2007 Morgan Writer-in-Residence: Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien “My life is storytelling,” writer Tim O’Brien once said.  After his visit to Carolina as the spring 2007 Morgan Writer-in-Residence, this master storyteller left many people with stories of their own to tell:  students recounting his generosity of time and attention, audience members at his public reading telling of being moved from laughter to reflection to pathos under the influence of his words, faculty members reflecting upon the wit and intelligence of a highly respected fellow writer, and a host of others describing their encounter with a writer they have long admired.

O’Brien, best known for his Vietnam war novels Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, gave the annual Morgan Writer-in-Residence Program Reading in Memorial Hall on February 28.  Pam Durban, author and Doris Betts Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, introduced him, acknowledging the large and enthusiastic crowd gathered for the occasion:  “I can’t think of a place outside of New York City where a serious writer can draw a crowd like this.” 

She went on to hail O’Brien as “one of the best of our generation.”  He showed himself deserving of the accolade as he captured the audience with the authenticity of both his fictional narrative voice and his speaking persona, reading from both published and in-progress works.

With trademark baseball cap planted firmly on his head—though this time with a big, blue “Carolina” on the hat—O’Brien brought great energy and intensity to his week at UNC.  He met with students in various formats—class visits, sessions open to all creative writing students, and shared meals—and students welcomed the thoughtfulness, respect, and good humor with which he entertained their questions.   He generously extended his student contact outside the University by visiting a local high school classroom while in town.

O’Brien participated in two interdisciplinary panels during Morgan Week: “The Novel as History; History as a Novel” and “War:  Telling the Story.”  Faculty member Joy Kasson joined him on the first panel, and alumni AlexVernon ({PhD 2001) and Loyd Little (BA) on the second.  O’Brien also attended a third panel co-sponsored with The College of Arts and Sciences, “War:  Coming Home,” which included Joe Cox (PhD 1990).

The recurring theme throughout O’Brien’s visit was the role of story in our lives.  O’Brien himself wrote:  “I believe in stories, in their incredible power to keep people alive, to keep the living alive, and the dead.”  He observes, “Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

O’Brien’s stories include eight novels to date, beginning in 1983 with the war memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship me Home.  His first novel, Northern Lights (1975), was followed by Going After Cacciato (1978), winner of the National Book Award for fiction, and The Nuclear Age (1985).  The Things They Carried (1990) won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, and In the Lake of the Woods (1994) won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians.  Tomcat in Love was published in 1998 and July, July in 2002.

Established in 1993 by alumni Allen and Musette Morgan of Memphis, Tennessee, the Morgan Writer-in-Residence Program brings writers of distinction to campus each spring to teach courses; meet with students and faculty; and give lectures, readings, and symposia.  Their goals for the program are to help and inspire Carolina’s writing students and also to provide a way for the campus and town communities to join in a celebration of the literary arts.  The stories about his visit affirm that, through O’Brien, in 2007 the program met and exceeded these goals.