David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Tim O’Brien Interview: The Things He Carried

Originally published October 19, 1994 in the Baltimore City Paper.
Also read the complete interview transcript.

tim-obrien.jpgTim O’Brien wants to set the record straight: he is not a Vietnam writer.

“It’s like calling Toni Morrison a black writer or Joseph Conrad an ocean writer or Shakespeare a royalty writer,” says O’Brien on the phone in early October from Massachusetts, where he is poised on the verge of a massive publicity barrage for his highly anticipated new novel, In the Lake of the Woods. “I don’t write about bombs and bullets, I write about the human heart. It’s just the subject matter that was given to me.

“If I were to tag In the Lake of the Woods,” says O’Brien in his characteristic shy mumble, “I’d call it a love story.”

A love story? It seems difficult to believe, given that O’Brien’s two most famous books, the mystical Going After Cacciato and its counterpart, The Things They Carried, both won critical praise for their vivid depictions of soldiers humping through the Asian subcontinent. Not to mention that his first book, the nonfictional If I Die in a Combat Zone, detailed the author’s own experiences as a gun-toting grunt in Vietnam.

Of course, there’s still a good deal of Vietnam in Tim O’Brien’s new book. The novel’s protagonist, Minnesota politician John Wade, has just suffered a landslide defeat in the U.S. Senate elections because of ninth inning revelations that he participated in the My Lai civilian massacre led by Lieutenant William Calley in 1968. In the wake of this humiliating defeat, John and wife Kathy retreat to a friend’s cabin, far from the intrusive eyes of the public. A few days later, Kathy inexplicably vanishes.

“You usually think a love story is about kisses and roses, but sometimes people do bad things for love,” said O’Brien. “My guy goes to war for love, he spies for love, he guards his secrets for love…. But we all do bad things for love. Every single one of us have things we won’t tell and secrets we’ll guard.”

John Wade’s secrets are paramount to the root question of the novel — what happened to Kathy Wade? This question soon sprouts into a tangled ravine of shadows and mysterious possibilities. Did Kathy leave her husband because she was disgusted at his failure, or abhorred at his keeping his participation in My Lai from her for all these years? Did Wade finally succumb to the spooky skeletons in his psychological attic and murder her? Or did she simply set out on a midnight boating trip and lose herself in the winding tributaries leading from their vacation home into Canada?

“Evidence Is Not Truth. It Is Only Evident.”

Despite the plotline, O’Brien is no thriller writer, and In the Lake of the Woods is no “Columbo” episode. It’s no secret that the disappearance of Kathy Wade remains a mystery with no solution to the end. The novel itself is a patchwork of suppositions and hypotheses by a would-be Sherlock Holmes who has become obsessed with the case. “I have tried, of course, to be faithful to the evidence,” states the nameless author in one of his revealing footnotes. “Yet evidence is not truth. It is only evident.”

As O’Brien chronicles the relationship of John and Kathy Wade, he provides evidence aplenty for any scenario the reader might conjecture. Wade, a loner whose serious lack of self-confidence stems partly from rejection by an alcoholic father, has constructed his entire life on the soft clay of deceit and manipulation. Hooked as a youngster on the innocent empowerment fantasies of being a parlor magician, Wade soon becomes in earnest a manipulative sorcerer intent on controlling his life and environment. It is only when he experiences stunning political defeat and loses his wife does he realize the breadth of his true impotence.

Of course, while this in-depth character exploration excites many in the highbrow literary world, other critics have taken O’Brien to task for spoiling a perfectly good mystery novel. Why can’t we just figure out whodunnit?

“Once a mystery has been solved, it’s not a mystery anymore,” retorts O’Brien. “You say, ‘Oh, 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. That’s what keeps the Kennedy case alive, too — the mystery.”

The mystery of In the Lake of the Woods is so dense that not even O’Brien really knows what happened to Kathy Wade. “My sister went for the killing theory,” he claims. “My brother thinks she got lost. My dad says the two of them planned it together….

“My feeling is that John Wade didn’t kill her. But that’s just what I think. As an author, I just have these hypotheses, I’m sort of neutral. But as a reader, I have my own opinion. I think she just got in the boat one day and got lost.

