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Acclaimed author Tim O'Brien appearing at W&M Thursday

Tim O’Brien is a former Purple Heart recipient, former reporter for the Washington Post, former Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the author of novels that have sold more than three million copies and have been translated into more than 20 languages.

O’Brien, whose novel The Things They Carried was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and named in 2005 one of the 20 best books of the last quarter century, will appear at William & Mary on Thursday, March 21 at 8 p.m. for a reading, reception and question-and-answer session. The appearance, part of the Patrick Hayes Writers Series, is free and open to the public and will take place in the Commonwealth Auditorium of the Sadler Center.

During his storied career, O’Brien has also:

  • Received the National Book Award in Fiction in 1979 for his novel Going After Cacciato,
  • Received the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians for In the Lake of the Woods, which also was named one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times,
  • Received the 2010 Katherine Anne Porter Award, presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for a distinguished lifetime body of work,
  • Received the 2012 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award from the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation.

The Things They Carried also received the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award in fiction, as well as the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, one of France’s highest literary awards.The title story was selected by John Updike for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

O’Brien, 66, spends every other year teaching fulltime at Texas State University, spending one semester teaching the Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) students and the next semester talking to undergraduate English classes and conducting small workshops. On alternate years, he teaches several workshops to MFA students in the Creative Writing program.

His normal approach to campus visits, he said recently, is to talk about “simple stuff, stubbornness and tenacity.” 

“You don’t write a novel or short story in one or two days,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “It’s not like doing a college paper. You’ve got to be able to stick with it for a long, long while. That means being stubborn and not quitting at the first roadblock you come to. It means revision, going over and over the thing, making the sentences graceful and the story clear. And that again, takes a real tenacity that college students aren’t very used to.”

The other element he stresses with his audience is to “be true to your passion.”

“Whatever it is that brought you to write this, be true to it,” he said. “Don’t let the mechanics get in the way, where the commas go. Try to keep the story alive and kindled with whatever passion made you start it in the first place because it’s easy to lose sight of that. It’s usually one of the things that keeps a beginning writer from going forward and finishing something.”

O’Brien began writing stories at age 9, though his professional writing career started shortly after returning from Vietnam in 1970 with the Purple Heart. Initially, however, he entered a Ph.D. program in government at Harvard that led to two summers as an intern at the Washington Post, covering the White House and Congress, among other beats.

While a valuable experience, daily journalism wasn’t for O’Brien because he always “felt a sense of being chained to the real world” that kept him from becoming a novelist.

“I feel I can do both. I can write about the real world as I live in it, but I can also wrote about the world of my imagination, my fantasies, my fears in a way that I couldn’t if I were writing non-fiction,” he said.

That led to an O’Brien trademark: using the imagination to blur the lines between fiction and reality, an exercise that O’Brien says is “what fiction exists for.”

“The example I always use is the death of my own dad, who died a few years back,” he said. “I knew he was dying and I didn’t do what I should have done which was to take him into my arms and say, ‘Dad, I love you.’ I didn’t do it.

“But in the story I’m working on right now, my dad can sit up from the dead and say, ‘That’s OK, I know you love me.’ Well, it can’t happen in the real world. People don’t sit up from the dead and talk. But in stories you can have that happen and it can be more meaningful and more emotional for a reader – and for yourself – than what really did happen."

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