Tim O'Brien (author)

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Tim O'Brien
O'Brien at the 2012 Texas Book Festival
O'Brien at the 2012 Texas Book Festival
BornWilliam Timothy O'Brien
(1946-10-01) October 1, 1946 (age 76)
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
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1968–1970
RankArmy-USA-OR-05.svg Sergeant
Unit3rd Platoon, Company A, 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment
198th Infantry Brigade
Battles/warsVietnam War
AwardsPurple Heart ribbon.svg Purple Heart

William Timothy O'Brien (born October 1, 1946) is an American novelist. He is best known for his book The Things They Carried (1990), a collection of linked semi-autobiographical stories inspired by O'Brien's experiences in the Vietnam War.[1] In 2010, The New York Times described O'Brien's book as a Vietnam classic.[2][3] In addition, he is known for his war novel, Going After Cacciato (1978), also about wartime Vietnam, and later novels about postwar lives of veterans.[4]

O'Brien held the endowed chair at the MFA program of Texas State University–San Marcos every other academic year from 2003–2004 to 2011-2012 (2003–2004, 2005–2006, 2007–2008, 2009–2010, and 2011–2012).

Life and career[edit]

Tim O'Brien was born in Austin, Minnesota.[5] When he was ten, his family, including a younger sister and brother, 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.

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."[6]

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."

While O'Brien does not consider himself a spokesman about the 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."[7]

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.[8]

One attribute of O'Brien's work is the blur between fiction and reality; labeled "verisimilitude", his work contains details of the events he encountered. His conscious, explicit, and metafictional approach to blurring the distinction between fact and fiction is a unique aspect of his style. In the story "Good Form" in 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." He suggests that 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.[9]

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. He is raising a family 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.[10]

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[edit]


  • If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973)
  • Northern Lights (1975)
  • "Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?" (1975)
  • Going After Cacciato (1978) ISBN 9780385283496
  • The Nuclear Age (1985) ISBN 9780394542867
  • The Things They Carried (1990) ISBN 9780618706419
  • In the Lake of the Woods (1994) ISBN 9780140250947
  • Tomcat in Love (1998)
  • July, July (2002)[16]
  • Dad's Maybe Book (2019)


  1. ^ Conan, Neal (March 24, 2010). "'The Things They Carried,' 20 Years On". Talk of the Nation. NPR.
  2. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (September 7, 2012). "Soldiering Amid Hyacinths and Horror".
  3. ^ "Shorts". WNYC. March 21, 2010. Archived from the original on January 16, 2013.
  4. ^ a b "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. ^ a b "Tim O'Brien". Minnesota Author Biographies. Minnesota Historical Society. Retrieved August 19, 2011.
  6. ^ "Tim Obrien: A Storyteller For the War That Won't End". The New York Times. April 3, 1990.
  7. ^ "Writing Vietnam – Tim O'Brien Lecture Transcript". Stg.brown.edu. April 21, 1999. Retrieved August 19, 2011.
  8. ^ O'Brien, Tim (October 2, 1994). "The Vietnam in Me". The New York Times.
  9. ^ "The Things They Carried". Spark Notes. Retrieved February 26, 2015.
  10. ^ "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. – Author Tim O’Brien mentors the next generation of writers
  11. ^ "Writers Try to Make Sense Of the Vietnam-Book Boom".
  12. ^ 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.
  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 November 22, 2013.
  15. ^ "Honorary Degrees | Whittier College". www.whittier.edu. Retrieved December 6, 2019.
  16. ^ "Will the real Tim O'Brien please stand up?". LiteraryYard.com. March 29, 2013.

External links[edit]