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 time where you survey. You have some time left and it’s not as much as it used to be and where have you been and where do you go from here? Of course, it varies radically by person and so I wanted a lot of people in the book to be able to look at different angles of this period of life.

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

TOB: I’ve always paid attention to structure and pacing. Because it’s an ensemble novel I knew I couldn’t do a whole life for each character. It would have been a 50,000-page book. So I had to find a structure—it seemed to me to be natural thing to do was people in their lives more or less recall points of crisis, points of decision. Most everything else is erased. We’re left with certain bundles and clusters of memory and images that have stuck and everything else is gone. So for each character I thought if I could find one of those clusters of moral choice, a period in life where something was done and there was no going back, where life would always be different afterwards. So when Dorothy walks out without her shirt on, that’s something she would remember. It says a lot about the person she is. Not just the breast cancer. She needs to be loved and touched and she is desperate for contentment that she doesn’t have. So it’s a gallant move on her part.

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

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

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

TOB: It enters in ways that are not related to plot or story. It enters in terms of style—the sentences in July, July are equal of the sentences in Things They Carried, In The Lake of The Woods, or Going After Cacciato— they’re good sentences and that enters in. One doesn’t want to repeat oneself as a writer. I don’t want to write a book I have already written. It enters in the sense that I had never done female characters and I had always wanted to. Lead characters and that kind of technical challenge and the fun of it came out of past work…I hadn’t done it before in the past and I wanted to do it now.

RB: Is it a technical challenge?

TOB: Kind of. Technical may be too vague a term. It’s a question of trying to enter the skin of another human being with whom I share little. Not just in terms of gender but in terms of experience. I never posed for dirty pictures and I’ve never won a lot of money playing blackjack. I’ve never done anything that these people did. After a while it felt like I was living in the skin of 10 other human beings. I don’t know if technical is the word. You write differently, not relying on the movie camera inside your head that has recorded your own experience. You are trying to imagine the movie camera inside the head of Dorothy or Jan or Amy—their lives. Even David Todd, I never went through anything like what he went through. I wasn’t ever in danger of dying. But I watched it all around me. I know what morphine is. I took it once. I know the hallucinogenic properties and that kind of disembodied—it brings you into the center of 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. There are a lot of uninteresting things that come out of drugs. I wanted something interesting to come out which is a voice of conscience or 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 be supernatural. It’s meant to be what all of us go through at some point just talking to ourselves those hours before sleep sometimes when we got fired or your girlfriend left you or something. You just talk to yourself saying, “How did I get in this fix? How do I get out of it? Why did I do what I did?” Sometimes in an alarmist voice and sometimes in a reassuring voice, “This was 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—a mixture of us and our ideal selves. Then as a dramatist you try to give it a personality. Like with the deejay, I try to rev it up a little bit and it becomes an emblem of what all of us at some point or another do.

RB: In the past you have been identified as 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 my books. Vietnam does figure in the book but obliquely. There is one chapter set there but aside from that, it’s a backdrop for the ‘60s and the baby boomer generation. I’m flattered to be known as a Vietnam writer. I can’t and I don’t want to write the same books over and over. And haven’t. The Things They Carried—I’d written Cacciatto and The Things They Carried was another angle on it and way of looking at the experience. More about storytelling, about what stories do in our lives. About writing, about memory, reality. So Vietnam even in The Things They Carried wasn’t the dominant topic—it’s set there but it’s not a rehashing of what happened in combat. I’m sure I’ll return to it if some similar angle appears to me where something new can come of it.

RB: Were there many Korean War novels?

