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Tim O'Brien On Late-In-Life Fatherhood And The Things He Carried From Vietnam

National Book Award-winning author Tim O'Brien is best known for his stories about the Vietnam War, including the 1990 novel, The Things They Carried. But he says he'd give up every book he's written if it meant more time on earth with his two young sons.

Now 74, O'Brien didn't become a father until his late 50s. He says he was initially worried that having children would curtail his ability to write.

"I always identified myself as a writer even from the time I was a little boy," he says. "That's what I wanted to be and do and that's what I valued — making graceful sentences. And I thought that with a child in the house — and then two children in the house — that would end."

Having children made him want to step away from writing, which he did for many years. But eventually O'Brien started up again — this time focusing on fatherhood. His 2019 book, Dad's Maybe Book, was his first since his sons were born.

"Much as Vietnam did, [parenthood] gave me a body of material, that kind of context to write about," he says. "Maybe it's biology just keeping the species going, but I feel that I'm part of something age-old that's going to continue long after I'm gone."

O'Brien reflects on writing, mortality and his experiences in Vietnam in the new documentary, The War and Peace of Tim O'Brien.

Interview highlights

On speaking openly about mortality with his sons

I talk to them pretty bluntly when they say, "Dad, you're old, you're going to die." I said, "I know. Sad." I don't say, "No," and I don't deny it, because it's a lie and I don't want to leave them with a lie. The reality is the reality, and they've adjusted to it over time. The crying is stopped, especially my older boy Timmy would really weep about it. He'd come out in the middle of the night and wake me up and say ... "You're going to die, Dad, and I can't stand it." And we would talk about my age and what a great gift it had been to spend time with them already. Now, when my older boy is 17 and my younger, Tad, is 15, they still think about it. I still think about it. My wife still thinks about it. But it's not in a macabre kind of way. It's not grim. It's growing comfortable with reality. And we have a happy house, I think, partly because we don't deny reality.

On how his own childhood experiences made him reluctant to become a father

I had a tough childhood. My dad was an alcoholic and sometimes he wasn't physically present, but he also was not emotionally present much of the time. He was a great man in many ways — he was funny, he was fun to be around when he was sober, but when he was not, life was hard. ... And I feared that I may have inherited whatever chromosome caused that, and I did not want to be a bad father. That was a huge, huge part of it.

On how his father, who wanted to be a writer, felt about his son's books

Jealousy was one component of his attitude toward it. I think he was also proud in a sense. ... Humans are such complicated people. He never expressed himself on the issue one way or the other verbally to me. He never said he liked my books. He never discussed with me the content of the books, the events that happened in the books. I don't know why. I'm not completely sure he ever read them all the way through. Maybe he did. Maybe not. It's a mystery to me, as so much of my life is a mystery to me.

On not feeling traumatized by the war

I'll sometimes look at my hands and think, 'God, these hands were in a war. You're not a violent guy and you couldn't have pulled the trigger.' And I know I did. And I know I was violent, that I shot at people and it just doesn't feel real.

I don't dream about it a lot. I certainly, in my waking life, don't think about it a lot. And the reason is ... for my whole life, it felt like it wasn't real, even in Vietnam. "This can't be happening. This can't be happening. You're not a soldier." There's this constant sense that the war didn't feel real to me, even as it was happening, and that's been compounded now that it's over. I'll sometimes look at my hands and think, "God, these hands were in a war. You're not a violent guy and you couldn't have pulled the trigger." And I know I did. And I know I was violent, that I shot at people and it just doesn't feel real.

On his nickname "College Joe" during the war, and the burden of fighting in it

I hated Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. I didn't like bugs and sleeping in the rain and none of that. And I didn't know anything about weapons. And a lot of the guys I served with were outdoor types, and they did like and know that stuff. So I think the "College Joe" thing was maybe not derogatory, but it meant that I wasn't cut out to be a soldier — and I wasn't. I did the one thing I could do, which was ... I just kept my legs moving. I didn't fall to the ground. I didn't quit. I didn't say, "Take me to some insane asylum and lock me away." I did keep going. And I look back on that as the only kind of source of pride out of it. Somehow I endured it all. That's something.

And the problem for me really is that I questioned the rectitude of the war, period. I thought I was doing the wrong thing by being there. And it ate at me constantly, where most of the men around me thought we should invade North Vietnam and put a big Iron Curtain around Hanoi and then bomb the hell out of it. ... It's been a source of continuing guilt and shame that I actually went to that thing and participated in it. If there's a single burden that I have to carry through my life, that's the heaviest. It's that sense of: I shouldn't have done it.

On the title The Things They Carried

The word "they" is meant to encompass not just soldiers, but the mothers of soldiers, the fathers, but to go even beyond that to things you carry as a broadcaster and an interviewer to worries you carry. Did I do a good enough job? Did I ask the right questions? Did I elicit what I was after? You know how you take those things home with you? ... We all carry physical stuff that represents who we are. But we also carry the emotional aftershocks of our lives — the joys and the sadness and everything else.

On visiting the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C.

It was a tearful experience. I broke down and wept. I found the names of people that died in my presence and put my fingers on their names and leaned against that wall. It makes me cry now, just remembering that moment, I was near dusk, almost dark, and the shadows of the wall were shadows of the war over me and my friends. It was an emotional time, and it's a beautiful elegiac monument to human suffering.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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