Meeting Tim O’Brien

Last Thursday, I had the honor of meeting Vietnam veteran and novelist Tim O’Brien.

Now, first things first: I honestly had never heard of Tim O’Brien before my invitation to attend a private reception for him at the Bone Student Center.  I obviously needed to read one of his books before talking with him, so I got in touch with a few friends and they quickly suggested I start with O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

I ran to my nearest bookstore and picked up a copy.  It astounded me!  O’Brien writes mostly about his Vietnam experiences, but he calls his work fiction, and so therefore the reader never quite knows what “really” happened and what he’s fabricated. 

The Things They Carried utilizes such potent emotional honesty and simple, vivid imagery that it really does haunt me still to this day.  O’Brien cuts to the core of what most of us are really like beneath are words and gestures.  When the chips are down, when we’re called upon to rise above, O’Brien knows how most of us (admittedly himself included) will honestly react. 

His stories dig deep because we see ourselves in each of his characters, and most of us know that if we were put in the place of those characters, the end results would probably remain the same.

I’m looking forward to reading more from Tim O’Brien, but this isn’t a book review, so I’ll move along to meeting the man.

Armed with my (read) copy of The Things They Carried, I put on my best formal-but-not-too-formal outfit, grabbed an umbrella to ward off that day’s never-ending rain, and headed out.  It had been a rough one with the baby that afternoon, so I was both a bit frazzled and running a little late.  When I arrived at the Founders’ Suite in the Bone Student Center, I walked in, realized I had my book in a grocery bag to protect it from the rain, and walked right back out to find a garbage can. 

Good start, huh?

On the second take, I walked in and was quickly greeted by Toni Tucker-the event organizer-and her coworkers and interns.  These friendly faces immediately helped relax me, and so I talked a bit with them, slapped on my nametag, propped my umbrella against the wall, and made my way into the main room where several people surrounded Mr. O’Brien and were having a pleasant conversation. 

Mr. O’Brien wore a black suit with a red tie and his ever-present baseball cap (which was navy blue, if you’re interested). 

I glided right past he and his group and made my way to the tasteful wine bar.

Perhaps now would be the time to mention I get very nervous in general about a lot of things, but especially among people whose work I admire.  For instance, when I met Michael Chabon in Chicago several months ago, I sounded like a total moron. 

I hoped I would do better with Tim O’Brien.

I didn’t.

So anyway, I approached the wine bar, asked for and took the bartender’s suggestion since I know nothing about wine, then grabbed the nearest wall where I could watch and listen to Tim O’Brien’s conversation without a chance of actually being drawn into it.

Pretty soon one of Toni Tucker’s coworkers approached me and we had a nice talk, mostly about Elie Wiesel’s visit from a few weeks before.  Then Toni herself appeared and asked me why I hadn’t spoken to Mr. O’Brien yet.  My heart started racing and I muttered something about not wanting to overwhelm him with too many people, and she quickly scoffed at me and led me right up to the man.

My mind emptied like an aboveground swimming pool full of bullet holes.

I mumbled how thankful I was for his coming to visit us in Central Illinois, and he politely said it was his pleasure.  Toni then asked if he’d sign my book, which he nicely agreed to do.  As he was signing, my chronic verbal diarrhea attacked and I began talking about how happy I was to make it to his reception, that I’d been elbow-deep in poo-bombs all day with my baby girl, and I just wasn’t sure if she’d settle down enough for me to leave her.

When Mr. O’Brien heard the word “poo,” I got the look.

I knew it well.

Michael Chabon had given it to me several months before.

And like with Michael Chabon, I kept talking.  And talking.  My brain yelled “STOP TALKING!” but my mouth wouldn’t comply.

He handed my book back to me, smiled, shook my hand, and then I wished him luck with his talk that night.  Afterwards, I moped away, cursing my incessant need to talk about nothing when I get nervous.

I spent the rest of the reception talking with a former coworker, his father, and some other nice people all-the-while wishing I had been more articulate and intelligent when meeting Mr. O’Brien.

When I got home from the reception I discovered my daughter had developed a red bump on her tongue during my absence, which thankfully turned out to be nothing.

An hour later, I left for ISU again to listen to Mr. O’Brien’s address at Braden Auditorium after my wife assured me she and baby would be fine.  Toni had kindly given me front row tickets, so I settled in next to my former coworker and his father and thoroughly enjoyed Mr. O’Brien’s talk.

He mostly told stories to illustrate his points about writing and life, and he was both hilarious and full of gravitas at the same time.  This is not surprising considering his books are equally juxtaposed.

