Tim O’Brien

Tim O'Brien author photoTim O'Brien was born in Minnesota and graduated from Macalester College in that state. He served in Vietnam and did graduate work in Government at Harvard University. He was briefly a reporter for the Washington Post. Tim O'Brien has published the 1979 National Book Award-winning novel Going After Cacciato, in addition to The Things They Carried, In the Lake of the Woods, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Northern Lights, The Nuclear Age and Tomcat in Love and now July, July. His writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Harper’s, The Atlantic and has been included in several editions of Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories. Tim O'Brien has received numerous literary awards and fellowships. He is currently teaching at Southwest Texas State in San Marcos, Texas.

Robert Birnbaum: What was your starting point for July, July?

Tim O'Brien: Well, it’s the story of a group of people who get together, a reunion, 30 years after graduating. And that seemed to me to be an interesting hilltop from which you could survey the past and see the person you were and who you are now and the person you may become. From there it goes into an investigation of each of my 10 major characters and the turning point in that character’s life. To me it’s more a book about middle age and disappointment and joys that people have had that aren’t commonly with associated with what people call the ‘60s. It was more a look at life and what life had delivered to these people.

RB: I should have been more specific. I wanted to know what your starting point was in writing this novel.

TOB: I see what you mean. Just as a historical matter I was called by the fiction editor Rust Hills, at Esquire back then. There was a new feature that the magazine was running. A one-page story. He asked if I would do one. I agreed. I did a story about 2 people talking at a reunion. One had breast cancer and they knew each other all these years ago and she was just trying to get her old boyfriend to dance with her at a reunion. He keeps on saying no. Something about it intrigued me. I kept on picturing these nametags bobbing in the back ground—who are these people? I’ve never been to a reunion—what would it be like? It brought back a lot of ghosts from my own past as I was writing this story. And then one thing leads to another and I wanted to see who the name tag people were. So I did another chapter. And then another. And another. I found most of the chapters of the book were taking place not then but now. The things these people have gone through I had recently gone through. And then the troubles they brought to the reunion—they seemed to leave it a little bit lighter, marginally, so that tomorrow might be a little bit better than yesterday and that felt like my own life. All these things feed in, just story lines. The individual chapters intrigued me—writing about the death of Karen Burns intrigued me. Or about the dirty pictures and Jan Huebner or Marv’s big lie or Dorothy’s breast cancer. I became intrigued by each life and they became real people to me so the more I wrote about them the more I wanted to know about them.

RB: Is this a book you could have written any time before you wrote it?

TOB: No. No book has been that way.

RB: (laughs) No book was written before its time.

TOB: I couldn’t have written The Things They Carried now…it's true of every book. What your interests are and what your psychology is as a human being have a lot to do with what your content or subject matter is going to be. Here I am at middle age and I’m interested in middle age.

I became intrigued by each life and they became real people to me, so the more I wrote about them, the more I wanted to know about them.

RB: On looking back…

TOB: And forwards. Both. It’s a timewhere you survey. You have some time left and it’s not as muchas it used to be and where have you been and where do you go fromhere? Of course, it varies radically by person and so I wanted alot of people in the book to be able to look at different anglesof this period of life.

RB: Did July, July require you topay more or a lot of attention to structure and pacing? Or did itjust come out?

TOB: I’ve always paid attention to structureand pacing. Because it’s an ensemble novel I knew I couldn’tdo a whole life for each character. It would have been a 50,000-pagebook. So I had to find a structure—it seemed to me to be naturalthing to do was people in their lives more or less recall pointsof crisis, points of decision. Most everything else is erased. We’releft with certain bundles and clusters of memory and images thathave stuck and everything else is gone. So for each character Ithought if I could find one of those clusters of moral choice, aperiod in life where something was done and there was no going back,where life would always be different afterwards. So when Dorothywalks out without her shirt on, that’s something she wouldremember. It says a lot about the person she is. Not just the breastcancer. She needs to be loved and touched and she is desperate forcontentment that she doesn’t have. So it’s a gallant moveon her part.

RB: And unexpected, given her behavior sofar in the story.

