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Tim O'Brien on all-night writing, the burden of Vietnam and the other things we lug through life
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Tim O'Brien is featured in the SD Festival of Books, Sturgis Big Read

Sometimes, the things Tim O’Brien carries are groceries.

That’s why he was a few minutes late for our scheduled phone interview.

“Sorry,” he said. “I got caught in the check-out line.”

Tim O’Brien, caught in the checkout line? Well, the guy does have a life beyond the printed page, of course, including a wife and two teenage sons.

And fresh produce. There’s always that to consider.

Still, does it seem right, in the cosmic cloud of rightness, that the guy who wrote “The Things They Carried” and other inspired works would get stuck in line behind a hungover college kid waiting for a price check on a quart of orange juice and a family sized box of Cap’n Crunch?

Or more importantly, I suppose, does it seem true? Because it is only true for certain that he got caught in the check-out line and was a few minutes late for the interview. That’s what O’Brien calls a happening truth. And it happened. He said so.

The Cap’n Crunch thing? Yeah, I made that up, which means it didn’t really happen, in the way we think things happen, at least. But it can still be true, if we allow it, in the squeaky wheeled cart full of mundane story truths you might find in a grocery store checkout line.

Unstuck from that generally unremarkable line of grocery shoppers, O’Brien writes story truths that are far from mundane, often built around recollections or perceptions of happening truths. And nowhere has he written them more powerfully than in The Things They Carried, a novel in which people die horribly, live ironically, love heroically and carry the factual and fictional burdens of existence off the page and right into the heart.

 It would be easy, I suppose, to carry the checkout-line theme a bit further and argue that in constructing the story truths from his year of living dangerously among the happening truths of the Vietnam War, O’Brien also got stuck in a line full of blended truths.

Some story. Some happening. Some both.

But if that’s stuck, it’s the stuck of which great stories are made. And it leads to transformative from-the-heart feedback from readers who carry their own things from that war, and from others wars, as well as from the people who love those people.

“I get a lot of emails, and some people even get my phone number,” O’Brien said. “And it’s pretty much always, with some exceptions, the same thing: ‘My dad won’t talk about it. And finally I know a little of what he must have been going through all those years.”

O’Brien said 90 percent of the contacts he gets from people who have read The Things They Carried are “not from the veterans themselves, but from children and wives, ex-girlfriends, sometimes grandchildren. They say the book at least opened the door to kind of understanding what that person was going through or is going through.”

O’Brien also gets contacts from veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, or current military personnel in harms way over there. And those are very personal.

“They’ll say something like ‘I thought only I as going through it. It helps to know that 40 or 50 years ago someone else went through the same thing, and came out the other end.’ And that’s a nice feeling, knowing you're giving someone that.”

That someone doesn’t have to be a veteran, either. It can be a 65-year-old man who never served, for example, simply because he lucked out with a high draft number while he was floundering around central South Dakota after dropping out of school. A guy, say, who later went to college and became a newspaper reporter and family man, living to this day with a sense of surprising accomplishment as well as a mix of guilt and gratefulness over the good fortune he had as an 18-year-old.

Because he didn’t have to go. To Vietnam. And carry the things they carried.

That’s the same gray haired guy, by the way, who was 16 when he lost his Dad to cancer, and was so deranged by grief and fear and bewilderment that he never went to visit the man he loved so deeply during his last two hard weeks of life in the hospital. Never went to the funeral, either. Or the burial. Of his own father.

Such a person might end up carrying those unsaid goodbyes through a life spent looking for a ways to say them.

I mentioned that to O’Brien during an interview that fell, coincidentally (or perhaps not) on the 49th anniversary of that August day when the rest of my family gathered with our friends and relatives to bury my father. While I hid out somewhere up in the Missouri River breaks, seeking a semblance of sanity among the junipers.

Like those who reached out through painful experiences in the military, and their loved ones, I told O’Brien that it helped me to read about what others carried, which were often much heavier burdens, and how they carried them. It helped, I said, with the things I carry.

O’Brien said he was gratified by that.

“Because that’s the intent. At its heart, it’s really not a book about war. That’s the context. But the title is meant to apply to all of us, about the things that we carry in our heads and in our hearts,” he said. “And they are always emotional things, whether it’s guilt or loss or some sense of humiliation. Something we did and wish we hadn’t, or some type of shame.

