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"Every question leads to the next": an interview with Tim O'Brien.

Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried, Going After Cacciato, and In the Lake of the Woods, among other critically lauded works of fiction and memoir, visited the University of North Carolina as the Morgan Family Writer-in-Residence during the Spring 2007 semester. O'Brien spent part of an afternoon with me discussing his life in writing and how he writes about life. This author, who claims to feel most compelled to pursue in his books the questions that don't have definitive answers, graciously provided thoughtful and provocative--and occasionally definitive--answers to my many questions. We talked in Chapel Hill on February 27, 2007.

D'Amore: Vietnam, unsurprisingly, had a major impact on your life, and it's not too much of a stretch to say that the war is at the center of your writing life. I know I don't do more than invite speculation with this question, but I'll ask anyway: If you hadn't been drafted into Vietnam, if you'd crossed your metaphorical Rainy River, or if you'd been born five or ten years later, would you have become a writer anyway? Are you a writer by nature or by necessity?

O'Brien: Well, the short answer is: I don't know. A somewhat longer answer is that I think I'd still be a writer, but most likely writer in exile. Someone writing about leaving one's country, and the horrors of that: the dislocations, the lingering sense of moral failure, or moral rectitude, which can also haunt you. But I do guess that I would be writing. I'd be writing about those things, which I think would haunt me as much as Vietnam does.

JD: Writing about your experience in Vietnam in If I Die in a Combat Zone made you fairly well-known when you were relatively young, just twenty-seven, and you became a National Book Award winner in your early thirties. You're often held up as one of your generation's best writers and certainly thought to be the preeminent literary chronicler of the Vietnam War. Now The Things They Carried is a core text in many classrooms. How has this literary fame affected you, personally; professionally, artistically?

TO: Again, the answer is that I don't know, because I don't know the alternative. It may have been otherwise, or it may have turned out that had the books not succeeded, my life would have been, in most meaningful ways, identical. And that's because my objective as a writer was never fame or money or awards; it was that story to be told as I'm sitting alone and staring at that blank page, writing about material that didn't just interest me but really inflamed me, made my stomach burn at night and kept me awake. And not just the horrors of Vietnam: I'm speaking about lost love, about childhood, about aspiration. The same types of things kept me awake when no one knew my name that keep me awake now that some people do know my name.

Some things are easier when you're well-known. Certainly financially: you don't have to rely on a single success; you know that your next book doesn't have to sell a billion copies because you're secure already, so you can kind of do and try what you want. But you feel expectations, also. At least it feels as though there are expectations placed upon me. An expectation to revisit certain ground, for example, but to revisit it in a different way, and there are times when to me that ground is finally barren and dusty; when I see no promise there, and I don't want to revisit it, in a new way or not. And I fight that psychologically. I have to tell myself, "Tim, you've got one life to lead; you're sixty years old, you can probably write one more good book, so write the book that you want to write." That's basically what I've told myself with every book.

JD: Well, from book to book, can you see how you've changed or matured? At this point, has writing gotten easier for you? More challenging?

TO: Writing is not easier. I can flatly say that. I'm glad it's not easy though. I doubt I would do it if I weren't struggling over the language and the flow of stories. Because deciding how to tell a story that you think is extraordinary, with language that's appropriate to it, is a challenging enterprise that I find fun. It's a frustrating sort of fun, I must add in a hurry, like doing a difficult jigsaw puzzle when you lose focus on the whole scope of the picture you're trying to put together, because you're locked in on these individual little pieces of cardboard; then it can be frustrating, when you're locked on one sentence or just a noun. That locking sensation can be difficult because you've lost sight of the whole puzzle, you ought to just drop that piece and move on to the next. So as a general statement: writing is hard for me and yet really, really fun, simultaneously.

JD: Are there other particular authors you think make the pieces fit well? Whose texts might show you a way to grapple with your own, or inspire you to try something different?

TO: Of course. I have a whole slew of them, that at different stages of my life have had different degrees of influence. I choose to follow the influence of life over the influence of literature, but you do carry with you as a writer all the books you've read--good and bad, and even the bad ones are of influence in the sense of "avoid this" or "l don't want to sound like that terrible book"; then books you've loved or liked or admired will beckon, will say, "be more like me." But I don't ever make a conscious effort to model prose after the heroes of my past, Conrad being chief among them in my personal pantheon, which includes Borges and Marquez, Hemingway and Faulkner and Dos Passos.

JD: What about writers working today? Can you think of any who fit your way of looking at the world? Do you read any of your contemporaries with an appreciation that they're doing something you feel in concert with?