TOB: Yeah, it is unexpected. Almost inevitabletoo. Someone who has lived that kind of straight-laced life, sooneror later they all lose it (both laugh). Eventually, in modest ways.

RB: How much does what you have written beforeenter into your approach to a new story?

TOB: It enters in ways that are not relatedto plot or story. It enters in terms of style—the sentencesin July, July are equal of the sentences in Things TheyCarried, In The Lake of The Woods, or Going After Cacciato—they’re good sentences and that enters in. One doesn’twant to repeat oneself as a writer. I don’t want to write abook I have already written. It enters in the sense that I had neverdone female characters and I had always wanted to. Lead charactersand that kind of technical challenge and the fun of it came outof past work…I hadn’t done it before in the past and Iwanted to do it now.

RB: Is it a technical challenge?

TOB: Kind of. Technical may be too vaguea term. It’s a question of trying to enter the skin of anotherhuman being with whom I share little. Not just in terms of genderbut in terms of experience. I never posed for dirty pictures andI’ve never won a lot of money playing blackjack. I’venever done anything that these people did. After a while it feltlike I was living in the skin of 10 other human beings. I don’tknow if technical is the word. You write differently, not relyingon the movie camera inside your head that has recorded your ownexperience. You are trying to imagine the movie camera inside thehead of Dorothy or Jan or Amy—their lives. Even David Todd,I never went through anything like what he went through. I wasn’tever in danger of dying. But I watched it all around me. I knowwhat morphine is. I took it once. I know the hallucinogenic propertiesand that kind of disembodied—it brings you into the centerof your brain with this little bead in there and it seemed in that[David’s] case a good place to go with the story.

tim obrienRB:What’s the value you place on accuracy? In the drug scenes,for example?

TOB: You want something interesting. Thereare a lot of uninteresting things that come out of drugs. I wantedsomething interesting to come out which is a voice of conscienceor history.

RB: Or as in this novel, a deejay.

TOB: He also appears as a TV evangelist,a cop, and a black jack dealer. To me, it’s not meant to besupernatural. It’s meant to be what all of us go through atsome point just talking to ourselves those hours before sleep sometimeswhen we got fired or your girlfriend left you or something. Youjust talk to yourself saying, “How did I get in this fix? Howdo I get out of it? Why did I do what I did?” Sometimes inan alarmist voice and sometimes in a reassuring voice, “Thiswas a tough divorce but not as bad as Anne Boleyn’s.”It comes out of us but it doesn’t feel like our own voices—amixture of us and our ideal selves. Then as a dramatist you tryto give it a personality. Like with the deejay, I try to rev itup a little bit and it becomes an emblem of what all of us at somepoint or another do.

RB: In the past you have been identifiedas a Vietnam story writer and Vietnam has a presence in this novel.Has that been an issue in the critical reception of July, July?

TOB: Some reviewers really hated the book.Some loved it. That’s been pretty much the case with all mybooks. Vietnam does figure in the book but obliquely. There is onechapter set there but aside from that, it’s a backdrop forthe ‘60s and the baby boomer generation. I’m flatteredto be known as a Vietnam writer. I can’t and I don’t wantto write the same books over and over. And haven’t. TheThings They Carried—I’d written Cacciatto andThe Things They Carried was another angle on it and way of lookingat the experience. More about storytelling, about what stories doin our lives. About writing, about memory, reality. So Vietnam evenin The Things They Carried wasn’t the dominant topic—it’sset there but it’s not a rehashing of what happened in combat.I’m sure I’ll return to it if some similar angle appearsto me where something new can come of it.

RB: Were there many Korean War novels?

TOB: No, I’ve only read one. I’mnot a historian or political scientist. I’m interested in humanlives. All my books are—in some way or another—about theimpact of big global things on individual human beings, what itdoes to people. Not the demography of it all or the sociology, that’sfor another province of writing. Mine is storytelling and I tryto find stories that I care about. The things I care about haveto do with people making choices and decisions in the context ofwhat’s right and wrong in the world, the political environmentaround the characters. But ultimately, especially in this book Ialmost write against that grain and say what mattered to these peoplewere not just Vietnam and the ‘60s. What mattered to thesepeople finally is what mattered to everybody—love. The trialsof marriage and divorce and all these characters seeking love inone way or another and having a tough time finding it in every case.

RB: Is Vietnam in your books taken too literally?

TOB: Depends on the reader. My books aretaught in schools—high schools and colleges—there’sa tendency to do what you just said, over politicize the books anduse them almost as history lessons. It’s a bit like using TheSun Also Rises as a history lesson about the Lost Generation.It would be true in a way but it would undermine the artistry ofthe book. It’s about Jake and Bret and their need for love.

RB: It’s a story.

TOB: Yeah, it’s a story. And it setthen and you can talk about it in those terms. That’s onlyone way of talking about it if I close my I see Jake and Bret atthe end of the book sitting in a cab, The Lost Generation is a backdropfor it and it’s all related—but it’s about Jake andBret. (both laugh)

RB: Did I hear you correctly—you saidmost of the characters at the end of July, July are lookingat their lives hopefully?

TOB: Oh yeah. Billy and Paulette might getmarried. Spook and Marv on a plane together. They are fantasizingtogether. Sure they go down but they are together. Jan and Amy walkout, looking for a man. They haven’t given up, despite allthe bitterness, and through the whole book, in fact, looking aroundthe corner for some possibility of happiness. Think of Marla andDavid—sure they’ve been divorced but for the first timein their lives they say, “Tell me about the river. Let’stalk and sit on these chapel steps.” And…there’snot a character in the book that doesn’t leave it—there’sno glorious sunset happy ending that you’re going to find ina Danielle Steele but by God, they make progress. Even Ellie whenshe goes into the shower and she’s told her husband about theaffair and the drowning and a hopeful breeze go through her thoughtsand maybe it’ll all be forgiven and the weight of confessionor that secrecy, rather, is gone. “Maybe he’ll forgiveme and come back.” That’s why I said marginally. I meanthere’s…nothing huge in terms of Happy birthday and MerryChristmas and the world’s a bright place but there’s amarginal improvement in these lives.

RB: That reminds me of the opening sceneof the film Milagro Bean Fields War where the aged Mexicanpeasant gets up and thanks God for one more day. (laughs)

TOB: Yeah! That’s kind of how it isfor these people. Tomorrow might be just a little better. And Ithink their characters are plucky. You know, they don’t quit.And that seems to me how the world more or less is. Otherwise, we’dall be in Jonestown, drinking Kool-Aid, I mean we do have to havesome …idea of a fantasy about a better tomorrow—even ifit’s a little better.

RB: One does have a sense of how many peopledo get to a certain point in their life and don’t recognizethe deep disappointment that they have.

TOB: Sure. I think you’re right. Basicallyit’s a bunch of love stories of various sorts. It’s abook of love stories. I’ve never talked about it that way beforebut it’s really what it is. It’s hard. It’s not romancebut about things people will do for love.

The things I care about have to do with people making choices and decisions in the context of what’s right and wrong in the world, the political environment around the characters.

RB: In Gail Caldwell’s review in the Boston Globe, she took you to task for this dialog aboutKaren’s death. Early in the book they’re talking abouther death and someone says “That’s such a Karen thingto do.” And Caldwell seems to think that’s not the waywomen would talk.

TOB: I didn’t read it.

RB: What’s a womanly way to talk? Doesa woman get to say that’s not a womanly way to talk?

TOB: Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.Lots of great reviews have come from women and they think the charactersare great. Not all women talk the same nor do all men. How did shesay women are supposed to talk?

RB: She didn’t. Do you read reviews?

TOB: No. I don’t read them. I mean Ihear about them. I know my own book and I know it’s a beautiful,beautiful book and so I really don’t—I mean I hope peoplelike it but I’m not going to change anything. I don’tknow many writers who really read them…You can’t reallylearn anything positive. You just get a general impression if peoplelike it or they don’t. It’s a beautiful book. You haveto reflect back—Cacciato, Things They Carried, In the Lakeof the Woods, they’re never unanimous. And in five years,the book will make it or not and succeed or not and it’s notup to the contemporary reception—it just never is forany book. There will be five or ten years and then history willtake charge after that and…books will surface or die over time.It depends more on the passage of time, history and word of mouth.

RB: I recently I watched One Flew OverThe Cuckoo’s Nest and I started thinking about Ken Keseyand the books I was reading in 1969 and 1970 and 1971 and there’snot a book that I’m really interested in re-reading or thatchanged my life in the way I expect some books to do.

TOB: Yeah. Certain books do it for certainpeople. People for whom Cuckoo’s Nest didn’t changetheir lives …they read it in that facile, surfacy kind of way.For others, you know, it’s a crucial book. It goes for Catcherin the Rye or lots of books. Some books, people are totallydead to it—they don’t have the temperament. I rememberreading Catch-22 and at the time, it meant nothing to me.A couple of years back I read it again and it meant the world. Imean, time of life and…I think I read it first before Vietnambut I know it was just a funny book at the time and then later itmeant a lot more. That’s the part where the reader brings stuffto the book and the book has to deliver the goods in return.

RB: I have a sense—reconfirmed recently—thatyou’re one of those writers’ writers (whatever that means)and it was reconfirmed because I have a young friend who’sout at a writing program in Montana and in his classes he says,“My god, whenever we mention Alice Munro or Tim O'Brien, theroom gets hushed as if it’s a religious ceremony or somethinglike that.” Do you have a sense of yourself as being reveredby your peers?

TOB: I know my books are read, but I’mthe guy who sits in his underwear in front of the computer all day.People forget that. That’s how I spend my days for four yearsin a row. I’m just sitting here in my underwear trying to writea book. So you’re not aware of those things. You’re kindof aware of them when you’re on a book tour and many peoplecome out but otherwise you just live your life.

RB: You’re in contact with a lot ofother writers, aren’t you?

TOB: No.

obrienRB:Were you teaching before you went to Southwest Texas?

TOB: No.

RB: This is your first real solid teachingjob?

TOB: Well years ago I did it very brieflyat Emerson—30 years ago whenever Cacciato came out.Aside from that, this is the first time I’ve ever done it andeven now I’m not teaching much. I teach for a semester thenI have a year and a half off and then I do it for another semesterso it’s not a lot. It’s embarrassing.

RB: Good deal! This is a kind of a changefor a guy who grew up in Minnesota and spent his time in Cambridgeand now you’re in San Marcos, Texas. You’re living inAustin, but San Marcos is very close isn’t it?

TOB: Oh yeah it’s like 10 minutes awayfrom where I live. It’s a change but I arrived here in Bostonand I realized why I had left…It’s so cold! I got offthe plane and it was snowing.

RB: Wait a minute, you grew up in Minnesota!

TOB: I know! That’s what I mean. I’mgetting old can’t take it anymore. Couldn’t take it theneither…I didn’t like it then…

RB: One of my favorite lines in a recentmovie [Spy Game]. Robert Redford gives some advice to hisprotege, he says, “The point is to save up enough money soyou can go die somewhere warm.”

TOB: (laugh) That’s a good line! There’sa lot of truth in that. That’s what 401k’s are for.

RB: Judging from what you said it doesn’tmatter whether you’re in Texas or Minnesota or you’d stillbe in front of your computer in your underwear writing…

TOB: Yeah…but it’s just nice afteryou’re done writing to be able to go outside and not freezein October. There’s something about the light that’s moodenhancing. You feel better when it’s not gray and dismal allthe time. I’m not urging everybody to move to Texas, it doeshave its drawbacks. Politics of the state stink. The polyester crewis out in force but there’s a lot of bad stuff here too. Austinis a kind of oasis—great music and a lot great writers livethere. I don’t know ‘em but they live there. Movies getmade there. There’s plenty to do. Dagoberto Gilb teaches at the school I’m at. He’s a pretty good writer and he’s a great guy, so I can hang with him when I get bored. So, it’s a good place to live.

I’m the guy who sits in his underwear in front of the computer all day. People forget that. That’s how I spend my days for four years in a row.

RB: Do you do a lot of reading?

TOB: Oh yeah.

RB: And how do you decide what you are goingto read?

TOB: There are two main things. One routeis blurbs. I am sent a lot of books. I’ll read until I don’tlike it or finish if I do. Then I have a lot of debts to pay back.People helped me and I want to try to help others especially ifI like the work. I know how hard it is especially for first novelistsand novels in general are hard. Fiction’s hard. If it’sserious fiction, it’s just hard to publish it, hard to sellit, hard to place it. Just always hard. So whatever I can do tohelp it feels like I am paying back. So I do a lot of that. I haveauthors that I have learned over the years I know I’m goingto—if not love the book—at least I am going to reallyappreciate it. There’s a list of writers that I really likeI always read those people when they have new books come out. Iread all the time. I don’t just read fiction I read other stufftoo.

RB: Do you watch television?

TOB: Not much. I watch baseball. Not muchto watch. I look now and then. There are 390,000 channels and Ilook and there is nothing to watch. Dismal. So I really end up watchingbaseball.

RB: Movies?

TOB: A little. Not much. I should do it more.I just don’t like going out. I rent them now and then. My wifeteaches acting so I go to the theater with her sometimes. Live theater.Now and then if there’s a movie she says I’ll love thenwe’ll rent it.

RB: I’m dancing around asking the pretentiousquestion of what informs your work?

TOB: There’s no real answer to thatquestion. Everything. It’s not just stuff you’ve read.It’s life in all its perverse variety. Dialogue comes at meand I just copy it and steal it from the world. Writers are noticers.Maybe not taking notes but I hear a bit of dialogue—I heardsome people in a bar the other night in New York, sitting behindme. A guy and a girl and I guess they had gone out at some point.The guy says to her, ”Why didn’t we ever make it together?”(TOB snickers) She said, “You were suicidal and I was doingporno. That’s why.” (RB & TOB both laugh). I thought,“I’m going to use that line.” What a weird line andyou notice that stuff. I laughed but also in my writer’s mindobviously I remember it and 2 days later I don’t know whereit will come in but little images will stick. Influences are notall literary. It’s just the struggles of life itself wherethings that matter to you make good stories.

RB: Do you pay attention to the ebbs andflows in the book publishing world? Do you note the awards?

TOB: I know nothing about it. I never have.Even when I lived in Cambridge. I didn’t subscribe to the NYTimes. I read the sport section of the Globe and thefront page. It doesn’t interest me much. I don’t knowwhy it should. It’s got little to do with what’s insidebooks, with the story.

RB: Well, it’s another setting wherepeople act out their stories.

TOB: But when you do it for a living it doesn’tinterest many of us. It has to do with commerce. I’m not downon it. I’m not trying to say I’m above it. I’m justnot interested in it. I never have been.

tim obrienRB:When you read the sports page to read about the managerial job competitionsand such things?

TOB: Yeah, I follow all the little humanins and outs. That’s what interests me about it. I’m interestedin the psychology of competition. Always have been.

RB: Has there been a great baseball book?

TOB: I don’t know if I know. I‘veread some. I wouldn’t call them great. I read The Natural.

RB: Hey Rosie! [Rosie enters the room andtangles herself up in the microphone cord.] Do you like dogs?

TOB: Yeah. I’ve had three in my life.Mugs was a three-legged dog, eight years old and got caught in somehunter’s trap and came back with his left hind leg dangling.Had it amputated. That dog would chase anything that moved. It wasfast even with three legs. A great dog. He didn’t slow downa step. Maybe a little faster, he didn’t have the extra weight.

RB: Anyway, we were talking about baseballbooks and The Natural. I don’t remember that it wasmuch about baseball.

TOB: That’s kind of what made it good.It wasn’t all baseball.

RB: I liked the Mark Harris book, Bangthe Drum Slowly.

TOB: I did too. I didn’t like the moviemuch. I don’t know what it was about the movie I didn’tlike. I don’t even remember now.

RB: You spent four years writing July,July?

TOB: They are all the same. 4 to 5 years.

RB: How do you know when it’s finished?

