David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Tim O’Brien Full Interview Transcript

Conducted on October 1, 1994.
Also see the published article based on this interview.

Author Tim O'BrienQ: Do you see any similarities in your book to the O.J. Simpson case?

I hadn’t really thought about it at all. I started the book six years ago, more than that, eight years ago. I don’t know whether he did it or not. My book is basically sort of a story of the effects of deceit on love. How secrecy and hiding things can lead to real collapse. I’m not sure whether O.J. had big secrets or not. I tend to doubt it. But you never know, maybe he’ll confess or something.

My feeling is that my guy didn’t kill her. That’s my own opinion. As a reader, I have my own opinion. As an author, I just have these hypotheses. As an author, I’m sort of neutral. As a person, I just think she got in the boat one day and got lost. But that’s just my opinion. You can have your own opinion.

I think that’s the way life usually operates. I wanted to write a real mystery, as opposed to a mystery that’s solved, and then it’s not a mystery anymore. Once you know who done it, you say ‘Jack did it to Jane in the dining room with the candlestick,’ and then you put down the book and forget about it. What we remember in life is what we don’t know. Amelia Earhart, for instance. If they found her body in a cornfield in Iowa, we’d say okay, it’s over. I think that’s what keeps the Kennedy case alive is the mystery. Of course there’s the greater mysteries the book’s about, the mysteries of love. How much do people love us? What do they really feel about us? You live with someone for twenty years and you never really know.

Q: The evidence section provides “solid evidence” about what happened, but we still make inferences from it.

If you offer various hypotheses about what might have happened, you want to have some sort of evidence that the reader can use. Everyone can have a different interpretation. My sister went for the killing, my brother thinks they got lost. My dad says they ran off together. That’s my whole family right there. I guess that’s what I want. I want a reader to — mystery frustrates us on one hand when we get to the end, but on the other hand it’s fascinating. We’re fascinated by the Kennedy thing. That’s how life works, at least from my point of view.

Q: A reviewer in the Washington Post criticized you for “loving the telling more than the tale” and not taking responsibility for the book’s ending.

I haven’t read that review. Responsibility is we don’t know. I took more responsibility than other writers. You don’t have to give readers answers.

Q: Your publisher seems to be packaging the novel as a “literary thriller.”

That happens to all our books. Somebody has to tag it. That’s how it got tagged in Vanity Fair, and then Harper’s just followed suit. It’s really about magic and about marriage and about love and Vietnam, a hell of a lot more than just a thriller. People say that it’s a literary thriller, but you’d have to dispense with three-quarters of the book. If I were to tag it, I’d call it a love story. You usually think a love story is about kisses and roses, but sometimes people do bad things for love. My guy goes to war for love, he spies for love, he guards his secret for love, all these are bad things he’s doing. We all do bad things for love. Every single one of us, things we won’t tell and secrets we’ll guard. That’s how I’d tag it, as a love story.

Q: How much of the My Lai testimony is real?

All of it. Richardson is made up, the rest of the testimony is real. He was the only one that mentioned Sorcerer. He’s also made up, of course.

Q: Have you talked to anyone who was at My Lai?

I was there at My Lai myself as a soldier, about a month after it all happened. Not at the massacre. Just by chance. I knew the area really intimately. I was there when the story broke, my unit pulled security when they did investigation, you know, pulling the whole village apart and scanning for land mines and everything.

Q: What did you think about it at the time?

I thought it was murder, the same thing I think today. It makes me angry that so many people got off, the charges were dropped, people got off on technicalities, only one person was convicted. That was Lieutenant Calley. People who testified that they killed 20 people, they were never prosecuted. What really bugs me is that of all the people who were there, about 150 or so, the American public only remembers Calley’s name. But what about the rest of them? Those people are still among us, all over, maybe even some in Baltimore, what are they telling their wives and children? Are they guarding their secrets, too?

Q: What would someone who was at My Lai think after reading this book?

They’d wish this book weren’t published, wish the whole thing would go away, be forgotten. And it practically has. This is all basically a footnote to the Vietnam War now. The 25th anniversary recently passed without any mention in the press. If there was any, I sure didn’t see it. I think the American public views it as an aberration, you know, brutality’s just a part of war and atrocities are going to happen. Unfortunately, that doesn’t justify it.

