game. And then he says - Tad said, "what exactly did he eat?" I notice things like that. And at first I chuckled. The fact that, during this basketball game, he's puzzling over how Methuselah got to be 1,000 years old and - "what did he eat?" But after he went to bed that night, that whole thing lost its little comic flavor because I started to think, I wonder if that kid is looking at me that way - that I'm Methuselah to him. I am 73 years old. He's 14 now. But when he said this, he was like 9. I think the question of - "what exactly did he eat?" He might have been thinking, “how can I keep dad alive longer?” You know, eat your broccoli and cauliflower. I'm pretty sure that's where the question came from and why he may have been puzzling over this thing over all that time. That's a story. It's a real one, unlike ones I've imagined. But I did notice it. It caught my attention. I think if I had just laughed at it - if it had just gone by - but the fact that I started thinking, oh, man, maybe he's looking at me as this 1,000-year-old guy.
AARON CAIN: Well, hey, it worked for Methuselah. So eat your vegetables, I guess.
Tim O'Brien, thank you so much for sharing your stories and thank you so much for speaking with me today.
TIM O'BRIEN: I had a great time. Thank you.
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AARON CAIN: Tim O'Brien, veteran, author, father, and magician. Tim O'Brien is the author of "Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried. His latest book is called Dad's Maybe Book. It's a blend of memoir, letters to his young sons, and meditations on the humbling nature of parenthood. Tim O'Brien was on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington as part of IU's 11th annual Themester, this time exploring the theme “remembering and forgetting.” I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.
MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows can be found at our website - wfiu.org. Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.
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