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Christina Schwarz: To Have and to Shine (October 18, 2002)
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James Fallows: Proceed With Caution (October 10, 2002)
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B. R. Myers: A Reader's Revenge (October 2, 2002)
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More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

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Atlantic Unbound | October 30, 2002
The 'What If?' Game

Tim O'Brien talks about his new novel, July, July, and the urge to wonder how life might have turned out differently


July, July

July, July
by Tim O'Brien
Houghton Mifflin
322 pages, $26.00

"We had fed the heart on fantasies,
the heart's grown brutal from the fare."

William Butler Yeats—quoted in Tim O'Brien's July, July
fter college graduation, Billy McCann ran from the Vietnam War and landed in Winnipeg. Dorothy Stier, the love of Billy's life, didn't go with him. Instead, she married someone else and became a wealthy housewife. David Todd did go to Vietnam. He lost a leg and married his college sweetheart, Marla Dempsey. Later, they divorced. Jan Huebner was an ugly duckling who married a tall and charming man. After twenty-nine years of marriage, her husband walked out the door and never returned. Marv Bertel, always afflicted with a weight problem, became rich and married a beautiful young woman. But their courtship was based on a lie.

Billy, Dorothy, David, Marla, Jan, and Marv are some of the characters who inhabit Tim O'Brien's latest novel, July, July, which takes place during the thirtieth reunion of Darton Hall College's class of 1969. The book is a look back at the defining moments in the lives of a group of old college friends, and an examination of marriage, divorce, death, illness, disappointment, hope, and sadness. Despite the good intentions of their youth, life has not turned out the way they thought it would.

Stories by Tim O'Brien in The Atlantic:

"The People We Marry" (January 1992)
Magic was his life. His marriage was a trick he did not want to explain.

"The Nuclear Age" (June 1979)
"Nobody wanted to pray, but each of us blessed the bomb without guilt, and Sarah chanted, 'Fission, fusion, critical mass.'"
Few writers have a better understanding of the generation that came of age in the late sixties than Tim O'Brien. Born in Worthington, Minnesota, in 1946, O'Brien's own coming of age took place during the late 1960s—a time when he was part of the anti-war movement (at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, a hotbed of prototypical sixties liberalism) and then a soldier in Vietnam.

Since then, O'Brien has called himself "a coward" for serving in Vietnam, because he did so to avoid the rejection he would have faced from his neighbors, town, and country if he had made the choice to run away. The war, however, was a crucial turning point in O'Brien's life, and it ultimately provided him with his voice as a writer.

Returning from Vietnam with a Purple Heart (he was injured, though not debilitated, by shrapnel), O'Brien went to graduate school at Harvard's School of Government, and at the same time published a collection of his personal Vietnam recollections titled If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.

In the years since he has written seven novels, including Going After Cacciato, which won the 1979 National Book Award, and 1990's The Things They Carried, a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critic's Circle Award. Both books deal with the Vietnam War, as does most of his other work. Yet, while Vietnam and its fallout is a subject that O'Brien returns to again and again, his novels are about far more than simply the war.

"All writers revisit terrain," O'Brien said in a 1995 interview. "Faulkner did it with the South. It's an emotional and geographical terrain that's given to us by life. Vietnam is there the way childhood is for me."

A long-time resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, O'Brien moved to Austin, Texas, a few years ago and now teaches creative writing at Southwest Texas State University.

I spoke with him by phone on October 8.

—Josh Karp

Tim O'Brien
Tim O'Brien   

Articles about you rarely fail to mention that you're a fanatical craftsman who took an entire year to write nine pages of The Nuclear Age and who often rewrites portions of your books between editions. Could you talk a little about finding the right words for your stories?

Well, no matter how wonderful the story, it has to move on something, and that is language. The words that I use, the pace, the rhythm and cadences all need to be there. If they're not there, the story is like a boat that just sits there and doesn't move on the ocean.

It's an almost impossible thing to talk about. Another analogy is the melody and language of music. But you can't analyze it. You can only talk about it in the most vague ways, "It's pretty, or the harmonics are good." Beyond that you can't say much. And yet as a writer I spend all of my time trying to write lucid, clear, original sentences, and it's not an easy thing to do.

Why have you gone back and done work on your books between editions?

Well, I haven't rewritten entire books, but I have worked on certain things. It's just to kind of delete ugliness. If I see a phrase that strikes me as ugly, I'll delete it. Or, if I find a way to say something a bit more freshly than it was expressed originally, I'll do it. Ultimately, you want to try to leave behind the best possible paragraph or sentence.

You also like to play around with the form of how you tell your stories. You did that in The Things They Carried, and also in July, July, where you jump back and forth between the past, present, and the not-so-distant past. Could you talk a little bit about how and why you like to experiment with different forms?

I knew that with July, July I wanted to write an ensemble novel. Once I knew that, I realized that I couldn't do a full life of each of these ten main characters—that would take thousands of pages—so I had to find a way of representing the whole of a life through essentially one incident. You make a choice and there are consequences. That moment of choice can shed light on what preceded it and what may well follow. Once I thought of that, it occurred to me that this is how I and most people live their lives—erasing it as we go along. You don't remember much of yesterday. Little scraps of memory are there, but after a week all of that goes. When you look back over the years, you're left with chunks of memory that have to do with choices you've made or moments of crisis, and the rest of it is gone. You forget doing the dishes and all of the things you do in your life. When you think about it, it's kind of sad that you tend to erase so much of your life.

What attracted you to doing an ensemble novel?

It was probably the technical challenge. As a writer, I had never tried that before. I've always done first person or third person. Switching from character to character is something I did partly to see if I could do it. I also wanted to see if I could do it shortly and crisply—not in 500 pages.

Then there was the idea of looking at fantasy and what it does to us, both good and bad—acquiring different angles on different kinds of fantasies. I wanted to try an ensemble novel whose characters wonder, If only I were skinny; if only I were beautiful (in the case of Jan); if only I'd followed Billy to Winnipeg (Dorothy); and if only Marla would love me (David). Each character has this kind of fantasy of how things could be so much better. And to do that successfully, I thought I had to do it from a whole bunch of different vantages.

July, July is about several 1969 graduates of a small liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota—not unlike Macalester College where you went. The book looks at an idealistic bunch of people who have changed over thirty years, and much of it covers things that Baby Boomers haven't been so good at—things like marriage and retaining their ideals. Did you intend the book to be a look back at your generation?

That's certainly all there in the book, but I think it applies to all generations. I think every generation knows betrayal and loss. No generation is exempt from that. When I wrote the book, I wasn't thinking of Baby Boomers. I was thinking about human beings—Jan, Marv, and all these people—and to me they could have been part of any generation. I mean, my father's generation—granted they won World War II—but they thought the world would be changed forever, and it wasn't. They know what disappointment and loss is. So, I really thought of it as a more ubiquitous theme that everybody could identify with.

Billy, one of the characters in July, July, went to Canada to escape serving in Vietnam. One of your earlier books, Going After Cacciato, is about a deserter who attempts to walk to the Paris peace talks from Southeast Asia. You did go to Vietnam and have called yourself a coward for not running from the war. Does writing about people who desert let you play with the idea of what might have happened if you hadn't served?

Yeah, what you say is true. This has to do with that fantasy thing I was talking about. The question of, "What if I had done this? What if I had gone to Canada or jail or said no to the war, how would my life have been different?" This passion for "what ifs" is something that I have felt in my own life. I hope that it comes through in the book.

The second thing I can say is that the story about Billy is not just about politics or about leaving the country. It has more to do with the general search for happiness. Sure he goes to Winnipeg and does what he thinks is the right thing, but he's not a happy man. Thirty years later he feels a sense of—well, the thought of Dorothy haunts him. What might have been haunts him. If only she had accompanied him. There's always that list of ifs. There are ifs in all of us. I mean, the President of the United States probably said, "Oh God, if only I'd been a good President." Those ifs are always going to be there, and they are a way of taking a look at our dreams and at how we measure our sense of self-esteem and our happiness against the things we dream.

You've said that in fiction "the truth" or "what really happened" is far less important than what happens in our hearts and dreams. Could you talk about "the truth" in your writing?

There are two levels to it. On one level the stories are made up. But they're made up for a reason, and the reason has to do with a different kind of truth. It has to do with emotional and spiritual truths. It is a way of trying to use a lie, which is the story, to approach some deeper, more spiritual sense of truth. I don't mean truth with a capital T; I just mean small kinds of truth.

You wrote a piece called "The Vietnam in Me" for The New York Times Magazine about your return to Southeast Asia in 1994. It's an incredibly honest and personal piece of writing. In it you wrote, "The world must be written about as it is, or not written about at all." Could you expand on that a little? Is it something that only applies to nonfiction, or to all of your writing?

I'd apply it to fiction, too. In a different kind of way, but I'd apply it. To explain I'd need to apply it to a character.

Take one of the characters from July, July.

The character of Marv. He was a man who tells a horrid, horrid lie about being a writer. I think it's a funny story, but it's also serious. Everybody knows what it feels like to exaggerate or fib or put a little self-advertising spin on your own life at a cocktail party, and then go home and lie in bed at night thinking, God almighty, why did I do that? How do I get out of this fix? So you take a thing like that, which is pretty universally human, and you try to find a traumatic way to rev it up and make it into a big lie—one that really carries heavy consequences—with the hope that the readers will laugh a bit, but partly out of that sense of, "Oh, I've done that and I know what it feels like to live through the consequences of it."

With Dorothy, she's an example of a person whom I would have no sympathy for in the real world. I wouldn't be interested in spending much time talking to a country-club kind of woman. And yet when I wrote this story about the day she marches out onto the driveway with her shirt off after having had a mastectomy and says to her husband, "touch me and look at me," I found myself feeling sympathy for her. I could understand her point of view. There's nothing wrong with having a nice house and sending the kids to good schools and going on vacation now and then to Nassau. I don't have her values, but I felt a kind of sympathy in terms of understanding the things she dreamed. I could relate to her when she wonders, "How would things have been better if I had followed Billy to Canada? Maybe I wouldn't be locked into this Highland Park conservative way of life; maybe I'd be a better and different kind of person."

Those are just two examples. Both are facets of myself. Every character is a facet of me. I'm not a woman who had breast cancer, but I know what it is to be sick, and I know what it is to feel unloved, and I know what it is to ask, "What if I followed that path instead of this one?"

Another character in July, July is David, who loses a leg in Vietnam and never talks about his experience—not even to his wife. Yet through a literary device (an imaginary radio DJ named Johnny Ever, who "broadcasts" things inside David's head) he is constantly reliving the experience. John Wade, the main character in In The Lake of the Woods, sees his whole life unravel because he never revealed his presence at the My Lai massacre to anybody—not even really himself. Could you talk about the difficulty these characters have in speaking about their experiences in the war?

Again, it's a facet of me. I was wounded in Vietnam—like David—though my injury was very inconsequential. But even though I didn't lose a leg, I lost something there. I don't know what it was—my innocence or part of my belief in myself as a good person. It haunted me. Like David and John, I don't talk about it. Even now, talking to you, it's hard to talk about it. I do it in my writing, but in the ordinary world I don't walk around talking about Vietnam or my nightmares and things like that. I don't do it because it's kind of a party-pooper subject. You don't want to embarrass people, and it's a creepy thing to talk about—so you don't. Also, it's hard to find a way of articulating it all. Once you start there's so much to say, so you stay silent because you can't say it all. You don't want to say a little bit, you want to say everything.

So you have this kind of voice that talks at you, it's you talking to yourself, remembering things and measuring yourself against other people who have been through this. I'll watch the Ken Burns Civil War documentary on TV and there's that voice saying, "Be glad you didn't have to go through that. Vietnam wasn't that bad."

Is the voice in the head of a character like David a different voice from the one we all have in our heads that tells us that we're a screw-up or that we did something stupid?

I think it's pretty much the same. Say you're Ellie in July, July and you've had an affair and you've finally told your husband. The voice asks, "Will he come back? Will he forgive me? What's going to happen to me now?" That's as traumatic as anything that happened to me in Vietnam. Losing love is a horrible thing, and making a terrible human mistake like Ellie did is a very human thing that we can all share. It's not that different from going to a bad war. There are different kinds of bad things people do. The voice is your conscience and the way you gauge yourself, and I think everybody has it.

