Tim O’Brien Tells a True War Story

For Tim O’Brien, “true war stories” can be lies, or take place years before or after a war. Here he shares one that made him want to cry—and reminds him why he writes for a living.
  • Transcript


Question: Would you tell a “true war story” that’s not found in "The Things They Carried?"

Tim O’Brien: Yeah, I mean, I ran into a kid in Seattle, or kid, 26-year-old, at a book signing.  And I saw him out of the corner of my eye standing in the corner, and was kind of frightened by him.  Not physically, but I mean, “Oh God, I hope it’s not a manuscript he’s got to give me,” and that... which is hell of course.  And the guy—finally the reading ended and he hung around and I could feel him out of the corner of my eye approach me, and he had me sign his book and I did.  He began to leave and then he turned around and he said, “I think you knew my father.”  And as soon as he said those words I knew who the kid was.  I saw it in his face.  I could see his dad in that kid’s face; it was my platoon leader in Vietnam.  He told me over the course of the next, I don’t know, 20 minutes or half hour that he, the kid, had been searching for his father ever since.  His father had committed suicide soon after Vietnam and had looked for his dad in very brave and cool ways.  He had joined the Army just to see what his father had gone through.  He had become a Green Beret to see what his dad had been, a Ranger, and all this tough snake-eating stuff.  And he had picked up my first book and his father figure is in the book.  Not always in the most laudatory ways, in fact not in laudatory ways.  Well, that encounter made me want to cry.  If I weren’t on camera I’d have tears in my eyes now because it’s an example of why I began writing in the first place.  I wanted to touch people in a way that stories can touch 'em.  And I helped in a modest way this fellow to fill in a gap where this man had been who had committed suicide, before he even knew his father.  His father had killed himself when he was very; I think he was like six months old, eight months.  Very young. 

Encounters like that remind me of why I began.  It’s easy to forget why you become a writer.  Letters I'll get from the girlfriends of people in Iraq or Afghanistan or the children, which all say the same thing basically.  I don’t know my dad; he won’t talk about it; or my mom in some cases, but largely men.  And I read your book and now I know at least something of what he’s carrying around with him and what he won’t talk about.  And sometimes the book will be shared with the veteran and conversation will ensue.  And that is way beyond anything I had intended in the writing of the book.  I didn’t intend to bring people together or start them talking, but to show you the power of literature, it really touches individual people with real lives in the real world and contributes to their lives.  It does something to their lives that that’s what I dreamed of when I was writing.  I dreamed of touching some 15-year-old kid in Dubuque, or some grieving mother in Harlem. 

Literature makes you feel, if it’s any good, it can make you feel less alone in the world.  Someone else has gone through this and it gives you some late-night company with your memories and your sorrow.  Literature does touch people; it’s not just to be read in English classes.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen