Tim O'Brien (author)

For other people of the same name, see Tim O'Brien (disambiguation).
Tim O'Brien

O'Brien at the 2012 Texas Book Festival.
Born William Timothy O'Brien
(1946-10-01) October 1, 1946
Austin, Minnesota, United States
Occupation Novelist, short story writer, teacher
Nationality American
Alma mater Macalester College
Harvard University
Genre Memoirs, war stories
Notable works Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried, If I Die in a Combat Zone
Years active 1973–present
Spouse Meredith Baker
Children Timmy O'Brien
Tad O'Brien

Military career

Allegiance  United States of America
Service/branch  United States Army
Years of service 1968–1970
Rank Sergeant
Unit 3rd Platoon, Company A, 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment
198th Infantry Brigade
Battles/wars Vietnam War
Awards Purple Heart

William Timothy "Tim" O'Brien (born October 1, 1946) is an American novelist best known for his work of fiction, The Things They Carried (1990), a critically acclaimed collection of semi-autobiographical, interrelated short stories inspired by O'Brien's experiences in the Vietnam War.[1][2][3] In addition, he is known for his war novel, Going After Cacciato (1978), also written about wartime Vietnam.[4]

O'Brien has held the endowed chair at the MFA program of Texas State University–San Marcos every other year since the 2003-2004 year (i.e. 2003-2004, 2005-2006, 2007-2008, 2009–2010, and 2011-2012).[5]

Life and career

O'Brien was born in Austin, Minnesota.[6] When he was seven, his family, including a younger sister and brother, moved to Worthington, Minnesota. Worthington had a large influence on O’Brien’s imagination and early development as an author. The town is located on Lake Okabena in the western portion of the state and serves as the setting for some of his stories, especially those in the novel The Things They Carried. He earned his BA in Political Science from Macalester College, where he was student body president, in 1968. That same year he was drafted into the United States Army and was sent to Vietnam, where he served from 1969 to 1970 in 3rd Platoon, Company A, 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment. He served in the division that contained a unit involved in the infamous My Lai Massacre. O'Brien has said that when his unit got to the area around My Lai (referred to as "Pinkville" by the U.S. forces), "we all wondered why the place was so hostile. We did not know there had been a massacre there a year earlier. The news about that only came out later, while we were there, and then we knew."[7]

Upon completing his tour of duty, O'Brien went on to graduate school at Harvard University and received an internship at the Washington Post. His writing career was launched in 1973 with the release of If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), about his war experiences. In this memoir, O'Brien writes: "Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories."

While O'Brien insists it is not his job or his place to discuss the politics of the Vietnam War, he does occasionally pass some basic commentary. Speaking years later about his upbringing and the war, O'Brien called his hometown "a town that congratulates itself, day after day, on its own ignorance of the world: a town that got us into Vietnam. Uh, the people in that town sent me to that war, you know, couldn't spell the word 'Hanoi' if you spotted them three vowels."[8] Contrasting the continuing American search for U.S. MIA/POWs in Vietnam with the reality of the Vietnamese war dead, he calls the American perspective "A perverse and outrageous double standard. What if things were reversed? What if the Vietnamese were to ask us, or to require us, to locate and identify each of their own MIAs? Numbers alone make it impossible: 100,000 is a conservative estimate. Maybe double that. Maybe triple. From my own sliver of experience — one year at war, one set of eyes — I can testify to the lasting anonymity of a great many Vietnamese dead."[9]

One attribute of O'Brien's work is the blur between fiction and reality; labeled "verisimilitude", his work contains actual details of the situations he experienced. Although this is a common literary technique, his conscious, explicit, and metafictional approach to the distinction between fact and fiction is a unique component of his writing style. In the chapter "Good Form" in The Things They Carried, O'Brien casts a distinction between "story-truth" (the truth of fiction) and "happening-truth" (the truth of fact or occurrence), writing that "story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth." Story truth is emotional truth; thus the feeling created by a fictional story is sometimes truer than what results from reading the facts. Certain sets of stories in The Things They Carried seem to contradict each other, and certain stories are designed to "undo" the suspension of disbelief created in previous stories; for example, "Speaking of Courage" is followed by "Notes", which explains in what ways "Speaking of Courage" is fictional.[10]

O'Brien's papers are housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

O’Brien writes and lives in central Texas, where he raises his young sons and teaches full-time every other year at Texas State University–San Marcos. In alternate years, he teaches several workshops to MFA students in the creative writing program.[5][11]

Awards and honors

O'Brien won the 1979 National Book Award for Going After Cacciato.[4] His novel In the Lake of the Woods won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction in 1995. In August 2012, O'Brien received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation's Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award.[12][13] In June 2013, O'Brien was awarded the $100,000 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award.[14]



  1. Conan, Neal (March 24, 2010). "'The Things They Carried,' 20 Years On". Talk of the Nation. NPR.
  2. Kakutani, Michiko (September 7, 2012). "Review of Kevin Powers' book The Yellow Birds, which cites The Things They Carried as a Vietnam Classic".
  3. "Shorts". WNYC. March 21, 2010.
  4. 1 2 "National Book Awards – 1979". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-29.
    (With essay by Marie Myung-Ok Lee from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  5. 1 2 "List of Endowed Chair holders". Texas State MFA Program.
  6. "Minnesota Author Biographies Project : mnhs.org". People.mnhs.org. Retrieved 2011-08-19.
  7. "Tim Obrien: A Storyteller For the War That Won't End". The New York Times. April 3, 1990.
  8. "Writing Vietnam – Tim O'Brien Lecture Transcript". Stg.brown.edu. 1999-04-21. Retrieved 2011-08-19.
  9. O'Brien, Tim (October 2, 1994). "The Vietnam in Me". The New York Times.
  10. "The Things They Carried". http://www.sparknotes.com. Spark Notes. Retrieved February 26, 2015. External link in |website= (help)
  11. "Rising Star Tim O'Brien: Texas State University". Txstate.edu. 2010-08-19. Retrieved 2011-09-14. – Author Tim O’Brien mentors the next generation of writers
  12. Sewell, Dan (August 1, 2012). "Minn. native O'Brien wins prestigious literary lifetime achievement award". Star Tribune.
  13. LLC, D. Verne Morland, Digital Stationery International,. "Dayton Literary Peace Prize - Tim O'Brien, 2012 Recipient of the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award".
  14. "Award announcement 2013". Pritzker Military Library Literature Award. June 25, 2013. Retrieved 2013-11-22.
  15. "WILL THE REAL TIM O'BRIEN PLEASE STAND UP?". LiteraryYard.com. March 29, 2013.
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