Reached by Zoom one recent afternoon from his home in Austin, Tim O’Brien says he’s just taken another pass through the manuscript of his new novel, deleting all the fucking—maybe 80 of them—for fear of overuse. “And then I thought, fuck getting rid of fucking!” he laughs. “If that word disturbs people, go read another book! You get one chance to let it rip, and I decided in this one, it’s gonna rip.”
O’Brien has never shied away from letting it rip in his past works either, writing about the rawest, roughest aspects of American life. He served in the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1970, and is most well known for his searing accounts of the conflict—in memoir, novels, and hybrid works that famously blur the lines between fiction and reality. His 1979 novel, Going After Cacciato, won him the National Book Award, and 1990’s The Things They Carried has become part of the American canon. Told as a series of sketches featuring the men of Alpha Company, it creates an affecting mosaic of what it’s like to be a young soldier, one that’s read throughout middle and high school classrooms across the country. It purposefully strays away from any tidy lessons (“A true war story is never moral,” O’Brien famously wrote), but has plenty of wisdom to impart about masculinity, loss, courage, and living with the emotional burdens life leaves us to carry.
For the last two decades, O’Brien has been delivering those insights more directly, raising two boys. The older of the two was born in 2003, when O’Brien was 56 years old. Afraid he might not be around to watch his kids grow up, O’Brien compiled another book of vignettes, this time as musings written for his sons. It was released in 2019 as Dad’s Maybe Book. Now, as he finishes his new novel, and with the beloved The Things They Carried being made into a movie featuring Tom Hardy, Tye Sheridan, and Pete Davidson, the 75-year-old reflects on aging, fatherhood, his time in Vietnam, and his new book, which he says offers his most “savage” take yet on the nation that sent him to war.
“It’s not that I don’t love and admire my country in many, many ways,” he says, wearing his signature baseball cap and occasionally taking drags of a cigarette. “It’s a lot like having children: They do bad shit and you love them anyway.”
QG: Did you always know you were going to write another novel?
Tim O’Brien: No. I thought I was done four books ago. after In the Lake of the Woods came out [in 1994]I thought, “That’s got to be it.” [It was] such a hard book to write. But I had a character in my head and I couldn’t get rid of her and started dabbling. For the first 300 pages, that’s all it really was. I vowed I would only write for as long as it was fun. If it stopped being fun—hard fun, but still fun—then I’d quit. And I never did. Now it’s un-fun. There’s quite a lot of revision to do.