From Homer to Hemingway and beyond, war has been a classic subject for literature. For Tim O'Brien, his experience as a soldier at the height of the conflict in Vietnam has remained the essential subject matter of a long and honored writing career.
O'Brien's first book about Vietnam was If I Die In a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, a memoir published in 1973, just three years after he returned from his tour of duty in the infantry after being drafted. But his best-known books about the war are based on his experiences but fictional: the 1978 novel Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award, and the stunning short story collection The Things They Carried, published in 1990 and his most enduring book, with more than 3 million copies sold.
"I'm surprised it's still read so widely, by so many different people," O'Brien, 67, said in a recent phone interview from his home in Austin, Texas. "It's taught in high schools and colleges, book clubs read it. I'm especially happy to see the kinds of people who haven't been in wars read it. Maybe their fathers were in wars, or their grandfathers."
O'Brien will be the keynote speaker Saturday night for Eckerd College's weeklong Writers in Paradise Reading Series in St. Petersburg. The Writers in Paradise conference, now in its 10th year, was co-founded by Eckerd professor emeritus of literature and creative writing Sterling Watson and novelist Dennis Lehane, author of such bestselling books as Mystic River, Shutter Island and Live by Night (and an Eckerd alumnus).
On Saturday, O'Brien says, he will read from and talk about a book he is currently working on — "It's kind of hard to describe" — and he and Lehane will do an on-stage Q&A. "It will be great to meet him," O'Brien says. "He's one of the few people who can tell a spellbinding story while also writing it beautifully. Most writers do one or the other; the ability to combine the two is very, very rare."
O'Brien's own ability to do both has received notable recognition lately. In 2012 he received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize's lifetime achievement award, and last year he was the first novelist to win the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award, which comes with a $100,000 prize.
"It's been a nice run of luck," he says.
Previous winners of the Pritzker have been historians and journalists, and O'Brien says he is "in good company" with them. But he thinks that fiction can tell as much truth about war as history can. "It's important to realize that nonfiction is selective in its presentation of facts. A history of Vietnam can only present a puny fraction of what happened. It can't have . . . all the firefights, the mosquito bites, the decapitations, the wailing mothers and everything else. (History) is part of what happened.
"We tend to regard history as true and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as untrue. That's always puzzled me."
O'Brien says, though, that a novelist "should be as objective as a historian. You shouldn't just write about that frenzy of emotion. You should bring some thoughtfulness to it." All the "truly great novels of war," he points out, were written with such distance: Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms years after World War I; Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead were written well after World War II.
Literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is just starting to appear, but O'Brien cites one standout novel already: Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk, which won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle award for fiction.
"It's just a magnificent book," O'Brien says. "It really touched me, and it's beautifully written."
Fountain has never served in the military, but O'Brien says that doesn't matter. "Homer was not in the Trojan War; Stephen Crane wasn't in the Civil War. What you need is a passion for the moral issues."
Novels about the recent wars will be read by a different audience than those about the Vietnam War. "They'll be written to an audience that didn't have a wolf at the door," O'Brien says. "With no draft, the only people who went to war were those who wanted to, or at least those who wanted to join the military."
As a result, he says, there has been no sense of "imminent threat" for most Americans. "It's easy to go down to the Elks Lodge and be belligerent about war when you don't have to worry about your own kid coming back in a body bag."
The absence of the draft has made war a more abstract issue. "I hated the draft," he says emphatically, "but at the same time it's something that made every American take war seriously."
Many readers and critics noted that in The Things They Carried, O'Brien blurred the line between memoir and fiction, using some of his own experiences and blending them with fiction. "In a way, Things They Carried is a response to this kind of absolute view we have about nonfiction," he says.
"Where is truth? If you're at the bottom of an irrigation ditch with people dying all around you, where is truth?
"It still plagues me, especially since we live in a world of such absolutism. Everyone's right about everything."
That absolutism, he says, "is what war is, finally. It's one guy saying to another guy, 'I'm so right and you're so wrong that I'm going to kill you, and your children.'
"What confidence! I've never been so confident about anything in my life. History is littered with that kind of confidence."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.