Question: How do you feel about the current generation of young people?
Tim O’Brien: I don’t know enough. I’m such a simple-minded guy; I just assume in most ways, there’s no difference. The faces are younger and the bodies a leaner because the habits are better than in my generation. Nobody smokes any more, or very few. Everybody knows about the right foods to eat. Everybody looks a little sleeker than in my era. The girls look prettier and the guys look tougher, well not tougher, buffer. But aside from that, look, I can hang out with college kids or people in their 20’s and feel utterly at home in a way that I don’t think I could have felt at home where when I was 26 hanging out with Kurt Vonnegut, or I think I would have felt ill-at-ease. But there’s a poise among young people that really does astonish me. Really astonishes me the way people can do something that was so difficult for me. So, I’m not sure what to say, exactly.
Question: What’s your next book about—and do writers hate that question?
Tim O’Brien: I don’t think I hate it, I fear it more than anything. Because you’re put on the spot to articulate things about something in progress that have the danger of freezing you. That is, you say it enough times, “I’m doing this,” and then you damn well better do it. You start telling yourself, "Well, I said I’m going to write this book and it’s going to be that kind of book." And it freezes you where you are reluctant to go beyond it or push in another direction with the same book.
Having said that, I know enough about what I’m working on to say it’s a book about being an older father, that I’m 63 and I’ve got these two young kids and I can say that it’s about some of the stuff that I was writing about with “The Things They Carried,” the sense of your own mortality presses in on you in a war. And you know intellectually you’re going to die some day, but in a war you’re reminded pretty often, and it’s right at you. And I feel that way as an older father. I imagine where I’m going to be 10 years from now. I mean, basketball’s going to be tough, and will I even be alive? And the two little boys who know nothing of tombstones and know nothing of the tick of biology or... you know, are facing it, as I am. And there’s a sadness to it that’s accompanied by exhilaration of the moments matter and "By God I’m taking advantage of them." Which is what I meant earlier about writing. That I’d rather—I mean, I could die tomorrow and as a writer be content with four or five of the books I’ve written as being good. But I can’t die and be content about these two unformed lives that are too young to be good. And I want to be there to watch them become good and to do what I can to help. And so I’m writing about that.
But, it’s funnier than that. There are funny things in it too. The discovery of language and the storytelling. Part of the book is about the stories I tell these kids and their sources. Partly in the world now and partly in the world long ago.
Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen