Gadfly Interview

The Heart Under Stress: Interview with author Tim O'Brien

by James Lindbloom

(NOTE: I’ve taken this from the Gadfly magazine site. The Javascript is full of errors, so I can’t give you a direct link to the O’Brien interview at that site. – GF 3/10/99).

After a notorious 1994 New York Times Magazine essay that was tantamount to a suicide note and a breakdown during a reading in Ann Arbor, Michigan, writer Tim O'Brien began, slowly, to confront his demons. If he made good on his promise of retirement, his stature would be assured; he has received the National Book Award for Going After Cacciato and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger for The Things They Carried. Happily, it was a promise he couldn't keep. Gadfly spoke to him at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shortly after the promotional tour for Tomcat in Love, his newest novel. . Tomcat in Love is a book that Tim O'Brien thought he'd never write. Although his previous novel, In the Lake of the Woods, was a critical and popular success, O'Brien announced that it was his last. After a notorious essay that was tantamount to a suicide note and a breakdown during a reading in Ann Arbor, Michigan, O'Brien began, slowly, to confront his demons. If he had made good on his promise of retirement, his stature would be assured; he has received the National Book Award for Going After Cacciato and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger for The Things They Carried, which was also nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Happily, it was a promise he couldn't keep.

The flashes of humor in O'Brien's earlier works are given free rein in Tomcat in Love. An outrageous black comedy, the book is a portrait of a sexist, self-deluding linguistics professor who attempts to work through the anguish of a failed marriage by sabotaging his ex-wife's new relationship. Though a comic novel may seem a departure for an author best known for his masterful fiction about combat experience, O'Brien insists that it is not. His subject has remained the same throughout all his books: the human heart under stress. Gadfly spoke to him at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shortly after the promotional tour for Tomcat in Love.

The critical reception of your new novel has been wildly polarized; some reviewers have loathed it, while others have called it a masterwork. What sort of reaction did you see on your recent book tour? Well, people don't talk in terms of critical responses; they just laugh, or they don't. They laughed, and that's what I wanted with the book. Essentially, you want books to generate not just intellectual but visceral or emotional responses. In this case, you gauge it by the laugh-o-meter, sort of like the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, where they had that little meter going. And, for a change, that's what I wanted to do with this book: to make people laugh at themselves, at the characters in the book, and at the human condition. So it was a good response.

At the two readings in the Twin Cities, the reaction was quite positive. I saw a few arched eyebrows and shakes of the head in response to some of the more outlandishly misogynistic statements made by Thomas Chippering, the narrator of Tomcat. But there were no irate walkouts, and during the question-and-answer sessions that followed, no one seemed to have difficulty making the distinction between the flesh-and-blood author and his fictional creation. So no one read you the riot act at any of the readings? No, it went well.

Your seven novels have established you as part of the canon of twentieth-century American literature, yet your second novel, Northern Lights, has been out of print in the United States for some time. Is that your decision? Yeah, it is. Dell has asked several times to reprint it, and I've said no. I want to rewrite it. If I could cut fifty to eighty pages out of it, I know I could make it a better book. As it is, it's just overwritten. I think that's a project that I'll do sometime in the next four or five years. It would take me a good six months to do it right, and it would also require some rewriting. But I think it could be a good book, if I were to put it on the Jenny Craig diet. I keep putting it off, because it's something you can do when you've kind of lost your juice, and I haven't lost it yet.

The question of memory — its veracity, its accuracy, and the role it plays in shaping our personal histories — has been a principal theme in your work, particularly The Things They Carried and In the Lake of the Woods. How do you see the relationship between truth and memory? Well, I think one has a little to do with the other. To put it conversely, they have everything to do with each other. It depends, like I guess all things do, on your angle of vision. One could argue, as Plato does, that truth is something abstract, just floating out there. Whether we remember a thing, imagine it, or know anything about it, is irrelevant; it's just out there. There are others who would argue — as I guess I do; I'm not much of a Platonist in that sense — that the human being shapes and determines what we call truth. Truth is ultimately a statement. It's an issue of language. You make declarations and then you judge them. The word "truth" is dependent on the kind of declaration we make about the world. You could declare that the world is flat. It's a linguistic statement. Its so-called "truth" is determined by evidentiary standards, whatever you can do to determine flatness. I guess I fall into what is philosophically called the camp of the idealists, as opposed to the realists. I think the truth is really a function of the statements we make about the world. Witness Clinton, with this whole business about the truth of what's sex and what's not sex. Witness Chippering, the character in my book, with his equivocations, hairsplittings, and so on. Ultimately, the truth of things is what we say about things; what we say about things determines the way we think about truth.

