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Conversations with Tim O'Brien

Conversations with Tim O'Brien

Edited by Patrick A. Smith
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Conversations with Tim O'Brien
    Book Description:

    On the strength of a National Book Award for his novelGoing After Cacciato(1978) and a widely acclaimed short-story cycle,The Things They Carried(1990), Tim O'Brien (b. 1946) cemented his reputation as one of the most compelling chroniclers of Vietnam--and, in the process, was cast as a "Vietnam writer." But to confine O'Brien to a single piece of ground or a particular style is to ignore the broad sweep of a career spanning nearly four decades.

    In addition to detailed discussions of all of O'Brien's work--a memoir,If I Die in a Combat Zone(1973), and seven books of fiction--the sixteen interviews and profiles inConversations with Tim O'Brienexplore common themes, with subtle differences. Looming large is the experience of Vietnam and its influence as well as O'Brien's youth in Minnesota and the expectations of a Midwestern upbringing. Interviews allowed the writer to fully examine the shifting boundaries of truth and identity, memory, and imagination in fiction, the role of war in society; gender issues; and the craft of writing. O'Brien approaches each of these topics and a host of others with a directness and an evident passion that will resonate with both readers and prospective writers.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-916-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-xx)

    “I came to writing because of the war. When I returned from Vietnam, I had something to say: I had witnessed things, smelled things, imagined things which struck me as startling and terrifying and intriguing in all sorts of ways,” Tim O’Brien tells Larry McCaffery. “Although Vietnam was the impetus and spark forbecominga writer, I do not consider myself a war writer.”¹ After publishing a well-received memoir,If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home(1973), while still in his twenties and winning almost universal critical acclaim—and a National Book Award...

  4. Chronology
    (pp. xxi-2)
  5. Interview with Tim O’Brien
    (pp. 3-21)
    Larry McCaffery and Tim O’Brien

    Everyone over twenty-five remembers the spring and summer of 1968, a period so jammed with tumult, confusion, high emotions, violence, and death that today it’s hard to believe so much could have happened in only a few short months. But as with John Kennedy’s assassination, everyone today can still recall exactly what they were doing during the big moments of that year: McCarthy’s victory in New Hampshire; Johnson’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek a second term; King’s assassination; Kennedy’s assassination; the scenes on the streets of Chicago at the Democratic Convention.

    And Vietnam.

    Vietnam was on everyone’s mind that long,...

  6. Tim O’Brien: “Maybe So”
    (pp. 22-40)
    Eric James Schroeder and Tim O’Brien

    Schroeder: I want to start out with your first book because I think it raises the issue of fiction versus nonfiction and how the two begin to merge in Vietnam literature. On first reading,If I Die in a Combat Zonestrikes one as a straight autobiography. Yet the impulse was obviously there for you to fictionalize. How much did you fictionalize, or why was there the impulse to fictionalize that experience when so many other writers obviously resisted it?

    O’Brien: Well, most ofIf I Dieis straight autobiography. All of the events in the book really happened; in...

  7. An Interview with Tim O’Brien
    (pp. 41-51)
    Martin Naparsteck and Tim O’Brien

    Tim O’Brien is widely considered the best of a talented group of Vietnam veterans who have devoted much of their writing to their war experiences. Sections of his most recent book,The Things They Carried(Houghton Mif-flin/Seymour Lawrence, 1990), have won a National Magazine Award and an O. Henry Prize and have been included inBest American Short Stories. It follows by twelve years his National Book Award–winningGoing After Cacciato(Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1978), which until recently was often called the best work of fiction to come out of the war; the critical reaction toThe Things They...

  8. Staying True to Vietnam: Writer Tim O’Brien Aims for the War’s Nerve Center
    (pp. 52-57)
    Gail Caldwell

    NEW YORK—In a private dining room of midtown’s literati-laden Century Club, publishing savant Seymour Lawrence is reminiscing to his guests about an old error of judgment. It was almost twenty years ago, and he had just read the manuscript of a poignant Vietnam war memoir by a young foot soldier—what would become Tim O’Brien’s first book,If I Die in a Combat Zone. Lawrence was impressed, but, according to the memo he’s quoting from tonight, he had reservations about the somber quality of O’Brien’s prose. What the book needed, he wrote then, was “more prostitutes and dope peddlers”—...

