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8 January 2020

Tim O’Brien Q&A: “My sons, Timmy and Tad, are better human beings than I“

The writer talks Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, George Orwell and Donald Trump.

By New Statesman

Tim O’Brien was born in Minnesota in 1946. He served in the US Army in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, an experience which informed his books “If I Die in a Combat Zone” and “The Things They Carried” .

What’s your earliest memory?

My earliest memory is of sunlight moving across a woman’s face. My mother’s face, I think. Or the face of my mother’s mother.

Who are your heroes?

Beyond doubt, my childhood hero was my father, whom I idolised. My adult heroes are my sons, Timmy and Tad, whom I also idolise for their kindness, empathy and generosity of spirit. They are better human beings than I.

What book last changed your thinking?

Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons changed my life twice, first when I read it decades ago and then again when I read it four months ago. It made me feel less alone. All fathers must one day lose their sons, just as all sons must one day lose their fathers.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I look up to George Orwell, who was not quite a “political” figure in the strictest sense, but whose essays and fiction bravely challenged political orthodoxy, political tyranny and political murder.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

On occasion, I am able to construct a clear and even musical sentence. I am inexpert at all else.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would like to live in what remains of our present century, so that I might always be present for my sons, even knowing that it cannot and will not happen.

What TV show could you not live without?

I can – and mostly do – live without television entirely. At age 73, life takes on a now-or-never quality, and I am busily reading books I should have read, or reread, decades ago. No time remains for frivolity.

Who would paint your portrait?

Tad, my younger son, would paint my portrait. In fact, at age 14, he had already done so several times, usually on a home-made birthday card. With each of Tad’s portraits I grow older and uglier.

What’s your theme tune?

At the moment, I am on a book tour here in the US, living in hotels and aboard airplanes. My theme song is “I Gotta Get Out of This Place”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My sons, along with my wife Meredith, advised me to write and complete my latest work, Dad’s Maybe Book. I did so. Which explains why I am now living in hotels and aboard airplanes.

What’s currently bugging you?

I can think of only two words. The first is “Donald”.

What single thing would make your life better?


When were you happiest?

I was happiest yesterday, during a phone call, when my sons uttered the words “I love you” out of the tight-lipped teenage blue.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

If I were not a writer, I would be a man dreaming of becoming a writer.

Are we all doomed?

This question invites a noble lie. No. 

“Dad’s Maybe Book” by Tim O’Brien is published by Fourth Estate

This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran