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. Here’s a transcript of that conversation:
WM: You walk into the Indianapolis Public Library, you’re going to give a talk on O’Brien and on the book and you bump into some alumnus and he recognizes you but he never took the class on war literature, and you tell him what you’re doing. He asks, “Who the hell is Tim O’Brien?”
Herzog: I would say this. This would be my elevator speech. Tim O’Brien, who is a Vietnam combat veteran and who came back from the war, got half way through a PhD at Harvard in government and then turned full time to writing, 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 both high schools and colleges in the United States and even abroad.
I would add that 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 classifies as “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.
Do you remember when you first read his book? What drew you to him.
I started teaching the first Vietnam‑related freshman tutorial in 1979 and I was in the process of writing the review essay for College English on books about the Vietnam War that had been coming out.
One of the books that they sent me was Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato. It won the National Book Award in 1978. I remember picking it up. I was also reading Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, James Webb’s “Fields of Fire.” Some of the movies were coming out, but this book was different. This book was more than just war stories.
I was fascinated by the narrative structure that is at times puzzling, because as a reader you’re trying to figure out within the context of this book, what’s real and what’s imaginary. It’s at times a struggle to make those separations, but it’s also a book about how you write a book, how you write fiction and the interplay of imagination and memory.
I was thinking, 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 to draw in readers, and make them think, and make them work to separate out things.
I still think it’s his best book. In fact, in one of the chapters in my books is titled, “Tim O’Brien’s Best Novel.” It’s basically about Going After Cacciato.
You said, separating the real and the imaginary, and we’ll get into this a little bit later, but it’s hard to resist jumping on it a little bit now. Separating the real from the imaginary is a theme for O’Brien, period, and your studies on him, right?
In a sense, it’s one of the joys and one of the frustrations in writing about Tim O’Brien. Because I’ve interviewed him now, one, two, three times, lengthy interviews with him, ’95, 2005, 2014, and when he was here on campus twice in ’94 and then in 2008, few times at some public readings he’s done, and also for two days in Indianapolis when I was kind of his handler.
He was doing a presentation at the Vonnegut Library Museum. I’ve gotten to know him, but with O’Brien, you’re never quite sure when he’s telling you something whether it actually happened, [laughs] or whether it’s part of his imaginative recreation of his life, as he’s doing in his books. In fact, he’s got this great quote that I use in the book.
I think it’s an epigraph for one of the chapters, about, “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.”
You’ve found that to be true when you’ve interviewed him?
You start the book with the story of his bronze star—could you walk me through that?
In the book I talk about when I interviewed him at Wabash in 1995, we were talking about this battlefield experience where he crawled out to rescue this guy and got a bronze star. Then I mention the interview in 2014 where he says, “I didn’t get a bronze star for that. I got a bronze star, but it was for just surviving.” Then there is a big break in the book—I leave the readers hanging about that one, then go into some other things, and about seven or eight pages later I come back to it and I say, “There are a lot of things that we’re not sure are true or not true. Here are some facts.” The first thing I deal with is the bronze star.
I found this citation in the Ransom Center at University of Texas, and it is for meritorious service rather than valor. Meritorious service can be a variety of things. In fact, I have a bronze star for meritorious service. And this is how my book gets a little personal. In a footnote for that chapter, I talk about my own meritorious service, [laughs] and how the language of his citation is almost exactly the same as mine, because it’s sort of a template that they use in the military. It’s basically for, I would say, for being a good soldier and doing your job really well.
For the last six months of his tour, he was basically a clerk in an office in a front…Not really a front‑line, a battalion headquarters.
I deal with that to set up how all of this gets intertwined. Also, a lot of people read my first book on him, and in it, I mention that it’s a bronze star for valor. So I wanted to clear up that misconception, but I think it’s a great way to get into the whole story about his life.
Because he’s a friend, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. When we talked about it in ’94, when we talked about it in ’95, difficult time in his life. He’s just finished, “In the Lake of the Woods,” which is his most heavily autobiographical novel. He had just broken up with this woman he had been dating for four years, which underlies several stories in this book and others. He was suffering from PTSD and there were moments, which he mentions in 2014, that he and other soldiers did crawl out and rescue people. It was not uncommon for that to occur in a battle environment.
So I take the blame.
You call him a friend and you give him the benefit of the doubt, but you’re also his literary biographer in a sense, are you not? How many people are doing this at this level?
This is probably the first attempt to do a much more in‑depth look at his personal life. In some ways, in terms of biography or literary criticism, it probably comes down more on the side of biography.
Which is why I think it’s so interesting.
The whole premise is that to understand what Tim O’Brien writes about, you have to understand Tim O’Brien.
Is that why you use a series of personal essays to explore this?
It is, for a variety of reasons. One, I’m the type of person that has to write in chunks. I’m not a linear writer—I start here and 200 pages later, I come to the end. I start here, finish 20 pages and then I think, “There’s another idea,” and I start there and go 20 pages. That’s really what this is.
Obviously, there are underlying themes, underlying events, my underlying critical perspective under all the essays, but they’re all different. They go in so many different directions. I mean the one that really is way out there is In the Lake of the Woods. You probably haven’t read that.
I’ve not read that, no.
There are 133 footnotes in In the Lake of the Woods, in his novel. The narrator, we don’t know much about him other than he’s a Vietnam veteran and he’s become fascinated by this story about a Vietnam veteran who’s running for the US Senate in Minnesota. Up until two weeks before the election, he’s the frontrunner. He’s going to win. Then it comes out that he was involved with the My Lai Massacre. This reporter/biographer starts investigating and O’Brien did a lot of investigation of the Peers Commission that investigated the My Lai massacre.
He interweaves this fictional story with events from My Lai and most of the documented sources of information, 99 percent, are real books that he’s taken pieces of information from, about My Lai, about PTSD, about massacres in American history, about US presidents and their relationship with fathers and all of that.
Fathers and sons. The premise behind this essay is that in the footnotes and in the passages that are documented by footnotes about all these different topics, O’Brien’s talking about his own life and his own relationship with his father.
One of the presidents had a very difficult relationship with his father, who would belittle him at every opportunity, and there was this feeling that he was never good enough for his father. That’s exactly what O’Brien expresses, that he was always seeking his father’s praise and his love, and the underlying quest in Tim O’Brien’s life is a quest for love, a love from others, a love from his country, a love from his father, probably most of all, self‑love and acceptance of himself.
Also his decision to go to Vietnam, which—as a war protester and someone opposed to war—making the decision to accept his draft notice and go to Vietnam has haunted him his entire life. In chapter three of my book,I compare Tim O’Brien and Siegfried Sassoon: Good soldiers fighting unholy wars. What emerges is there’s an internal conflict within O’Brien about his feeling of hatred for himself for going off to war, but also a certain pride in the fact that he was a good soldier.
Think about trying to manage that. The second chapter deals with some more stories that are not in his book, he’s never told, where he comes across as a really good soldier.
This idea of him being a friend and you being his literary biographer—that brings responsibilities. Your responsibility as a writer—you’re saying, “I give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s my friend.” That’s a hard thing to do when you’re also the primary guy. I’m not being critical of it. I think it’s really interesting.
That was the question that was always in the back of my mind. I think I resolved it in this way. First of all, I didn’t want to burn bridges. While I was writing this book and questions would come up, I’d periodically send him emails. For example, his mother was institutionalized for a while with severe depression and underwent shock treatments when he was probably in second and third grade. He and his sister, father—I don’t know if his youngest brother was born yet—had to move out of their house. The only reason I know this, when I was doing the research in Texas in 2014, I ran across letters from his father, who was at the time, institutionalized for alcoholism, writing to his wife, O’Brien’s mother, and upset that she had filed for divorce and saying, “Back so many years, you weren’t a capable parent for 13 months.”
There’s not much more mentioned. Maybe the word hospital came up. I asked him and he said, “Yeah, she was institutionalized.” Interestingly enough, at this hospital associated with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, the same place that Hemingway was institutionalized, almost about at the same time. Anyway, I wrote him a follow‑up interview and he clarified, again, typical O’Brien. He said, “I don’t remember much about the time. I know I was worried about my mother, but I do remember the last day, when we had to move out of our house and I’m standing on the steps of our house, wondering if I’d ever see this house again.” It’s a little vignette that a fiction writer would come up with. He said, “I memorized the address so if I ever came back, I’d know where it was.” This whole notion of love and loneliness, separation. I didn’t follow up on it. I didn’t say, “So how long was your mother there?”
He did mention that her personality changed when she came back even though she became an elementary school teacher, well‑loved.
There were opportunities to say, “Tell me about your divorce. Tell me more about this break up.” Because it was a combination of biography but also literary criticism, I didn’t go there. I mention that in the book. There were some topics that he just did not want to talk about.
A good biographer would go interview his first wife, would go interview the Harvard grad student that he dated for four years, went to Vietnam with. Here’s a piece of information that I did not include in the book.
The mom being institutionalized, is that in the essay?
Yes it is.
You just don’t go any farther.
Tobey: I didn’t pursue it.
If you believe and if you’ve done enough research to see these recurring events, recurring patterns, recurring themes that connect with his life…but you can also say to the reader, “You as a reader of this book, separating what’s true and what’s not true, have at it.”
You just leave mystery. Honestly, it feels like there are some things you just won’t know.
Absolutely. What I’m also trying to do is to use his own words, not just in our interviews, but interviews he’s done with so many other people. He contradicts himself so many times, which I include, the contradictions, and don’t make a judgment about but let the reader sort through those contradictions.
You respect this guy?
If I were a biographer, I’d raise some other issues about him. One of my chapters is about why does Tim O’Brien lie. This is based on an article I did from modern fiction studies. It goes through why the contradictions, not only in his life but also in his books, within a novel, there are inconsistencies, contradictions. I set up a series of hypotheses.
The last one is ego. That he wants to draw attention to himself. He wants people to realize he is the puppet master behind his characters. That without the author, there is no story. Why does he wear a baseball cap to every lecture at every…
In every picture I’ve seen.
Part of it is because he’s bald and covering it up, but part of it is to draw attention, again, to himself. In that essay, I don’t come down and say, “Well, this is the reason.” I throw that out as one of seven possibilities.
You don’t want to come to that final conclusion.
No, absolutely. O’Brien says once the mystery is gone, once the mystery is solved, there’s no interest. By the end of my book, I haven’t solved the mysteries, but I’ve weighed out things for people to think about and try to come to their own conclusion.
You’ve enhanced the mystery?
I have enhanced the mystery. Although some of the mysteries I’ve kind of dealt with. The last mystery, the last essay deals with: Was Tim O’Brien writing another novel? His last novel came out in 2002. I’ve got quotes over about a 13‑year period from him.
A couple from our interviews, but from other interviews where he would tell me that I’m working on this book. It’s kind of about a father and son, and a father who’s now concerned about his son’s welfare and stuff like that.
Then, I’ve got a quote that he did in 2014 where this person said I’m working on another book. He said, “I gave up writing 12 years ago. My main focus now is being a father and I devote all my time to that.” End of the book.
Two weeks after I’d sent in the final proof for the book, I wrote to him and said, “I’m done.” I just 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 February 22nd, 2018.
The last sentence in your book?
That’s the last sentence. I hadn’t planned to use that. I’d been setting up the chapter using a lot of his own words. I said since this is about Tim O’Brien, I wanted to give him the last word.
He’s always talked about someday there might be happiness in his life. My final question, and I sent this to him a week before the copyediting work was due, I said, “Have you reached that point of happiness in your life?”
“Your final question is by far the most troublesome to answer here mostly because I’m exhausted from all my travel, several weeks in appearances and my excessive self‑examination along the way. I’ll only say that I’m as happy as I deserve to be.” another mystery.
Inconclusive. That was intended to be the end of that essay and the end of the book.
Yes, but then…
Then this unsolicited email from him, the hopeful sign.
It’s a hopeful sign?
Yeah, it is. In the last chapter, the last essay, the last several pages talk about despite all the fuck ups in his books, and the bad decisions the characters make, there is a sense of hope, and that hope is free will.
We have the opportunity to make choices in this world, and we can make good choices, or we can make bad choices. His characters often at the end of the book still hold out hope that something good is going to happen. They haven’t completely given up.
Is this you talking or is this him talking?
No. That’s him.
Let’s shift gears a little bit. I remember when you retired, you went almost straight into this project. I think it was kind of a strategic move on your part. Talk a little bit about that, and what this has done for you. How long have you been retired now?
It is four years. You’re absolutely right. This was the plan all along because having watched a lot of people, academics and non‑academics, retire, and then suddenly thrust into no routine, no place to go, what do I do, 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 basically in 2012, and I had a summer intern doing preliminary research, compiling articles. Things like that. I knew that on June 30th, 2014, when I’m retired out of my office in Center Hall, I’m going to have a carrel in the library, and I’m going to write this book. I’m going to be on a schedule. I’m going to think of it as four years of…a multi‑year sabbatical, and do exactly what I would do in sabbatical. That is write, but also take time off to travel. Go to London. Go to places I really enjoy.
For the most part over these four years, I would show up at 10 a.m., read the newspaper, check my email, then go work out. Come back. Get my cup of coffee from 1832 Brew.
This has been through my entire academic life. I write best late afternoon. All the books have been done late afternoon, or when I was teaching late afternoon, and then coming back late at night. I’m not a morning person, right? Then I would come back, and start writing probably about 2:30 and write until 6:00, 6:30. Then that was it.
The other thing is I didn’t want to have a deadline. That’s why I waited to try to find a publisher until it was half of essay away from being finished.
There was no guarantee it would be published?
Oh, there was absolutely no guarantee, but I didn’t want to sign a contract where someone said, “OK. We need this in a year or a year and a half.” Because I didn’t know how long it was going to take.
The life of the writer is essentially what you’ve lived for the last three, four years. How does that compare to you as a teacher? I’ve seen you in classrooms once. I know you enjoy being in the classroom.
I am an introvert. I really am. There was something about a classroom however that allowed me to move from an introvert to an extrovert and willing to take chances, tell stories, and do things. Wear a uniform and talk about my Chicago Bulls experiences. I felt comfortable. The classroom was absolutely one of the best environments I could be in. I felt comfortable in it. I enjoyed it. It was the thing that I knew I would miss the most when I retired, and it has been. The relationships with the students, I really miss that.
I’m also a solitary person. I’m an only child. I’ve spent a lot of my life by myself, particularly growing up. My whole academic life, even when I was a grad student, I had a small little carrel on the fourth floor of the Purdue Library. You had to have a key to get into the area. It was a small cubicle. I’d spend a lot of time there.
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. [laughs] When I was on sabbatical and if we were not at a conference I’d find libraries where I could go off and be by myself.
Being in the carrel in the library during my sabbatical was really what I kind of always enjoyed. That was part of the writer’s life.
You were building in the structure at the front end of that to make sure you were getting your exercise and make sure you were doing all those things.
I’m an introvert, but I’m also obsessive about organization including my life. I need to have a schedule. The writing was part of this personal schedule for a time.
I remember you saying that first year, “It’s that you get to have a conversation with the people you want to talk to and you don’t have to worry about rushing back to class.” There’s a social side of that.
While I was teaching one of the most important devices I had was my watch. Honestly, it’s probably been this way from grad school all the way through. 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 and I became much more outgoing, conversations, and the fitness, the library. I enjoyed this interaction, this socialization that was taking place with a lot of different people. Students, I did some guest lectures in classes. I took over a Dickens seminar for a week when Jill Lamberton was at a conference.
I’ve helped students with Vietnam related projects. I really enjoyed that. That was just great. I did an independent study this last semester with a student on war literature. I could have gone on for hours, [laughs] but I knew he was looking at his watch.
Is this the last thing you’ll write on, O’Brien? This has been a lot of your life.
Part of this book, in the last chapter, I raised this question, is this O’Brien’s last book? Is this my last? Part of this book is personal.
It’s about why I was curious about O’Brien or how our lives might have overlapped, the Bronze Star thing, about why this issue in one of his books really resonated with me, why I left out a story about his divorce or stuff like that.
The last essay, near the end, I say, “Will this be my final book? Will this be my final essay about Tim O’Brien?” Right now, I’m thinking yes. I think I’ve said everything.
Unless he publishes that next book…
Yeah, but the next book, I could write a review or…There will not be another Tim O’Brien book, unless…
Unless he contacts me and says, “Do you want to be my official biographer,” which he wouldn’t do. He’d write his own autobiography.
Every time I talk to you about this, I’m always struck by the passion you have for it. You’ve used the term “friend.” This is a guy you care about.
I probably should define “friend,” how I use it. It’s not like we’re best buddies, OK? It’s a person who over the years, since 1994 when he was first on the Wabash campus, that I’ve had a continuous relationship. Continuous meaning, 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.
Pick up right where you left off.
It is. When I saw him in Chicago in 2015, we started talking about our kids and he was…His children now are, I don’t know, let’s see, probably 14 and 12, his sons. He’s asking me questions, “What’s it going to be like here?” and sharing some information about he’s worried about college, paying for it.
It’s a person who we’ve been out to dinner together, just casual conversation. It’s someone who if I asked to do a favor, he would do it.
On his side, it sounds like you’re someone he can trust.
That’s exactly what it is. I think he does trust me. Going back to our first interview in 1995, I’ve always been really prepared when I go in for these interviews. He knows I’ve done my research, I’ve read the books, that I’ve read other interviews, that I’m going to ask good questions, thoughtful questions that he enjoys responding to.
I also think he trusts me not to probe too far into the person, and that these are not going to be kiss‑and‑tell interviews and I’m going to make all these revelations, and speculations.
Yeah, because you draw a line.
I do draw a line. In the first book on O’Brien, it was definitely, I don’t want to burn this bridge. That’s why most of that book just deals with the books, although the opening chapter in there deals with some of the issues in his life, the alcoholism with his father. I think he shared with me some things over the years that he has not…
He has done so many interviews, it’s unbelievable, but I think he’s shared with me some things that he has not shared with other people. I haven’t seen him in other interviews.
Has he read this? Has he read anything of it?
When you talk about not probing him deeper, I think about Thomas Merton, Catholic writer and monk, who talks about there being this space in every person that is known only by that person and God, and we don’t cross that line.
He’s got a quote in here about there are some things you share with other people, there are some things that only you know, and there are some things within you that you don’t even know.
Yeah, that space, the space where you’re always struggling to think about.
It’s a quote by Dostoevsky.
When I first read his books, I felt like I knew what he was doing. 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, “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 you’re doing.
Yeah, you get him.
I get him.
In our interviews, when I raise some of these issues, I think he realizes that I get him. That’s why he enjoys some of the questions that I ask.
Yeah, and hence the trust.
Hence the trust.
Steve: He’s visited Wabash once or twice?
He came in 1994. He was on his book tour for In the Lake of the Woods. Did a public lecture, talked to my class, was supposed to do a couple of other things but he was really sick. Emotionally, he was in bad, bad shape. In 2008, he got an honorary degree, which you got a footnote in his book. I don’t think I’ve mentioned your name. You’re the source of this. Remember, you were at the honorary degree lunch. He got up and had this handwritten thing that he read and talked about.
I was probably recording it. [laughs]
You sent me a copy of what you had down.
Good for me.
Tobey: It turns out that…This is where it’s what’s real, what’s happening. He told me, “Well, you know, I’ve got to come up with something to say so I’ll just…” Turns out, like a month after that, this essay came out about fathers and sons and tails, wearing tails.
Tobey: I’m thinking he just wrote down what he had already written. It was not off the cuff. I’ve got a footnote that deals with that. One more example of the game play he engages in. He’s also someone…As a biographer, I could have gone into this. He’s very conscious about money.
When he was in Vietnam, some of his letters home were to his father about “Check the price of my stocks.” Other financial questions that, not only at the time, I don’t know if a soldier would be thinking about. He doesn’t have an agent. He takes care of his own bookings and all of that.
Tobey: It’s a full‑time job. He doesn’t want to pay. He’s got this method where when he’s working on a book, he’ll…He writes in chunks, too. If you think about [inaudible 66:54] , they’re episodic. They’re a series of chapters. He’ll publish as short stories to make the money off of that. Then combine them for the…
Same way he might take a speech and…
He often does kind of the same speech.O’Brien want to be in control…
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 when I think he lies to himself to protect himself. One of these lies is, “I was a terrible soldier. I really regret going to Vietnam, but I do have a bronze star, I do have an army commendation. I did survive.” There is that lie.
He’s not willing to face the truth that there was something very positive, something supportive, something that improved his self‑image by being a good soldier in Vietnam.
Steve: What has Wabash gotten out of your research, your connection to this guy?
Tobey: First of all, the only reason all of these books happened was because of Wabash. One of the opportunities that it gave me, if I had been at another school I probably would have stayed in 18th and 19th century British literature. And tried to publish something new on Charles Dickens, which is impossible. Don Herring was a supportive department chair who allowed me to do this instead. The freshman tutorial program was a godsend. I did a total of 28 freshman tutorials while I was at Wabash, almost one every year. Out of that 16 were somehow war‑related, Vietnam‑related.
Then I taught the modern war lit course, all of that. The opportunities, the generosity of the school. I had a semester off from my first book, then travel grants all along, but also a big help —summer interns. I had six summer interns from the time of the first book up to the last.
Guys will talk about your classes being among their most formative, and part of that’s O’Brien, right? I mean…
I see alums 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…
Isn’t some of that because O’Brien was a big part of that, and O’Brien was writing the same things that drew you in initially, which is, there is not just war, there…Is it the war of life?
War of the living.
War of the living. Because that’s the place our guys could come long before the fatherhood class, you were dealing with fathers and sons.
Fathers and sons, and within the context of war. I mean, I think Wabash also got out of it a teacher who was enthused the entire time that he was teaching in Wabash College. [laughs]
What I think happened was, because I got so involved with modern war literature and O’Brien, I think I became a better reader of literature in general, and then I became a better teacher of literature across all eras, genres, whatever.
OK, last question. Assuming there is no additional book on Tim O’Brien…
Yeah, so what am I going to do next?
All this passion and you’re already moving toward the personal in this, so what’s the next project? You’ve always got something.
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, in some ways, connected by sports. That’s the underlying thread in my life. I can think of every stage and different places. Being in Vietnam, being in college, being at Purdue, being at Wabash, being in Arizona. There’s something involved with sports that connects with that.
Absolutely. Pick up basketball games in Vietnam. Oh my god.
Oh, geez. I’ve got a pic. I just found this. I’m digitizing slides and I’ve got a picture of me on the basketball court in Vietnam in my cutoff shorts and tennis shoes.
Here’s another Peggy story. I wrote to her and said, “I’m playing basketball over here. I need a pair of tennis shoes.” I thought she’ll go look at the shoe size. She has all my shoes. She sent me a pair of shoes that were two sizes too small.
Great, what could I do? I had to cut the toes out.
Here I am, shooting. Wearing the cutoff shorts and tennis shoes with the toes cut out.
You’re looking at this sports connection.
It would be instead of “OK, here’s my autobiography,” it would be vignettes from my life in various places with the jumping off point sports, but obviously 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 will you take in from him and what will you [laughs] watch out for?
What I’ve learned is writers are good liars.
Just because the writer says it happened doesn’t mean that it actually happened. Part of it’s the mystery and part of it’s not coming to conclusions about your life. Leaving it open‑ended.
Tobey: 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.
Steve: Which is exactly the same thing you’ve done with…
Tobey: Tim O’Brien, and it’s exactly what he does in his writing. He takes these basic themes. “The angle creates reality,” is a quote from one of his books. That’s exactly what he does. 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.