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“Memoir is a Strange Word When you Don’t Remember a Whole Lot” – Tim O’Brien on How Memory, History, and Literature Inform his Joyous New Book

by Brendan Dowling on December 29, 2021

Tim O’Brien’s vividly wrought Dad’s Maybe Book is equal parts a love letter to his children, a thoughtful analysis on war’s lifelong effect on those who serve, and a joyful celebration of the written life. Told in thoughtfully crafted letters to his young sons, O’Brien ruminates on becoming a father later in life, American history, his relationship with his own father, and his approach to writing. The result is an incredibly moving summation of a life, one where O’Brien brilliantly articulates his well-considered philosophy on a variety of subjects. O’Brien is perhaps best known for his story collection Things They Carried, and his other books include the National Book Award -winning Going After Cacciato and In the Lake of the Woods. Critics have been equally enthusiastic about Dad’s Maybe Book as O’Brien’s earlier work, with Time Magazine hailing it as “a work that’s the spiritual inheritor of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country.” O’Brien spoke with Brendan Dowling via telephone on October 8th, 2019.

This is your first book in nearly two decades. How did you arrive at writing it?

I really didn’t arrive at it, my younger son did. I had been writing these little love letters to the kids for ten years or so. I had pretty much given up writing, except for that. They were all very short—maybe ten of these things in the desk drawer. Tad, my younger boy, saw them and asked if I was writing a book. I said, “Maybe.” He said, “Well, you ought to call it what it is, call it your maybe book.” So it began with those words out of a kid’s mouth. I thought about it, I didn’t accept the idea right away. I put it in a pile of notes and would occasionally look at it. It began to occur to me that the word “maybe” defined my life at the time. I was an old guy, maybe there’d be a tomorrow and maybe there wouldn’t. I thought that all of us, in a way, have got this “maybe” thing going on. Maybe our dreams will come true and maybe they won’t. Maybe our dreams will change or be qualified or amended or maybe we’ll get new dreams. The title began to grow on me more and more, and I finally decided I’d call it what my kid told me to call it.

I love how he asks you if people get paid for coming up with book titles.

I typed the title on the manuscript and he saw it and he said, “Do you get paid for these books?” I said, “Well, yeah, if they’re any good.” He said, “Do you get paid for the titles?” And that’s when he went off to write his IOU. I’ve yet to pay him. I guess I’ll have to give him a few books. (laughs)

You write how your sons haven’t read your other books. Have they read this one?

They haven’t read it. They’ve heard me read three chapters from it at various places around the country. I’ve chosen funny stuff, for the most part. I’ve almost entirely omitted the sad things.  They’ve loved it. They love laughing at the people they used to be. Tad, in particular, he’s really a rascal. He’ll say anything to anybody. When he was in sixth grade he had a project to design a utopia. Part of the utopia was a volcano into which people throw the old people. And I said to him, “Well, how old?” Tad said, “Well, about seventy when they have nothing left to live for.” I said, “Tad, do you know how old I am?” He said, “You’re not seventy are you?” I said not quite, but I was damn close. He said, “We can wait till they’re eighty. People can ask to get thrown in if life gets too desolate.” (laughs) The audience laughed at that seven-page chapter. Tad laughed louder than anyone. I think he still thinks it’s funny.

Hemingway’s work plays a huge role in the book, and you talk about how everyone has their own personal Hemingway. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

