O’Brien speaks about the power of stories

by Sam Wilson
Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Staff photo by Allison Potter 

Author Tim O’Brien addresses a near-capacity crowd on Wednesday, Jan. 15, at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Kenan Auditorium. O’Brien’s novel, “The Things They Carried,” was chosen for The Big Read Greater Wilmington.

For veteran and author Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam War is not a distant memory, but rather an experience about which his internal halves still debate more than 40 years later.

O’Brien addressed a near-capacity crowd at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Kenan Auditorium Jan. 15, the culmination of the past six months of events surrounding The Big Read Greater Wilmington for which his critically acclaimed novel “The Things They Carried” was chosen.

O’Brien spoke for more than an hour, meditating on themes of truth in fiction, choices and the writing process.

“Stories give us access to other people’s lives,” he said. “Stories help us feel, in the end, a little less alone in this perplexing and sometimes terrifying world we find ourselves in.”

O’Brien talked about spending the summer of 1968 at home in Minnesota, shortly after receiving the draft notice that sent him to Vietnam. Even compared with the time he spent deployed, O’Brien said that summer was the most difficult, because it was the summer during which he had to decide how to morally respond to the notice.

“Do we forfeit all sense of conscience and individuality to our government?” he asked. “Would I go to Canada or jail or to the war? … All the time there was this hallucinatory debate going on inside my head.”

O’Brien also made clear he left no room in his worldview for absolutism.

“There is no absolutism,” he said. “Chipmunks are absolutists. Human beings understand the ambiguousness of our world.”

The Big Read events were coordinated between more than a dozen local organizations, with the Cape Fear Museum taking the lead in writing the grant and administering the funds. 

In June 2013 the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with Arts Midwest, awarded the grant to The Big Read Greater Wilmington for the second consecutive year. With only a few events left, museum public relations specialist Amy Mangus said she was thrilled with the success of this year’s Big Read.

“About 970 people came out [to O’Brien’s talk],” she said. “For me, what was really great was the age range of the people there, from high school students to retirees and veterans.  I thought it was really amazing that a book can tie people together like that.”

She said she hoped Wilmington would participate again next year, but the museum would likely not take the lead role again. She added that she hopes people in the community will continue to pursue the book and O’Brien’s other literature.

“The Things They Carried” was a difficult book to write, but O’Brien said it did not arise from any political motivation. He was thinking purely in terms of the story. But he also admitted that he had become more explicit about his views on war and how books address the issue.

“Wars, all of them, good and bad — they’re always billed to us as an impending catastrophe,” O’Brien said. “Three-hundred thousand dead, that’s a catastrophe. You ought to have some pretty firm handle on the rectitude of your cause. … It’s got to endure. Because your son’s death is going to endure.”

email sam@luminanews.com

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