The Things They Carried: Biography

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William Timothy O'Brien was born in Austin, Minnesota, on October 1, 1946, to William T. O'Brien, an insurance salesman, and Ava Schulz O'Brien, a teacher. He later moved with his family, including a younger brother and sister, to Worthington, Minnesota, where he attended high school. In 1968 he graduated summa cum laude from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a degree in political science. That summer, he was drafted and wrestled with his future, whether to flee to Canada or fight in the Vietnam war. He was too frightened, he says, not to comply and took his basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington. He served in Vietnam in the Quang Ngai region.

O'Brien served in the United States Army, Fifth Battalion, Forty-Sixth Infantry, from January 1969 to March 1970, on patrol in the deadly area of Batangan Peninsula and the vicinity around the village of My Lai, soon after the massacre of civilians by U.S. forces there in 1968. He wrote sketches of his tour of duty while there. He was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 1970.

After Vietnam, O'Brien went to graduate school on scholarship at Harvard from 1970 to 1976, working on a doctorate in government studies, working as a teaching assistant and as a reporter for the Washington Post as a national affairs reporter. While at Harvard. he published two books, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), his memoir of Vietnam, and a novel, Northern Lights (1975), about a wounded war veteran and his brother. Critics admired his poetic and classical voice, and they compared him to Homer and Hemingway as a war writer. He married his wife Ann, a magazine publication manager, in 1973.

O'Brien left Harvard without a degree to pursue writing. He contributed short stories to magazines and anthologies. Going After Cacciato (1978) established him as a major writer of war stories, though this book uses magic realism as a style. The hero Paul  Berlin engages in surrealistic memories and dreams of the Vietnam war. O'Brien won the National Book Award for this book, as well as O. Henry Memorial Awards for certain chapters. The novel The Nuclear Age (1985) about the threat of nuclear war was not well received, but The Things They Carried (1990) won numerous awards, including the Heartland Prize from the Chicago Tribune, theJames Fenimore Cooper Award for Historical Fiction, France's Prix du MeilleurLivreEtranger, the American Library Association Notable Book Designation. O’Brien was also awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation.  A novel, In the Lake of the Woods followed in 1994. Other books include Twinkle, Twinkle (1994); Tomcat in Love (1998); and July, July (2002). O'Brien has won Pushcart and Esquire prizes for short fiction and the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing in 2013. He lives in Texas with his wife and sons and teaches creative writing at Texas State University.

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