I think it’s true of pretty much of any author I can think of, that I certainly had my Hemingway as I described in the book. Part of me really adores his best stuff, other parts of me rebel at things that I think are a little strange, if not cruel. Not by Hemingway himself, but his characters can act cruelly. There’s an anecdote early on in the book that probably explains what I mean best, when I gave a talk In an auditorium. My memory is it was in Chicago. I had choked up during the reading, even though it was fiction. It was a story called “The Man I Killed,” that is loosely based on things that occurred during the war. After a firefight, you look at corpses, and imagine that person, often just a kid—sixteen, eighteen years-old—even though the corpse belonged to an enemy soldier, you feel great pain. The world seems like an evil place and you feel part of the evil. All the terror has evaporated and you don’t think about politics. All you think about is a dead person. I choked up. After the talk, I signed books and at the end of the line is a twenty-two year old guy. He said, “Well, I can really appreciate your honesty. I know it was really tough on you to read that.” And I said thanks. We hugged and he started to walk away. He said, “I’ll tell you something. I’ve been thinking of joining the Marine Corps, and now I know I’m going to.” I felt like a failure. I remember my heart dropping. Stories almost identical to that have repeated themselves over the last thirty years or so. It’s as if my books have brushed up against a stranger and the stranger takes from it whatever their background, temperament, history, or values are. They take things from it that the author may or may not intend, often what an author does not intend. I’m sure that’s happened to me as I’ve read books, that I’ve responded to them, as I guess almost all readers have to respond to them, through my own history and what I know about the world and what I believe about the world. So in that sense I think we all have our own Shakespeares or own Joseph Conrads.

I’m struck by the story you tell in the book of the young woman who tells you that having The Things They Carried assigned to her in high school allowed her family to talk about their experiences in the Viet Nam war.

That’s another good example. I did not know that family, did not know the woman who wrote the letter. I didn’t intend to help them, obviously—I couldn’t, I didn’t know them! But books can again do things an author doesn’t intend. This time it was something wonderful. It got a family talking. A father who had been silent, angry, and embittered read a few pages of The Things They Carried and talked about them at the dinner table. And the talk went on and on. The woman concluded her letter by saying that the family’s still talking, still going over the pain of it all—the father’s and the mother’s pain as well. It’s an example I guess of the power of a story and the power of books in general. They don’t always do that, but occasionally a book can make a very big difference in the life of a human being.

One thing I really valued in the book was how you include the writing instructions that you gave to your sons. How did that make its way into the book?

That was an attempt to replicate what happens in our house. My kids come home with homework, and a lot of it has to do with writing. We talk about it at the dinner table. Sometimes I’ll turn off the TV and respond to a question that either Timmy or Tad has asked. They sometimes ask strange questions, but the strangeness has a root in something that matters to me. I’m a writer. For example, Timmy got a comment on one paper—back when he was an eighth grader I believe—that he was writing run-on sentences. He wasn’t sure what a run-on sentence was. So I gave him one for ten minutes. I kept a sentence going and going and going, just to tell him that pretty soon, a reader begs for conclusion. They yearn for some conclusiveness with all those strung together clauses. So the writing tips, some of them are tongue in cheek, but by and large, I mean whatever the lesson might be from it: watch out for decorative, long-winded language and wordiness and so on. It came directly out of a talk with our kids. That’s true of most of the book. Even the longer, more sober essays were born from bedtime or dinner table conversations we had.

Can you talk about how you structured the book? I found it really powerful how you paralleled your experiences in Viet Nam with the experience of British soldier’s experiences in the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

Well again, it was born out of questions my kids had asked me. They knew I had been a soldier. They don’t know much about it. They know very little about Viet Nam, the war itself but they know I was a soldier, that I was in combat, that I was wounded. They occasionally ask questions, “How scared were you? How did you do that? How did you keep your legs moving?” I was telling told them about land mines causing so many casualties and they wondered how could you keep walking? Why didn’t you just fall down? My answer was vague because my memory had become vague. Like my childhood—probably like you, if you look back at your childhood, you can remember little snapshots of things and short little video clips in your head, but most of it has been erased. Huge gaps that occur in our memories. I was trying to explain that to the kids. We went from the subject of war to the subject of memory and how fallible it is. How we have this illusion that we remember important events in our lives, but how if we were to actually recount what’s remembered as opposed to what’s surmised or guessed at, very little remains. I can’t remember which kid said it, but one of them said, “It’s like you’re losing your life while you’re living it.” Boy, that made me want to write a lot about memory, just to hear that line coming out of a child’s mouth. That’s pretty true. I can’t remember much of yesterday. I remember scraps of things, but I couldn’t ever put them in a linear chain. I can’t remember what’s going through my head as I drove to an interview. I don’t even have recollections of driving to the interview, but I know I did.

