Author Tim O’Brien has honors piled as high and deep as anyone in contemporary American letters. He’s won the National Book Award, the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction, the Richard Holbrooke Award for a book that promotes peace, and the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for a book that describes war. Yet even after several decades of earning a steady increase in recognition and respect from readers around the world, O’Brien remains as plainspoken and down to earth as your next door neighbor from home, or your best friend from high school. Starting on Tuesday, October 22, O’Brien will be in Santa Barbara on a whirlwind visit of meetings, discussions and lectures designed to promote not so much his book The Things They Carried, which, having sold more than two million copies, needs no help reaching an audience, but rather reading, especially collective reading, the kind where people come together to share the experience of reading the same book at the same time. The program is called the Big Read, and it is sponsored by the Santa Barbara Public Libraries and the National Endowment for the Arts. There are several dozen events scheduled both for during O’Brien’s visit, before it and afterwards, and the participants range from Vietnam veterans to middle school students and their parents.
I spoke with Tim O’Brien from his home in Austin, Texas last week as he prepared for another stint on the road. He made it clear that this cause matters to him, and that he believes that literature, given the right circumstances, has the power to make important changes in the ways that people relate and communicate. The following are some of the questions and answers from what was a wide-ranging talk.
One idea that comes across very loud and clear in The Things They Carried is that a country should not be at war without having a clear reason why. The United States has been in Iraq and Afghanistan recently, and may end up intervening in Syria. Do we know why? Have our reasons for these wars been good enough in your opinion? I know of no wars where people don’t have some reason or other. There’s never a shortage of reasons for people to want to kill each other. The real question is not was there a reason, but was there certainty. How can anybody be certain that we are so right and they are so wrong that we should go out and kill people? That is a high degree of certainty that should be required for something like that. And yet, it’s not always held to that standard.
Look at the weapons of mass destruction that we went to war over in Iraq, and that’s just a recent example. History is full of them. Look at them going to war over Helen. Nowadays in that situation the people would end up in divorce court, but they got twenty years of war. History is littered with things like that. I guess what bothers me as a veteran and as a citizen is the absolutism that accompanies war, the sense that we are so right and you are so wrong that we have a right to kill you. The world is much blurrier and more ambiguous than that.
A couple of weeks ago President Obama addressed the United Nations and said that American remains an exceptional nation in terms of its role in world affairs. How did that make you feel? It bothers me. The old exceptionalism thing is back again. Look, the Taliban think they are exceptional, and Al Qaeda think that they are exceptional, and Hitler thought that he was exceptional. It’s like, “We are blessed by a divine power, and in fact we are so blessed that we are going to kill people.” Well, that’s pretty blessed! It’s not America or Obama so much as the whole world that’s feeling exceptional. What bothers me is that here I am now, 67 years old, and a lot of the same things that were going on in the world when I was 21 and in Vietnam are going on again. In fact they’re all around us. It’s worrisome.
Americans in their teens and twenties are too young to remember the draft. Are we beyond conscription at this point? Would it change the way people think about the military if there were another draft? I hated being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, and went kicking and screaming. I thought the war was wrong and went anyways. But what is happening now in some ways seems even worse, because it’s easier to be for killing if you don’t have to do it, or be killed. Then it’s easier to be bellicose. But if the wolf is at your own door, or the door of your son or daughter, then it can be a different matter entirely.
If there were a draft again, if conscription were reinstated, it’s hard to know, I mean this is all speculation, but it’s hard to imagine that people wouldn’t have second thoughts about the situations they accept now. I know there sure would be on my part. I would probably be more politically engaged than I am now if there were a draft. If it looked like my two sons would have to go off to fight in some unwinnable war of uncertain morality to begin with? Then I’d be a little more vocal and a little more active I’m sure.
How did you discover the power of reading together that is at the heart of this Big Read program? We couldn’t find a school in Austin, we were looking for a public school that would work, but the school we were assigned it really felt like we had no choice if we cared about our kids’ education, so we put our boys in an independent private school. One of the neat things they had at this school was that they “make” the parents read out loud to their kids after school. We were required to read whole books together, aloud, and you couldn’t get out of it. I can’t tell you what a great experience that has been. When I think about how many times I’ve read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by myself—it has to be at least 10—but then to read it out loud to my kids, and realize that every time it appeared, I would have to say “the N-word,” rather than what was on the page. Well that really messes up the rhythm of the prose, and the diction, and everything else, plus it gives you something to think about. But we share something now. As soon as you get people coming together over a text in a way that’s intimate, you know, syllable by syllable, the way it is when you read a story to your child, then that’s bound to be a powerful thing. That’s why I’m so excited by participating in these Big Read events, because of the power of people reading the same thing together. You’re not going to get everyone, but boy, the ones you do, it’s something they are never going to forget.
