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The North Wind

The North Wind

The North Wind

Meet the Staff
Caden Sierra
Caden Sierra
Sports Writer

Hey. My name is Caden and I'm from the Chicagoland area.  I'm currently going into my 3rd year at NMU.  I'm a multimedia production major with a double minor in journalism and criminal justice. For as...

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The North Wind is an independent student publication serving the Northern Michigan University community. It is partially funded by the Student Activity Fee. The North Wind digital paper is published daily during the fall and winter semesters except on university holidays and during exam weeks. The North Wind Board of Directors is composed of representatives of the student body, faculty, administration and area media.

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Talking with Tim O’Brien

As part of this year’s One Book, One Community selection, “The Things They Carried,” author Tim O’Brien was invited to visit and speak about his book. O’Brien recently sat down to talk with The North Wind about his novel and life.

Q. What makes “The Things They Carried” different from your other books? Why do you think it’s your most well-known work?

A. Because colleges and high schools assign it. It’s read by a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise read it. I think it appeals to people whose fathers, grandfathers or uncles were in Vietnam, and it also appeals to people, especially students, who are looking at what’s happening in the world right now in Afghanistan or Iraq. They might have a cousin go or a brother or a friend. So, there’s that appeal. I think there’s also an appeal just from story. Once you start reading a book and there’s a story that’s engaging enough to make you want to read more. I think the biggest difference is that it’s a work of fiction that reads like a memoir. That’s what’s different from my other books. It’s a way of trying to get the reader to feel like you’re there and you’re in Vietnam or out on an ambush.

Q. How do you feel about “The Things They Carried” being taught in high school? Do you feel the readers are mature enough to understand the gravity of it?

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A. I’ve worried about it ever since I found out how widely it’s being used in high school. I think what happens is that you kind of take out of a book what you can, what you’re capable of doing. And different people of different ages and different experiences will all take something different out any books. If you’re a librarian from Des Moines you’re going to take something different out it than if you’re living in Harlem. I didn’t write the book for high school or college people. I just wrote it for everybody. College, high school, old people, young people. I was kind of surprised more than worried that it was being used so widely in colleges and high schools. I didn’t expect it. I’m also delighted and happy about it because the stuff being discussed in the books and the stories being told are important and relevant to all of our lives. Even if you’re not a soldier, we all carry things in our pockets and things in our heads.

Q. Can you expound on the idea that to tell a war story you have to lie? Why does a half-truth work better than a whole truth?

A. The so called whole truths are half-truth, in my opinion. You pick up a textbook and it’s non-fiction and you read about the history of Vietnam, but it’s not even a half-truth, it’s a millionth of a truth. Think about all that’s being left out of that history book. You can’t in any history book put in every thought of every soldier in every province of Vietnam. Largely you’re getting history told from the top down. You’re getting the history of strategists and politicians. But you’re not getting much from those who are suffering and doing the fighting and the dying and killing. Although it reads like nonfiction, it’s not lying, really, it’s just a portion of the truth. It’s always kind of an upper cut and my goal in writing these stories is to give another cut of truth, not all of it, but another cut of truth that comes from a person like me who’s drafted and actually on the ground, plodding through the rice paddies or up in the mountains. You’re getting a different sort of truth than you’re going to get from a history book . Television, history, newspapers and magazines boil things down to the abstract. They’ll give you facts and figures, how many people died, and with all the facts you won’t feel like you participated in anything. It’ll just be a bunch of numbers and data coming at you. A lot of factual things, which are all important, of course, but in a work of fiction you feel like you’re inside the story or kind of in the war. You’re not just watching it from afar like you do on television or as you would in a newspaper. You’re in the foxhole missing your mom and dad or you’re on an am’99bush and you’re scared out of your mind. You step inside a book and in the boots of the soldiers, almost half participating in it.

Q. Do you think you’ll ever write a novel that isn’t connected in some way to Vietnam?

A. Every author is the person you are, and part of the person I am is someone whose life was radically changed by Vietnam. It made me a writer and it some way determined my whole life. I’m not a professional soldier and I don’t think of myself that way. I think of myself as a writer, and without Vietnam I’m not sure I would have been one. I’ve written books that aren’t focused on Vietnam, but some way they touch on something about that era. It’s good to me and good to a lot of people like me. I can’t imagine writing a book that isn’t in someway connected to the person I am.

