| The author Tim O’Brien writes fictionally about the people he met while at war and how their lives continued to intersect in the years after. Courtesy photo
While some memoirists save their grittiest stories for their parents’ post-mortems, few let their offspring derail their exploration of self or subject—after all, it’s going to potentially bring home the bacon.
But it’s bound to get a little weird when your father is the author of a book circulated to millions, optioned for film and required reading for high-schoolers around the country.
“I’ll be delighted when Timmy and Tad read the book in high school or in college,” admits Tim O’Brien, speaking about his elementary-age boys, the Vietnam War and “The Things They Carried,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. “What would not delight me, I’m sure, is if they were to receive a ‘C’ on their ‘The Things They Carried’ exam.”
O’Brien, the much-lauded author of several books and articles about the Vietnam War, will speak in Ketchum tonight, March 13, as part of the Sun Valley Center for the Arts’ Lecture Series and its latest exhibit. “Home Front,” on view until May 25, looks at what it’s like for a soldier to return home. The exhibition features vintage World War I and World War II posters from the Wolfsonian Museum alongside work by contemporary artists Jennifer Karady, Cat Mazza, Stephanie Freid-Perenchio, Chad Person and Allison Smith.
The Vietnam War and its resonance is a recurring subject for O’Brien, who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970 and then went on to graduate school at Harvard University. In 1973 he published his first book, the autobiographical “If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.”
Home then would have been Minnesota. Home today is Texas, where O’Brien teaches at Texas State University-San Marcos in its MFA program.
On NPR talking about “The Things They Carried” with Neil Conan, who asked him what he still carries 40 years after the war and 20 years after writing that book, O’Brien said, “I carry the memories of the ghosts of a place called Vietnam—the people of Vietnam, my fellow soldiers. More importantly, I carry the weight of responsibility and a sense of abiding guilt.”
His three works of fiction about Vietnam—”Going After Cacciato,” “In the Lake of the Woods” and “The Things They Carried”—have won a slew of prestigious awards, including a National Book Award and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction. In 2012 he received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize lifetime achievement award.
Explaining the purposeful nature of his work in general, he has said in interviews, “The goal, I suppose, any fiction writer has, no matter what your subject, is to hit the human heart and the tear ducts and the nape of the neck and to make a person feel something about what the characters are going through and to experience the moral paradoxes and struggles of being human.”
As for why “Things” manages to touch a piece of so many, regardless of the age, he has reasoned: “In a way, for me, although on the surface, of course, it’s a book about war, I’ve never thought of it, really, that way in my heart. Even when I was writing it, it seemed to be a book about storytelling and the burdens we all accumulate through our lives, our moms and dads and backyards, teachers, which I mean, my dad died, I don’t know, four years ago, and he is as gone as anybody I knew in Vietnam.”
When O’Brien speaks in Ketchum this week, it will be about the interrelated short stories of “Things.” He plans to read from the book and talk about how he came to write them.
“I’m a fiction writer and never have to decide which way to ‘lean,’” he said about his process last week from Texas. “I never feel limited by any fidelity to what happened. As a fiction writer, I am more interested in what almost happened, or what could have happened or what should have happened. For me, so-called reality is irrelevant. What matters is the emotional and spiritual power of a good story, whether it came from the real world or from the world of imagination.
“There is no single “truth” about war. There are multiple truths, multiple lies. Writers are capable of telling stories that may help readers understand and feel in their stomachs some of these contradictions and ambiguities.”
And though the technology of war has evolved since his days as an infantryman, “war remains war—death, mutilation, hypocrisy, courage, cowardice, widows, orphans, people without arms and legs and faces, patriotic gore, liars in public places.”
Now at work on a new book, the author insisted that “more importantly, I’m busy being the father of two young sons, ages 7 and 9. Writing novels is very hard work, but it’s a holiday compared to playing basketball at age 66.”
He admitted having thought about what he might say to his sons about going to war.
“I’m afraid, though, that in the end they will have to make up their minds, no matter what I say. Maybe I’ll just hand them a copy of “The Things They Carried.” Or maybe I’ll chain them to their beds as they sleep.”
Come home to some “Home Front” events
Hear author Tim O’Brien speak tonight, March 13, at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are at www.sunvalleycenter.org for $25 members / $35 nonmembers / $10 students. Or by phone at 726-9491, ext. 10 or stop by The Center in Ketchum.
See the exhibit: Friday, March 15, stop by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum for an opening reception from 5-7 p.m. and then through May 25. Free.