On Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, Deerfield Academy welcomed renowned author Tim O’Brien to campus. O’Brien began the day by eating lunch with students before sharing personal anecdotes and insights about writing with several English classes. The evening culminated with O’Brien reading from his well-anticipated upcoming novel, Dad’s Maybe Book. The morning after, he held two Question and Answer sessions.
O’Brien has written many books, including Northern Lights; In the Lake of the Woods; If I Die in a Combat Zone; The Nuclear Age; July, July; Going After Cacciato; and Tomcat in Love. He has won a variety of honors including the 1979 National Book Award as well as the Pritzker Military Library Award.
This summer, the Deerfield community read O’Brien’s magnum opus, The Things They Carried. The collection of stories and chapters in the novel details the raw experiences and emotions of a soldier in the Vietnam War, stemming from O’Brien’s own background. The book itself is not strictly autobiographical (O’Brien defined it as “not a memoir”), but uses verisimilitude to weave together truth and fantasy.
O’Brien began writing when he was a young boy. Later, during his time in Vietnam, he would write stories about his experiences and the things that he had seen and done. These stories, O’Brien said, enabled him to write The Things They Carried. “I think if I hadn’t begun in Vietnam… I wouldn’t have had a place to start.”
English Teacher Mark Ott, a personal friend of O’Brien, brought him to campus. Having focused on the novel in class for the first few weeks, Dr. Ott shared that he hopes “the whole experience of reading his book and hearing his talk at Deerfield will deepen students’ connection with literature.” He added, “Hopefully, they will see him as a peace writer, not a war writer.”
O’Brien himself expressed this sentiment in his reading and in the question-and-answer sessions. “Books are not war-specific or incident-specific… [I] hope that a book reaches into the nooks and crannies of all of you,” he said.
For O’Brien, The Things They Carried is nor a war story nor an argument about what occurred in Vietnam. Just as he used writing to find escape as a child, he wrote because he had to when he became a soldier.
“I don’t write a story just to write one,” O’Brien said. “I do it because there is something bubbling in my stomach, in my heart, that has to find a way out of me.” This is echoed closely in the ending lines of The Things They Carried, with the narrator, arguably O’Brien himself, saying, “It [the story] was Timmy trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.” The novel itself speaks to the cathartic and rehabilitative nature of storytelling.
For some, the most impactful part of O’Brien’s visit was how real he was. “I think that his great strength is being true to who he is and being authentic in all of his interactions,” said Dr. Ott. “There was no faking it.”
O’Brien’s authenticity is evident in his writing as well. O’Brien explained that he seeks to write conversational stories that are relatable to many: “I’m striving to appeal not only to the brain, but to the tear ducts, and whatever the laugh ducts are, and the stomach. I want your stomach to feel something,” he said.
Students also spoke about the unique way that O’Brien captivated the audience.
“He’s an impressive storyteller. The words he uses aren’t particularly complex but his diction enthralls,” said Elven Shum ’20.
“For me, it made everything real; I didn’t really realize how beautifully one can turn trauma into art,” John Chung ’20 said.
O’Brien shared a unique and touching perspective with the Deerfield community; we are deeply thankful.