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Interview with The Things They Carried playwright Jim Stowell

An informal Q&A between Jeff Kamin and playwright Jim Stowell (The Things They Carried):

1. How did you decide what to edit/cut?

To start with I thought about how to change the book into a play. A play needs people talking and cannot live very long in the narrative voice. A play needs something happening and someone going through changes. A play needs characters you can care about. Otherwise who cares what happens to them?

I came up with what I considered six must have stories.
The Things They Carried
On the Rainy River
The Man I Killed
In the Field
Field trip
The Lives of the Dead

I ended up cutting all but one small part of The Lives of the Dead. I replaced it with Spin. I felt at that point in the play where Spin is placed the audience need a break. I knew what was coming next was going to be tough.

But, there were writing-script problems with Lives of the Dead as well. It is the kind of story that only worked at the end of the script. Through a long process–a couple of years–I came to feel this story was telling the auidence what to feel. That is a bad thing. I felt the story was, as we say in theater, pointing. I love this story. But what is best for the play? That is my basic question about evrything.

The remaining five stories are all what I call, “Timcentric.” The play is about Tim. I knew I wanted to focus on Tim. These five stories take up almost all the time I have as a playwright. I get at most 120 minutes. That is the outer limits of audience time. This play is 104 minutes and a few seconds. 52 minutes and some seconds per act.

So I have say, 105 minutes total to tell the story. Right away you know the vast majority of the book is not going to be in the play.

The five stories have movement. Young Tim before the war. Tim new to the war. Tim kills a man. His best friend  dies and he belives it is his fault. He returns to the scene and performs a ceremony. And the ceremony works. It is after the ceremony Tim says that he has resurfaced after two decades. And Tim says, “No. All that’s finished.”

2. Did you have contact with Tim O’Brien about it?

I did not. This November I met him in Chicago where he was receiving a major award. We had a short talk. Mostly I pitched the script while trying to look like I was not pitching my script. He took a copy and read it. He emailed me and said he liked it and now his job was to stand on the sideline and cheer me on. Writing books and plays two different things he said.

He is completly hands off. But we are in contact through email. I sent him notice of the opening and he got right back to me wishing me luck.

3. What would you cite as a major difference in your adaptation from the book?

The detail. All the other stories. These other stories give great depth and context to what is happening to/with Tim. But, simply no time. So, that is a very big difference.

In theater you/audience get the book in one go. Reading the book if something is getting a little too strong for you, you can put down the book. Not in a play. And a play has the human voice. The human voice is huge difference.

4. Is your Tim character meant to be a writer telling fictional stories in the play or is it just a fictional play and not about a book?

It’s more like he is Tim the writer going over a near final draft of his book.

I write by talking out loud. I edit out loud and write it down. I act out everything so this way of telling mixed with writing is natural for me. But I did not start with this in mind. In the script there is a break at the end of each story for a total of six breaks with a lights and music change. In fact, the script reads at those points–[Pause. Tim moves. Music.]–Nothng about writing. It was a last minute idea. I have no idea how Tim O’Brien writes.

5.  What have you carried and did you release anything writing the adaptation? 

What did I release? A lot. I have written 24 play. Counting TTTC I have written twelve one-man plays. I wrote and performed eleven of them. This is the first time I have not acted the role. I gave that up. I have written and directed twelve full cast plays and I directed eleven of them. So, I have always–by always I mean close to 50 years of doing live theater–I have always either written and directed or written and performed. This time I gave up both of those roles in the same play and was only the writer.

6. Can you speak to the story truth vs happening truth idea?

Story truth truer than happening truth. That describes my writing. That describes theater. Story truth is truer than happening truth in the theater. Years ago, before I had ever read Tim’s book, I used to teach a workshop and tell the story from a play about a trip I took to Brazil. Then I told the story of what happened.
Over the years when people would ask me if the stories I told in my one-man plays were true I would ask, “Did you beleive it?”

As a young actor one day a scary director yelled at me, “Oh for Christ sake stop Acting” I didn’t know what to do. I was onstage rehearsing a play. I thought I was suppose to be acting. But now I had to stop. So, I kind of turned to glop. Within seconds the director yelled, “Oh for Christ sake, ACT!” I thought my brain was going to explode. Within a year I knew just what the director meant. So, the apparent illogical, backwards thinking of saying, “Story truth can be truer than real, happening truth” makes clear sense to me.

Tim says, “…You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.”

Usually the stuff you invent/imagine is part of an idea the writer has about why they are telling this story. Some idea, something, that is driving/pushing the writer. The “inventing” part is also part instinct and part surprise to the writer. As a writer you often know where you are going but have no idea where you are.

