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Author Tim O'Brien talks about writing as a way to 'unpack' war, tragedies

FARGO -- Tim O'Brien gets so many letters he can't read them all. Most come from the wives, girlfriends, children and siblings of veterans, but some come from the veterans themselves. O'Brien, an author who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army, s...

Author Tim O'Brien will speak at North Dakota State University on Friday, May 13. Greg Helgeson / Special to The Forum
Author Tim O'Brien will speak at North Dakota State University on Friday, May 13. Greg Helgeson / Special to The Forum
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FARGO - Tim O'Brien gets so many letters he can't read them all. Most come from the wives, girlfriends, children and siblings of veterans, but some come from the veterans themselves. O'Brien, an author who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army, says he hears from soldiers currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers who carry with them copies of the books he's best known for, "If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home" (1973), "Going After Cacciato" (1978) and "The Things They Carried" (1990). "They carry them in their rucksacks and pass them around," he says. "They say it's kind of a validation that you can 'make it,' that you can do these terrible things and see these terrible things and still keep it together. Not that you ever forget - you don't, but you can move on through life." After leaving Vietnam in 1970, which he says "felt a little bit like leaving Wonderland," he attended graduate school at Harvard and interned at The Washington Post. He turned his attention to fiction writing after "If I Die" was published and has since published eight more books. He's currently working on another, which he says is a mix of fiction and nonfiction. O'Brien, who grew up in Minnesota, will give a talk at North Dakota State University on Friday, May 13, about the moral and emotional burdens soldiers carry through a war and then home. His appearance is part of "Project Unpack," a yearlong program to start dialogue about the legacies of American wars. Before his trip to Fargo, the 69-year-old author spoke to The Forum from his central Texas home, where he lives with his wife and two children. How does it feel knowing that new generations of soldiers are reading your books? Well, it makes me feel old (laughs). It's hard to believe that that much time has passed and another generation is fighting its own war so much like the one that I fought. I feel sad that it's still going on - fighting unwinnable wars with an enemy you can't find. No uniforms, amorphous, running through the civilian population, who's your friend, who's your enemy. It feels kind of sad, to me, at least, that history feels like it's repeating itself, in all kinds of ways. What was it like to go from school to service and then right back to school? It's like being suddenly awakened from a terrible dream. You're shaken awake; it's not a gradual awakening, it's very sudden. And you're a bit dizzy and a bit disbelieving. How could something that lasted a year that was so terrible be that suddenly gone from your life? You expect a kind of a slow awakening, and it's not that way. What are your thoughts on "The Things They Carried" being challenged or banned?

Author Tim O'Brien will speak at North Dakota State University on Friday, May 13. Greg Helgeson / Special to The Forum
Author Tim O'Brien will speak at North Dakota State University on Friday, May 13. Greg Helgeson / Special to The Forum

Well, obviously, I don't like the idea of banning not just my book, but any book. I don't think it's a democratic, healthy, Christian thing to do, even though Christianity is often the basis for banning these books, which is to say they have profanity. It's an intolerance for otherness, intolerance for other opinions, other points of view, other ways of speaking. The people who want to ban books, I guess, would want me to have a soldier get shot and say, "Oh poop, I've been shot." But it's just not the world that I live in. They want me to lie, basically, and they want other writers to lie, by falsifying language. It's a plea for a lie. A sanitized, AJAX-ed lie, and I find that despicable. You talk about "story truth" and "happening truth." What's the difference? I tried to explain that in "The Things They Carried." Stories, even if they're invented, aren't necessarily untrue. They're true in a different way from "happening truth" and the things that actually occur in the world. When you're reading "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," you're on the raft with Huck and Jim going down the river. You can know, intellectually, that it's an invented story. But it doesn't feel that way any more than if you're dreaming. A dream doesn't feel unreal or untrue. It feels like it's really happening. How does the idea of "carrying" and "unpacking" things apply to other situations? A lot of people who have gone through great trauma have a really hard time talking about it. It seems so hard that they tend to give up, retreat inside themselves, and that's true of people who've gone through divorces, whose fathers and mothers have died, who've developed multiple sclerosis, or something horrible of any kind. My job, as a writer, is to try to salvage something from it all - war and the tragedy of human beings killing one another and dying themselves - and to find something in the human spirit that will prevail over all that. Sometimes that's all you have. Most of the time that's all you have.   If you go What: Lecture and book-signing with author Tim O'Brien When: 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, May 13 Where: Festival Concert Hall, NDSU Info: The event is free and open to the public. Online: For more information, visit www.unpackstories.org

Author Tim O'Brien will speak at North Dakota State University on Friday, May 13. Greg Helgeson / Special to The Forum
Tim O'Brien published "The Things They Carried" in 1990. Special to The Forum

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