  9. An Interview with Tim O’Brien
    (pp. 58-67)
    Steven Kaplan and Tim O’Brien

    Tim O’Brien is the author of the critically acclaimed war memoirIf I Die in a Combat Zone, the novelGoing After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award in 1979, and two other novels,Northern LightsandThe Nuclear Age. His most recent work of fiction,The Things They Carried, was chosen as one of the ten best books of 1990 by theNew York Times Book Review.

    Steven Kaplan received his Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Tuebingen, Germany, and is now an associate professor at the University of Southern Colorado. He is working on a...

  10. Artful Dodge Interviews Tim O’Brien
    (pp. 68-87)
    Daniel Bourne, Debra Shostak and Tim O’Brien

    Since the appearance of his war memoirIf I Die in a Combat Zonein 1973, Tim O’Brien has been widely regarded as not only a major new voice in American writing, but also as an important witness to the day-to-day realities of the Vietnam conflict and to war in general. His novelGoing After Cacciato, set in Vietnam, won the 1979 National Book Award; and more recently,The Things They Carried(1990), a novel composed of interlinking stories about a group of American foot soldiers on patrol, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was selected...

  11. Responsibly Inventing History: An Interview with Tim O’Brien
    (pp. 88-99)
    Brian C. McNerney and Tim O’Brien

    This interview took place at the Kellogg Center on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, on April 7, 1994. It was the third day of O’Brien’s visit as a guest speaker and the day before he had read fromThe Things They Carriedand discussed his Vietnam experiences, as well as his experiences as a writer, to a class of students in the course on the war.

    One of the principal issues I discussed with Mr. O’Brien during his visit was his reaction to his recent visit to Vietnam—the first since he served there as...

  12. Tim O’Brien Interview
    (pp. 100-114)
    Tobey C. Herzog and Tim O’Brien

    This published interview with author Tim O’Brien is based on approximately seven hours of conversation I had with the author on July 9 and 10, 1995, in his apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My purpose for the interview was to gather biographical and literary information for my book on O’Brien (Tim O’Brien, Twayne’s United States Authors Series, 1997). As a result, I divided my questions into those related to O’Brien’s roles as a son, soldier, and author. Within these categories, we discussed a wide range of subjects including O’Brien’s childhood, adolescence, and college years at Macalester; his tour of duty in...

  13. About Tim O’Brien: A Profile
    (pp. 115-119)
    Don Lee

    The good news is that Tim O’Brein is writing fiction again.

    In 1994, after his sixth book,In the Lake of the Woods, was released, he distressed his many fans by vowing to stop writing fiction “for the foreseeable future.” Then, a few months later, he published a now famous essay in theNew York Times Magazinethat described his return to Vietnam. With his girlfriend at the time, he visited My Lai, where on March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers massacred an entire village in a matter of four hours—women, children, old men, chickens, dogs. The...

  14. The Heart under Stress: Interview with Author Tim O’Brien
    (pp. 120-124)
    James Lindbloom and Tim O’Brien

    After a notorious 1994New York Times Magazineessay that was tantamount to a suicide note and a breakdown during a reading in Ann Arbor, Michigan, writer Tim O’Brien began, slowly, to confront his demons. If he made good on his promise of retirement, his stature would be assured; he has received the National Book Award forGoing After Cacciatoand the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger forThe Things They Carried. Happily, it was a promise he couldn’t keep.

    Tomcat in Loveis a book that Tim O’Brien thought he’d never write. Although his previous novel,In the Lake...

  15. Journeying from Life to Literature: An Interview with American Novelist Tim O’Brien
    (pp. 125-142)
    Lynn Wharton and Tim O'Brien

    Lynn Wharton’s informal interview with Tim O’Brien occurred at the Durrants Hotel, George Street, London, on Sunday, 11 April 1999.