Q. What authors or books have influenced you and your writing the most?

A. There’s a whole slew of authors that have influenced me. Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, some of the South American writers who do what’s called magical realism. “Alice in Wonderland” influenced me. “The Hardy Boys” influenced me. That’s where I learned to love stories. Teachers would scoff at it, but it got me interested in reading and made me want to write a book of my own. To name one thing is really impossible.

Q. Did writing during the war help take you out of the situation you were in? Did you use it as a kind of therapy?

A. It wasn’t therapy, it was more like grabbing somebody by the shirt and saying, “sit down I’ve got to tell you what happened today. You’re not going to believe what I had to go through or witnessed or saw today. You won’t believe what somebody said today.” The kind of desire to transmit to other people the
unbelievable horror of it all and the friendships and the feel of it all. The ambiguities. Why are we killing all these people? What are we accomplishing? Is it the right thing or the wrong thing? It’s not therapy, really. It’s the desire you’d have if you went through a plane crash and start talking about it to somebody and saying you won’t believe what I saw or how I felt, what I did. You get it out of you and onto a piece of paper.

Q. During the chapter “On the Rainy River” you discuss how you felt like a coward for not dodging the draft. Why is that, especially when most people would say the opposite?

A. Well, because if you thought something was wrong and you did it anyway you’d think you did it because you were afraid of being ridiculed or embarrassed. You’d feel as I did; that you were being cowardly. The point isn’t that everyone should not go to war, the point is if you believe what you believe then you just got to act on it. If you believe war’s the right thing, you’ve got to act on it too . . . the hypocrisy of it was eating at me back then in Vietnam and still does to this day. It’s a free country and you believe what you believe but there’s that attitude of “let somebody else go kill and die, but not my kid, not me.” But for me, it’s hard to say no when you’re young and you’re afraid of embarrassment and humiliation and you don’t know all the facts. And then your country’s telling you to do something you don’t think you should be doing. It’s hard to say no. What if your country said to you, “go invade Calgary.” Are you just going to do it? At some point a little stop sign has to go up in your head. The question is when you do it. When is it permissible to say no? And there are no answers to this, they’re just important questions, especially to people in college, that they think about.

Q. How do you think your life would’ve turned out had you not gone to war? Do you think you would still write?

A. Probably. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was nine or 10 years old. And life would’ve delivered something to write about, whether it’s a girlfriend who dumped me or a father who died [. . .] if Vietnam hadn’t been there something would’ve moved my heart enough to get me to write.

Q. Had you not written about it, how do you think you would’ve dealt with your experience in Vietnam?

A. I don’t know how I would have. I know for sure I felt my whole life a kind of pity for my comrades and all my friends who came home and didn’t have the outlet I had of being able to write about it. What do you do? You don’t go to some cocktail party and say ‘hey, wanna hear about ‘nam?’ You don’t do that. How do you talk about it? Through the story I can lead you through something you may not have been really through before in your life and all the choices you have to make along the way. For me, I don’t know how I would’ve dealt with Vietnam without it.

Q. Do you ever think there comes a time in a vet’s life where he’s able to let go of the things he carried during the war? When does the pain end and
healing begin?

A. Well, it begins with forgiveness and that begins with forgiving yourself. Every soldier has to do that, even to kill an enemy soldier. Yeah, that’s the enemy but it doesn’t stop you from feeling horror. It doesn’t stop it from infecting your dreams at night years and years and years later. First is trying to find some peace with yourself. I hope my books are helping war veterans heal. I get letters from guys in Iraq and Afghanistan. They tell me the book has helped them, not just people from Vietnam. That makes me feel good because it’s the first step toward coming to peace. The other side of your question is the more difficult side, which is that wars, in a way, don’t end until the last orphan is dead and the last mother who has lost her kid is in her grave and can stop grieving. There’s this kind of illusion that wars end when they sign a peace treaty but they don’t. They go on and on. The memories of the kids and the so-called enemy.

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