In 1968, Tim O'Brien was drafted into the Army at the age of 21. In February 1969, he arrived in Vietnam. After returning home, O'Brien became a reporter for The Washington Post and in 1973, he published his debut novel If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.
This American novelist continued depictions of the Vietnam War era both through fiction and nonfiction. His books include the National Book Award-winning "Going After Cacciato" (1978), the Pulitzer Prize finalist "The Things They Carried" (1990), his more recent novel, "July, July" (2002).
His books appear on numerous high school and college reading lists. Critics have hailed him as the author of rare works that have helped to define Vietnam and the experiences of war.
Tim O’Brien continues his contributions to military personnel, their families, and students through his writing and in traveling to speak with them when possible.
Here is a portion of that 2013 interview:
How many of your books have been related to Vietnam? Three were related directly, but all of them contain something about that era of a country divided, riots in the street, great contention among families, the whole musical revolution, women’s revolution, and civil rights revolution… an era.
You wrote some of these works 10 and even 20 years after your own experience. Did it take you that long to deal with what you saw before you could share? I think distance and objectivity was necessary, in my case, to write a book that would last. I needed to distance myself, to allow my imagination to reorganize and reinterpret material that was so close to me that it was difficult to separate what would be important for the story, what a reader would need and what they would not. In the end, stories have to be about squeezing the heart.
How do you think your books are beneficial to people who had no personal or “hands on experience” such as students in school today who are reading one of your works? I always try to tell a good story. A book is a unified thing, a work of art, shape, harmony, pace, and it’s entertaining, with swells of emotion, happiness, laughter, sadness, meaningfulness. That’s how life is. It’s not all one thing, and that means finding the right proportions for a book and trying to make it feel unified like a single artistic whole such as with a finished painting. By telling a story, you have this magical thing that happens. Some readers may be lying in bed at night, and the story just grips them. It’s not just something foreign or distant, removed from their experience. It becomes very personal, almost like dreaming. The real magic in getting someone to identify with something as foreign as a war might be is through a story of human beings, idiosyncratic, different voices struggling with a common problem like how to survive.
What do you hope is the most important quality or lesson that people take from your work? Story. It’s one thing to watch a newscast, or read a newspaper or a magazine article, where things are fairly abstract. In fact, the word war itself has a kind of abstraction to it that conjures up visions of bombs and bullets and so on. My goal is to try to capture the heart, stomach, and back of the throat readers who can participate in the story. They are not just observing it. The comments that mean the most to me are basically when people tell my own story back to me. That means they remembered it, it’s become part of who they are, and the detail of recollections is often astonishing. They often remember details I’ve forgotten. That’s what matters to me in the end. Whether it’s some high school kid, housewife, or even an executive in New York lying in bed at night, they are all in my story and if they finish, that means they liked it enough to keep going.
Where is the best place for people to find out more about you? I would think the library or internet, is the easiest place to learn more. I don’t have a website. A woman runs one on me, but I don’t think it’s very up to date. Every now and then she writes me and asks questions. But, someone told me that if you google my name and write novel, you’ll get ten thousand things you can look up. I would never do that. It would be too embarrassing. It’s like listening to yourself on a tape. It gives me the willies.