“So, yeah, I’m happy to hear the book meant something to you in a different context,” O’Brien said. “Because that’s what I was hoping the book would do.”

Indeed, it did. It continues to, for me and for thousands of others, including those who served and those who didn’t.

Even now, some get confused about the nature of The Things They Carried. It is a work of fiction, not a war memoir. But O’Brien wrote a war memoir. It was published in 1973, 17 years before The Things They Carried came out.

If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home was O’Brien's autobiographical account of his tour of duty with Alpha Company in the Quang Ngai Province in Vietnam. It also includes a tour of growing-up duty in Worthington, Minn., and his childhood there, with a stop at basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash.

But it’s mostly the war, depicted in a powerfully unsettling way. And it was well received by critics.

It didn't, though, quite say it for O'Brien. A need remained to further examine the upside-down world of that war and the people in it, which meant going beyond the happening truths. He did that first in Going After Cacciato, which was published in 1978 and won the National Book Award for Fiction. It has been called a war novel and an anti-war novel, as well as a peace novel.

And it was a lot to say. But O'Brien wasn't done, not without exploring the things carried -- in the packs, on the belts, in the hearts and minds -- of  soldiers in the bush.

All in a fictional account based on a factual experiencs that ties the two together in a knot of truths.

Since its release in 1990, The Things They Carried has kept Rat Kiley and Lt. Jimmy Cross and Norman Bowker and Curt Lemon, and with them the Vietnam War, alive in college classrooms and book-club discussions. And if you read the book, you will never again hear Will Holt’s lilting Lemon Tree song without thinking of Curt Lemon, his innocent step into the light, the horrible explosion and macabre aftermath.

One of my closest friends, a former Marine platoon leader in Vietnam who survived horrible wounds during the Battle at Khe Sanh in 1968, recommended The Things They Carried along with Michael Herr’s Dispatches, published in 1977. My friend considers them must reads in trying to put the war and those who fought it into some meaningful perspective and context.

The South Dakota Humanities Council sought that same perspective, along with exceptional literature, in featuring O’Brien in the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books  in Deadwood and Rapid City this week. Among other duties, he’ll be the featured festival presenter Saturday night at the Deadwood Mountain Grand Event Center.

Organizers of the Sturgis Big Read were also seeking an insightful look back at Vietnam when they worked the National Endowment for the Arts and its Big Read program to offer a reading program based on The Things They Carried. AARP joined the project to help bring O’Brien to Sturgis for appearances Friday in public-school classrooms during the day and at an evening community event.

This all comes following months of introspection on Vietnam, nowhere more obviously than on South Dakota Public Broadcasting. SDBP brought The Wall that Heals, a 250-foot-long replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, to Chamberlain last month as part of a broader outreach to Vietnam veterans, their families and others affected by the war.

And ongoing discussions about the war on In the Moment with Lori Walsh and elsewhere on public radio have led to this premiere week on South Dakota Public Broadcasting of The Vietnam War, an 18-hour, 10-part film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. If you haven’t tuned in, tune in. And get ready to remember things forgotten, and find out things not known. About that war.

You can go here for help in watching the film, or catching up:

As you might expect, Burns and Novick contacted O’Brien to be part of the decade-long project. And he agreed to consult and also appear briefly — which was plenty for him — in the film.

As a consultant, O’Brien will be doing some public-relations appearances on behalf of the film. That means travel that has complicated plans he made to visit an historical battle site far from Vietnam in time and geography.

“It got in the way of a Little Bighorn trip,” he said, referring to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument near Crow Agency in Montana.

There along the Little Bighorn River in late June of 1876, almost a century before the United States sent ground forces to Vietnam, Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors wiped out the 7th Cavalry unit led by George Armstrong Custer.

What truths — happening and story — are left undiscovered there? How might they be carried into the search for truths in today’s world? O’Brien hopes to find out, as part of a longer series of stories he is working on now.

 It’s a project that is part memoir and part something else. Maybe several parts something else. O’Brien is in that process of discovery.

