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Tobey Herzog: Getting to the Truth

In his new book, Tobey Herzog dives into an award-winning author’s feints and contradictions and surfaces with a revelation for the literary world.

The day after he retired, Professor of English Emeritus Tobey Herzog H’11 began writing a series of essays about Tim O’Brien, the award-winning author and fellow Vietnam veteran he has studied for nearly 30 years. That book— Tim O’Brien: The Things He Carries and the Stories He Tells—was published last spring. 

WM sat down in July with the venerable Wabash teacher and scholar to talk about the book, his interactions with O’Brien, the writer’s life, and what’s next. 

WM: So you’re on campus for a talk about this book and you encounter a Wabash alumnus who says, “Who the hell is Tim O’Brien?” What do you tell him?

Herzog: Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam combat veteran, is probably the most important soldier/author to come out of the Vietnam War. His book, The Things They Carried, is one of the most widely taught books in high schools and colleges in the United States and abroad.

Even though most of his books deal with Vietnam battlefields and Vietnam veterans, his books are accessible to a much wider audience because he deals with what he calls the war of the living, which is everything from divorce to breakups of love relationships to dealing with alcoholic fathers to making difficult moral choices that define the rest of your life.

What was the first Tim O’Brien book you read?

Going After Cacciato. It won the National Book Award in 1978. I remember reading it and thinking, “This book was more than just war stories.”

I was fascinated by the narrative structure, how at times it’s puzzling, because as a reader you’re trying to figure out what’s real and what’s imaginary.

It’s also a book about how you write fiction and the interplay of imagination and memory.

I realized, Not only is this a great book to introduce students to the Vietnam War, it’s also a great book to introduce students to the art of fiction and how you structure a narrative.

I still think it’s his best book.

What drew you into making O’Brien’s work the focus of your scholarship? 

Sometimes when you read a piece of literature, you say, “I understand what his narrative strategy is,” or “I understand how he’s shaping his theme.” In O’Brien’s case it was, “I understand how this is coming from his own life experiences and how important it is in his life.”

I’ve always felt that connection when I read his literature. I know what he’s doing. I get him.

You’ve written this book as a series of essays and included your personal interactions with the author, even your personal experience as a Vietnam veteran. Why that approach? 

I’m the type of person who has to write in chunks. I’m not a linear writer—I start here, finish 20 pages and then I think, “There’s another idea,” and I start there and go 20 pages in a different direction.

This book is the first attempt I know of to do a much more in-depth look at O’Brien’s personal life. In terms of biography and literary criticism, it probably comes down more on the side of biography. My premise is that to understand what Tim O’Brien writes about, you have to understand Tim O’Brien.

You said that the narrative structure in Going After Cacciato leaves readers trying to figure out what’s real and what’s imaginary. That’s a theme not only for O’Brien, but also your books about him. 

That’s both the joy and frustration in writing about Tim O’Brien. I’ve interviewed him three times—1995, 2005, and 2014—and talked with him when he was here on campus and a few times at some public readings he’s done.

But with O’Brien, you’re never quite sure when he’s telling you something if it actually happened, or if it’s part of his imaginative re-creation of his life, as he’s doing in his books.

Even he’s not sure. There’s this quote from him in the book: “Everything I’ve done in my life is part of my fiction, and separating what’s true and what’s not true is even difficult for me as an author.”

One of my chapters in this book asks, “Why does Tim O’Brien lie?” I set up a series of hypotheses. But I don’t solve the mysteries; I weigh out possibilities for people to think about and come to their own conclusions.

I’ve noticed that in your lectures about O’Brien over the years—you tend not to make those final conclusions.

Absolutely. O’Brien says once the mystery is gone, once the mystery is solved, there’s no interest.

Still, that’s got to be a tough challenge for you as a biographer: Trying to separate fact from fiction from your primary source.

O’Brien dealt with his father’s alcoholism by becoming a magician at a very young age in junior high. He learned magic. He would perform at birthday parties and school assemblies.

Being a magician, then moving into becoming a novelist, he’s still doing the same magic, the magic with his characters, the magic with his stories. Being in control, setting up illusions, and seeing if the audience can figure out what’s going on.

There are times he lies to himself to protect himself.

This is a guy you care about. Would you describe him as a friend?

We’ve had a continuous relationship since 1994, when he was first on the Wabash campus. We might go two or three years without any communication, but then when I ask him, “Could I interview you?” or send him an email or questions, he’s very willing to do it. When I saw him in Chicago in 2015, we started talking about our kids.

Sounds like you are someone he can trust.

I think he does trust me. I’ve always been really prepared when I go in for these interviews. He knows I’ve done my research, that I’m going to ask thoughtful questions that he enjoys responding to.

I also think he trusts me not to probe too far into the person, that I’m not going to make all these revelations and speculations.

He has done so many interviews, but I think he’s shared with me some things that he has not shared with other people.

In your new book, he seems to have paid that trust back with an exclusive. 

The last essay deals with the question critics have been asking for some time: “Is Tim O’Brien writing another novel?” His last novel came out in 2002. I’ve got quotes from about a 13-year period from him about this. In one interview he says yes, and it’s kind of about a father, and son, and a father who’s now concerned about his son’s welfare.

Then in 2014 he tells me, “I gave up writing 12 years ago. My main focus now is being a father and I devote all my time to that.”

But two weeks after I’d sent in the final proof for this book, I wrote to him and said, “I’m done.” He wrote back and said: “Slaving away on my own new book. Sometimes elated, sometimes depressed as always. I’m 410 pages into it with maybe another 150 pages still to go.”

That’s what he said on February 22, 2018, and that’s the last sentence in my book.

Many of our readers will know O’Brien’s work from your freshman tutorial and your course on modern war literature. I’ve talked with alumni who call those classes among their most formative.

I see alumni and so many of the comments are about the freshman tutorial and the Vietnam books we read. The fact that several of them are still reading in that genre is rewarding to hear.

When you retired, you went almost straight into this project. 

I watched a lot of people suddenly thrust into no routine, no place to go, trying to find themselves, feeling irrelevant. I decided I’ve got to have a focus because I know what my mental makeup is.

I started planning in 2012. I knew that on June 30, 2014, when I retired out of my office in Center Hall, I was going to have a carrel in the library and write this book.

How does this life of a writer compare to you as a teacher? 

I am an introvert. There was something about a classroom, however, that allowed me to move from an introvert to an extrovert, willing to take chances, tell stories, and do things. I felt comfortable. The classroom was absolutely one of the best environments I could be in. It was the thing that I knew I would miss the most when I retired. The relationships with the students, I really miss that.

But I’m also a solitary person. I’m an only child. Even when I was a grad student, I had a little carrel on the fourth floor of the Purdue Library. When I was an undergraduate in a fraternity house, I had a little study area in the boiler room that I’d go off by myself.

I remember asking you how you were enjoying retirement about a year in, and you said that the best thing is you get to have conversations and you don’t have to worry about rushing back to class. 

While I was teaching one of the most important devices I had was my watch. I’m very time-oriented because I’d always have a lot of things going on. I need to get this done.

Retirement freed me from that.

So, what’s next? 

I’m going back and looking at pieces that I’ve done for Wabash Magazine, my life in the NBA, and some of my chapel speeches. So much of it is connected by sports. That’s the underlying thread in my life. Vignettes from my life with the jumping off point of sports, but getting into bigger issues about fathers and sons.

What have you learned from Tim O’Brien as you enter into this phase of writing about your own life? 

What I’ve learned is writers are good liars.

Yes. 

And to recognize the importance of mystery, and that part of it is not coming to conclusions about your life. Leaving it open ended, that it’s something still in progress.

But that’s exactly the reason why a lot of people do write something like your next project—they don’t understand it, so they want to come to some closure. 

I know if I write this book, I’m not going to come to closure. I will have laid it out in a way that I can consider it from different angles.

Which is exactly the same thing you’ve done with… 

Tim O’Brien. And it’s exactly what he does in his writing.

“The angle creates reality,” is a quote from one of his books. He takes basic events from his own life, basic moral decisions, basic emotions, and he explores it from different angles.

Each angle transforms that thing into a different situation, a different mystery, different issues to consider. It’s what it’s all about.

 

Excerpted and edited—read the complete interview here.