Since it was published in 1990, O'Brien's The Things They Carried has sold more than 3 million copies. The intertwined short-story collection, based on the author's own wartime experiences in Vietnam, has made its way into high school and college classes, helping students better understand the effects of war on the soldiers who fight it. O'Brien, 67, is the recipient of the National Book Award for his 1978 novel Going After Cacciato, and in 2012 he received the Holbrooke Award from the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation. In 2013 he became the first writer of fiction to receive the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. We caught up with O'Brien by phone from his home in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and two sons, ages 8 and 10.
What's on your nightstand?
I've got A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone.
Do you recommend it?
I do. I read it many years ago. I wanted to reread it. He sets a high bar. He's accessible and writes richly. I'm also about to start The Book Thief (by Markus Zusak). I've never read that one. I also just finished rereading for about the fifth time Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.
So, it's safe to say it's one of your favorites?
Yes I go back to it over and over, but we're actually thinking of going to Paris for a year, putting the kids in school there. I guess I could say there's two things I love about Hemingway and the book. First, how seriously Hemingway, in his early years, pursued excellence in writing — in the craft. He said over and over again he was learning to write, and as he wrote these magnificent short stories he called himself a learner. I wish I could instill that in my students. I'd like them to remember to listen to others, to learn, to revise and revise again. Also, the book has a great sense of immersion in the world. It's immersion of the natural world we all live in and his own experience and what he has observed in others. We look at the streets of Paris, the smells of things — the food, the drinks.
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.