In Their Own Words: Tim O’Brien

Tim O'Brien
Tim O’Brien

In his classic book The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes, “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

Tim O’Brien’s new book, Dad’s Maybe Book, is a collection of stories written to, and for, his two sons, so they may remember him when he’s gone. The stories involve moments from his kids’ lives growing up, his own life as a child and then young man thrust into the Vietnam War, and his fraught relationship with his own father. The result is a candid, vulnerable, and honest portrait of the challenges, humor, and rewards of raising two sons, as well as the lessons learned trying to survive in wartime, trying to find internal peace in peacetime, and trying to get your kids to fall asleep at bedtime. Ultimately, Dad’s Maybe Book is a physical memento of O’Brien’s love for his sons so that when he is gone, “when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story,” they have these stories to remember, and feel, his profound love for them once again, and forever.

We were honored to present Tim O’Brien on October 22, 2019 at the Harold Washington Library Center for a reading and discussion of Dad’s Maybe Book with Alex Kotlowitz. The event is free and entry is first-come, first-served, so be sure to get there with plenty of time to spare. We spoke with O’Brien ahead of Tuesday’s event about his new book, the love he has for his sons, and finding solace between the covers of a book.

AMERICAN WRITERS MUSEUM: What made you decide to turn your personal writings to your sons into a full book for the public? Was there a specific moment?

Dad's Maybe Book by Tim O'BrienTIM O’BRIEN: Yeah there was a moment. My younger son, Tad, maybe five years ago — I had been writing them once or twice a year but the pages had added up — and Tad said, “Is this gonna be a real book?” And I said, “I don’t know. Sometimes things just end up in a trash can and don’t go anywhere.” And he said, “Well, I think you should finish it. I think other kids would want to know the stuff you’re writing about, and other fathers.” And I said, “Well, maybe I will.” And he said, “Then you should call it that.” I said, “What?” And he said, “Just call it your maybe book. Call it what it is.” And so I jotted the note down and thought about it and it occurred to me that not only was the book a maybe book, but so was my life. I’m an older father, my birthday was yesterday so now I’m 73. And that makes tomorrow a maybe, and next week, and a year from now. You know, I’m an older father and time is running out. The odds are pretty good I won’t be around to see the kids’ college graduations, and if I do I’ll be really really old. So that theme fit. And then Tad asked, “Do they pay you for these books?” And I said, “Yes sometimes, if they’re any good.” And he said, “Do they pay you for the title?” And I said, “Well no, but I will.” So he went off to write me an IOU and I’m going to have to pay up.

AWM: I like that whole approach of the “maybe life.” It’s kind of scary in a way, but also liberating.

O’BRIEN: It is kind of liberating. It liberated me enough to write at length about things that were pretty personal to me. I’d never written about my dad before and his alcoholism. Or bringing up some of my fears of fatherhood, which I still harbor. Will I be a good enough father? Am I disciplining enough? Or too much? It was, yeah, liberating.

AWM: You just mentioned writing about your father and that you’d never done that, did you intentionally set out to do that in this book or did it just kind of happen?

O’BRIEN: Well I added it after one of the kids said, “You know you gotta really be honest.” This is nonfiction and you can’t hide things the way you can in a novel, you can disguise or camouflage the real world. And that was kind of an admonition from my wife too, that you’re going to have to write not just about pleasant things, but about painful stuff too. And that was tough to do at first, but then became almost a necessity. I felt I really could unburden myself of a lot of things including life with a father who didn’t seem to like me, much less love me. He certainly never said so. And that accounts, I suppose, for wanting to give my kids this book full of love for them.

“When they’re middle-aged and pick this book off the library shelf they’re going to feel that love I wish I’d gotten from my dad. That’s paramount for me.”

AWM: Have your kids read it yet? Or parts of it?

O’BRIEN: They’ve read parts, and they’ve made me read parts. Every now and then I’ll do a reading from a chapter of the book, not often maybe four times or so. But so far no quarrels. I’m a little embarrassed there’s no quarrels over it yet.

AWM: How have they responded to it so far?

O’BRIEN: They’ve responded two ways really. Some of the things about their lives that I write about, my recollection of their lives, is funny and they love it when people laugh at things they did that they consider funny. An example is, my younger son Tad had a project for school where he worked with another kid and they had to design their idea of utopia. And part of the utopia was this volcano. Members of the utopia — they’re all children — would take up anybody over 70 and throw them into the volcano. And I read this and said, “Tad, why would you do such a thing?” He said, “By that point there’s nothing interesting for anybody to do and life’s over so why not toss them in, save them the trouble of getting even older.” And I said, “Tad do you know how old I am?” And he said, “Well you’re not 70 yet, are you?” And at that point I wasn’t yet so I said, “No, but I haven’t got that far to go.” This went on for a while and you can read it in the book. It’s a funny chapter but it’s also a kind of serious one when you stop to think about it, as I had to, about cremation or burial or some alternative like turn me into dog food. What do you do? None of the options really appeal to me very much. It made stop and think. So it’s basically a funny chapter and they respond with laughter.

They respond with sadness at other times I wrote about and they recollect, like my older son getting cut from the basketball team a couple of years ago in high school. I mean, the kid loved basketball, practiced hard, and it was mortifying to him to be cut. He stopped seeing his friends who were all basketball players, stopped going to games, closed his door, wouldn’t talk about it. He was in real pain. And he’s still sad about that. He’s gotten over it in one sense where he’s doing other interesting things he likes doing, but it still will probably always nag at him. And if he’s anything like me he’ll get over it when he’s 80.

AWM: I actually just finished that chapter yesterday.

O’BRIEN: Yeah, that was a hard chapter to write. He actually, a couple of weeks ago, had to write a personal essay at school — he’s now a junior in high school — and he wrote about that moment himself, how it felt, what went through his head. And it corresponded pretty much, but not exactly, to what I wrote. He had other emotions too. He was much angrier than I thought. I thought he just hurt. But he thought he’d been wronged, that kids had been chosen who weren’t as good as he was.

“In the end, love is paramount to paying bills and all that riff-raff stuff of life. It’s so important when it’s right in front of your face, it’s all consuming sometimes. Mowing the lawn and all that crap pales beside the thought of leaving your children forever.”

AWM: If and when your sons read the full book, what is the one takeaway you hope they have?

O’BRIEN: Oh that’s easy. It’s just how much I love them. I assume they’ll read the whole book after I’m gone. Right now they’ve read portions, but very few, maybe five chapters in total. But a lot of the book is for adults. It’s not for children. It’s about children for the most part and my love for them. So when they’re middle-aged and pick this book off the library shelf they’re going to feel that love I wish I’d gotten from my dad. That’s paramount for me. As it should be, and in that way it’s written for all of us really, all of us kids. In the end, that [love] is paramount to paying bills and all that riff-raff stuff of life. It’s so important when it’s right in front of your face, it’s all consuming sometimes. Mowing the lawn and all that crap pales beside the thought of leaving your children forever.

AWM: One thing I’ve enjoyed about the book is that you have a lot of good writing advice in there. What is the motivation behind that?

O’BRIEN: I have these, what I call “home school” sessions, where I talk to my kids at the dinner table. And some sessions are in the book so there’s chapters in there about writing, about absolutism, about the battles of Lexington & Concord. All those chapters are things I talked about with them at the dinner table or at night when I lie in bed with them in the half hour before they go to sleep. It’s not really instruction, we actually talk. It’s not me lecturing about it. It’s us going back and forth on questions like those and others. It’s also a way of letting them know how much I love books and how much they’ve meant to me over the years. I chose Hemingway for example, just one person, I could’ve chosen somebody else, and I had them read stories by Hemingway, no novels but stories. And we talk about those. And they respond in ways that really surprise me. They’d say things that I’d never heard before. Not all of them were fun, some of them were pretty weird. Now and then something would come out of the mouths of one of the two children…one pops to mind right now is “The Killers” story. After Timmy read it I said, “Well what do you make of this guy who lies in bed waiting for two thugs to come kill him for not throwing a fight he was supposed to throw?” And Timmy said, “I wasn’t thinking about that.” So I said, “Well what were you thinking about?” Timmy said, “I was thinking, don’t boxers get hit in the head?” I said, “Yeah…” And he said, “Well don’t they hit other people in the head?” I said, “Yeah…” And Timmy says, “Well I was thinking why did he want to be a boxer in the first place?” And that struck me as…I mean he’s right, why would you want to do that? That would hurt.

“I love my children but I don’t love all they do. I love our country, I don’t love all it does. You can love your country but it doesn’t mean you have to applaud every damn thing it does.”

It’s also a way of talking to the kids. For instance, with my other books I get the most unexpected reactions from strangers. One time I read a chapter from The Things They Carried out loud to an audience and this guy came up to me, a young kid maybe 20 or 22, and he said, “I’ve been thinking about joining the Marine Corps, and I know that was painful for you to read, but now I know I want to be a Marine.” Which is kind of the opposite of what I thought somebody would take away from this: the horror of having killed somebody and how that never leaves you and you dream about it and you think about it at night before you go to bed and how it’ll never leave you. So as a writer you kind of brush up against your readers. You write it but people will take away whatever their own temperaments and backgrounds and values are. That’s how books are. They don’t really change minds in the literal sense. But you do brush up against one another, writer and reader, and there’s a way of talking to the kids about that. The things they take from books may not be what the author intended. Something that the author’s story awakened in you was already there, but not what the author intended.

