Tim O'Brien discusses his comic-novel
Tomcat in Love
You said after finishing your last novel, In the Lake of the Woods,
that you would never write another novel. What changed your mind?
I did not set out to write another novel. One day I sat down with the thought of
trying my hand at a piece of nonfiction, a personal memoir of youth, but over
the next several weeks, without intending it, the work began evolving into what
has become Tomcat in Love. How this occurred I am not entirely sure. At
one point, I began inventing bits of dialogue, straying from a strict
representation of fact. At another point, after composing maybe fifteen pages, I
called my editor to ask if I might exaggerate a few incidents and invent other
incidents to strengthen the narrative and to fill in the gaps of a faulty
memory. Finally, several weeks later, I surrendered to my own imagination and
called my editor to confess that I was at work on a new novel.
The subject matter of this novel is serious: betrayal, the loss of love,
revenge, and redemption. How did you manage to write a comic novel about the
often painful obsession of love?
Yes, the raw materials of Tomcat in Love are serious in the extreme. And
I consider Tomcat a "serious novel"--just as serious, for instance, as
The Things They Carried or In the Lake of the Woods. Granted, the
form of my novel is comedic. But at the same time that humor is rooted in the
often painful realities of human experience. Witness the funny films of Woody
Allen. Witness the funny scenes in Catch-22 and Catcher in the Rye.
To call these works "unserious" is ridiculous. In any case, although Tomcat
in Love is in one respect a departure for me--I wanted to write a funny
book--it is no departure at all in the larger thematic sense. After all these
years as a writer, I am still snagged by the same old obsessions: the things we
do to win love, the things we will do to keep love, to love ourselves. The hero
of the narrative says, "All for love. All to be loved." We can laugh at this, or
we can cry. In this book, I wanted to laugh. Laughter does not deny pain.
Laughter--like a wail--acknowledges and replies to pain.
So, was this book a conscious attempt at different subject matter and
I wanted to tackle new subject matter, to write a different kind of novel. The
lightness of tone comes from the character I created. When I heard his voice in
my head I just ran with it. Writing is a lot like dreaming, and I just went with
You're thought of as the authority on literature of the Vietnam War.
What do you think your legion of fans will think of Tomcat in Love?
My real fans will love the book. There are so-called fans who are basically
Vietnam junkies, but the people who appreciate the writing will like this. I
think this is my best book and I hope they feel that way, too. If they don't,
I'm in trouble.
What are you most proud of in Tomcat in Love?
I suppose I am most proud of the sustained voice of Tom Chippering. That
imperious, equivocating, insensitive, self-justifying, long-winded, politically
incorrect voice--the guy is still chattering in my dreams.
The narrator, Thomas Chippering, is every woman's nightmare. How do you
think the book will be received by women?
Originally I thought it would make women very angry, but the response has been
better from women than men. They realize it's funny. The book is making fun of
the guy and guys like him. Every woman knows a Thomas Chippering. They're
everywhere. There's a little Thomas Chippering in everyone, including women.
What makes him act the way that he does?
This is a guy who desperately needs to be loved. Everyone acts stupid at some
time in order to be loved.
Who is the inspiration for him?
The inspiration for Tom Chippering? You.
First published in Bold Type 1998. Reproduced by
permission of Random House publishing.