Q: It’s interesting that you say that, because I thought your book shows a lot of sympathy for these people. Do you have empathy for these soldiers?

I understand what they went through. It’s like Hitler. You can explain it. It doesn’t mean you can justify it. I tried in the book to carefully show the circumstances that led up to it, the men dying, anger and everything. My own unit, we went through the same things they went through, land mines and snipers and deaths, but we didn’t cross the line between rage and homicide.

Murder’s murder, and I’ve always felt the same. I had a piece in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday on the cover, I think it was the October 2nd issue, that explains a lot of my feelings about this. You should read it.

Q: What do you think about our attitude today towards use of the military? In Haiti and Somalia, we do everything on tenterhooks largely because of what happened in Vietnam.

I think it’s a good idea to be pretty careful about the military. America is not the policeman of the universe, we can’t just appoint ourselves as cops. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that if a government wants us to intervene that we shouldn’t. I think we should be very cautious and intelligent about it, not just sort of slap leather. After Vietnam, there was a sense of impotence that swept across the nation and entered into our psyches. We had been the Lone Ranger for so many years, and now we were unmasked. We’ve wanted to pump iron for so many years, show that we’re tough guys, you know, go into Grenada and go into Panama and go into Iraq and kick ass. The Vietnam syndrome.

Q: Don’t you think that’s largely over?

I don’t think it’s over, I think it’s built into the political psyche of the nation. After WWII, we were the fastest guns and the biggest guns. Now after Vietnam we found ourselves beaten by a third world nation, one of the most impoverished countries in the world.

Q: I read somewhere that you said that you felt guilty about not dodging the draft.

Given that I was opposed to the war, the bravest thing to do was to go to jail or go to Canada. Just say no. I went to the war for the same reasons Wade did. I didn’t want to feel rejected by my hometown and by my family. I went anyway, which was the wrong thing to do. Like Wade, I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I knew were wrong just to be liked. That’s why I made him a politician. Part of what drives politicians is to be loved. Politicians are looking for love and approval and affection. That drives them at least as much as anything else.

Q: What about political figures that did dodge the draft, and it ended up hurting their careers? I’m thinking about Bill Clinton and Dan Quayle.

The problem is that they didn’t follow through. Clinton should’ve said, I didn’t believe in the war and I didn’t go and that was the right thing to do. The war was unpopular in this country anyway. Instead he kind of pussyfooted with the issue, he didn’t say I did the right thing, fuck you.

Q: Why did it take you so long to write this book?

I started it in ’85, wrote for two years until the end of ’87, maybe into ’88. Then I put it aside for a while and wrote The Things They Carried. It was mostly this business about the ending. I knew some reviewers wouldn’t like the idea of having a mystery at the end, of leaving it unsolved, so I put the book aside and figured I’ll try to change it around sometime later. But I realized that this is just what had to be. I figured what’s the point of making hypotheses and talk about mystery just to solve it in the end? What’s the point of it? So I gathered my courage for two years to write a book that wasn’t solved in the end. I knew I would get nailed in some places. But there’s a review coming out this Sunday in the Times Book Review, they’re leading off with it, and it’s a really good one. You just hope you don’t get nailed in the big places. I knew it was a huge risk.

I know it’s a weird and unusual book, but talking to you now, I’m proud of it. It has to be unusual, otherwise people will just read it and forget it. What we remember are the unusual things.

Q: Your publisher is really giving this book an impressive launch.

Yes, they are. That’s why it bugs me a little about the thriller bit. The book seems to me to be about the things a guy does for love, just as it bothers me that my other books were tagged as Vietnam books.

Q: Why does that bother you?

The Things They Carried, that takes place 25 years after the War, if it was just a Vietnam book you’d have to take out half of it. It’s like calling Toni Morrison a black writer or Conrad an ocean writer or Shakespeare a royalty writer. Your subject matter is given to you. I don’t write about bombs and bullets, I write about the human heart. Conrad’s novels aren’t about oceans and ships and things, they’re about human beings. There’s that tendency to tag things in this culture, and the artist has to resist the tag.

Q: Thanks and good luck. You’ll be in Washington in a couple weeks…

I’ll be everywhere in a couple of weeks.

Q: That’s about it.

Thanks for a good interview. I’m not really good at these types of things, I’m really a shy kind of guy.

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