AWM: That reminds me, in the book you mention something like everyone has a different Hemingway. Like your Hemingway is different than mine and it’s different than anyone else’s.

O’BRIEN: Yeah, it’s very true. I bet you Hemingway’s take on his own work was different from that of many critics and many readers. I bet Hemingway’s sons have their takes on their father’s work. So I think everyone has a slightly different take on any book.

Tim O'BrienAWM: Which is the beauty of them, I think.

O’BRIEN: It is, that’s the beauty.

AWM: Was your approach to writing these letters different or similar to your approach to writing novels? Did your writing process change at all?

O’BRIEN: Well it changed in the sense that I abandoned writing for a long time. By abandon I mean, not quite entirely. Now and then, as I said, every six months or so I’d write a little three-four page letter to my kids. It was just a thing for my kids, not with the intent of writing a book. That was different. For at least nine or ten years, probably more than that, it was just stuff that I wanted my kids to read some day. Sometimes about them, sometimes for them, sometimes about me so they know about me. Things I thought about, laughed at, cried at. But when it did become a book, after Tad’s comment when I first seriously thought maybe I could make this a book, then it was pretty much the same as any other. It was everyday, regularly, as opposed to every now and then. Ideas began to coalesce.

For example, I’d use a quote from George Orwell in one chapter, that quote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.” And then I thought, “What can I tell people that they don’t want to hear?” And that became the next chapter about beheadings. Americans don’t want to hear that we behead people too. And if they think otherwise they’re insane or they haven’t thought about it yet. And not only do we behead them, we de-body them, turn them into mush with drones and rocket fire. So if we’re going to use beheading as a reason to go to war we better look at ourselves first. It’s hypocritical to write off our beheadings and call the other side savages and barbarians for doing the same thing. That’s an unpopular thing to say. And half the country is going to throw the book away probably when they get to that chapter and say, “Fuck this. I’m done reading this. I’m an American.” They just haven’t considered the possibility that there’s any truth to this, it just sounds treasonous I guess to them. And then that made me think, I’ve got to respond to that attitude somehow. So I added a line later about how I love my children but I don’t love all they do. I love our country, I don’t love all it does. You can love your country but it doesn’t mean you have to applaud every damn thing it does. So that’s what I mean by ideas would kind of begin to coalesce once I began thinking of this as an organized book with four or five themes that recur, finding ways to blend them through the whole book. And that was very much like writing a novel.

AWM: Did you plan or strategize this book at all or was it more of thoughts leading to another one and then the next day you would expand on that thought?

O’BRIEN: Well it was never the next day, had to be day of. It’s still really hard work because I’m a slow writer, it’s painstaking and I’m self-critical. So I would pick a topic, like the unicycle or whatever it might be, and I’d ask myself, “What can I do with it?” And it has to have a story throughout it, no matter how small it may be or how short. And that’s trial and error, so many ideas end up in the trash can. And that too is like writing a novel, where 90 percent of the words that go on paper never appear. Also for me, I wanted a certain tone of narration to it. I wanted it to be conversational, more or less as if I were talking to my kids so I would try to avoid formal language and so on as much as I could. It really felt in the end very much like writing The Things They Carried once I decided it was going to be a book.

“Books were a way of escaping that childhood I was telling you about, the tensions in my house, my dad. I’d close my door and I’d go down the river with Huck Finn or go on adventures with the Hardy boys.”

AWM: Could you describe your writing process? I know you said it’s slow and painstaking, but do you have any sort of regiment you like to do?

O’BRIEN: Well I fell into one with this book, it was brand new. I started getting up around 2:30-3 in the morning, probably because I had to. When you have two kids and they’re young, the world around you…it’s just all-consuming. Homework, driving them to school and basketball, all this stuff. So I began awakening early. First I had to force myself to get out of bed, but within a few days I began to really like it. The house is quiet and you’re close to your dreams when you’re up at that hour. Because much of the book really is a memoir, telling the kids about my own life, that time after waking up when I do the dishes or polish the kitchen counter or just clean up the wreckage from the night before, that was really neat time. I had never experienced those hours in a regular anyway, since Vietnam really. In Vietnam we were up then almost all the time, you’re on guard or ambush or something. But since then, 50 years since then, I lost touch with that early morning feeling, when all is quiet, it’s dark around you, the world is asleep. And I’d be visited by memory, like little bees buzzing through my head, the memory of a high school English teacher or whatever it might be. Some of which found its way into the book, these bee-buzzing things of memory. So that was brand new to me.

AWM: If you could meet one American writer of the past, who would it be and why?

O’BRIEN: To attack!? What did you say? Your voice just dropped out.

AWM: Oh no! Not attack. Of the past. Which writer of the past would you like to meet?

