Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

Tim O'Brien On Becoming A Father At 58


Tim O'Brien became a father when he was 58 - two boys, Timmy and Tad. As he writes in a letter to Timmy when he's just a year old, when you begin to know me, you will know an old man. Well, over the years, Tim O'Brien has written occasional letters to Timmy and Tad about things they can carry through life, if you please, from their father, the celebrated author of "The Things They Carried," the classic collection of short stories from the war in Vietnam, and several award-winning novels. Those letters have been brought together for a new book, "Dad's Maybe Book."

Tim O'Brien joins us now from the studios of KUT in Austin. Thanks so much for being with us.

TIM O'BRIEN: I'm delighted. Thank you.

SIMON: In fact, your son Tad gave you the title, didn't he?

O'BRIEN: He sure did. He saw a stack of papers on my desk, and he asked me, is this going to be a book? And I said, well, sometimes books end up in trash cans. They just aren't good enough. And he said, well, what if the book is good enough? Will it be a book? And I said, maybe. And his eyes lit up, and he said, well, you have to call it that. You've got to call it your maybe book.

SIMON: Now, for the record, you reveal yourself in this book as an ardent and devoted father, but you had to be convinced to have a family, didn't you?

O'BRIEN: I did. I think I feared fatherhood. I had lived for 58 years without children, and I feared that I wouldn't be a good father, that I wouldn't have the patience for changing diapers and the bedlam at bedtime. And my wife and I - we weren't married at the time; we were talking about getting married - nearly broke up over my reluctance to have children.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a section called "Row Row" (ph) which recaptures, I think, for many parents, the sheer terror of their offspring's cry.

O'BRIEN: Yeah. I was afraid I was killing my own child. He - Timmy, my older son, cried from birth until, oh, five months into life without ceasing. And eventually, the crying became infectious. I cried. My wife cried. And one Sunday afternoon, I found her crying right outside Timmy's bedroom. And without thinking about it at all, I just said, get dressed, we're going. And we headed for an emergency room. And seven or eight hours later, we emerged with two prescriptions of Xanax, for Meredith and for me.


O'BRIEN: And one of Prilosec for Timmy, who was found to be suffering from a really severe case of acid reflux.

SIMON: You write them a letter, too, in which you try and tell them how it feels to be a veteran of the war in Vietnam. And certainly, on the one hand, you love and cherish those with whom you served. On the other hand, you hold nothing back about what you did there.

O'BRIEN: Well, yes. I'm - I love and will love forever my fellow soldiers in Vietnam and admire them. They would advance under fire even in - under the most lethal circumstances, and how relentlessly ordinary they were in doing so. We were all kids, 21 years old up to 25 or so. On the other hand, they hold - my fellow veterans of that war hold views I don't hold. Many of them would do it all again. I wouldn't. Yet, when I encounter them at talks I give around the country, I tear up. And it has to do with this sense of enduring the unendurable together. That stays with me not only in my waking hours, but a lot of times in my dreams.

SIMON: You write at one point, I'm an old man now, and when I put this period on this sentence, I will be a minute or two older. How many more sentences can there be? Will those sentences be better, will they be wiser, will they be more infused with feeling because of your children?

O'BRIEN: I think "Dad's Maybe Book" has a love inside that my other books don't have, at least to that extent. The only wisdom that I have from growing old is the wisdom of knowing that I don't know everything and that I'm wrong as often as I am right. And in several chapters of the book, I warn my kids about absolutism, and it can kill people and has. It's not a crime to use the word maybe, and it's not a sin, and it's not evil. That maybeness comes not just from Vietnam. It comes from getting old.

SIMON: Tim O'Brien - his book, "Dad's Maybe Book" - thank you so much for being with us.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.