Tim O'Brien (author)

Last updated

Tim O'Brien
Tim Obrien 2023 Texas Book Festival.jpg
O'Brien at the 2023 Texas Book Festival
BornWilliam Timothy O'Brien Jr.
(1946-10-01) October 1, 1946 (age 77)
Austin, Minnesota, U.S.
  • Novelist
  • short story writer
  • teacher
Alma mater
GenreMemoirs, war stories, short stories
Years active1973–present
Notable works
SpouseMeredith Baker
Military career
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branchFlag of the United States Army.svg  United States Army
Years of service1968–1970
Rank Army-USA-OR-05.svg Sergeant
Unit3rd Platoon, Company A, 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment
198th Infantry Brigade
Battles/wars Vietnam War
Awards Purple Heart ribbon.svg Purple Heart

Tim O'Brien (born October 1, 1946) is an American novelist who served as a soldier in the Vietnam War. Much of his writing is about wartime Vietnam, [1] and his work later in life often explores the postwar lives of its veterans. [2]


O'Brien is perhaps best known for his book The Things They Carried (1990), a collection of linked semi-autobiographical stories inspired by his wartime experiences. [3] In 2010, The New York Times described it as "a classic of contemporary war fiction." [4] [5] O'Brien wrote the war novel, Going After Cacciato (1978), which was awarded the National Book Award.

O'Brien taught creative writing, holding the endowed chair at the MFA program of Texas State University–San Marcos every other academic year from 2003 to 2012.


Early life

Tim O'Brien was born in Austin, Minnesota on October 1, 1946, [6] the son of William Timothy O'Brien and Ava Eleanor Schultz O'Brien. [1] When he was ten, his family –including a younger brother and sister– moved to Worthington, Minnesota. Worthington had a large influence on O’Brien's imagination and his early development as an author. The town is on Lake Okabena in the southwestern part of the state and serves as the setting for some of his stories, especially those in The Things They Carried .

Military service

O'Brien earned his BA in 1968 in political science from Macalester College, where he was student body president. 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, part of the 23rd Infantry Division (the Americal Division) that contained the unit that perpetrated the My Lai Massacre the year before his arrival. 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]

First book published

Upon completing his tour of duty, O'Brien went to graduate school at Harvard University. Afterward he received an internship at the Washington Post . In 1973 he published his first book, a memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home , 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."

Personal life

As of 2010 O'Brien lived in central Texas, raising a family and teaching 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. [8]

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

Writing style

In the story "Good Form," from his collection of semi-autobigraphical stories, The Things They Carried, O'Brien discusses the 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." O’Brien suggests that story truth is emotional truth. In turn, the emotions created by a fictional story are sometimes truer than what results from only reading the facts.

This demonstrates one aspect of O’Brien's writing style: a blurring of the usual distinction we make between fiction and reality, in that the author uses details from his own life, but frames them in a self-conscious or metafictional narrative voice.

By the same token, 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. [9] This is another example of how O’Brien blurs the traditional distinctions we make between fact and fiction.

Personal views on the Vietnam War

While O'Brien does not consider himself a spokesman for the Vietnam War, he has occasionally commented on it. Speaking years later about his upbringing and the war, O'Brien described his hometown as "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." [10]

Contrasting the continuing American search for U.S. MIA/POWs in Vietnam with the reality of the high number of Vietnamese war dead, he describes the American perspective as

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. [11]

O'Brien was interviewed for Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War as well as Ken Burns's 2017 documentary series The Vietnam War.

Awards and honors

Selected bibliography




Other works

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Frank Herbert</span> American science-fiction author (1920–1986)

Franklin Patrick Herbert Jr. was an American science-fiction author, best known for his 1965 novel Dune and its five sequels. He also wrote short stories and worked as a newspaper journalist, photographer, book reviewer, ecological consultant, and lecturer.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">James Jones (author)</span> American writer

James Ramon Jones was an American novelist renowned for his explorations of World War II and its aftermath. He won the 1952 National Book Award for his debut novel, From Here to Eternity, which was adapted for film a year later and made into a television series a generation later.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Antony Beevor</span> English military historian (born 1946)

Sir Antony James Beevor, is a British military historian. He has published several popular historical works, mainly on the Second World War, the Spanish Civil War, and most recently the Russian Revolution and Civil War.

