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Culture & Religion

The Things Tim O’Brien Still Carries

“If it’s any good, [literature] can make you feel less alone in the world...It gives you some late-night company with your memories and your sorrow.Literature does touch people; it’s not just to be read in English classes.” So says award-winning novelist Tim O’Brien, author of the Vietnam War classic “The Things They Carried,” in his first-ever video interview.

As funny, indignant, and blunt in conversation as he is on the page, O’Brien punctures the hypocrisies surrounding both the war he served in and America’s current wars in the Middle East. Although he sees a decided change in the attitude of the average soldier since the “edgy” days of the draft, he believes today’s politicians are no less “cowardly” than the ones who conscripted men of his generation, and wishes they would put either their own bodies or those of their children on the front lines of the wars they prosecute.

Asked to “tell a true war story,” an art he has carefully dissected in his writing (he believes true war stories can be fictions, or take place years before or after a conflict), O’Brien describes meeting the son of a former war buddy on whom he based one of his characters. He also recalls another friend, long dead in the war, whose memory still drives him to recapture the past in words.
Throughout the interview O’Brien offers numerous insights into the writer’s craft, warning against the “stink of pomposity” and admitting that the difficulty in writing about horrific experiences lies not so much in the drama of reliving them as in the prosaic struggle to put them into words. Finally, on the twentieth anniversary of “The Things They Carried,” he looks back at his masterpiece—and his own changed self—from the perspective of two decades, revealing what he himself still carries after all these years.


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