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Tim O Brien

Novelist Tim  O'Brien speaking in Hansen Student Center as part of the Seventh Annual Ames/Milner Visiting Author Program.

Author Tim O’Brien Speaks at Illinois Wesleyan

October 24, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Novelist Tim O’Brien made a confession.

When it comes to writing his many celebrated books, the author said has no set process in mind. “I’m more of a trial and error guy,” O’Brien said, adding that stories usually find him. “My novels are always born in what might be just a scrap of language – a bit of word spoken in the real world.” According to O’Brien, his Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel The Things They Carried was inspired by the phrase “This is true.”

“Out of those three words The Things They Carried was born,” he said. “I thought of how much is not true that we think of as true, how illusive truth is, and does it matter if a thing is true? What is truth?”

O’Brien spoke at Illinois Wesleyan University as part of the Seventh Annual Ames/Milner Visiting Author Program. A joint venture between Illinois Wesleyan’s The Ames Library and the Milner Library of Illinois State University (ISU), O’Brien presided over a question and answer period in Illinois Wesleyan’s Hansen Student Center in the afternoon, and spoke at ISU in the evening. 

The afternoon session was filled with anecdotes and stories from O’Brien. “Sorry, I tend to answer questions with stories.” O’Brien said with a laugh. “I trust stories. When I hear or give exact, theoretical answers, they don’t really convince me. It is almost a distraction. But a story flows through that type of generalization.” In answer to one question, the author recounted receiving a letter from a woman who had broken off her engagement to a man who falsely claimed to be the author Tim O’Brien. “Everyone knows what it is to lie to someone, to be lied to,” said O’Brien, adjusting one of the ballcaps he traditionally wears everywhere. “That letter inspired [the 2001 New Yorker short story] ‘Too Skinny.’”

O’Brien also shared the story of his first novel, written when he was 10 years old, which he calls a “straight-forward plagerization” of a story called Larry and the Little League. “I read it after a particularly dismal little league practice. It was a bad day, I was really down,” said O’Brien, who played shortstop in his hometown of Wortington, Minn. “Larry could do all the things I couldn’t do – hit, field, run and throw.” O’Brien asked the librarian for a pencil and a pad of a paper, and proceeded to write a story called Timmy and the Little League. “When I felt my hand on that pencil writing this story, I was seeing another Timmy. I was seeing a Timmy who could have been a great shortstop, should have been. I was learning through doing what fiction was all about. That there are occasions when we do not have to write about what happened, but what almost happened, what could have happened.”

O’Brien said this idea of being inspired by life runs through his fiction. Most of his books, like The Things They Carried, are based around events and people from his time serving in the Vietnam War, but are not exact recitations of what happened. “That is what fiction is for. In a way I am inventing my own Vietnam, my own childhood, my own loves, but they are based on a reality beneath it – a dead father, a lost girlfriend, or a Vietnam that is now 40 years in my past – that I hope opens a door to you the reader that makes you feel something of what I felt,” said O’Brien, who lost his own father two years ago. “In those last hours and days, I could have and should have taken him in my arms. And I could have and should have told him I loved him, but I didn’t. Why? I don’t know. But you see, in a story, miracles can happen. My dad can sit up from the dead, and in the story my father can say, ‘That’s okay, I know you love me.’”

Fiction can touch a common element between all people, said O’Brien. “You don’t have to be in ’Nam to be in ’Nam,” he said in answer to a question of why people are infatuated with war literature. “You get breast cancer, you know what ’Nam is. You know what it is to be lonely and scared and almost dead. Try losing a parent and you know what it is like to lose a friend in war,” he said. “There is this artificial feeling that somehow the civilian world and the world of war are utterly and absolutely divorced.  And emotionally, I am here to testify that they aren’t. We are human beings and we know about mortality. And that is why we respond to all literature. That is why I am an author.”

Tim O’Brien

Hailed as “the best American writer of his generation” by the San Francisco Chronicle, O’Brien is the author of eight books, most notably The Things They Carried, a collection of related stories about a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War. Published in 1990, the book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award.  It won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award in fiction, and the New York Times named it one of the 20 best books of the last quarter century. Noted author John Updike selected the title story for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

O’Brien’s first novel, Going After Cacciato, won the National Book Award in Fiction in 1979.  His novel In the Lake of the Woods was chosen by Time magazine as the best novel of 1994, was named one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times and received the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians.

His most recent novel, July, July was released in 2002 and was a bestseller. O’Brien’s other works include If I Die in a Combat Zone, Northern Lights, The Nuclear Age, Tomcat in Love and several short stories which have appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic, Esquire, Playboy and Harper’s.

Contact: Rachel Hatch, (309) 556-3960