The residents of Fort Smith’s diverse community -- from Vietnam veterans to college students to the city’s Vietnamese population -- will have a chance to read an acclaimed novel on the Vietnam War prior to the author coming to Fort Smith on March 12.
Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” was selected as the annual book for the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith’s ReadThis! program, and some readers will pick up the novel with no prior concept of the Vietnam War and its toll on the soldiers who fought in it.
While O’Brien doesn’t want to dictate how his best-selling novel is interpreted by the various individuals who read the book, he hopes “The Things They Carried” will inspire them to continue learning -- and reading -- about the conflict.
“The virtue is that I get so many letters from people that had no idea what [the Vietnam War] was at all, but now they have a feel for it, and they say they want to read more,” he said. “Whether they were frustrated by my book or loved my book, it made them want to say ‘I want to learn more.’ And that’s great.”
Readers will have a chance to learn more about O’Brien and his body of work when he comes to Fort Smith in March for “An Evening with Tim O’Brien,” a talk capping two months of ReadThis! events centered around his celebrated novel.
The speaking engagement will be held at 5:30 p.m. March 12 at the Stubblefield Center on UAFS campus and will be followed by a book signing. Admission is free and open to the public, but tickets are required and available through the UAFS Box Office.
“The Things They Carried” garnered praise from critics and readers alike upon its release in 1990. The New York Times said of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel: “By moving beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear…[O’Brien] places ‘The Things They Carried’ high up on the list of best fiction about any war.”
It was O’Brien’s sixth novel and one that was five years and thousands of hours of work in the making. O’Brien adhered to a strict work regimen while writing the novel, working on average from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. every day in an arduous grind of perpetual revision.
“To be a writer, you have to be really stubborn, almost like a donkey,” he said. “You don’t get done in a day or two days, or a year or two years, or sometimes even five years. It’s endless revision, endless criticism of oneself, endless rethinking.”
O’Brien, who was already a committed writer prior to serving in the Vietnam War, found the craft a perfect outlet to explore the emotions and occurrences he experienced overseas.
“I think going back to Vietnam and going back to the things they carried was necessary for me,” he said. “I’m not sure if it was entirely psychological, but it was more a feeling that there were so many other stories that were worth telling. And I think that’s probably what really pushed me to write this book.”
To have the novel selected for a community read is to O’Brien “a real honor.”
“It’s kind of a validation of a lifetime’s worth of work. To have so many people around the country reading ‘The Things They Carried’ and to have it chosen for a community read like this is unbelievable,” he said. “Very few writers get that, and it’s really neat to go to a town where so many people have read my book.”
After doing approximately 20 speaking engagements a year across the nation, O’Brien began to cut back on the amount of talks he gave due to its interference with his writing. Now he said he goes “where I want to go and to places I’ve never been before” -- hence Fort Smith.
“That’s why I’m going -- I’ve never been there,” said O’Brien. “I’ve only been in Arkansas twice in my life -- once was in Fayetteville 25 years ago. And I met smart people and good writers, so now I want to see another part.”
“An Evening with Tim O’Brien” will last approximately an hour and include O’Brien reading a short excerpt from “The Things They Carried” in addition to a prepared talk and a question-and-answer session.
Tickets, if available, can be acquired at the time of the event, but it is recommended to get them in advance. For tickets, contact the Box Office at 479-788-7300.