TOB: It’s like music. You hear the endand it sounds right to me. Like the end of song sounds right tome. You hear the harmony and the closure and it sounds like it isfinished, the way a song does. There’s no real answer to it.

RB: Intuitive?

TOB: Not intuitive. It’s like you aredoing a painting and you see that it is finished and there is nothingmore that you can add. You don’t want to take away. So it looksand feels finished.

RB: When you get to that point is there muchmore to do?

TOB: I’m an endless tweaker. Every bookI’ve ever written I’ve tweaked all the way through thepaperback edition. If you can improve a book, even a little bit,there is no reason not to.

And that seems to me how the world more or less is. Otherwise, we’d all be in Jonestown, drinking Kool-Aid, I mean we do have to have some… idea of a fantasy about a better tomorrow—even if it’s a little better.

RB: Many writers tell me they don’treread their published work.

TOB: I don’t really either. But I haveto give readings. So when I notice something, I go, “Oh gosh,I can make that a little better, I think.” And I’ll doit. I find things over the course of having to go out and give talks.I notice a word here and phrase there a paragraph there and I justadjust things and no one every seems much to notice. Well, sometimesthey have.

RB: Is there a book that you have been dyingto write that you haven’t written?

TOB: Yeah, I’m not sure how to approachit though. So it’s hard to talk about it. It will probablywill be my next book. But I’m not sure how to get at it really.Something that happened in my own life.

RB: Some kind of looming presence on theperiphery?

TOB: Yeah, a scary thing happened to me andI don’t want to address it directly but I am still kind offrightened by it. So I have to find a back door where nobody willrecognize themselves. The actual event is so compelling that it’sgoing to be hard to leave behind the reality because it’s socompelling. It’s a real story and the details are so compelling.So you find yourself trying to find analogues for something butthey are not sufficient to the real thing, the potency of what happened,that’s the story. So I’m fishing around trying to finda way to get into the material. I haven’t found a way to doit yet. I have been thinking a lot about it. Daydreaming about thestory I could find to get at that story. I wish I could tell thereal story but I can’t.

RB: How long have you been thinking aboutit?

TOB: Ever since it happened. A long time.

RB: How do you try to “get at it?”You sit and try to write it down or does it only take place in yourhead?

TOB: Both. You have to think of a generalstory line that is compelling. Something like Huck on a raft. Somethingthat will flow. If you chase a whale then you’re going to chasea whale. It’s got to be a simple way of entering a book. Simplefor me, and yet compelling and that way has to approximate, moreor less, what I went through in this experience. So it’s doublyhard. You have to think of something interesting and simple andyou want that thing to get at what happened. Ordinarily, I'll begina book just from the story angle or from the real angle. This oneis more difficult because it’s so terrifying. So I have tofind a story that will carry that freight for me, somehow. I will.I already have some ideas that in theory seem okay. They don’tquite seem good enough yet.

RB: Are you able to start something and ifit’s not working put it down and come back to it?

TOB: Oh yeah. Absolutely. In July, July.The first chapter I wrote was not the reunion chapter but the drowning.It was written years ago and I knew I wanted to make it part ofsomething bigger because it was insufficient. I wanted consequences.And I put it aside until I saw her appear in this book. Yeah, I’vedone that a lot of times in my life. Some of them I never pick upagain.

RB: Well good. Any predictions on the WorldSeries?

TOB: I think Anaheim is going to win it.I felt that way before. They are a tough team. I didn’t realizehow tough they are. I didn’t watch them much because they aren’tshown in Texas except an occasional Game of the Week.

RB: What happened to your Red Sox hat?

TOB: I lost it on the tour so I bought thisas a backstop hat.

RB: What do you make of the fact that SportingNews (this is a vote of the player’s peers) voted BarryZito AL pitcher of the year over Pedro Martinez?

TOB: There are a lot of good pitchers inthe AL. And he (Pedro) may not be liked, personally. He’s atough customer. I don’t know how much of it is personalitybut he is one tough customer.

RB: Well, who knows? Thanks very much.

TOB: A pleasure.

Copyright 2002by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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