The style that you use when describing war experiences is very elliptical, very fragmentary, with a moral compass that doesn't always point due north, so to speak. What do you think of something like Saving Private Ryan, which takes the opposite tack in its linear, "clear-eyed" representation of wartime? I didn't buy it. I found the first twenty minutes compelling, partly because it was fragmentary, with this and that happening, and everything sort of confused, which is not only how war strikes me, but how life itself ultimately does. This doesn't always tie in with that, and if it does, you sure as hell can't tell where and how. The rest of the movie I found...boring, I guess is the best word, because it was linear. It was a story that I'd seen before, or read about before: you know, going off to save a guy, and every little dot connects with every other dot in a perfect way. It just seemed to me to be syrupy, sentimental, predictable and kind of stupid on top of it all. I don't know; I mean, many veterans of the war loved the movie, and I hate to badmouth it. But I have no choice, because I think it's just a shitty piece of art, except for those first twenty minutes. I found the characters predictable. I even turned to Meredith [Baker, O'Brien's girlfriend] at the beginning of the movie — right after that very first scene, where they go to the cemetery — and I said, "That old man is not going to be Tom Hanks. That's a red herring. Tom Hanks is gonna die, and that's going to be Matt Damon. I promise you." It was just so predictable as to be not very interesting to me, finally.

On the eve of the publication of In the Lake of the Woods, you wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine ("The Vietnam in Me," 2 Oct 94) that was the literary equivalent of a raw nerve. It's not often that a major novelist muses so publicly about wanting to kill himself. Can you talk about how things have changed for you since then? Writing Tomcat helped a lot. Fortunately, when I began writing the book right after the In the Lake of the Woods tour was over, I found myself laughing at the first few pages that I wrote, and thought, "Well, this is an improvement over the way things were a few days ago." The more I wrote, the more I laughed, and the more I laughed, the better I felt about the world. That's just an example of how literature has an effect on not only our critical and intellectual capacities, but on our lives. It can really help the soul and help us heal.

In the press you did for In the Lake of the Woods, you adamantly stated that it was your final book. Yet, you began work on Tomcat in Love almost immediately. How did the reversal happen so quickly? Well, it wasn't almost immediate. It was nine months or so before I really began writing again. I took a long time off. I had intended to take eternity off, and it turned out to be nine months. But I did take a pretty substantial break. I'm not even sure now what it was that brought me to start typing sentences again. I can't recall the day I did it. All I remember is that laughter I mentioned earlier. I remember just kind of giggling, sort of laughing at myself, and at obsession, love, and all these sorts of things. But what it was that actually brought me back to the typewriter, I really don't know. I initially started to write a book of nonfiction, with Tomcat — that first section about Herbie [the sister of Chippering's childhood love, Lorna Sue], when they were kids. I really thought I was writing a memoir. Over the course of the first month or so, slowly — as always — the fiction began creeping in. With dialogue, I thought I could make things up that were an improvement over the way things were. And by the time the first month was over, I was writing a novel again.

I remember reading that first section of Tomcat in The New Yorker ("Faith," 12 Feb 1996). You've said that the reason you've written so few short stories is that they wind up being the seeds for future novels. That's the truth.

With that in mind, I'd like to ask you about any plans you might have for two recently published short works: "Loon Point" (Esquire, Jan 1995) and "The Streak" (The New Yorker, 28 Sep 1998). I'm of two minds about that. Right now, I'm working on stories, on conceiving them. I had talked and thought a lot about turning "Loon Point" into a novel, but I haven't done that yet. Now I'm just doing a bunch of stories, and that's going to be one of them. But you never know when you may say, "Well, God, with each of these stories that I'm doing, if I just changed the names, they could all be one and the same person." It could be a novel, but as it stands now, I'm just working on a set of discrete stories. But I do have a novel in mind. It's probably going to be a book away from this book of stories. I'm thinking of doing a novel with the title of May ’69, which would — basically — be a novel about the month of May in 1969.

Are the stories you describe going to be another set of interconnected short works, like The Things They Carried? Yeah, I think they will end up being that way. There are already characters appearing who have appeared in other stories. I had a piece in the February ’98 issue of Esquire. It's very short, only one page long in the magazine. It's called "Class of ’68," about a class reunion, meeting thirty years later. Already I've done two other stories about that same reunion. I've started thinking of all these other characters that I've been writing about in other stories who are all appearing at the same reunion. So, yeah, I think that may be the way it goes. Again, you don't know until you get farther into it. I know they're going to be interconnected; I just don't know quite what the framework will be.

The framework will appear at the end, I guess. It always does. | | created 10 Mar 99