Author Tim O'Brien speaks in Columbus on Friday

ssorich@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 28, 2013 

If you've read "The Things They Carried," you've helped lighten the load.

After serving in the Vietnam War, author Tim O'Brien wrote the collection of stories partially as an effort to share the emotional weight of his experience.

"Those readers are helping kind of carry the load," O'Brien said in a recent phone interview. "It's not just on me anymore."

It also offered a concrete takeaway from a war experience sometimes characterized by a lack of meaning.

"You go through this horror and then years pass and you salvage something from it," O'Brien said.

Part of what O'Brien salvaged: "The Things They Carried," a collection of stories about the Vietnam War. Many of the stories are interrelated. In addition to other distinctions, the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

First published in 1990, "The Things They Carried" is this year's Big Read selection for the Chattahoochee Valley.

O'Brien will give a presentation Friday at the Springer Opera House. The event, part of the Southern Literary Festival, is free and open to the public.

Some things about war have changed since O'Brien served in Vietnam. Post-traumatic stress disorder was formally recognized in 1980, according to the National Institutes of Health. The National Center for PTSD even has a social media presence.

But wider recognition of the term doesn't erase the emotional complexities that soldiers face, O'Brien said. The label alone is simply a shorthand "way of encapsulating so much," he explained.

It "doesn't do justice to the emotional stuff that you carry home from a thing like a war," O'Brien added.

Another major change since the Vietnam War? The onset of technology that can allow for increased communication with family members during a deployment.

O'Brien isn't sure technology like Skype would have eased his time in Vietnam. After all, it's still not the same as face-to-face communication. "I would feel worse in a way," O'Brien said. "It's a bunch of pixels."

The military draft, which played a role in the Vietnam War, is not an issue for today's soldiers. However, "The Things They Carried" touches on themes that don't depend on the military's structure. For example, the book highlights the challenges of defining words like "courage" and "bravery."

In a story called "Speaking of Courage," O'Brien writes, "Courage was not always a matter of yes or no. Sometimes it came in degrees, like the cold; sometimes you were very brave up to a point and then beyond that point you were not so brave."

That story focuses on what happens when one soldier comes home from the Vietnam War. Part of him wants to talk about what happened in the war, but he remains silent. It's a common tendency, according to O'Brien. "Your inclination is to go quiet," he said.

O'Brien receives letters telling him that "The Things They Carried" helped some people finally tell war stories out loud.

"Those are the letters that really touch my heart," O'Brien said.

"The Things They Carried" often blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. The book includes a narrator named Tim O'Brien who served in the Vietnam War.

"My book is billed as fiction. I try to make them feel it's real," O'Brien said.

There are often questions about whether a character is exaggerating a war story told in the book, and if the story is being told to entertain the audience, the storyteller -- or a little bit of both.

"The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head," O'Brien writes in "The Things They Carried."

His advice to aspiring authors writing about a life-changing event? When you're telling your story, don't take too long to get to the main event.

"So many beginning writers think they should creep up on it through the back door," O'Brien said. "It's so easy to digress."

The author's other works include "Going After Cacciato," "If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home" and more. O'Brien, 66, said his current project is a book about his experiences as an older father with two young sons.

Sonya Sorich, 706-571-8516.

IF YOU GO

What: Presentation by Tim O'Brien, author of "The Things They Carried"

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Springer Opera House, 103 10th St., Columbus

Cost: Free

Information: southernliteraryfestival.com

Other free Southern Literary Festival events:

• Kevin Wilson, author of "The Family Fang," and Madge McKeithen, who wrote "Blue Peninsula," speak at 7:30 p.m. today, at CSU's Riverside Theatre Complex, 6 West 10th St.

• U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and poet Dan Albergotti give a Q&A at 10 a.m. Saturday followed by a reading at 11 a.m., at CSU's Riverside Theatre Complex, 6 West 10th St.

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