TOB: No, I’ve only read one. I’m not a historian or political scientist. I’m interested in human lives. All my books are—in some way or another—about the impact of big global things on individual human beings, what it does to people. Not the demography of it all or the sociology, that’s for another province of writing. Mine is storytelling and I try to find stories that I care about. 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. But ultimately, especially in this book I almost write against that grain and say what mattered to these people were not just Vietnam and the ‘60s. What mattered to these people finally is what mattered to everybody—love. The trials of marriage and divorce and all these characters seeking love in one 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 are taught in schools—high schools and colleges—there’s a tendency to do what you just said, over politicize the books and use them almost as history lessons. It’s a bit like using The Sun Also Rises as a history lesson about the Lost Generation. It would be true in a way but it would undermine the artistry of the 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 set then and you can talk about it in those terms. That’s only one way of talking about it if I close my I see Jake and Bret at the end of the book sitting in a cab, The Lost Generation is a backdrop for it and it’s all related—but it’s about Jake and Bret. (both laugh)

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

TOB: Oh yeah. Billy and Paulette might get married. Spook and Marv on a plane together. They are fantasizing together. Sure they go down but they are together. Jan and Amy walk out, looking for a man. They haven’t given up, despite all the bitterness, and through the whole book, in fact, looking around the corner for some possibility of happiness. Think of Marla and David—sure they’ve been divorced but for the first time in their lives they say, “Tell me about the river. Let’s talk and sit on these chapel steps.” And…there’s not a character in the book that doesn’t leave it—there’s no glorious sunset happy ending that you’re going to find in a Danielle Steele but by God, they make progress. Even Ellie when she goes into the shower and she’s told her husband about the affair and the drowning and a hopeful breeze go through her thoughts and maybe it’ll all be forgiven and the weight of confession or that secrecy, rather, is gone. “Maybe he’ll forgive me and come back.” That’s why I said marginally. I mean there’s…nothing huge in terms of Happy birthday and Merry Christmas and the world’s a bright place but there’s a marginal improvement in these lives.

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

TOB: Yeah! That’s kind of how it is for these people. Tomorrow might be just a little better. And I think their characters are plucky. You know, they don’t quit. 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: One does have a sense of how many people do get to a certain point in their life and don’t recognize the deep disappointment that they have.

TOB: Sure. I think you’re right. Basically it’s a bunch of love stories of various sorts. It’s a book of love stories. I’ve never talked about it that way before but it’s really what it is. It’s hard. It’s not romance but 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 about Karen’s death. Early in the book they’re talking about her death and someone says “That’s such a Karen thing to do.” And Caldwell seems to think that’s not the way women would talk.

TOB: I didn’t read it.

RB: What’s a womanly way to talk? Does a 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 characters are great. Not all women talk the same nor do all men. How did she say women are supposed to talk?

RB: She didn’t. Do you read reviews?

TOB: No. I don’t read them. I mean I hear 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 people like it but I’m not going to change anything. I don’t know many writers who really read them…You can’t really learn anything positive. You just get a general impression if people like it or they don’t. It’s a beautiful book. You have to reflect back—Cacciato, Things They Carried, In the Lake of the Woods, they’re never unanimous. And in five years, the book will make it or not and succeed or not and it’s not up to the contemporary reception—it just never is for any book. There will be five or ten years and then history will take 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 Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and I started thinking about Ken Kesey and the books I was reading in 1969 and 1970 and 1971 and there’s not a book that I’m really interested in re-reading or that changed my life in the way I expect some books to do.

TOB: Yeah. Certain books do it for certain people. People for whom Cuckoo’s Nest didn’t change their lives …they read it in that facile, surfacy kind of way. For others, you know, it’s a crucial book. It goes for Catcher in the Rye or lots of books. Some books, people are totally dead to it—they don’t have the temperament. I remember reading 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. I mean, time of life and…I think I read it first before Vietnam but I know it was just a funny book at the time and then later it meant a lot more. That’s the part where the reader brings stuff to the book and the book has to deliver the goods in return.

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

TOB: I know my books are read, but 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. I’m just sitting here in my underwear trying to write a book. So you’re not aware of those things. You’re kind of aware of them when you’re on a book tour and many people come out but otherwise you just live your life.

RB: You’re in contact with a lot of other 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 teaching job?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Judging from what you said it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Texas or Minnesota or you’d still be in front of your computer in your underwear writing…

TOB: Yeah…but it’s just nice after you’re done writing to be able to go outside and not freeze in October. There’s something about the light that’s mood enhancing. You feel better when it’s not gray and dismal all the time. I’m not urging everybody to move to Texas, it does have its drawbacks. Politics of the state stink. The polyester crew is out in force but there’s a lot of bad stuff here too. Austin is a kind of oasis—great music and a lot great writers live there. I don’t know ‘em but they live there. Movies get made 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 going to read?