    LW: I know that some of your characters are based on real people—the character Curt Lemon, for example, inThe Things They Carried, who is blown into a tree by a mine, was based on a comrade, Alvin Merricks. Could you talk a little about how you metamorphose your personal experience into fictional form?

    TOB: The death of Chip Merricks—he’s a real human being. I didn’t have exactly the experience that I wrote in the book—no climbing...

  16. Tim O’Brien: An Interview
    (pp. 143-159)
    Anthony Tambakis and Tim O’Brien

    Tim O’Brien is widely considered one of the best writers of his generation. He served as a foot soldier in Vietnam from 1969–1970, after which he pursued graduate studies in government at Harvard University. O’Brien later worked as a national affairs reporter for theWashington Postbefore publishing his first book,If I Die in a Combat Zone, in 1973. In 1979, his novelGoing After Cacciatowon the National Book Award in fiction. In 1990, his collection of linked storiesThe Things They Carriedwas nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and was chosen by the editors of the...

  17. Tim O’Brien: Author of July, July Talks with Robert Birnbaum
    (pp. 160-172)
    Robert Birnbaum and Tim O’Brien

    Tim O’Brien was born in Minnesota and graduated from Macalester College in that state. He served in Vietnam and did graduate work in government at Harvard University. He was briefly a reporter for theWashington Post. Tim O’Brien has published the 1979 National Book Award–winning novelGoing After Cacciato, in addition toThe Things They Carried,In the Lake of the Woods,If I Die in a Combat Zone,Northern Lights, The Nuclear Age,Tomcat in Love, and nowJuly, July. His writing has also appeared in theNew Yorker, Ploughshares, Harper’s, and theAtlanticand has been included...

  18. “Every question leads to the next”: An Interview with Tim O’Brien
    (pp. 173-179)
    Jonathan D’Amore and Tim O’Brien

    Tim O’Brien, author ofThe Things They Carried,Going After Cacciato, andIn the Lake of the Woods, among other critically lauded works of fiction and memoir, visited the University of North Carolina as the Morgan Family Writer-in-Residence during the Spring 2007 semester. O’Brien spent part of an afternoon with me discussing his life in writing and how he writes about life. This author, who claims to feel most compelled to pursue in his books the questions that don’t have definitive answers, graciously provided thoughtful and provocative—and occasionally definitive—answers to my many questions. We talked in Chapel Hill...

  19. An Interview with Tim O’Brien
    (pp. 180-183)
    Steven Pressfield and Tim O’Brien

    I read Tim O’Brien’s bookThe Things They Carriedright after it was published, and it blew me away. It is powerful—capturing the emotions, internal conflicts, and bravery of not just the Vietnam generation, but today’s soldiers and Marines, too. I’ve recommended it to many people since its release, and the responses I’ve received from those who have read it have always been moved and moving. It is an honor and privilege to do a Q&A with Tim on the twentieth anniversary of the publishing ofThe Things They Carried.

    The Things They Carriedreceived France’s Prix du Meilleur...

  20. On War, Heroes, and the Power of Literature: A Conversation with Tim O’Brien
    (pp. 184-196)
    Patrick A. Smith and Tim O’Brien

    Four decades after returning from Vietnam, Tim O’Brien is one of the most recognizable, respected, and quoted authors of his generation.

    This interview is meant to be a capstone piece forConversations, exploring such topics as fatherhood, heroes, portrayals of Vietnam in film, and late-season collapses in baseball, and updating the author’s thoughts on writing, his native Midwest, and the futility of war.

    O’Brien spoke from his home near Austin, Texas, on October 12, 2011, and through subsequent correspondence.

    Patrick A. Smith: Are you teaching this term?

    Tim O’Brien: Yes, I’m teaching this semester—once a week for fourteen weeks...

  21. Key Resources
    (pp. 197-202)
  22. Index
    (pp. 203-210)