As for my boys, they never much liked reading. They could do it, they were good at it, and they even read the occasional series all the way through, like the Harry Potter books. But just the word “reading” they rebel at—you know, “I don’t want to do that.” But this reading aloud thing, somehow it really caught on with them, and they would get into it, saying, “Can’t you just read another five pages?” because they wanted to know what would happen. And laughing along with them at the things that the author would say—this all became a very powerful experience for my children.
With the Big Read, when it works, I think it’s exactly what a serious writer wants—not just an internal conversation with yourself, but to learn through writing about what other people think. To me that’s kind of the point of writing a book—to elicit some kind of thoughtful response.
You once received a letter from a young woman who shard The Things They Carried with her parents. Would you mind telling that story again? Not at all, and I think I know which story you mean. I had that letter for many years and I was in the windy city, Chicago, and I was getting out of a cab and it blew away down the street, but it’s still incredibly vivid, I’ll never forget it.
“I’m 26 years old,” she said in her first sentence, and “at the time I was in high school, and ever since I’ve been meaning to write you, but now I have to do it.”
The letter was about how she had grown up in the household of a silent father. This wasn’t just a normal silence, this was a killing silence, the kind of silence that made her not want to go to the dinner table because she could see the veins in his neck kind of throbbing. The letter went into this kind of detail about the father’s silence. And although obviously this silence was about something, for many years she didn’t know what it was. Finally, when she was in junior high, she found a box of things in the rec room that included artifacts of her father’s time in Vietnam. It was the first that she’d known he’d been a soldier, much less in a war zone. She said that as a kid she didn’t immediately put it together with his silence, although when she asked about it, she got silence back. And then at one point in her early high school years, the tension became intolerable. She said she felt more like a counselor than a daughter to her parents, and it was all she could do to keep them from tearing each other apart. And her mother took her aside and said, “You know, I’ve never loved your father” and she said “what?” and her mom said, “How can you love somebody who doesn’t talk?” “Then why did you marry him?” she asked, and the mother said, “out of pity—he’d been in the war, and when he came home he was obviously in great pain.”
What a terrible thing to hear when you are a little girl! So some time later, in junior year of high school, the girl takes AP English and the book they are assigned to read is The Things They Carried. She brought it home and left it on the coffee table and her father picked it up and read a dozen pages and that night it started. At the dinner table, instead of being silent, he began talking. He started by saying that, “That’s not what I carried, I carried some other stuff.” But he was talking, and each night he talked a little more, and then a little more, so that eventually the mom could enter in and say things like, “I remember in that one letter you wrote about that” or whatever.
He was talking about what he had been reading, but it led him to talk about what he had been through. So over the course of a couple of weeks there was a conversation that got started in that home that hadn’t been there before. She ended the letter by saying “my parents are not perfect even now, but they are together, and I don’t think they would be if it hadn’t been for that book.” If that book hadn’t been lying on that coffee table, she felt like they would not have been able to stay together. So that letter meant a lot to me, not just personally, but for all of us because it’s about silence, and about the impact of war, but it’s also about what literature can do. It can help. It doesn’t fix everything, but it can help, and I feel like that is what art is for—it’s not just some dilettante-ish thing that does nothing, it’s a way for people to know that others have gone through the things that they are going through. It’s to help the human creatures make his way through a tough world.
With the expression “the things they carried” you created something that other people jumped onto, which is the idea of doing this kind of inventory. Now I hear veterans, when they talk to you, they tell you about the things they carried, and the things they still carry, etc. How does it feel to have something like that catch on? It’s a neat feeling. At first it was kind of a passing thought, the idea for that first story to be about all the things they carried. It was a way to organize emotions around a list, and of course that’s not the first time that’s been done, but I don’t think it had ever been done with the war. And it’s a nifty feeling when a scrap of language that was useful to me becomes a way for other people to work through their own feelings.
I know that you sometimes you do special talks that center on the massacre at My Lai and its legacy. I am personally very disturbed by all the gun violence that we have in America today—the various school shootings and other domestic massacres. Is there a way to connect these two things that makes sense?
Sure. Start with the fact that My Lai wouldn’t have happened unless a group of people had guns in their hands. I mean if they had to go in there and strangled all those people they probably could not have done it. The victims would have run away. But you can’t be faster than bullets, and that’s one hard, in your face similarity right there. When you put guns in the hands of kids, or of thoughtless people, or of people who are scared out of their minds, you are taking a risk. I mean you don’t have to be in a war to be terrified. Many people are terrified of their own demons. People with grudges, people with chips on their shoulders—you don’t have to be mentally ill for either of those things to be true. And the other side is organized around the idea that this is a right that’s written in the Constitution, but I’m not sure about that. I see the Constitution guaranteeing the right to arm a militia, but not all individuals. I actually think that the founding fathers, if they were somehow to see what we’ve got going on with gun violence today, would be aghast at the way people are claiming that they authorized this level of private weapons ownership.
Tim O’Brien will be at the Marjorie Luke Theatre on Wednesday, October 23, at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. The Big Read runs through November 11. Visit SBPLibrary.org for more information about all the Big Read events.