You're a big baseball fan, and your character David is a baseball player who serves in Vietnam. What does baseball mean to you, both as a fan and in your writing?

In July, July part of it was a technical thing. I needed to have a job that David needed a leg for—and nobody wants a one-legged shortstop. I needed something where legs are essential, and baseball came to mind. It also has to do with the innocence that baseball represents. You go into a war thinking baseball, and you come out thinking horror. The gap is huge.

America before the 1960s was a pretty innocent place. We were the Lone Ranger galloping off to the rescue of the needy and the oppressed of the world, and we could get things done. There was a sense of rectitude. All of that was washed away by the late 1960s—that mess of instability and righteousness and self-congratulation—and we've been dealing with it as a culture and as a country pretty much ever since. It was a real watershed the way that the Civil War was. Baseball and a lost leg seemed a pretty good way of making that emblematic in a character.

The Vietnam War has been part of almost everything you've ever written. But you don't view yourself as a Vietnam writer, do you?

In a way I do and in a way I don't. It's like asking Toni Morrison, "Do you view yourself as a black writer?" She's had a black experience and her characters are black people, but she'd look at you and have a little frown. And I'm sure Conrad would too if you said, "You're a 'sea writer,'" or Shakespeare if you called him a "king writer." They'd look at you funny, and the funny look would say "yeah, on one level." I'm not interested in bombs and bullets and tactics and military maneuvers and the things one associates with Vietnam. I'm not interested in writing traditional guts and gore war stories. But I am interested in stories in which the context is the war—that's for sure. So on one level, yeah, every book I've written has the shadow of Vietnam on it, sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely. But it's always there, especially in July, July. I think the stories are meant to be about the human heart under pressure. Vietnam is a way of applying that pressure.

You've said that Vietnam helped you find your voice as a writer.

Well, I had a desire to write from the time I was a little kid and then something collided with that desire—namely Vietnam—and I had to write about it. It moved from desire to imperative. I couldn't not write. There were moral issues, like the terrible thing of even going to the war and not having the courage to say no, which makes you want to write about how hard it is to say no in this world to anything. Saying no makes you unpopular and hurts your reputation—so you say yes to everything. Whether it's your country or your girlfriend—it's hard to say no, right? So, Vietnam is a way of entering that, but the essential problem isn't geopolitical. The central problem is more human.

How has the significance of Vietnam—and the way the war is written about—changed over the years?

The answers are so complicated that I'm not even sure where to start. When September 11 happened, my best friend was visiting. He called me from another room and said, "Hey, come out here and see the TV." He is a Vietnam veteran also. Afterwards, when it was all over and the towers had fallen, we both said, "God, that felt like Nam." The imagery, the horror, the surprise, the frustration, looking for an enemy—it all felt like Vietnam again to me, only now the whole country was there watching it and feeling it and actually going through it.

Place has always been very important in your writing—be it Vietnam or Minnesota, where you grew up. Has moving to Austin, Texas, changed your sense of place as it applies to your writing?

Place is so important to me. The Midwest is like a ghost in my life. It's present as I look out the window now. I see Texas, but if I close my eyes and look out the same window, I'm back in my hometown in Worthington, Minnesota, and I cherish those values and that diction. I hope that my sentences have kind of a natural—they're not flowery, that's for sure, they're not decorative—they're the diction of Minnesota. It's who I am, and virtually everything I've written is rooted there as much as in Vietnam. It's almost a position between Nam and main street Minnesota.

You once said that every book you've written started with an image. What image led you to write July, July?

I did a piece for Esquire—a one-page story—and I just imagined Billy and Dorothy. She's saying, "Please dance with me," and he refuses to. I just pictured in my mind's eye all these name tags bobbing on the dance floor. I couldn't even read the names on the tags, but I knew I wanted to learn who those people were. I also knew the risk of slipping into something like The Big Chill and the risk of the sixties, and yet I wanted to know. So I wrote the book.

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More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on books in The Atlantic Monthly.

Josh Karp is a Chicago-based writer and a regular contributor to several publications, including Chicago Magazine, Book Magazine, Crain's Chicago Business and Pages Magazine.

Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.