TOB: There are two main things. One route is blurbs. I am sent a lot of books. I’ll read until I don’t like 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 if I like the work. I know how hard it is especially for first novelists and novels in general are hard. Fiction’s hard. If it’s serious fiction, it’s just hard to publish it, hard to sell it, hard to place it. Just always hard. So whatever I can do to help it feels like I am paying back. So I do a lot of that. I have authors that I have learned over the years I know I’m going to—if not love the book—at least I am going to really appreciate it. There’s a list of writers that I really like I always read those people when they have new books come out. I read all the time. I don’t just read fiction I read other stuff too.

RB: Do you watch television?

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

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 wife teaches 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 then we’ll rent it.

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

TOB: There’s no real answer to that question. Everything. It’s not just stuff you’ve read. It’s life in all its perverse variety. Dialogue comes at me and 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 heard some people in a bar the other night in New York, sitting behind me. 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 doing porno. That’s why.” (RB & TOB both laugh). I thought, “I’m going to use that line.” What a weird line and you notice that stuff. I laughed but also in my writer’s mind obviously I remember it and 2 days later I don’t know where it will come in but little images will stick. Influences are not all literary. It’s just the struggles of life itself where things that matter to you make good stories.

RB: Do you pay attention to the ebbs and flows 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 NY Times. I read the sport section of the Globe and the front page. It doesn’t interest me much. I don’t know why it should. It’s got little to do with what’s inside books, with the story.

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

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

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

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

RB: Has there been a great baseball book?

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

RB: Hey Rosie! [Rosie enters the room and tangles 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 some hunter’s trap and came back with his left hind leg dangling. Had it amputated. That dog would chase anything that moved. It was fast even with three legs. A great dog. He didn’t slow down a step. Maybe a little faster, he didn’t have the extra weight.

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

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

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

TOB: I did too. I didn’t like the movie much. I don’t know what it was about the movie I didn’t like. 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 end and it sounds right to me. Like the end of song sounds right to me. You hear the harmony and the closure and it sounds like it is finished, the way a song does. There’s no real answer to it.

RB: Intuitive?

TOB: Not intuitive. It’s like you are doing a painting and you see that it is finished and there is nothing more that you can add. You don’t want to take away. So it looks and feels finished.

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

TOB: I’m an endless tweaker. Every book I’ve ever written I’ve tweaked all the way through the paperback 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’t reread their published work.

TOB: I don’t really either. But I have to give readings. So when I notice something, I go, “Oh gosh, I can make that a little better, I think.” And I’ll do it. 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 just adjust things and no one every seems much to notice. Well, sometimes they have.

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

TOB: Yeah, I’m not sure how to approach it though. So it’s hard to talk about it. It will probably will 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 the periphery?

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

RB: How long have you been thinking about it?

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 your head?

TOB: Both. You have to think of a general story line that is compelling. Something like Huck on a raft. Something that will flow. If you chase a whale then you’re going to chase a whale. It’s got to be a simple way of entering a book. Simple for me, and yet compelling and that way has to approximate, more or less, what I went through in this experience. So it’s doubly hard. You have to think of something interesting and simple and you want that thing to get at what happened. Ordinarily, I’ll begin a book just from the story angle or from the real angle. This one is more difficult because it’s so terrifying. So I have to find a story that will carry that freight for me, somehow. I will. I already have some ideas that in theory seem okay. They don’t quite seem good enough yet.

RB: Are you able to start something and if it’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 of something bigger because it was insufficient. I wanted consequences. And I put it aside until I saw her appear in this book. Yeah, I’ve done that a lot of times in my life. Some of them I never pick up again.

RB: Well good. Any predictions on the World Series?

TOB: I think Anaheim is going to win it. I felt that way before. They are a tough team. I didn’t realize how tough they are. I didn’t watch them much because they aren’t shown 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 this as a backstop hat.

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

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

RB: Well, who knows? Thanks very much.

TOB: A pleasure.

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

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