<i>The Things They Carried</i> 1990 short story collection by Tim OBrien

The Things They Carried (1990) is a collection of linked short stories by American novelist Tim O'Brien, about a platoon of American soldiers fighting on the ground in the Vietnam War. His third book about the war, it is based upon his experiences as a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division.

<i>Going After Cacciato</i> 1978 novel by Tim OBrien

Going After Cacciato is an anti-war novel written by Tim O'Brien and first published by Delacorte Press in 1978. It won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. O'Brien himself says that "Going After Cacciato is a war novel. However, this is a controversial idea due to the fact that the book is about a soldier going AWOL."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Denis Johnson</span> American novelist and poet (1949–2017)

Denis Hale Johnson was an American novelist, short-story writer, and poet. He is perhaps best known for his debut short story collection, Jesus' Son (1992). His most successful novel, Tree of Smoke (2007), won the National Book Award for Fiction. Johnson was twice shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Altogether, Johnson was the author of nine novels, one novella, two books of short stories, three collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage. His final work, a book of short stories titled The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, was published posthumously in 2018.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder was an American author of books for children and young adults. Three of Snyder's works were named Newbery Honor books: The Egypt Game, The Headless Cupid and The Witches of Worm. She was most famous for writing adventure stories and fantasies.

<i>In the Lake of the Woods</i> 1994 novel by Tim OBrien

In the Lake of the Woods (1994) is a novel by the American author Tim O'Brien. In the Lake of the Woods follows the struggle of Vietnam veteran John Wade trying to deal with a recently failed campaign for the United States Senate. After moving to Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota, John discovers one morning that his wife, Kathy, is missing. Through flashbacks to John's childhood, college years, and war experiences, as well as testimony and evidence from affected characters, the novel provides several hypotheses for Kathy's disappearance, without resolving the question.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Anthony Swofford</span> American writer and former U.S. Marine

Anthony Swofford is an American writer and former U.S. Marine, best known for his 2003 book Jarhead, based heavily on his accounts of various situations encountered in the Persian Gulf War. This memoir was the basis of the 2005 film of the same name, directed by Sam Mendes.

Henry Barrett Tillman is an American author who specializes in naval and aviation topics in addition to fiction and technical writing.

A vignette is a French loanword expressing a short and descriptive piece of writing that captures a brief period in time. Vignettes are more focused on vivid imagery and meaning rather than plot. Vignettes can be stand-alone, but they are more commonly part of a larger narrative, such as vignettes found in novels or collections of short stories.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Joseph L. Galloway</span> American newspaper correspondent and columnist (1941–2021)

Joseph Lee Galloway was an American newspaper correspondent and columnist. During the Vietnam War, he often worked alongside the American troops he covered and was awarded a Bronze Star Medal in 1998 for having carried a badly wounded man to safety while he was under very heavy enemy fire in 1965. From 2013 until his death, he worked as a special consultant for the Vietnam War 50th anniversary Commemoration project run out of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and has also served as consultant to Ken Burns' production of a documentary history of the Vietnam War broadcast in the fall of 2017 by PBS. He was also the former Military Affairs consultant for the Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers and was a columnist with McClatchy Newspapers.

<i>If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home</i> 1973 book by Tim OBrien

If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home is an autobiographical account of Tim O'Brien's tour of duty in the Vietnam War. It was published in 1973 in the United States by Delacorte and in Great Britain by Calder and Boyars Ltd. It has subsequently been reprinted by multiple publishers under both titles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fiction</span> Narrative with imaginary elements

Fiction is any creative work, chiefly any narrative work, portraying individuals, events, or places that are imaginary or in ways that are imaginary. Fictional portrayals are thus inconsistent with history, fact, or plausibility. In a traditional narrow sense, "fiction" refers to written narratives in prose – often referring specifically to novels, novellas, and short stories. More broadly, however, fiction encompasses imaginary narratives expressed in any medium, including not just writings but also live theatrical performances, films, television programs, radio dramas, comics, role-playing games, and video games. The publishing industry divides fiction into adult fiction, young adult fiction, new adult fiction, and children's fiction.