“It’s hard to describe,” he said. “I don’t know how the hell you describe it. It’s organized around my kids. I’m getting old. I’ll be 71 soon. And where will I be in 20 years? Well, probably not with them. So it’s a way of leaving a kind of record for my children in the way I wish my dad had — what he thought, what he yearned for, a sense of who their father was.”

The book will be organized in a familiar way, for O’Brien at least, with interconnected stories that are able to stand on their own, just as The Things They Carried was organized.

O’Brien is most comfortable writing that way. And he thinks readers are comfortable reading that way.

“Long pieces can for the reader sometimes be tough to take. But pieces that are too small look kind of pathetic,” he said. “There’s a moderate length of 14 or 15 pages of manuscript, seven or eight pages in a book, that can be digested by itself. You can close it and go water the lawn and pick it up tomorrow.”

As one who has gone out to water the lawn while reading an O’Brien book, I can tell you  that it won’t wait until tomorrow to get back to. But you get his point.

This book is likely to include plenty of happening truths, given the memoir part. So, does that mean it will be factual more than fictional?

“I’m not sure what that (factual) is anymore,” O’Brien said. “The answer is, I guess, not entirely factual. That’s the best I can do with memory. If you look back on something when I was 13 or 18 or even in my 30s, I recollect kind of what happened, but only in the dimmest most abbreviated way. So I do try to flesh things out by kind of an imaginative reconstruction.”

That fleshing out, he said, might depart from the exact words or the exact details of what happened or was said, but “it’s faithful to reality.”

That’s true in what people say and who they are, he said.

“We can’t put human beings in books unless there’s plenty of food and water and a place to pee,” he said. “You’re getting a replica, a facsimile of real people.”

In fact or fiction, or on the hazy plane of literary existence somewhere in-between, people in O’Brien’s stories emerge during daily periods of writing that often begin at 2 a.m.

“Actually, this morning I got up at 1:30,” he said. “It’s a great feeling, working when most of the world is asleep.”

O’Brien goes to bed pretty early, too, by necessity. And there are practical reasons as well as creative ones for the unusual schedule.

“I’ve got two young kids, and the days were so full with the school stuff and taking care of them and the homework and things,” he said. “It was a way to make that work. I needed forced time.”

That forced time creates the need for meaningful breaks that don’t involve books.

“I just came in from six hours outside, basically gardening,” he said. “It’s a way to get away from words, which I live with from 2 in the morning to about 9 in the morning. I make myself go outside, and putz around.”

Putzing around outside his Austin, Texas, home has its seasonal limits. And one of them was being imposed on the day of our interview.

“Right now it’s 105 degrees out there, so it’s really hard to go outside,” O’Brien said.

It’ll be significantly cooler this week in Sturgis and up in Deadwood, as well as here in Rapid City, during O’Brien’s long-delayed first trip to the Black Hills.

Oh, that first-trip part? Yeah, it's a happening truth, which might be hard to believe, considering he’s a native of southwest Minnesota. Never to the Black Hills?

“I grew up in Worthington, and we went to South Dakota a lot, but never to the Black Hills,” O’Brien said. “I’ve wanted to go since I was a little boy and read a book about Custer’s last stand, and knew that had spent time in the Black Hills, a sacred place to the Indians.”

Throughout his youth, O’Brien was engaged by the story of Custer, his travels through the western South Dakota to his death in Montana, the sacred nature of the Black Hills and how they and indigenous people were affected by gold prospecting and mining.

“To a little boy, those things were very alluring,” he said. “And I remembering pestering my mom and dad and saying ‘Let’s go on a vacation to the Black Hills.’ Mom would say 'it’s too damn hot.'”

Well, it can be. And that drive across South Dakota in the summer can seem long, especially to people, like Minnesotans, accustomed to green, growing things. So they would go instead to northern Minnesota, an area featured in one of the stories in The Things They Carried.

This week, though, O’Brien will come home to his childhood dream. And it sure won’t be too hot here in the Black Hills for this visit.

Scheduling won’t allow him that side trip to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. But he said he’ll be back for that, and for its role in that book he doesn’t quite know how to label.

O’Brien also hopes, sometime in the not-so-distant future, to visit the Pine Ridge Reservation, especially the Wounded Knee Massacre site. It’s a sad, sacred place of tragic and abiding truths, and of the things still carried, generation after generation.

Imagine the stories that await him there.