I think the words that affected me most deeply were that when we send men and women to war, especially when a draft is in effect, we’re essentially sending children out to slaughter children.  We teach them “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and then we toss them into combat and tell them you better kill somebody or we’ll throw you in jail.  We are a society of contradictions and that sort of thing has to catch up with us one day-if it hasn’t already.

He also warned us against anyone who deals in absolutism.  I’ve always been terrified of those people who see things from only one perspective without any willingness to consider another angle, and Mr. O’Brien solidified my fears.  Absolutes are the quickest way to war, and also the quickest way to make sure children slaughter other children.

But you have to understand that Mr. O’Brien was not pulling the self-righteous card.  He offered several instances when he did not act bravely.  He recounted an event where one of his fellow soldiers picked on an old, Vietnamese man and he didn’t intervene.  He spoke in great detail about killing an enemy soldier with a hand grenade whom he could have allowed to walk unknowingly by and how he still sees the man in his thoughts to this day.  He talked about many moments of insanity in Vietnam, and he also spoke about rare moments of true, moral fortitude. 

He was there, and he shared with us those things from Vietnam he still carries.

I found Mr. O’Brien exceedingly honest, humble, insightful, and engaging.  I’m so glad I got a chance to meet him and listen to his speech.  I’ve even almost forgiven myself for talking to him about “poo.”

While I was at his talk, the neighborhood’s power went out and my wife had been on her hands and knees crawling up the steps in search of a flashlight.  My daughter, never before subjected to complete darkness, was not handling the situation well.  Eventually they found a flashlight, the baby settled down, and after I got home we all sat together and waited for the electricity to return, which it did two hours later.

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Author Tim O’Brien Is Coming To Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University

Novelist Tim O’Brien will visit Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, for the 7th Annual Ames/Milner Visiting Author Program on October 23, 2008.
 
At 2:00 p.m. at the Illinois Wesleyan University Hanson Student Center, Mr. O’Brien will participate in a question and answer session.

At 7:00 p.m. in Braden Auditorium at Illinois State University, Mr. O’Brien will address the community with “An Evening with Tim O’Brien.”  A book signing will follow the event.
 
All events are free and open to the public.

Mr. O’Brien is a Vietnam veteran and calls upon that experience for many of his works.  He attended Harvard University and once worked for the Washington Post.

His books include:
If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973)
Northern Lights (1975)
Going After Cacciato (1978)
The Nuclear Age (1985)
The Things They Carried (1990)
In the Lake of the Woods (1994)
Tomcat in Love (1998)
July, July (2002)

For additional information contact Toni Tucker ttucker@ilstu.edu or (309) 438-7402.

“Think Higher. Feel Deeper.” – Elie Wiesel At Illinois State University

On October 7th I had the good fortune to spend the better part of the day and night learning from Elie Wiesel, acclaimed humanitarian and author of Night (among many other works).

I first attended his question and answer session at Milner Library from 3:30 to 4:30.  It was soon obvious that Mr. Wiesel, even at his advanced age, was by far the smartest person in the room.  He answered questions for a solid hour, and he did so gracefully, articulately, and honestly.  While his voice was frail, his words were powerful, and I think everyone in the room was deeply moved by his frank responses to a series of thoughtful questions.  Some paraphrased highlights among those answers include the fact that he would not comment on who he endorsed for the next presidency, but he added that he found American politics getting uglier with each passing decade-particularly the last thirty years.  He said he does not forgive Nazi Germany for the Holocaust, but he would always forgive an individual should they apologize.  He said he had more sympathy for the children of killers than anyone else, because they often carry the burden of their parents’ guilt.  He said that he did not think the world would ever learn to be peaceful, because if it hadn’t learned from the atrocities of the Holocaust, what could possibly make a difference now?  However, he amended that statement by saying we must never lose hope, and we must always strive to make a difference for the children in the world.  He emphasized the need to protect and care for humanity’s children, and then quoted Scripture about never standing idly by.

I’ve done a few question and answer sessions myself in regards to my writing, and I can tell you firsthand it is both exhausting and stressful.  You must keep on your toes with your impromptu responses and hope you don’t come off sounding like an imbecile.  Mr. Wiesel’s probably answered the same general questions a thousand times, but all of his replies sounded genuine, original, and produced specifically for that person asking the question.  He never appeared nervous, and he truly had a calming presence that I found quite unique.    

At the end of the question and answer session, they asked that we all remain in place while he was escorted out of the room by security.  I would learn later that evening by his candor that many in the world find his honesty threatening and would seek to harm him.