TO: Oh constantly. There are people whom I admire immensely who do things that not only I couldn't do, but that I wouldn't do. John Updike, for example: I could no more write like John Updike than I could fly up to Mars and back, and I admire the beauty, of his similes, the agility, and fluidity, of his prose--a fluidity and agility that would not come naturally to me. I'm a Midwesterner and I don't have or necessarily want that kind of diction, yet I admire immensely the intricate beauty of Updike's sentences. And many other writers, such as Robert Stone, who is a writer I admire for wholly different reasons--though he's a beautiful stylist in all kinds of ways--he has a knack for going after literary and philosophical big game. He's not hunting pigeons and squirrels, he's a big game hunter. He's hunting God and the dark curtain of life with an edginess of prose that I find fully admirable but wouldn't try to duplicate in a million years, because I'd only fail dismally.

JD: You teach writing--

TO: I try to teach.

JD: Fair enough: you try to teach writing, so you provide guidance to students in that way, and you're almost certainly a model for many aspiring writers, most likely for men and women of my generation who have done military service in one of our recent wars. For them, though they've not had the same experience you did, theirs is related. How would you advise someone who wanted to write about their experience in Iraq or Aghanistan or one of the conflicts in the 1990s? How should they approach that task?

TO: I think how and what you write is largely dependent on the temperment and baggage you bring to a war with you. What you're going to bring home and write about; what you're going to notice in the war. For example, if your politics are conservative and you've been deeply influenced by recent events, you're for the war, you're going to be writing a different kind of book than someone that brings a different temperment to it. And by different I don't necessarily mean opposed to the war: one might be indifferent to it, or scared out of one's mind. Or some people bring to war an adventuristic, I-want-to-find-out-about-death-and-myself attitude. Others bring a piety to it, see a kind of godliness in the proximity to death. So the literature that will ultimately come from social phenomenon like the war in Iraq or Vietnam or the Civil Rights struggle will finally bear the indelible stamp of individual temperments or personalities.

JD: Soldiers, you say, are storytellers. And you identify yourself as a storyteller. In The Things They Carried, you wrote, "The thing about about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head." I wonder, do you feel a distinction between telling a story--that is, speaking it--and writing one? Do you feel differently telling a story to an audience-to an individual or group of people--as opposed to writing it down?

TO: For me there's a difference between storytelling and writing a story, though if I were to try to articulate it exactly, I'd probably fail. I can try inexactly though, and say that it has much to do with practical things such as revision.

Oftentimes, when I'm orally telling a story or an anecdote, say, about what might have happened to me last night in a bar, because of the pressures that are on your tongue as a result of your speaking to someone and looking them in the face and trying to get it done briskly and quickly, you're not going to have the time to find that right adjective or the right noun, and you'll sacrifice it in the interest of moving the story along. As a writer you don't make that sacrifice. At least I don't: I pause, and I try alternative bits of dialogue, with the hope of getting it right, telling the story right. And even knowing I'll probably fail anyway it will be more right than the oral version.

There's a beauty to both, to telling that story orally about what happened last night to that human being sitting across from you and to meticulously going over and over and over. They both have virtues. One may have more energy, may have a sense of spontaneity as you're listening to the teller tell it, but the other has the somewhat greater virtue of precision and harmony and beauty that the first didn't. To combine the energy of a tale or anecdote with the craft of applying language to event, to blend those two seems to me what art tries to be--what it should be.

JD: And when a story, spoken aloud or written down, becomes more like the dreaming and less like the actual happening, you don't feel troubled by it. You've said often that what you call "story-truth" can be more "true" than the happening truth.

TO: I think a story may contain nothing from the actual world or events that happened but may be nonetheless faithful to the world we live in, to the fears we all fear, and the joys we experience. As far as I know, no one has actually gone to Tralfamadore or played croquet with a flamingo for a mallet, and yet when you read Slaughterhouse Five or Alice in Wonderland, even knowing that the events could not have happened in the world we live in, they still occur in a world of truth that is the world of the story, in which you suspend disbelief and you're dreaming along with the dreamer of that story. The relevance of the actual world that we've lived in to the story is, in some cases, non-existent and, in other cases, marginal. And in other cases, like naturalistic fiction, it's very important. But nonetheless, when listening to a story or reading a story, if your effort is to connect literally the story to the world beyond the book, you're really beyond the intent of the storyteller.

JD: So that's a good writer: someone who can make the story true, make the story relevant, whether or not it's a representation in factual terms of the world. Making the story relevant, both to the author and hopefully a larger audience--would you say that's the skill of the writer?

TO: It's part of the skill of the writer, to have the details of the story activate the soul of the reader to feel pain and to feel joy and to feel terror, to wince and to wonder, to feel awe at the unfolding of the extents within the story, to feel suspense and ask, "what next?." The writer has to activate those senses of the spirit, direct all those senses at the ongoing story as it unfolds. That's my primary mission as a writer: to have a reader join the dream of the story, and want to be part of it, and not to be distracted by bad sentences and mistakes and infelicities and melodrama, by all the blunders that can be made in writing I don't like. I aim not to detract from the dreaming of the dream, so that it feels whole and continuous, uninterupted by error or misjudgement. It also has to do with the sound of the prose, with the music beneath of the story. In the case of John Updike it's one kind of music; with Toni Morrison, it's another; with Raymond Carver, another--and there are recognizable musics or melodies beneath these tales being told by these people. And to be faithful to the voice one chooses to tell a story, and not just be faithful to but to exploit the voice in as many ways as you can and make the voice part of the story, even if it's a purely narrative voice, if it has no origin in the story, if it's just the voice of the author himself or herself. All those elements go into a single purpose for me, which is, academically, suspending disbelief, but which to me is much more little-boyish. There's a little-boyish feel to it. I don't want anything getting in the way of the dream of the dream.

JD: Well, the dream of the dream in your books often strikes a very ambiguous note.

TO: Yeah, I'd say.

JD: I think a big part of what your writing conveys is a sense of ambiguity about the world in your books and in the world outside them.

TO: That is my dream. A dream of ambiguity, of eternal and lasting uncertainty, which is an idea a good many Americans find less than palatable. I think Americans search for certainty and for hard edges to things, and part of the reason I'll never sell like, say, Elmore Leonard or James Patterson is because I admit of ambiguity. I like it. I'm tantalized onward by it. I wallow in it. I actually enjoy it.

JD: Have you come to appreciate that more and more as life has gone on? Or have you always been someone who's seen ambiguity in the world?

TO: For my whole life, I remember being tantalized by the Alamo, because there's such an absence of much record of what occurred there in the final hours. Even from the Mexican side, there's very little testimony, some, but not a lot. I'm tantalized by what happened in those final hours of Custer's last Stand or what happened to Amelia Earhart. I'm tantalized by the Kennedy assassination--not so much asking "did Oswald act alone?" but "what were Kennedy's last thoughts as he was cruising down that street in Dallas? What was in his mind? Dinner that night? Nothing?" These things are unknown and probably unknowable, and for many of us they're frustrating. We build religions to explain the unknowable, sometimes very odd religions, as a way of firming up the boundaries and saying, "Ah, I do know. Even if it's known only through faith, it's "known."

I don't go for that. Maybe it's a tempermental thing, I suppose, but I'd prefer to have the mystery expanded as opposed than firmed up. That is to say, I want the mystery to get bigger and deeper and deeper. Hence, in all of my books, the character's problem, whatever it may be early on is not resolved in the end, it's compounded. By the end of the book, the mystery is only deeper. In the Lake of the Woods is the best example, but it's true also of [Gong After] Cacciato and it's true of The Things They Carried. It's probably true of all my books, because that's the human being I am: I'm not an explainer or a tidier-upper, I'm a messer-upper, and by temperment I look for complication maybe where others probably don't.

JD: For you, asking questions is not about finding definitive answers? Maybe just more questions?

TO: Every question leads to the next.

JD: So ambiguity is reassuring to you.

TO: I love it. I love the feel of it because it has a hopeful sense of discovery at the end. It hasn't been discovered, but it might come around tomorrow, or the next day. It gives me a reason to draw the next breath, and light the next cigarette, and take the next step through life. I like that things haven't been neatly tidied up two decades ago or two centuries ago, but still remain open to us. There is something about the unknown that--even though it's frustrating to all of us-that's incredibly fascinating. All you need to do is turn on the History Channel for evidence of my proposition, in the latest show on Lizzie Borden or Amelia Earhart. We're fascinated by what's just beyond our grasp. We're always going after it like we're chasing a butterfly with a net, and the butterfly is just a little too small and fits right through the little spaces in the net, and we can't quite catch it, but by God we love chasing it. What we're chasing--at least, what I'm chasing--is that mutating thing we call the human spirit.
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Author:D'Amore, Jonathan
Publication:The Carolina Quarterly
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Words:3089
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