So Tim O’Brien’s visit has come and gone. I had dinner with him Thursday night. I like the way that sounds like it was just the two of us, but it wasn’t. The class that studied him all semester was his primary companion, and the few of us teachers were mainly onlookers. But it was great to see him interact with the kids. We were also privy to a bit more of what he had to say, interesting answers to poignant questions. Basically we had more time.
He spent the entire next day at the school. We had a morning assembly where he delivered what was basically this address. When I talked to kids afterwards and they found this address on the net, many were pretty disappointed that he did not “bother” to come up with something new for them. I understand their feelings, and yet it is a lot expect that someone will personalize an address to a group of strangers. Regardless of whether it had been delivered previously or not, I really liked his talk. I loved his answers to the kids’ questions. And even though he often said he was side-stepping answering them, he usually got right at the heart of the questions with the best possible answer. His answers tended to be grey, and often that’s his whole point in his writing: truth exists in the shades of grey. The only negative point was when he said that you never find out the “answer” in the novel In the Lake of the Woods. Due to my ridiculous planning, I had not had my juniors complete the novel before he came. They were roughly 1/4 through the novel, so he more or less ruined it for them. Again, that’s not truly his fault.
In the evening, there was a faculty (and area teachers) dinner and reading. After the dinner, I got my chance to chat with him. He’s from Minnesota, and I really wanted to know how he felt being from Minnesota impacted his writing, though I never got the chance to directly ask him that. Many of his pieces are at least partially set in Minnesota. Clearly it affects him. He currently lives in Austin, TX, where my sister lives. I asked him if he’d take a package down there and he was obliging. We chatted a bit about Worthington, his hometown, and the Twin Cities. I told him I once spent a night in Worthington. He was shocked — asked what the hell I was doing in Worthington. I told him that my boyfriend’s grandmother had a house in Worthington, and we stayed for the weekend. He asked, “Wasn’t it boring?” in the kind of tone that means the responder should agree. I told him that since I hadn’t been from there, I thought it was quaint. I told him I didn’t remember much, that all I really remembered was that it was in a valley. He said that it’s not in a valley, that it is very flat. At about that moment, I figured I might have made a mistake. And I just looked it up on Google Maps, and it is 3.5 hours from Minneapolis. The place we went to, I think it was only an hour or so. My memory doesn’t serve me so well, so if anyone knows James Kraling, ask him for me where his grandmother’s house was — where we spent the weekend about, oh, ten years ago. It’s funny what memory does. I always imagine coming into the little town, which was quite rural, but had a “quaint” little town center, a Main St. with a pizza place — I imagine coming down into a valley from the side of a cliff. Well, a cliff is to steep, but in my memory we dive into a valley from up high. But I think I get that mixed up with a description I read in a novel a long time ago. The novel is Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo, and it has the beautiful and detailed description of the protagonist entering this “ghost” town (the town is literally inhabited by ghosts — if I recall correctly). And again, if I recall, there is a description of him entering on a winding path into a valley town. SO the image I have very well may be a fictitious image created partially by reality, a novel, and my own soft, brain tissue.
It’s funny how memory works like that. I have this very distinct memory of being around 4. We had our relatives at our house, aunt, uncles, cousins, grandparents, etc. I had already gone to bed, but I got up and came downstairs to the living room where everyone was, talking and laughing. I sat down on the carpet in front of my Aunt Pat, sitting with my legs in that upside-down W shape, and proceeded to pee on the carpet. Here’s the thing, I was in a crowded room, yet no one else remembers this. I most likely made it up, yet it is one of my most vivid childhood memories, complete with colors and sounds.
Nonetheless, O’Brien and I chatted about Macalester College, St. Paul, The Hungry Mind Bookstore that is no more, the Macalester Chapel where all the Hungry Mind readings were held, etc. I told him about my lovely neighborhood in MPLS, the cockroaches, etc. And then after the reading, when I got my book signed, he remembered my name. I felt special. I get very star-struck by authors. I really do.
His reading was also very good, though he was really tired. He read “A Letter to my Son” which caused him to break into almost tears. Then he read a piece from his latest novel July, July, which was also very good. Overall, it was a great event. Now my juniors are Deep into In the Lake of the Woods and I think they are getting a bit O’Brien’d out. This is the third text they’ve read by him this year. It is also a challenging and confusing text. Hopefully it will soon strike them.