O’BRIEN: Oh to meet. Ok got it. Shakespeare.* There’s almost no doubt it would be Shakespeare. It’s because we know so little about him. He’s a mystery in a way that most writers aren’t. Did he speak the way he wrote? In couplets and iambic pentameter? Was it hard to write for him or was it sort of Updikian where he just writes the way he talks. John Updike was that way. He never said “uhh” or “umm,” never hesitated, there was a simile in every sentence if he wanted it. And I would say, “William, how was it for you? Did you plan these plays or did you just follow the language where it took you?” I would guess the answer would be both, he sort of knew where he was going and then followed the language. And I’d also ask, “Did you drink a lot after you were done working the day?” I mean, I’d just love to talk to him. I wouldn’t have the balls to ask any of these questions, I’d probably just sit there and be in his presence, but I know what I’d want to ask him.

*We know, we know. William Shakespeare is not American but, come on, who wouldn’t want to meet the Bard?

AWM: Are you reading anything right now? Any book suggestions for us?

O’BRIEN: I just finished a book I should’ve read a long time ago. It was really popular and I thought it was really good. All the Light You Cannot See. People have been telling me for quite a while that I have to read this book. It’s really really excellent. I kind of disbelieved them. I thought any book that can sell really well can’t be good, but I was wrong. It was good, really good. If you read it, you’ll be glad you did.

AWM: Why did you become a writer?

O’BRIEN: A couple of things. One is, I always loved books. They were a way of escaping that childhood I was telling you about, the tensions in my house, my dad. I’d close my door and I’d go down the river with Huck Finn or go on adventures with the Hardy boys or whatever book I happened to pick up. I loved reading. And when I was a kid I wrote little stories of my own, five pages long handwritten, just for fun when I was seven or eight years old. And then I kind of abandoned it for many years. I took up the hobby of magic, which I write about in the book, and that was sort of living under an alternative life too, practical illusion.

“I needed to do something with the pain, I needed to put it somewhere.”

And then when Vietnam collided with my life those old childhood memories came rushing back. I needed to do something with the pain, I needed to put it somewhere. And the shame of it all, I felt I should not have gone to that war. I opposed it, didn’t believe in it. I thought it was wrong to kill 3 million people to stop dominoes from falling that never fell, by the way, even after we lost the war. So when I came home I went off to graduate school at Harvard but in a totally different field. In my off hours, after studying, I’d write little vignettes of what had happened in Vietnam. They were nonfiction things of unpacking the pain and putting it on paper. I can’t say it helped a whole great deal but I did have those pages and they kind of accumulated without the thought of making a book. They just piled up until a friend of mine, who was in physics at Harvard and we played ping pong together, saw them in my room. He said, “What’s that?” And I told him these were things I’ve been writing about Vietnam. And he said, “Oh were you in Vietnam?” Because I never talked about it, kept it quiet. He said, “You oughta do something with it.” And I did. A couple years later I had my first book which is a war memoir, three-quarters of which was written without the intent of writing a book. It was written mostly for me.

AWM: What sort of advice would you give to aspiring writers or anyone who might also find value in writing like you did?

O’BRIEN: First piece of advice would be do something else. But if you really must do it, you’re at the mercy of this sort of pitiless, merciless subjectivity thing where how you appeal to one person may not to another. You may even end up not caring for what you wrote. On top of that, you can’t write while you’re bowling or going out on dates. You have to put your ass in front of a piece of paper or computer or typewriter or something and just sit there. And you have to do it pretty regularly. You can’t write every now and then very well, I tried. It just doesn’t work. It’s like waking up from a dream. You start to dream it and then you go away for two weeks and come back to it but you’ve forgotten the passion that prompted you to write it in the first place. At least I do that. So I’d say be regular, even if it’s just 40 or 50 minutes a day, try to do it every single day because if you don’t it’s going to fizzle out somehow or other. Maybe a poet can do it, but doing what I do, writing stories or novels, does take a kind of regularity.

“Writing requires the stubbornness of a donkey going up a hill.”

Another thing it takes is a stubbornness. You’re going to always run into dead ends, it’s difficult. A thing that’s not talked about by many writers when they talk about writing novels or stories are those moments when you have to invent or imagine: What next? What can happen that’s not cliche and not expected by what comes before. It has to feel natural and inevitable but unexpectedly so. And that’s a challenge. And if you’re telling a story and everything that happens is exactly what the reader would expect, it has this dull, monotonous, predictable, cliche feel to it. So you have to park your butt down and basically, at least for me, reject idea after idea after idea. And that requires the stubbornness of a donkey going up a hill, just doing it until, eureka, something occurs to you. And most often, at least for me, the first ideas are the terrible ones or the obvious ones. So stubbornness is I think really important. Just sit down, that’s the best advice I can give.

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