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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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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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#Booksandbars Tweetup: Friday, July 16th, 6-8pm

Books & Bars welcomes you, the writers/readers/book lovers/publishers and book sellers of Minneapolis & St. Paul, to shake hands like Minnie and Paul. Let’s get together and exchange good cheer and ideas to keep our Twin Cities’ literary scene vibrant.

Join presenters PaperDarts Magazine, Replacement Press, John Jodzio and Jeff Kamin for a fun tweetup at the Storefront-in-a-Box, 2441 Lyndale Ave S., Mpls.

Friday, July 16th, 6-8pm
Bring your own beverages. (BYOB)

Peruse the art gallery and book exchange.
Have a book to trade? Bring it in and trade for another.
Make a new friend IRL.

Stick around for readings by: Ethan Rutherford, Maggie Ryan Sandford, Dennis Cass, and John Jodzio

Let’s do this thing.
Follow @Jefe23 on Twitter for updates.

RSVP to Facebook invite here.

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Blogshelf: Be Here Now 8/09

Be Here Now

Books & Bars enjoyed its biggest audience yet with 140 people in attendance to discuss Audrey Niffenegger’s smash hit, The Time Traveler’s Wife. We were fortunate to be invited to a larger venue, an art gallery named The Soap Factory. Our book club was part of an exhibit called Common Room based on large social gatherings. We made paper sculptures like the character Clare did in the novel and filled out card catalog info with blurbs, soundtrack suggestions and more related to Henry’s character.

Our discussion dealt with free will vs. fate and the metaphor of time travel.We felt the theme of the story was how lovers are not always in sync or even in the same place and time, but we should strive to be here now. Be present in the moment as it is all we really have for certain. Most of really enjoyed the book and more than a few had read it twice. (The movie is not so good, though. Imagine a flip book Cliffs Notes version of the book.)

Join Books & Bars’ Facebook group to see more photos of our event if interested.

Next month we read a lost classic, The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy.
Check out website ( for our list of upcoming possible selections. Feel free to make a recommendation.

Jeff Kamin
Moderator – Books & Bars

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Blogshelf 7/09: This is not my beautiful wife

This is not my beautiful wife
Do you trust the critics for your book club picks? I used to rely on them quite heavily for my book choices but am beginning to doubt that process as a viable option. If you’re interested in a new book and can’t get a positive word-of-mouth review from a friend, perhaps it’s more useful to depend on sites like or instead of paid published book critics. How do you make your book club choices?

Our 63rd selection was Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. Most of the major critics raved about it yet we found it to be lacking, derivative and boring. I had noticed the review drop from 4 to 3 stars soon after the paperback publication which was a sign to me that regular readers may have liked it less than critics.

To be fair, Galchen’s novel does deal with some interesting issues of an unreliable narrator, obsession, jealousy, lasting love, falling out of love, psychosis and enabling. But the purported mystery is not here. It’s obvious from the start the main character is suffering from a mental illness. By the half way point of the book you realize it’s not going to be Vertigo but mostly Harvey meets A Beautiful Mind. Then you have another half of the book to read to this foregone conclusion.
At its best the book captures that feeling summed up in the Talking Heads’ tune, Once in a Lifetime. You wake up one day and wonder how your life became what it is. You feel its not what you had planned yet here you are. How did you get here? What can you do? Is the person you fell in love with the same person today as they were ten years ago? Are we who we think we are or who others perceive us to be?

The critics raved. We read it. We were underwhelmed. What next? I’ll tell you.
Join us at The Soap Factory for a discussion of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. M+Q’s Jay D. Peterson and the West Bank Social Center’s Miranda Trimmier will be curating a number of large group literary games and activities before and after the discussion. Jeff Kamin (that’s me) – comedian and improv artist – will lead the book discussion, per usual.
This event is part of Common Room – a temporary curated gathering space within The Soap Factory designed to facilitate interactivity and the blurring of the boundaries between curators, performers and audience, all within in a casual, living room-esque environment.

I’ll be back next month to let you know about the book club as art exhibit.
– Jeff Kamin,
Twitter: Jefe23 Blog:

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Blog Vault: 6/9 Bonk

118 people were in attendance as Books & Bars covered Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex on 6/9. With twenty people over fire code capacity we had our largest crowd (sneaking in) according to the Bryant Lake-Bowl servers.
In discussing Bonk, I allowed (encouraged) double entendres and sexual innuendos but warned you could get a shouted “BONK!” from the audience if you used one in your comments. It was a lot of fun with a seemingly still taboo topic for some people. A majority of the conversation was devoted to masturbation, perhaps not surprisingly, in our group of mostly singles.
Overall we enjoyed Bonk, though we felt it a little unfocused and slight on some of its topics. It may be hard to believe but we were ready for a more in-depth and serious take on the subject matters of sexuality and science. We usually do only one non-fiction book a year in our club. Non-fiction serves as a jumping off point for discussions, which end up being less about the book/author and more about the topics presented. Not always a bad thing, in fact they’re usually heated and informative debates, but after an informal poll we’ll continue reading mainly fiction.

Take a few minutes to see the video for the funny payoffs toward the end.

Next month we discuss Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen.

Thanks for reading.
Jeff Kamin, moderator/director/writer

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