Author Tim O’Brien writes about life, war, fatherhood in ‘Dad’s Maybe Book’
Writer Tim O’Brien is saying that Dad’s Maybe Book (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) will be his last book. Fans of his fiction and non-fiction won’t be disappointed in this memoir that is a moving farewell to his life as a writer and a delightful hello to fatherhood, which he embraced late in life.
The winner of the National Book Award and the $100,000 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award, O’Brien has given the literary world some amazing, thought-provoking works including If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home; Northern Lights; The Nuclear Age; Going after Cacciato, Tomcat in Love; July, July; and In the Lake of the Woods. His book of short stories, The Things They Carried, about U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, is required reading in many high school and college classrooms.
Dad’s Maybe Book is O’Brien talking to his two sons, Timmy and Tad. It is not a parenting book, he says. “It is me telling my children what is and what was. They may never know me, because I am so very old,” O’Brien, 73, says.
O’Brien became a father at the age of 56 and he knows he may not be around when his boys become fathers themselves. The title came from a conversation with Tad. “Tad asked, ‘Is this going to be a book?’ And I said, ‘Maybe.’ Later, talking to my wife, I realized it is a ‘maybe book’ until you are finished.” His wife, Meredith, also said that every step he took in Vietnam was a ‘maybe step’ — because of the land mines. “She reminded me that every human being needs a ‘maybe life.’”
When O’Brien joined Texas State University in 1999, he says it was supposed to be a one-year assignment. It was Tom Grimes, the former director of the MFA in Creative Writing program, who first broached the idea of O’Brien joining the university. In the past 20 years, O’Brien has alternated as an instructor every other year. Today, as a professor of creative writing in the College of Liberal Arts, he teaches three MFA workshops each semester, fiction and nonfiction, at the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center in Kyle. In the workshops, O’Brien says they discuss two manuscripts. “I ask for general comments about characters and plot. I ask the students, ‘Does it move your heart?’”
“Dad’s Maybe Book” will move your heart. O’Brien shifts easily between the hardship of being a new father at 56 to recalling growing up in Minnesota with his father, a World War II veteran and alcoholic.
“Part of the motivation behind the book was my dad,” he says. “I didn’t ask enough questions.” In the book, he shares stories about serving in Vietnam:
“I told my sons of what happened to me in the summer of 1968, the summer I was drafted, the summer I became a soldier. One of my heads — located, let’s say atop my right shoulder — had been fiercely patriotic, loved its country, respected authority, respected tradition, and believed in such things as duty, sacrifice and service. The other head — teetering precariously above my left shoulder — had also believed in these things, but at the same time found itself opposed to the war in Vietnam and wanted nothing to do with it, certainly the killing part and more certainly not the dying part. I was 21 years old. I was terrified.”
O’Brien opens Dad’s Maybe Book with an explanation and a chapter titled “A Letter to My Son.” Then, it moves around from lessons learned in new parenting to trips abroad with the family, from speaking at writers’ seminars to being back in a foxhole in Vietnam with Alpha Company. “That’s the way memory works; it comes around in time. It is not linear,” he says.
Recently, O’Brien lent his memories to the NBC TV show, “This is Us.” The Vietnam War was the setting for several episodes in the popular series’ third season. As a series consultant and writer, O’Brien’s recollections of U.S. servicemen along the South China Sea fishing with hand grenades became a major plot point in the show.
O’Brien says a couple of his books are in the hands of Hollywood filmmakers for casting.
Nowadays, O’Brien is enjoying being back home in Austin after spending almost two months traveling to publicize the book. And no, he doesn’t have any plans to write another. “I want to give my boys all the attention I can,” he says. “I hate even writing emails.”