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'Things They Carried' Back From Vietnam

May 31, 2010 (Fresh Air)

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U.S. Marines, wounded in the 1968 Battle for Hue

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There's nothing unusual these days about seeing the Vietnam War depicted in movies, television and books. But back when the subject of Vietnam was considered risky, novelist Tim O'Brien was writing about it.

O'Brien, who served as an infantryman in Vietnam, published his memoir about fighting in the war in 1973. He has gone on to write several novels about the war and its lasting effects, including In The Lake of the Woods and Going After Cacciato. He spoke with Terry Gross in 1990 about his classic book of stories, The Things They Carried, which had just been published (a 20th anniversary edition was published in March 2010). The collection of stories is tied together by a fictional narrator — also named Tim O'Brien — who is finding it difficult to have a meaningful life after the end of the war.

O'Brien told Terry Gross that he only carried a few scattered memories of the war with him.

"The way where if you picked up a photo album and paged through it, maybe seven or eight pictures would be really vivid and another 24 would be ones that you'd vaguely recollect," O'Brien said. "The rest of the album is empty. A lot of black, black pages. Which you'd expect, I think. Our memories leave us, but beyond that — a lot of the war was not memorable."

In 1979, O'Brien received the National Book Award for Going After Cacciato. He currently teaches creative writing at Texas State University-San Marcos.

This interview was originally broadcast March 22, 1990

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