by Patrick Coy-Bjork ‘24

On November 15th, Macalester alumnus and well-known author Tim O’Brien returned to Mac’s campus as a part of the book tour for his latest novel, America Fantastica. During this visit, the English department hosted a coffee and lunch in which current English seniors could converse with O’Brien regarding his experience studying at Mac and his subsequent career in the world of literature.

O’Brien was actually never an English major himself; he instead got his degree in Political Science, which is reflected in the various ways his body of work explores American war and politics. He did, however, take five English classes at Mac and said that they were some of his favorite courses he ever took. While in college, he went on a summer program in Prague during which he wrote a novel. He jokingly cited his “first novel,” however,  as being Timmy of the Little League: a book he wrote at the age of eight years old. This book was really just the text of another children’s book Larry of the Little League, but with his own name swapped out for Larry’s. While perhaps not the most original of works, it began O’Brien’s lifelong love of creative literature.

O’Brien meeting with English seniors

When asked about how he writes, O’Brien described his writing as always being “a mix of memory and imagination.” He explained that life never feels chronological as he experiences it, so he typically doesn’t write his books in chronological order either. It’s always a priority for him to care about what he’s writing, as he feels that if he doesn’t care, a reader wouldn’t either. Similarly, he also doesn’t feel a reader would feel surprised by his writing if he wasn’t, and so he never outlines his works ahead of time, instead surprising himself as he goes along. O’Brien is best known for his work The Things They Carried, inspired by his time as a soldier in the Vietnam War. This work is a clear example of O’Brien’s mix of “memory and imagination,” as it is a fictional work that draws upon real people and experiences from his life.

O’Brien is also currently in the process of having a biography written about him. A student asked if this was something that he struggled with (having someone else tell his story). He responded that it’s not a challenge because he’s “largely just ignoring it,” which I imagine does help relieve anxiety over having your story told. O’Brien also shared with us that he married an actor for the stage, and this caused him to become more interested in theatrical works, specifically the works of Shakespeare. One of his favorite roles that his wife played was Feste in Twelfth Night, and he went on to recite one of Feste’s songs. This is a role that I’ve personally performed and greatly enjoyed, and so I enjoyed hearing his appreciation for it.

O’Brien let us know that his book tour had been going on for weeks at this point, and that Mac was the last stop on the tour. He told us that he was relieved to end the tour here because the Macalester campus “felt comfortable–like home.”