23rd Annual Literary Festival
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Mace and Crown, October 25, 2000
O'Brien's stories are for eternity

BRENDA O'CARROLL
Staff Writer

Tim O'Brien is a Vietnam Vet who got drafted and went through hell on the front lines. When he came back, he described the terror to the literary world with incredible and powerful writing. As a recent guest speaker at Old Dominion University's Literary Festival, O'Brien held his audience captive, sharing his experiences, yet, at the same time, making his audience laugh.

"I'm supposed to be giving a formal reading," he told the audience, "but to begin with I'd just like to talk to you, in a way, tell you a story and at the same time, introduce myself. O'Brien wanted to "just try to establish a kind of human bond."

This human bond is integral for O'Brien, author of such books as "If I die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Send Me Home" (1973), "Going After Cacciato"(1979),"The Things They Carried" (which was short-listed for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize), and his most recent novel, "Tomcat in Love." By way of introducing himself, O'Brien told a childhood story about a reluctant discovery of his father's shortcomings-when a mud turtle eventually arrives home instead of a long promised airplane engine.

"I subsequently wrote a novel," he said, "and I told you half the first chapter tonight ["Tomcat in Love"]. What inspired [that story] was [everyone's] integral dictionary and the power of writing. It's not just childhood, it's not jsut events that make a writer, it's also the power of language."

Born in 1946, O'Brien is from smalltown in Minnesota. He grew up in Worthington, which he describes as the "turkey capital of the world." His father was an insurance salesman, his mother an elementary school teacher. He was drafted upon graduation and sent to Vietnam.

Photo by Jerry Bauer

Tim O'Brien recently spoke at the ODU Literary Fest about his most recent novel "Tomcat in Love."

When he returned , he went to graduate school at Harvard. Writing for The Washington Post, where he had been an intern for two summers, hsi stint as a journalist eventually led him to fiction writing.

O'Brien is compact and habitually wears a baseball cap that makes him look younger than his years. His strong Minnesota accent sounds a lot more homespun than he actually is. Giving interviews and doing readings is "not my favorite thing," he said. However, he enjoyed being at Old Dominion

because " I began talking which for me is preferable than long reading. Books can be entertaining and if I can keep you spellbound for an hour than may be the book will too," he said.

When asked questions about his writing and thoughts on life, he refers to his books. "I really feel that everything I have to say is in the books," he explained. " To paraphrase it or add to it or subtract, in a way [that] ultimately undermines all the work that I put into writing the books. What you read is what I really do feel. It's in the book and everything I ever say, I've said as well as I can can, and I've nothing more to say about it," he laughed.

His reading from the novel "The Things They Carried" is an example. "Fifty years old and that was occured half a lifetime ago. That you get to remembering makes it now and sometimes remembering will give you a story that makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joing the past with the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got to where you were, to where you are. Stories are for eternity when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember, except the story."