“That’s how life really works, at least from my point of view.”

An Auspicious Debut

Interestingly enough, however, Tim O’Brien’s life has been largely devoid of the types of mysteries that haunt Wade. His tour of duty in the Vietnam War was about as routine as any in that war could be. O’Brien told the Boston Globe in 1990 that “in my normal life I don’t think about Vietnam, I don’t dream about Vietnam.”

Few writers have had a debut onto the literary scene as auspicious as O’Brien’s. After the autographical If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and his modest first novel, Northern Lights (1975), O’Brien astonished book watchers by ambushing the National Book Award with his third work, Going After Cacciato (1978) — besting two critical and popular Goliaths, John Irving’s The World According to Garp and the posthumous collection The Stories of John Cheever.

Even more amazing was that a novel with the simple power and resonance of Cacciato had gone virtually unnoticed up to that point. The book chronicles a squad of Vietnam foot soldiers in pursuit of a deserter, the clueless Cacciato, who on a whim decides to pick up and hike to Paris on foot. In 400 pages of unadorned prose that melds Ernest Hemingway with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, O’Brien manages to capture all the insanity, mysticism, confusion, and surreality that was the Vietnam experience.

Listen to O’Brien sing in Cacciato about what we learned in Vietnam, with a voice as blunt and clear as a tribal storyteller doling out primitive truth around the fire:

Even the lessons were commonplace. It hurts to be shot. Dead men are heavy. Don’t seek trouble, it’ll find you soon enough. You hear the shot that gets you…. These were hard lessons, true, but they were lessons of ignorance; ignorant men, trite truths. What remained was simple event. The facts, the physical things. A war like any other war. No new messages. Stories that began and ended without transition. No developing drama or tension or direction. No order.

After winning the NBA, the critics caught on fast, ladling praise after praise on O’Brien and setting Cacciato on the sacred war fiction shelf alongside Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

Deconstructing the Stories of Vietnam

Heady with the rush of fame, O’Brien followed up with a domestic novel about a nuclear war-obsessed Baby Boomer, The Nuclear Age (1985). Awkward in tone and theme, the book was a conspicuous failure, not to mention further from the front lines of Nam than anything else O’Brien had written.

Readers and reviewers were more than pleased with The Things They Carried (1990), which gave many cause to change their minds about Cacciato being the best work of fiction on the Vietnam War. A series of interconnected tales, some autobiographical and some fictional, The Things They Carried probes the same scars as Cacciato, but less obliquely.

The book also amplified O’Brien’s interest in deconstructing not only the stories we tell about Vietnam, but how and why we tell them. In one passage, for example, he analyzes the archetypal story about the soldier who jumps on a live grenade to save his comrades’ lives. Did this ever really happen? According to O’Brien, the veracity of such a story is beside the point.

You’d feel cheated if it never happened [he writes]. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen — and maybe it did, anything’s possible — even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

O’Brien had actually begun writing another book earlier than The Things They Carried, a novel centering around a Vietnam vet tormented by the ghosts of Vietnam whose wife one day up and vanishes. The book that would eventually become In the Lake of the Woods, however, would take several more years of mental wrestling before O’Brien could return to it and finish.

“I had to put [the book] aside for a while, mostly because of this business about the ending,” claims O’Brien. “I knew some reviewers wouldn’t like the idea of leaving the mystery unsolved at the end, so I figured I’d try to change it around sometime later. But then I realized that this is just what had to be.”

In the Lake of the Woods

The lack of definitive answers in In the Lake of the Woods gives O’Brien license to continue his experimentation with the nature of narrative. Given that the book is supposed to be an exploration of alternatives by a fictional author obsessed with the Wade case, none of the narrative is really “true” at all. Epistemologically, the author’s story holds the same relation to truth as, say, Don DeLillo’s hypothetical vision of the Kennedy assassination in Libra or any journalist’s take on the O.J. Simpson murder case.

(Incidentally, O’Brien says the similarities between the O.J. Simpson case and In the Lake of the Woods hadn’t occurred to him. “I’m not sure whether O.J. had big secrets or not,” says O’Brien offhandedly. “I tend to doubt it. But you never know. Maybe he’ll confess or something.”)

O’Brien’s point is that we respond to the unknown by synthesizing an explanation for it; in essence, we make up stories. He ingeniously displays the human capacity for connecting the dots throughout several chapters of collected quotes and items of evidence gathered by the diligent fictional author. Simply by placing attributed statements by certain characters in sequence, we begin to draw a picture in our heads of the people who might make these statements and judge the witnesses by their merits and biases — all of which, of course, are imaginary.

As much as In the Lake of the Woods is a story about love and the imagination, however, O’Brien also uses the book as a launch pad for some of his disgruntlements about the Vietnam War, and the My Lai episode in particular.

Although O’Brien himself has always stated that his time hunting the woods for Charlie did not leave him with the debilitating nightmares and psychological problems that plague other vets, he admits to still being troubled about the issues raised by Lieutenant William Calley’s slaughter at the My Lai village. (O’Brien’s unit actually pulled security at the village during the official investigation into the massacre.)

“It makes me angry that only one person was convicted for My Lai, and that was Lieutenant Calley,” says O’Brien. “Soldiers who testified that they killed twenty people were never prosecuted. What really bugs me is that of the 150 or so people who were there, the American public only remembers Calley’s name. But what about the rest of them? Those people are still all around us. What are they telling their wives and children? Are they guarding their secrets, too?”

O’Brien realizes, of course, that talk of Vietnam vets as crazed killers puts him on dangerous turf. “I do empathize with those soldiers, I understand what they went through. But it’s like Hitler — you can explain him, but that doesn’t mean you can justify him.

“I tried in the book to carefully show the circumstances that led up to [the massacre]: men dying, anger, traps going off, everything. But my own unit, we went through the same things they went through. We saw land mines and snipers and deaths. But we never crossed the line between rage and homicide. Murder’s murder, and I’ve always felt the same.”

The Real John Wades

So what does O’Brien think an actual veteran who was at the My Lai massacre would think of In the Lake of the Woods? Would the real John Wades want to read about John Wade?

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

“Unfortunately,” he concludes, “that doesn’t justify it.”

But for the fictional John Wade and his real life counterparts, justification is what life is all about. Because in Tim O’Brien’s world, when you stop believing the stories you tell yourself, chaos sets in.

“What is important, the author believes,” O’Brien notes wryly in the disclaimer of The Nuclear Age, “is not what happened, but what could have happened, and, in some cases, should have happened.”

Comments RSS Feed

  1. Tim on February 12, 2008 at 5:28 am  Chain link

    Fantastic interview! Really sparked thoughts, ideas and increased my understanding of the book. I really enjoyed the book and its uniqueness in its style and set up.

    Great stuff,

    – Tim

  2. Rachel on June 1, 2009 at 10:30 am  Chain link

    Every year, our juniors read The Things They Carried and I have been wanting Mr. O’Brien to speak at our school. Do you know of how I could reach him or schedule a visit? Thanks so much.

  3. David Louis Edelman on June 2, 2009 at 8:47 am  Chain link

    Rachel: Sorry, I don’t actually know Mr. O’Brien or how to get in touch with him. This interview was conducted 15 years ago at this point. You might try contacting his publisher.

  4. Cliodhna on April 28, 2010 at 12:47 pm  Chain link

    I really enjoyed this interview, thank you for sharing! I am just preparring for an exam on Mr. O’ Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods and this really helped me with a postmodernist question.

    Thanks :)

  5. kate on October 19, 2011 at 8:25 pm  Chain link

    how would one go about contacting O’Brien’s publisher?

  6. McCrory on February 9, 2012 at 12:33 pm  Chain link

    I was wondering why this is titled “… The Things They Carried” when the interview is about In the Lake of the Woods?

    It is indeed a great interview though, and thank you for posting it!

    To those interested in contacting O’Brien or his publisher, try this link — http://bit.ly/xY0vKn

  7. David Louis Edelman on February 9, 2012 at 1:31 pm  Chain link

    McCrory: The title (“The Things He Carried”) is a play on the title of O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried. It was actually chosen by the Baltimore City Paper when they published this article some 18 years ago. But I guess I can see why it might be confusing.

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