I read Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried right after it was published, and it blew me away. It is powerful-capturing the emotions, internal conflicts, and bravery of not just the Vietnam generation, but today’s soldiers and Marines, too. I’ve recommended it to many people since its release, and the responses I’ve received from those who have read it have always been moved and moving. It is an honor and privilege to do a Q&A with Tim, on the 20th anniversary of the publishing of The Things They Carried.
The Things They Carried received France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1987, O’Brien received the National Magazine Award for the short story, “The Things They Carried,” and in 1999 it was selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike.
Tim is also the author of Going After Cacciato, which received the National Book Award in fiction; In the Lake of the Woods, which received the James Fennimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians and was named best novel of 1994 by Time magazine; If I Die in a Combat Zone; Northern Lights; The Nuclear Age; Tomcat in Love; and July, July. His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Playboy, and Ploughshares, and in several editions of The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. O’Brien is the recipient of literary awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has been elected to both the Society of American Historians and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. O’Brien currently holds the University Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University. He lives with his wife and children in Austin, Texas.
S.P.: When it comes to generating ideas, what’s your process? Solitary? Collaborative? Is it fun, is it grueling? How, exactly, do you work?
T.O.: Ideas seem to come (and go) as if by their own volition. A tantalizing story possibility will sometimes pop to mind, either out of memory or imagination, and I’ll begin writing as a means of exploring the idea – its mysteries, its meanings, its facets, its moral import. The process of exploring and extending an “idea” through storytelling is for me wholly solitary. The process is collaborative only in the sense that the idea and I seem to work together on some occasions and at utter cross purposes on other occasions. I’m mostly a poor and pitiful supplicant, begging the story to reveal itself more fully. This process is sometimes fun, more often grueling, since I’m at the mercy of a story with its own secret purposes, ambitions, and desires.
S.P.: Do you experience Resistance (meaning self-sabotage, procrastination, self-doubt, etc.?) In what form does Resistance present itself?
T.O.: I work every day on a very rigorous schedule. I do not procrastinate. Sometimes the work goes well, in which case I might end up with a paragraph or two of decent prose; other times the work goes badly, in which case I end up with a foul temper. But the habits of regularity and discipline are necessary, at least for me. The resistances I encounter come in many forms and sizes – a truculent phrase, a noun that will not disclose itself, a character who refuses to utter anything but cliches, a turn of event that is neither interesting nor surprising, a story that will not take a single faltering stride out of the starting gate. And so on. And so on. A completed novel, in my experience, can be viewed as an unbroken chain of resistances overcome or evaded.
S.P.: How do you overcome Resistance? Do you have a specific technique or metaphor that you employ to fortify, encourage or inspire yourself?
T.O.: As Joseph Conrad wrote, or said, somewhere: “. . . the sitting down is all.” I take that to mean – even if Conrad didn’t – that creative resistance can only be overcome, or artfully evaded, by the repetitive act of making oneself present. A writer must be there – at work – and not at a bowling alley.
S.P.: Once you have an idea, what’s your process for taking it to a finished form? How do you decide whether an idea is worth pursuing? Is there a series of steps that take you from “germ” to “finished product?”
T.O.: Sad to say, but I have no conscious process by which I advance an idea toward its finished form. From the instant I embark on a story or a novel, I’m in search of some approximation of a “finished form.” It’s a quest, not a process. I may find an aspect here, another aspect there, but there is no method to it beyond trusting in my own story. To trust in story is to trust in something beyond the intellect, beyond “process,” and beyond the sort of planning that an architect or an engineer or a plumber might do. I go to work each day trusting that my characters will utter interesting bits of dialogue, or that they will behave in interesting ways, or that might come up with interesting physical or linguistic replies to the moral paradoxes of being human.
S.P.: What do you do when you hit plateaus? How do you keep advancing? Is there one example of plateauing that you can share-and how you grew through it?
T.O.: When I hit plateaus, I head for the mountains. By that, I mean (or think I mean) that I do all I can to point a story or a novel toward its central human drama, toward its essential human mystery. Often, I’ve found that “plateaus” are the product of ill focus-an individual tree is in sharp relief, but the forest is blurry.
S.P.: Tim, much of what you wrote in The Things They Carried was based pretty closely (I assume) on actual events. Yet, being a fiction writer myself, I know that too intense an attachment to things-as-they-actually-happened or people-as-they-actually-are-or-were can work against the success of a story. How you do you handle the fact/fiction conundrum? Do ethical issues enter the equation, e.g. fidelity to an actual friend, in the sense of being reluctant to fictionalize anything he did … or simple fidelity to the truth of actual events? In your writing philosophy, what is the proper relation of fact to fiction?
T.O.: Since my work is very conspicuously labeled “fiction,” I don’t fret about issues of factuality. I would feel quite free, for instance, to write a story in which Germany wins World War Two, or in which Richard Cheney is an angel of the Lord. My fidelity is to the story. To the story alone. As a fiction writer, I’m interested not only in what “is,” or in what “was,” but also in what might have been or what almost was or what might still be or what should have been.
S.P.: I’ve been recommending The Things They Carries for years. If you have time, go check out Tim when he visits one of the following locations. Read the book.
San Francisco area
Berkeley Arts & Letters, March 16, 7:30 pm
First Congregational Church of Berkeley
Los Angeles Public Library, March 18, 7:00 pm
New York City
Barnes & Noble, March 22, 7:00pm
Free Library of Philadelphia, March 23, 7:00pm
Politics & Prose, March 24, 7:00 pm
Harvard Bookstore, March 25, 7:00 pm
First Parish Church, Cambridge
Oak Park Reading Series, with The Book Table, April 8th, 7:00pm
Unity Temple, Oak Park
Will rebroadcast the reading of The Things They Carried on public radio stations nationwide between March 18th – 24th.
Wednesday March 24th, 1-2pm EST: Tim O’Brien in conversation with Nathanial Fick broadcast from Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C.
American Place Theater’s “Literature to Life” program: http://www.americanplacetheatre.org/stage/
Hi Steven, many thanks for posting this interview – I will definitely try to get hold of a copy of ‘The Things They Carried’.
I found it particularly revealing that Tim would talk about Resistance coming in the form of, for example, ‘a truculent phrase, a noun that will not disclose itself’ – it shows a writer who is not only paying attention to the story, the big picture, but also to the minutest of details in the telling of that story. I think unpublished writers like myself would do well to start realising the importance of such details in the way in which our writing impacts on our readers.
I also like Tim’s solution to hitting a plateau – namely, heading for the central human drama of the piece, the human mystery. I happen to be in a rut at the moment with a play I’m writing, and I’m now wondering whether this answer might hold the key to getting out of it.
Once again, many thanks for conducting and posting this interview – as always, your input into the writing community is a breath of fresh air.
Great interview, Steven. I, too, have been recommending O’Brien’s short story collection for years. I gave it to my three sons to read. One son choose to write a term paper on it in college, and I was so proud of the result. But a good paper is easy to write when the material is as well-written and profound as The Things They Carried.
I read Tim O’Brien’s short story, “The Things They Carried,” in a college writing class recently. The teacher called it a tour de force, which is probably an understatement. It’s a story I will never forget. The instructor described it as a story told through a sort of inventory of stuff that these American soldiers in Vietnam carried. I suppose that’s a simple way of putting it. It reminded me that our own stories can be told through the things we carry, the relics of our lives, the artifacts of our own existence. If you’ve ever had to go through the possessions of a loved one who has passed on, then you know. And it always makes me wonder what kind of story will be put together from my things when I pass on, how much will be true and how much will be fiction.
One of the students brought the story home to her dad, who is a Vietnam Veteran, and it brought him to tears and opened up a dialogue between them that had never existed before. To me, that is storytelling at its finest.
Thanks, Mr. Pressfield, for sharing this interview. I’m so glad to know Mr. O’Brien has a book-length version of the story. I will have to find a copy.
One of the finest books I’ve ever read. The prose is simple, graceful and understated. Tim’s been a huge influence on how I approach storytelling and songwriting. I feel like every time I read the book I learn something new about the characters. I’ve kept a copy on my bookshelf on and off for years, letting folks borrow it, giving it away and buying a new copy when it seems to be the right time. It may be time to buy a new copy.