Tim O’Brien on Letting the World Decide What He’ll Read Next
The Author of America Fantastica Takes the Lit Hub Questionnaire
Tim O’Brien’s new novel, America Fantastica, is available now from Mariner Books, so we asked him a few questions about his writing, reading, and more.
What time of day do you write (and why)?
Five or six years ago, during a prolonged and frustrating bout with insomnia, I began rising at 2:00 in the morning, cleaning up the kitchen, and then sitting down to write. What was then a nuisance has become a treasured habit. In the wee hours, with the world silent all around me, I am close to my dreams, alert to little bee stings of memory. Bits of language flit through my head—a word, a phrase, and very occasionally a fully made sentence. There can be glee at 2:46 a.m.
What do you always want to talk about in interviews but never get to?
Patiently, but with secret irritation, I reply to queries about plot, character, influences, theme, and autobiographical sources for my stories. Never language. Which, of course, is how all else is realized—those twenty-six letters in the English alphabet and that handful of punctuation marks. Bizarre, I often think, that a writer isn’t quizzed about writing.
How do you decide what to read next?
The world decides for me. A short story is mentioned by a friend. A line of poetry appears as a novel’s epigraph. An unfamiliar word pops up in the midst a CNN interview. A name—say, Richard III—jumps off the page in a son’s history textbook, which leads me to Wikipedia, which leads me to a biography, which leads me back to Shakespeare, which leads me to Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King by archaeologist Michael Pitts.
Which book(s) do you reread?
L’étranger is probably the only book I’ve read at least four or five times over a lifetime. A close second (again probably, because I haven’t counted) might be Lord Jim, or maybe The Ebony Tower, or maybe Lolita, or maybe Speak, Memory, or maybe Invitation to a Beheading, or maybe Laughter in the Dark, or maybe Pnin, or maybe King, Queen, Knave, or maybe (God help me) The Sun Also Rises, or maybe Tender is the Night, or maybe All Quiet on the Western Front, or maybe The Red Badge of Courage, or maybe Revolutionary Road, or maybe books I reread because I had forgotten rereading them.
Most books, sadly, I have read fewer times than once.
Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?
America Fantastica by Tim O’Brien is available via Mariner Books.