The Fresh Air Interview: Novelist Tim O'Brien - 'Things They Carried' Back From Vietnam Novelist Tim O'Brien served in Vietnam as an infantryman in 1968. He wrote about the war in several novels, including Going After Cacciato and If I Die in a Combat Zone. He spoke with Terry Gross in 1990 about his classic book of short war stories, The Things They Carried.
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'Things They Carried' Back From Vietnam

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'Things They Carried' Back From Vietnam

'Things They Carried' Back From Vietnam

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(Soundbite of music)


On this Memorial Day, we're going to hear from the author of a classic book of stories about the Vietnam War, "The Things They Carried." It was republished in a 20th anniversary edition in March. The author, Tim O'Brien, served in Vietnam as an infantryman in 1968. I spoke with him in 1990 when the book was first published.

This collection of stories is tied together by a fictional narrator whose name is also Tim O'Brien. In this passage, the narrator is reading 17-page disjointed letter in which his former combat buddy writes about the problem of finding a meaningful life after fighting in the war.

Mr. TIM O'BRIEN (Author, "The Things They Carried"): I felt it coming and near the end of the letter it came. He explained that he had read my first book "If I Die in a Combat Zone," which he liked, except for the bleeding heart political parts. For half a page he talked about how much the book had meant to him, how it brought back all kinds of memories, the villes and paddies and rivers, and how he recognized most of the characters, including himself, even though almost all the names were changed.

Then Bowker came straight out with it: What you should do, Tim, is write a story about a guy who feels like he got zapped over that (BLEEP). A guy who can't get his act together and just drives around town all day and can't think of any damned place to go and doesnt know how to get there anyway. The guy wants to talk about it but he can't. If you want he can use the stuff in this letter but not my real name, okay? Id write it myself except I can't find any words, if you know what I mean, and I can't figure out what exactly to say. Something about the field that night. The Kiowa just disappeared into the crud. You were there - you can tell it.

GROSS: Has anything like that actually ever happened to you, getting a letter from a friend or having a friend say to you, youve got to tell my story, I can't do it, but youve got to tell it?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Oh it's happened hundreds and hundreds of times. I've never taken them up on the offer, and even in this case I didnt. The letter is made up.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Do you feel that people almost define themselves by maybe a half dozen or a dozen stories that describe the pivotal incidents in their life?

Mr. O'BRIEN: I do. But in my own life, you know, I would say there were a handful, maybe a dozen incidents that are like touchstones that occurred, you know, occur over and over in my fiction. There's one incident in the book about the shooting of a baby water buffalo in Vietnam and the image of a defenseless water buffalo being shot over and over and over again is one that's appeared in I think everything I've written, or close to everything I've written. I'm not sure, you know, what the image is there for in terms of symbol or metaphor. Probably nothing. It just has the feel of meat, which was the feel of war, flesh and blood and a poor baby buffalo being shot over and over and over again. That's a senseless, you know, that's war.

GROSS: Well, in the novel, the person who's shooting the buffalo - the water buffalo is doing it after he's seen a friend of his die.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yes.

GROSS: You know, one of his buddies die and this is interpreted as a kind of, not exactly revenge but venting, some kind of venting of the frustration. Did you witness something like this? Is that why the image keeps recurring in your fiction?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah, I did. I witnessed, we were walking along a paddy dike one day after a horrible - a few hours in a village adjacent to the village of My Lai, where the massacre happened and we lost several fellows who hit landmines. And the platoon was lined up in a long, long row across the paddy dike and 100 yards away stood a water buffalo. And with no signal the men began firing and the buffalo stood there and you could see gobs of flesh jumping off the beast and then it stuck.

GROSS: Were you one of the men who fired?

Mr. O'BRIEN: No. No. I watched dumbly. I understood. You can't justify something like that but there was no enemy to take, you know, take it out on. Men were feeling sorrow and rage simultaneously and the buffalo was there to bear the brunt.

GROSS: How vivid are your memories from the war? I mean how much do you think you remember of, what, the year that you were there?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Oh a few scattered images. In a way if you were to pick up a photographic album and page through it you'd maybe seven or eight pictures of, you know, that are really vivid, another 24 or so, vaguely recollect. The rest of the album is empty. A lot of black, black pages which you'd expect, I think that our memories leave us. But beyond that, a lot of the war was not memorable, plodding along from village to village, hot days, mosquitoes. It was a kind of monotony to it but a strange monotony. You know, it was boredom with a twist.

GROSS: And what was the twist?

Mr. O'BRIEN: The twist was a kind of like a leaky faucet in your stomach and like instead of water there was this acid feeling dropping out where you can feel like it's eating away inside you. Youre bored, frightened simultaneously. Try it sometimes. Its tough.

GROSS: Let me ask you about a couple of the images in the book and see where they come from in actuality or your imagination. I mean what they signify to you. One of the men in the company, Henry Dobbins, is always wrapping his girlfriend's pantyhose around his head. It's his protective magic - his good luck charm.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did a lot of the men you know have something like that? Did you have anything like that yourself?

Mr. O'BRIEN: No I didnt carry pantyhose, but there were talisman that men carried in war and the kind of talismans that touch on peace. That the pantyhose business that's wrapped around a fellow's neck as a kind of comforter is a reminder of all he doesnt have - his girlfriend and the peace that that girl represents for him. And, you know, like some men carried letters from home, some men carried coins their father may have sent them. A lot of us carried photographs, some carried lockets of hair.

GROSS: What were the things that you carried with you to remind you of who you were and what it was that you loved?

Mr. O'BRIEN: I carried odd things. I carried, you won't believe this, I carried a book of German grammar. I wanted to learn German while I was in Vietnam.

GROSS: That seems like such a remote thing to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'BRIEN: What an odd thing to be saying, you know, (foreign language spoken) trying to get the accents right and then learn the, you know, the grammatical structures of German after, you know, marching all day long through really horrible things. It was a way - a lot of us, you know, by pushing the war aside if even for a few moments.

GROSS: Well, I guess it was also a way of like affirming that you had a life of the mind, that there was more besides like your body in the war.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah. I think that was a great part of it and a way of just touching on civility and civilization, which for me books represented then and continue to. I mean that's what they are.

GROSS: What else did you carry?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Oh gee. Oh I carried so much. I carried cans of orange juice that my father had sent me from Minnesota. These were as precious to me - he sent me 12 cans and they were heavy. And it wasnt the orange juice that I craved. It was the fact that these cans of orange juice had come from my dad from so, so, so far away. And I gave myself one month for each can. One can a month.

GROSS: So you measured your whole tour of duty by those cans.

Mr. O'BRIEN: By those cans of orange juice.

GROSS: Did you ever try to travel light?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah. I mean eventually you have to. I think you discard things. You discard odd things as a soldier. You discard things like hand grenades and belts of ammunition, the things you think you'd keep, claymore mines. We were so burdened by stuff that we were like giants lumbering through that countryside hauling along with us the whole, you know, all of the resources of the American war chest.

GROSS: Your first book, "If I Die in a Combat Zone," was really one of the early war memoirs. When did it first come out? Was it 1973?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yes.

GROSS: And then, "Going After Cacciato" came out a few years later. It was still one of the early Vietnam novels. Was it different for you writing about the war before Vietnam had so penetrated fiction, movies and television?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Oh, I can't say that the output of recent books and movies and so one about the war has helped me or hindered me. I haven't seen many of the movies and I haven't read many of the books.

GROSS: I'm surprised to hear that.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Well, you know...

GROSS: I mean I thought you'd to curious either to see like what other people were doing with it or to see if how it compared to your own experiences or your own telling of the experiences.

Mr. O'BRIEN: I think for me, at least, and I'm not much interested in the war stories. Most of them tend to be melodramatic and predictable and bad stories. And I think a lot of readers feel the same. Weve been, you know, brought in too many John Wayne movies and too much bad writing. This isn't true just for Vietnam, of course, it's true for, you know, for, you know, if you look at love stories with all the Harlequin Romances out there and, but nonetheless, there's something about a war, the war story that makes me want to turn my head and move away gently.

For me, the war is, I mean, that isn't important to me now. Whats important to me is language about the war and about the human heart. I was never a very good soldier. I hated that war and its now in the distant past. What's in the present for me are the stories that have really in a way, nothing to do with the war. They're set in the war but they're stories for me of friendships and ghosts and girlfriends and that kind of thing.

GROSS: Another image I want to ask you about and I wasnt sure whether this was literary or actually.

Mr. O'BRIEN: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: There's a sequence and it's a pretty pivotal sequence where a couple of the characters in your novel are in a field of sewage.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And the smell just won't go away. I mean long after theyve left the smell just won't go away. And I mean its - the literary image there is clear. I was wondering if that was an actual experience too, if there were fields of sewage like this that you got caught in.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah. I mean it was meant to be a description of actual things and not as metaphor and not as symbol, just lots of stuff...

GROSS: I'm really glad to hear that, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'BRIEN: But they were shocking to read in, you know, in some column or review that, you know, this was taken as a metaphor for something. It didnt occur to me. As soon as it was written I said oh my God, you know, I can see it but it was intended just as stuff, a field full of sewage that we camped in one night and we were attacked and mortared and the men went under.

GROSS: The men went under the sewage.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah. No metaphor, just under.

GROSS: I'd like to try to explain why it is that I'm almost relieved that it really happened. Do you know what I mean? It's something that really happened it seems quite horrible. As something that would've been metaphor it would seem like too much.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah. Yeah it would've. You know, in a way its one of those things where, you know, if I would've like thought a little more clearly about it I might have avoided it, but what would I do? Why would I change things? I probably wouldnt in the long run. I think if Melville in writing "Moby Dick" thought that that whale would be finally like just a metaphor he might've changed it to, you know, a tuna fish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'BRIEN: Not quite so godlike.

GROSS: How long did it take before you could wash the sewage off and get out of there?

Mr. O'BRIEN: I never have. I mean that smell is still in my dreams. It's the one thing that's really stuck with me. I dont dream Vietnam but the smell - I dont know if you ever had an operation and had ether.

GROSS: Yes. Yeah.

Mr. O'BRIEN: I did as a kid.

GROSS: My tonsils - getting my tonsils out.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Now and then every three years or eight years the smell of ether returns to me. It's not set in the hospital. There's a folding feeling in the brain, just a folding over the brain with a smell inside the folds and that's what returns to me now and then, the smell of that field of sewage folding through my dream.

GROSS: What do you think it is that it's the smell that stays with you more than anything else?

Mr. O'BRIEN: That's a pretty terrible smell.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. O'BRIEN: And that's part of it and part of it is I'm sure is linked somehow to the awful thing that happened in the field that night.

GROSS: Tim O'Brien recorded in 1990 after the publication of his book "The Things They Carried." A 20th anniversary edition was published in March. You can read a chapter on our website, Tim O'Brien now teaches creative writing at Texas State University.

Coming up, Jehanne Dubrow reads from her collection of poems "Stateside" about being a military wife whose husband is deployed overseas.

This is FRESH AIR.

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