Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien on fictionalizing his war stories

Eleanor Wachtel in conversation with the American writer and veteran Tim O’Brien. (Originally broadcast in 1995)
Author and veteran Tim O'Brien was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize for The Things They Carried, his 1990 novel about a platoon of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. (Meredith O'Brien)
Listen to the full episode48:53

When Tim O'Brien was 22 years old, he was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in the Vietnam War. Although he had plans to be an academic, O'Brien went to war, and spent a year in Vietnam in 1969. When he returned to the U.S., he enrolled at Harvard, but soon dropped out to write books. His painfully honest novels — including the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Things They Carried — are inspired by Vietnam, and struggle to understand the war's effects on the young soldiers who fought there.

Tim O'Brien spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in Toronto in late 1994. He had recently gone back to Vietnam for the first time in 25 years.

ON SERVING IN MY LAI, A YEAR AFTER THE MASSACRE 

In 1969, when I was a foot soldier over in Vietnam, we knew nothing about the [1968 My Lai] massacre. It was our area of operations, and on a daily basis we'd walk through the village of My Lai and the adjacent villages. It was an extremely hostile place, much more so than any other part of Vietnam that we'd worked in, but we had no knowledge of why we were hated so much. And then, about nine months into my tour, the story of the massacre broke in the newspapers, and suddenly we realized why these people despised us so much.

We had lost a lot of men in that area — there were a lot of snipers and land mines — and we felt the same sorts of frustrations and anger that Charlie Company had felt. We didn't cross that line, though, between murder and rage. We managed to comport ourselves with some sort of virtue. To contain the rage and to contain the frustration. And thank God we didn't cross that line. 

ON RETURNING TO VIETNAM, 25 YEARS LATER

I'm glad I did it. It was an extraordinary revisiting, in the sense that the horrid memories remain, they'll never go away. But alongside those terrible pictures, there are now other pictures. Pictures of peace. I remember a rice paddy 25 years ago literally bubbling with machine gun fire. And now that same rice paddy lives in my memory in another way — it's just so gorgeous, and the golden sunlight is striking it and there's a water buffalo, and a little boy walking across a paddy dyke. So side by side with those images of horror, there are now images of peace. It's nice to have that balance back.

HOW WAR STORIES HELP US UNDERSTAND LIFE AT HOME

My purpose in writing books is not to do nonfiction. I'm not writing about bombs and bullets and military manoeuvres. My purpose is to write about the human heart, and the human intellect, and the pressures that are put on the heart and on the brain. There's a desire to use the materials life gives us to examine that which is important, and what's important, I think, is that human struggle of good against evil. War has a way of presenting characters with incredible choices. Do I keep walking, or do I lie down and quit? Do I go to a war, or do I not go to a war? Do I pull a trigger or do I not? Do I run or do I stay? Those are big choices, and they're made on a daily basis in a war. But similarly, in life we're confronted with the same kinds of choices. Do I marry her or not? Do I stay married or not? Do I forgive or not? How do I forgive? Can I forgive? Whatever materials we run across in our lives, I think as writers we have to use them to explore those struggles of the human spirit.

Tim O'Brien's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "The End," composed and performed by The Doors.