Tim O’Brien Tells a True War Story

Question: Would you tell a “true war \r\nstory” that’s not found\r\nin "The Things They Carried?"


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


Encounters like that remind me of why I began.  It’s easy to forget why you become a\r\nwriter.  Letters I'll get from the\r\ngirlfriends of people in Iraq or Afghanistan or the children, which all \r\nsay the\r\nsame thing basically.  I don’t know\r\nmy dad; he won’t talk about it; or my mom in some cases, but largely \r\nmen.  And I read your book and now I know at\r\nleast something of what he’s carrying around with him and what he won’t \r\ntalk\r\nabout.  And sometimes the book will\r\nbe shared with the veteran and conversation will ensue.  And\r\n that is way beyond anything I had\r\nintended in the writing of the book. \r\nI didn’t intend to bring people together or start them talking, \r\nbut to\r\nshow you the power of literature, it really touches individual people \r\nwith real\r\nlives in the real world and contributes to their lives.  It\r\n does something to their lives that\r\nthat’s what I dreamed of when I was writing.  I \r\ndreamed of touching some 15-year-old kid in Dubuque, or\r\nsome grieving mother in Harlem. 


Literature makes you feel, if it’s any good, it can\r\n make you\r\nfeel less alone in the world. \r\nSomeone else has gone through this and it gives you some \r\nlate-night\r\ncompany with your memories and your sorrow.  Literature\r\n does touch people; it’s not just to be read in\r\nEnglish classes.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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.

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