7.  What did you learn adapting The Things They Carried for the stage?

I learned a lot about writing from Tim O’Brien. I learned a skill for my work. How to adapt a book for the stage. This part of the learning is very important to me.  I love writing. Learning from Tim has been a joyful process. Theater is my work and my life. I love theater so learning a new skill is also a joyful process. Difficult, yes. This story and this script means spending hundreds of hours with the guys in the book. I had to see all the images in the book many, many times. I had to go through the emotions in the book. To the best of my abilities. But that is a part of my work.

Working on a story like this one is truly a journey into the soul of man. So, it follows that it becomes a journey into my soul. Working on a story like this one is why I keep doing theater.

Thanks for coming to the play. And please thank everyone who came from me.

The Things They Carried was our March 2014 pick for Books & Bars to coincide with the debut play which runs at The History Theatre through April 6.

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When: May 13, 2020 07:00 PM Central Time (US and Canada)

Register in advance for this meeting:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

You are invited to a Zoom meeting.
When: May 27, 2020 07:00 PM Central Time (US and Canada)

Register in advance for this meeting:

June: The 7 1/2 Deaths or Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

July: Circe by Madeline Miller

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Book Swap in December

Book swapping

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Book swapping or book exchange is the practice of a swap of books between one person and another. Practiced among book groups, friends and colleagues at work, it provides an inexpensive way for people to exchange books, find out about new books and obtain a new book to read without having to pay. Because swaps occur between individuals, without central distribution or warehousing, and without the copyright owner making a profit, the practice has been compared to peer-to-peer (P2P) systems such as BitTorrent[1] — except that hard-copy original analog objects are exchanged.


Sounds good. Let’s bring books to swap to all our December meetings. I’ll have at least 5 trades at each show. Impress me by bringing Thousand Autumns by David Mitchell or others on my wish list.

I’ll think we’ll bring our books up to the stage during the pre-show social happy hour and leave with new books.

Should be fun and free. Thanks.

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Short trailer

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Watch our TV Demo Reel

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Jonathan Tropper video chat

Jonathan Tropper video chatted with us 10/12/10. He was  hiding out in someone’s office while ditching a community meeting of some sort. He was funny, gracious and really likable.  Not sure if he was wearing cheap colored contacts.

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Stephen Elliott video chat

Thanks to Stephen for a lively and informative video chat on 2/8.
He said we broke his Skype cherry and it was amazing.

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Happy New Year and New Bar


Friends of Books & Bars,

Thank you all for your support of Books & Bars this past year. It’s been a rewarding collaboration for me and I hope you, too. Here’s looking ahead to our continued successes and potential team efforts in 2011 and beyond. It may seem like a one man job to many outsiders, but I know I couldn’t do it without your help.

This February will mark 7 years of the Twin Cities’ biggest open book club! We will finish a really successful run at Bryant Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater on February 8th. We appreciate all of the efforts of Kristin Van Loon and her staff.

We’ll continue our twice monthly shows through April at the Aster Cafe and then move to once a month at the Aster Cafe until the Fall.

Our potential plan:
Nov – Apr – 2x/mo
May – Oct 1x/mo

We’ll continue to have authors video chat with us (Jess Walter and Stephen Elliott are scheduled for Jan/Feb.)
with a new emphasis on having the author with us in person when possible. April 26th we’ll have Peter Bognanni at our discussion at the Aster Cafe. Publishers, send us your author tour availabilities, ARCs, and pitches for future picks.

Our book club members continue to enjoy excellent specials at the Aster Cafe like $2 PBR tall boys, $3 Fulton beer, $3 house wines and sangria and cheese plates and no entrees over $10 at our new home, Aster Cafe at St. Anthony Main, overlooking the Mississippi River and downtown. We look forward to taking our show outside and enjoying the patio, weather permitting.

Magers & Quinn has been our bookseller sponsor since 2005. Our book picks are sold at a discount to us at our meetings and in the best independent book store in Minneapolis. The extra efforts of Jay, David and Mary have helped keep our book picks selling well, usually about 75 copies each.

Metro Magazine is our media sponsor running beautiful color ads in print and on-line. We thank Dena for partnering with us this year after our good run with The Onion was done.

We’re hoping to have more Twin Cities’ literary events and work together to keep ideas fresh and vibrant and the printed word alive.
Keep reading. Keep us in mind for collaborations.

I welcome your comments and input and continued help in bringing in new friends and life to our vibrant group. Thanks again.

Happy New Year!

Jeff Kamin
Books & Bars

# # #

For more information or to schedule an interview, please call or e-mail Jeff Kamin,
For reservations, call Aster Café: 612-379-3138.

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Lev Grossman video chat/interview: The Magicians

Books & Bars video chatted with Lev Grossman about The Magicians on July 13, 2010. See our three part video series from our event on (spoiler alert!)

Lev Grossman is the book critic for Time magazine and used to prefer Marvel Comics over DC, but now reads them both. He’s written the novels Warp, Codex and The Magicians. And is enjoying our pop culture rebirth and acceptance of fantasy into the mainstream. After our book club video chat with Lev, I asked him a few more questions:

Qs /Jeff Kamin: How much of Prospero did you put into Quentin? Both are magicians, both have a love of books, of stories. The Magicians opens with a quote from The Tempest, Prospero’s declaration that he is finished with magic, lines that foreshadow Quentin’s actions later in The Magicians. One way (my favorite) to read The Tempest is to view Prospero as Shakespeare and the magic as his playwriting or storytelling.

Lev Grossman: The (unsatisifying) answer is, some. Prospero is of course a lot older than Quentin. He’s a father. He’s approaching the final phase of his life. His mood is elegiac. Quentin isn’t even a man yet. He’s young and raw. But they do have in common that they’re both trying to come to terms with the personal consequences of practicing magic in the world, which aren’t entirely good or uncomplicated.

Q: So much of what Quentin wanted out of magic was to make real the stories he loved so much. What sort of connection do you see between The Tempest and The Magicians, especially in regard to storytelling as magic?

A: Prospero lives on a kind of fantasy island, into which his real life intrudes in the form of his usurping brothers. Quentin is in the opposite position, of leaving his ‘real’ life and pushing into fantasy. But they’re both thinking about the difference between your life and the story you tell yourself about your life. They resemble each other, but they’re not the same thing.

Q: Why was Plover “diddling” Martin? Was that a reference or allusion to any children author scandals? Was it to make Martin somewhat sympathetic? You can skip this if it’s too weird.

A: It’s not too weird. But it’s not an allusion to anything. I just liked the idea that you can never really exhaust the explanation for why something happened, and why a person is a certain way. Just when Quentin thinks it’s all over, that he knows everything about Martin Chatwin and the disaster that has befallen him and his friends, he realizes that there’s more to it. There’s a first cause beyond the first cause. And he gets a glimpse of the fact that you never get to the bottom of anything. And why did Plover diddle Martin? We don’t know. As Russell would say (or Professor March) It’s turtles all the way down.

Q: You’ve said there is no big baddie or ultimate evil like a Voldemort or Sauron but what about the all powerful Questing Beast as an ultimate good force? Is the Questing Beast an easy way out, an answer all? Just a device to get Quentin back to the real world?

A: The Questing Beast definitely isn’t a force for good. He’s the servant of whoever captures him. He’s a nonaligned power, a mercenary, basically, for whoever can catch him. (Thank god Martin didn’t.)

He is of course also an allusion to the White Stag at the end of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Pevensies never catch the White Stag, so by having Quentin catch it I felt (in my small, petty way) that I was one-upping C.S. Lewis.

Q: “In different ways they had both discovered the same truth: that to live out childhood fantasies as a grown-up was to court and wed and bed disaster.” Re: Emily Greenstreet and Quentin, near the end of the story. — Do you think this is always the case? Can you think of times when childhood fantasies become realized as an adult and actually work out okay? Aren’t any of your childhood fantasies being realized for you now as a creator or words and worlds for others? Or, Lev, are you currently courting disaster now?

A: Keep in mind that this is depressed Quentin speaking, the Quentin who has given up magic. It’s not the narrator, or even Quentin at his best. My true feeling is that fantasies are never what you think they’re going to be, they’re never that simple or that purely good, but honestly if you don’t try to live out your fantasies, what’s the point of anything?

Q: Did you realize at some point while writing this one that Quentin was not going to find what he was looking for (i.e., grow up), and that the story would have to continue? At what age do you think someone “grows-up” these days? Are we all just faking it?

A: The truth is, I think Quentin did grow up. Which meant, to a certain extent, learning to be satisfied with not ever finding out exactly what he was looking for. Though that doesn’t mean his story’s over.

I do believe growing up is a real thing, by the way, and not just pop-psychological junk. I don’t know when most people grow up, but I’d say it happened for me at about 37.

Q: Do you hope to see a film version of The Magicians? Do you have any ideal casting ideas or creative people you’d like to collaborate with on it?

A: I’ve talked to some people about a TV version. A lot of people, actually. The stars haven’t quite aligned yet, but I can imagine something very cool. Like Buffy maybe, but with a bit of a harder edge to it.

Q: Have you ever been in a book club? What’s your take on them? Good and bad.

A: Oh sure. I’m currently in a book club. The rule is, we only read YA novels. It’s great — we just read the Hunger Games novels. The only times it sucks are when I don’t read the books and drink too much chardonnay in order to conceal that fact.

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