PEN/Faulkner Foundation is an independent charitable arts foundation which supports the art of writing and encourages readers of all ages. It accomplishes this through a number of programs, including its flagship PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, one of the premier fiction awards in America; the PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction; and a number of educational and reading series programs. Since 1983 the Foundation's administration is housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. The Foundation was established in 1980 by National Book Award winner Mary Lee Settle. Novelist Robert Stone served as the Chairman of the PEN/Faulkner Board of Directors for over thirty years beginning in 1982.

Philip Douglas Beidler was a professor of American literature at the University of Alabama, and the author and editor of books on Alabama literature, the Vietnam War, and other topics. For his work on Vietnam writers, he has been called "one of the founding fathers of Vietnam War studies."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kevin Powers</span> American novelist (born 1980)

Kevin Powers is an American fiction writer, poet, and Iraq War veteran.

<i>The Yellow Birds</i> 2012 novel by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds is the debut novel from American writer, poet, and Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers. It was one of The New York Times's 100 Most Notable Books of 2012 and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. It was awarded the 2012 The Guardian First Book Award, and the 2013 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.

<i>Redeployment</i> (short story collection) 2014 short story collection by Phil Klay

Redeployment is a collection of short stories by American writer Phil Klay. His first published book, it won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle's 2014 John Leonard Award given for a best first book in any genre.

<i>Northern Lights</i> (OBrien novel) 1975 novel by Tim OBrien

Northern Lights is the debut novel of Tim O'Brien. The novel, originally published in August of 1975, focuses on the relationship of two brothers. Much of the plot is set during a cross-country ski trip.


  1. 1 2 "Tim O'Brien &#124". Gale - Databases Explored.
  2. 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.)
  3. Conan, Neal (March 24, 2010). "'The Things They Carried,' 20 Years On". Talk of the Nation. NPR.
  4. Kakutani, Michiko (September 7, 2012). "Soldiering Amid Hyacinths and Horror". The New York Times.
  5. "Shorts". WNYC. March 21, 2010. Archived from the original on January 16, 2013.
  6. 1 2 "Tim O'Brien". Minnesota Author Biographies. Minnesota Historical Society. Archived from the original on December 31, 2014. Retrieved August 19, 2011.
  7. "Tim Obrien: A Storyteller For the War That Won't End". The New York Times. April 3, 1990.
  8. "Rising Star Tim O'Brien: Texas State University". Txstate.edu. August 19, 2010. Archived from the original on September 30, 2012. Retrieved September 14, 2011.
  9. "The Things They Carried". Spark Notes. Retrieved February 26, 2015.
  10. "Writing Vietnam – Tim O'Brien Lecture Transcript". Stg.brown.edu. April 21, 1999. Retrieved August 19, 2011.
  11. O'Brien, Tim (October 2, 1994). "The Vietnam in Me". The New York Times.
  12. "The New York Times: Book Review Search Article". archive.nytimes.com.
  13. Sewell, Dan (August 1, 2012). "Minn. native O'Brien wins prestigious literary lifetime achievement award". Star Tribune. Archived from the original on December 3, 2014.
  14. LLC, D. Verne Morland, Digital Stationery International. "Dayton Literary Peace Prize - Tim O'Brien, 2012 Recipient of the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award".{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. "Award announcement 2013". Pritzker Military Library Literature Award. June 25, 2013. Retrieved November 22, 2013.
  16. "Honorary Degrees | Whittier College". www.whittier.edu. Retrieved December 6, 2019.
  17. Young, John K. (January 15, 2017). How to Revise a True War Story. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. ISBN   1-60938-467-9.
  18. "Will the real Tim O'Brien please stand up?". LiteraryYard.com. March 29, 2013.
  19. Hawley, Noah (October 23, 2023). "Lying All the Way to the Bank in 'America Fantastica'". The New York Times. Archived from the original on October 23, 2023.
  20. "America Fantastica". HarperCollins.