It’s an example of the illusion that we all live with that we have a firm grasp on ourselves, on who we are and why we’ve done what we’ve done in our lives. It is a kind of illusion, a story we built for ourselves, that has very little of reality remaining in it, just a clip of it perhaps. I can say, for example, “My dad was an alcoholic.” I have a couple of memories of that from my childhood, but it’s mostly just a blur of tension and pain and terror. Very little remains of it. So it’s an example of how one topic, war, which can lead you to a completely different topic, which is memory.

There’s a section of the book in which I write about getting wounded, but it’s done as a blur. A hand grenade comes out of the brush fifty years ago. I can’t remember it coming out of the brush, though I know it did. I do have a memory of looking down at it and seeing it fizzling two feet from the ground, that’s pretty much it. A bee-sting sensation I kind of remember. I don’t remember the grenade exploding, though I know it did. So I try to replicate that in the writing and then connect it to conversations with my dad when he said, “What war? Was I in a war?” He was a little senile, and connect that to Hemingway when he talks, “Was I in a war?” It’s one of his characters doing the questioning. The structure of the book I try to unify around certain themes, that’s one of them, memory. The book is a kind of memoir, really. Yet memoir is a strange word when you don’t remember a whole lot. (laughs)

You write about The Things They Carried being banned, and I wanted to ask what that experience has been like for you as an author.

Well, it’s terrible. For a writer, it’s a kind of death that there’s going to be a group of people who are not going to read my book. Usually they’re high school or college kids, one of the two. Sometimes they’re adults—when it’s banned from the pulpit, for example. That’s happened. A minister might ban it. I remember in Kansas, I’m 99% sure it was Kansas, where some fundamentalist or evangelical minister had a strange theory that if you were in a war it was linked to being gay. It was a very bizarre theory. He organized a picket when I was going to talk in the town. It never transpired, it didn’t happen, But I was warned by a librarian that it was going to happen. I wasn’t angry exactly, I was sad. I was sad for the people who listened to him. I was sad for art. I was sad for libraries and I was sad for civilization. There’s a sadness that comes over you. I don’t remember any anger. I would expect it would be anger but it was a deep sadness that a class of people would be excluded from participation in something that I thought was beautiful. It almost makes me want to cry when I hear about another book banning. It’s a sad subject. It’s been with us a long time and I guess it will be with us for a long time in the future.

And finally, what role has the public library played in your life?

Enormous. My dad was on the board of my hometown library. He did it for years and he loved books. He would come home with big stacks of them. There were books all over the house all of them from the public library. There was no bookstore in my hometown, everything came from the library. I wrote my first book in a library when I was eight years old. It was thirty pages long, I thought it was a book. It was based on a kid’s book. I had gone into the children’s section of our Nobles County Library after a hot summer afternoon after a baseball practice where I had been booting ground balls and striking out. I was really in a sour mood. I found this book called Larry of Little League. I read it. It took me half an hour, a very short book. I remember coming up to the librarian and asking for some paper and a pencil. I sat down at a little desk and over the next two hours composed my own book called Timmy in the Little League. It was a direct rip off off. I mean, I plugged my own name in wherever the word “Larry” was, because this kid Larry could do everything I couldn’t do: he could field and hit and run and throw. (laughs) I changed a few other things, like the name of the town. I used my own baseball team’s name instead of Larry’s. I can’t overemphasize how important libraries were in our life. There was something about the feel of the library that is still with me. Mine was an old Carnegie library. It had the smell of ink and glue and that musty kind of paper smell. I would feel instantly at peace when I walked into that library. I still feel that way. That peacefulness is still with me. Without libraries, I know I wouldn’t have been a writer, because I wouldn’t have loved books the way I came to love them. By books, I don’t just mean what’s in the books. It’s the physical artifact, the thing, that musty old book. Libraries are everything to me.