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 form?
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 it.
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.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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