Consequently, I was amazed by how many people showed up at Milner Library for his question and answer session; however, that wonderful turnout was nothing compared to his presentation later that evening at the Bone Student Center …

We arrived at Braden Auditorium in the Bone Student Center around 6:15 p.m. for his 7:00 p.m. address.  The center teemed and we were lucky to find seats in the very last row of the main level.  As we sat for forty-five minutes, people kept flooding in, and my heart burst with pride in the people of Central Illinois.  So many showed up to listen to this man, there literally weren’t enough seats in the mammoth auditorium which can hold almost 3500 people.  Can you imagine?  On a rainy Tuesday night?  My faith in people’s respect for intellectualism quadrupled that night.

When Mr. Wiesel appeared on stage, he sat at a simple table with a white cloth covering it and a single microphone.  His security flanked him on either side in the shadows, for he had a single spotlight shining down upon him.  The auditorium remained well-lit, so everywhere you looked you saw thousands of people hanging upon his every word.

This time Mr. Wiesel offered a prepared talk, though he sprinkled some tidbits from his afternoon at Milner Library into it.  He spoke again about our responsibility to the children, that we must never stand idly by, and he reminded us that genocide still occurs in places like Myanmar, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Darfur.  He referenced Scripture often, focusing upon the story of Cain and Abel, and the ability brothers have to kill one another.  Totally humble, he spoke of meeting with world leaders, moderating peace talks, and addressing presidents.  He denounced racism, heavily criticized the leader of Iran, and spoke against fanatics who use religion as their excuse to propagate hatred and murder.  He reminded us that each and every person has the responsibility to help our fellow man, and as long as anyone in this world dies from hunger, we should all feel intense shame.  In the end, he left us with such simple and inspiring words-“Think higher.  Feel deeper.”

They announced Mr. Wiesel would sign books for half an hour, but with the thousands of people there, we knew it would be futile to even try.  I regretted that I wouldn’t get a copy of Night signed for my three-month-old daughter-one day to be a gift-but I understood that a man of his age who speaks so openly against those who think nothing of killing may not want to interact with the general public at a relatively unsecure location for too long.  In the end, even though I didn’t get a book signed to her, I can one day tell Emma all about the day Elie Wiesel came to Central Illinois, and that’s something to which I greatly look forward.

Again, words cannot describe how proud I am of the people who came out that night to see Mr. Wiesel.  When I think about one man who’s made such a difference in this world of ours encouraging each and every person in that room to resist the urge to stand idly by, it really fills my heart with joy. 

Learning from Mr. Wiesel was something I’ll forever cherish, and I thank him for coming to Illinois State University.  I also believe Toni Tucker of Illinois State University’s Milner Library deserves tremendous credit for bringing him to us as well.  It had to have been tremendously stressful for her, but she pulled it off fantastically.  Well done, Toni!

It has not yet been even twenty-four hours since listening to Mr. Wiesel, so my brain is still bustling with excitement.  If there’s anything you’d like to know-anything I may have omitted-please don’t hesitate to ask a question in the comments or email me at scottwilliamfoley@gmail.com.

For local newspaper coverage, follow the links:
Pantagraph
Daily Vidette

Article In The Daily Vidette About My Appearance At Milner Library

Joanna Pelletier, staff writer for Illinois State University’s The Daily Vidette, wrote an article about my appearance yesterday at Milner Library’s panel discussion on publishing.  Authors Adam Decker and Patti Lacey also took part in the event organized by Toni Tucker and her staff at Milner Library.

To read the article, click HERE.

Thanks To Toni Tucker And Milner Library

Yesterday I took part in a panel discussion on publishing at Milner Library.  The other authors were Patti Lacy and Adam Decker, and, judging from all the notes I saw the audience taking, the three of us offered some diverse and informative ideas and experiences about the world of print.  I know I learned a few new things from my fellow authors as well!

I wanted to specifically thank Toni Tucker and her staff at Milner Library for inviting me to take part in such a fun discussion and for working so hard to promote a very well-organized event.

Here are some links to get to know Milner, Patti, and Adam:

Milner Library

Patti Lacy

Adam Decker

Come See Me This Tuesday At Milner Library

Don’t forget that I’ll be part of a panel discussion on publishing this coming Tuesday at Milner library from 2:00-3:00 p.m.  After the discussion I’ll have a book signing where EACH of my books will be on sale for only $10.00!  Hope to see you there!

September 23rd, 2008
2:00-3:00 p.m.
“A Conversation With Newly Published Authors”
Milner Library – Main Floor
Illinois State University,  Normal  IL
FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC