TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Tim O'Brien, is best known for his novels and stories about the Vietnam War. He did a tour of duty in Vietnam as a foot soldier in 1969 after he was drafted. He won a 1979 National Book Award for his novel "Going After Cacciato." His 1990 novel, "The Things They Carried," was included in a Library of Congress exhibit of the books that had a profound effect on American life.
O'Brien is the subject of the new documentary "The War And Peace Of Tim O'Brien." It focuses on his life after becoming a father in 2003 in his late 50s. He had no interest in becoming a father but was talked into it by Meredith, the woman who later became his wife, who gave him an ultimatum. She didn't see a future for herself in that relationship unless they committed to having children. But once his children were born, he was all-in. He even gave up writing for many years to raise them with his wife. His latest book, "Dad's Maybe Book," his first since his children were born, was published in 2019, when his sons were in their teens.
The new documentary, among other things, reflects on his memories of the war, how it's continued to affect his life and how that, in turn, has affected his wife and sons. It's also about facing mortality as a soldier and now as an older man. The film will be available starting next Tuesday on digital and cable video on demand.
Tim O'Brien, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been a long time. It is a pleasure to have you back on our show. You didn't become a father until you were older, in your late 50s. You'd resisted it. And you nearly broke up with Meredith, the woman who became your wife, because there was no future in the relationship for her without children. So having children turned out to be a really profound experience for you. Why do you think you were so resistant to being a father until you became one?
TIM O'BRIEN: Well, partly personal greed, I think, a kind of desire to have my life entirely as my own. There was an element of fear involved, too. In fact, maybe that was paramount. I had had a tough childhood. My dad was an alcoholic. And sometimes he wasn't physically present, but he also was not emotionally present much of the time. He was a great man in many ways. He was funny. He was fun to be around when he was sober. But when he was not, life was hard as a 9-year-old and a 14-year-old and then the years in between. And I feared that I may have inherited whatever chromosome caused that. And I did not want to be a bad father. That was a huge, huge part of it.
GROSS: What changed your mind about fatherhood after becoming a father? What made you feel so positive about it? I mean, obviously, your sons made you feel that way. But, I mean, it sounds like it was not what you were expecting it to be. So what were the really good parts of it that surprised you that you hadn't expected?
O'BRIEN: I hadn't expected otherness, that sense of another human being who was not Tim O'Brien whom I could love wholeheartedly and feel as if I were under the skin and inside the bodies and the blood of these two little boys, now teenagers. I feel the same. There's a sense of otherness where I come to a lot less than I used to because my head is occupied by two other human beings and my wife. That is a beautiful relief from what had been 58 years of Tim O'Brien-ness.
GROSS: You're 74 now, and your children are in their teens, so you worry that they'll never really know you as adults, that you might not live long enough for them to reach, like, full adulthood. And there's a scene in the documentary where one of your children is basically crying and, you know, expressing his fear that you're going to die because you're old. How do you talk to your children about being relatively old - like, much older than their friends' parents?
O'BRIEN: I talk to them pretty bluntly. When they say, Dad, you're old; you're going to die, I say, I know - sad. I don't say no, and I don't deny it because it's a lie, and I don't want to leave them with a lie. The reality is the reality, and they've adjusted to it over time. The crying has stopped. Especially my older boy, Timmy, would really weep about it. He'd come out in the middle of the night and wake me up and say what you just said - you're going to die, Dad, and I can't stand it. And we would talk about my age and what a great gift it had been to spend time with him already.
Now, when my older boy is 17 and my younger, Tad, is 15, they still think about it. I still think about it. And my wife still thinks about it. But it's not in a macabre kind of way. It's not grim. It's growing comfortable with reality. And we have a happy house, I think partly because we don't deny reality.
GROSS: Your father was a regional manager for a life insurance company. And in that sense, I would imagine part of his job was guestimating when customers would die, you know, 'cause that's what you have to do in life insurance. Like, how long are they likely to live? What are they likely to die of? And then you could base, you know, the cost of the premium on that. So did you grow up with those kind of actuarial tables and with your knowing that your father was, you know, busy calculating how long people would live?
O'BRIEN: My dad used to joke about it. He'd say - I'd say, what's your job? And he'd say, my job is selling bad news - like, essentially what he was doing. He hated his job. He was - he came from Brooklyn, where he grew up as a kid, lived in Nassau for a short time and went to the South Pacific in World War II. And he ended up in a little cow town in the middle of nowhere in southern Minnesota - more strictly a turkey town surrounded by soybeans and cornfields. He hated it. He missed Brooklyn. He missed New York in general. He missed the excitement of life as he had once known it, the war in Nassau and in Brooklyn. And so he was doing what, for him, I think, was a dead-end job.
He had dreamed of being a writer. Back during the war, he had written letters for his shipmates in the Navy - letters home. He composed them and the whole damn thing. And the real - he typed them, and the real - the guy whose letter he was writing would sign it and send it to his wife or girlfriend or mother or father. My dad was a really fine writer in a kind of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, chipper kind of way, like those old movies. His writing was very upbeat, often funny, almost the reverse of his son's. And I think he would've been a fine writer of a certain kind, but he had to raise three kids and put food on the table.
GROSS: You know what you just said about your father, that he really wanted to be a writer, but he was stuck in this, like, small farming town away from Brooklyn, away from the things he loved. He couldn't have a writing career. Do you think that has to do with not wanting to be a father yourself because you associated, like, children and family with - coming along with a certain deprivation that you can't fulfill your dreams if you have a family to support and it's going to take you away? You'll be with people you love, but it's going to take you away from your own ambitions.
O'BRIEN: It was a mixture of really two things - fear that I'd be a bad father and that greed or selfishness thing I'd mentioned, that I'd always identified myself as a writer from even from the time I was a little boy. It's what I wanted to be and do. And that's what I valued, making graceful sentences. I just loved it. I hated the pain of it, but I loved the doing of it. And I thought that with a child in the house and then two children in the house, that would end. It did end, and much to my surprise, it was a great relief when it did. I was able to move away from myself and into these two other lives.
GROSS: And then it started again because you ended up writing about fatherhood and about your children. So, you know, end it forever. It ended it for a long period of time.
O'BRIEN: No, it didn't end forever. It gave me - much as Vietnam did, it gave me a body of material, a kind of context to write about that I share with a lot more people than the experience of war. Parenthood is shared by many, many people. Maybe it's biology, just keeping the species going. But I feel that I'm part of something age-old and that's going to continue long after I'm gone. And it's not just making a child and raising a child. It's trying to give what you can of beauty in that child, what you can somehow muster yourself to provide - to my sons, caring about other people, probably being the biggest of those things that - ours is a family that cares about ourselves, but we care about other people, too. There's an incident - I can't remember if it's in the documentary, certainly in my book - where we had been in France, had a really ritzy resort in the south of France, way beyond our means. Everybody looked like George Hamilton, including the women.
O'BRIEN: I mean, rich, chic and bejeweled. And we were really uncomfortable. We plotted - we wouldn't eat in the restaurant because everything tasted like duck liver, everything did. It was - so we'd walk down to the town at night and eat our meals there. And one day I got a phone call from my sister in Texas, and she said my mom had died. And there I am on the other side of the world eating duck liver and at this terrible hotel, can do nothing about it. My two boys were playing ping-pong at an outdoor ping-pong table, and I walked over. They were maybe 8 years old and 6 years old, something like that. And I quietly said my mom had died. And for the rest of that afternoon, we played ping pong. I didn't speak. They didn't say anything.
And I can remember that ball going back and forth, back and forth across this green ping-pong table with silence all around me. Maybe three hours later, we walked down to town to have our dinner. And I was holding my older boy's, Timmy's, hand going down the hill. And I asked him, are you thinking about grandma? And Timmy said, no, I'm thinking about you thinking about grandma - makes me want to tear up. That's what I mean about otherness coming out of the mouth of an 8 year old. It's a sophisticated thought, but it's also a good sentence. No, I'm thinking about you thinking about grandma. That repetition of the thinkings (ph) - that's pretty beautiful and pretty stunning. And it's that that I want to perpetuate, that otherness.
GROSS: It's a beautiful way of describing empathy, too.
O'BRIEN: Is it ever.
GROSS: Though he might not have known the word yet, but he knew the feeling.
O'BRIEN: I'll say.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim O'Brien. The new documentary about him is called "The War And Peace Of Tim O'Brien." It will be available on cable and streaming video on-demand starting next Tuesday. His latest book about fatherhood is called "Dad's Maybe Book." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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O'BRIEN: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Tim O'Brien. He's the author of several books about the war in Vietnam that are now considered classics, including his memoir, "If I Die In A Combat Zone," and his novels "Going After Cacciato" and "The Things They Carried." His latest book, "Dad's Maybe Book," is about becoming a parent in his late 50s. O'Brien is the subject of the new documentary "The War And Peace Of Tim O'Brien."
Tim, you've been very sick and, like, pretty recently. It's documented in the film you had - you've had pneumonia several times. The most recent case, you were also in a coma. You had multiple organs that were on the verge of failure. And I should mention here that you're a smoker, too. Did you think you were going to die during that period?
O'BRIEN: I was too sick to even know I was on the verge of death. I was - I think that's a gift that biology or chemistry has given people. I remember when my mom died and my dad, they were both out of it. They were not in the world of the living or the dead. They were just gone before they were dead. And I was in that state, that I was sleeping 24 hours, just round the clock for days on end, not knowing I was sick. I had gone to a clinic with Aaron Matthews, the man who made the film. He was with me when this happened. And I was told I had flu and go take fluids and and sleep. And I did it for a week, almost non-stop. And in the course of that week, I contracted pneumonia, not knowing it.
So I ended up in an emergency room and then ended up in the hospital with organ failure and totally hallucinating. I remember what - before I went to the hospital, one of my sons had come back from basketball practice. And I was lying in the living room on a sick couch, where I'd been for a week, hallucinating. And I said to Timmy, I said - did the food that you ordered come? And Timmy said, what? I wasn't here. I was playing basketball. And I said, don't contradict me. I heard you order the food. And he said, where'd I order it from? Then I said, from the body shop. And he said, body shops don't make food. And I said, Timmy, I heard you called a body shop. You ordered the food. And he said, well - I said, they're delivering it. And he said, how? And I said, by a conveyor belt.
This was real to me. It was as real as Timmy standing beside me and maybe more so. I believed that my son had been here, ordered food. It was coming from a body shop on a conveyor belt. And Timmy said, well, body shops can't have that many conveyor belts to go to every house in Austin, Texas. That's a lot of conveyor belt. You can't do that. And none of what he said - well, that that night he couldn't sleep. He went and slept with Meredith. I think he was 10 years old then, something like that, maybe 11. And - but he just cried. He said, dad's gone insane. He's, like, completely insane. And in a way, I was. The hallucinations had become my life. And my life had become a hallucination. Just everything was upside down and remained that way for a couple of weeks, even in the hospital.
GROSS: It must've been very upsetting to your sons to hear you say things that were not only not real but were so crazy sounding. I mean, it's just - it's impossible.
O'BRIEN: You know, there's a sad ending to it all. The sad ending is back before this had struck, maybe two days before, I had been on my computer for the book. And I was interested in the question of, does war - is war a kind of insanity where men have simply lost reason? And I had done a search of insanity to look up what it was, the clinical definition of what it means to clinicians. Kimmie (ph) had found this while I was in the hospital and said - went to Meredith, my wife, and said, I think dad knows he's insane. And again, he cried that his father knew he was losing it. So for him, it was doubly troubling because he was also imagining that his father knew he was insane and was researching it on the Internet. It was - now it's partly funny, but there's still this edge to the humor or the funniness when we talk about it, where it feels like he's looking at me in a strange way, trying to say, is dad going to slide back into this sometime?
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim O'Brien. He's the subject of the new documentary "The War And Peace Of Tim O'Brien." It will be available on cable and streaming video on-demand starting next Tuesday. His latest book is called "Dad's Maybe Book." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Tim O'Brien. He's the author of now classic books about Vietnam, including his memoir, "If I Die In A Combat Zone," and his novels "Going After Cacciato," which won a National Book Award, and "The Things They Carried," which the Library of Congress included in its exhibit of 65 books that profoundly influenced America. O'Brien is the subject of a new documentary called "The War And Peace Of Tim O'Brien." It will be available on cable and streaming video on demand starting Tuesday. It reflects on his experiences as a foot soldier in Vietnam after he was drafted in the late 1960s and how the war continues to affect his life. It also reflects on his sense of mortality during the war and now in his '70s as the father of two sons in their teens. After he became a father in his late 50s, he gave up writing for many years to raise his two sons with his wife. His latest book, "Dad's Maybe Book," is part memoir about fatherhood, part advice to his sons.
So I have to ask you, having had - since you've had pneumonia several times, are you still smoking?
O'BRIEN: I am right now. Yeah. We all have our faults. And that's - I'm afraid that's mine. It's - I don't smoke around the kids. And they don't smell my smoke. And I do it in one room in the house where I am right now. But I do smoke. They know I do. I go outside a lot and do it out there and also in this room full of smoke-eating machines that they're not allowed in. But I fear I won't ever write again if I don't. And that weighs on me because I do want to write again.
GROSS: So I don't mean to sound like a scold or, you know, pass judgment or anything. But, you know, like, when you were in Vietnam, you were living on the edge of death because you could have been killed any second. You were in combat. And now, it's almost like, because your lungs are not in great shape and you've had, you know, pneumonia four times - in one of those cases, you were in a coma. It's like now you're unintentionally, like, killing yourself. And I find it upsetting (laughter). So I can only imagine how your family feels.
O'BRIEN: Well, I understand exactly what you're saying. It's an irrational thing, in a way. But there's this element of rationality in it, though. It's not wholly irrational in that we're all going to die of something. I'm 74 years old. I want to write. And I want to use what time I do have to write another book or at least try to. And I know I could not do that without it. Or I think I know it, anyway. But I...
GROSS: Maybe you're wrong.
O'BRIEN: Maybe I am. But maybe I'm right. I don't want to go through the possibility that I might be right for the possibility I might be wrong. I'd rather be sure I'm going to.
GROSS: So again, I don't say this to be judgmental, but just to kind of understand. Like, you know, in the movie, you say, like, you would do anything to have more years with your sons. But I guess the thing that you won't do is stop smoking.
O'BRIEN: Well, I didn't quite say anything. I said I'd give...
GROSS: You said you'd give every book, yeah, every book that you wrote.
O'BRIEN: Right. That I would do. But I wouldn't give writing again. It'd be like giving up myself in a way. It'd be a kind of, for me, a kind of death if I were not to write again. And I think other people who are - do things that are really important to them do similar kinds of things to keep - I don't know, keep doing what it is they felt they were put here to do. It's intimidating to find rational answers to things at the spur of the moment. I knew you were going to ask something I would not be able to handle. And you just did it. All I can say is it's irrational. I know it's irrational. And I'll take your advice. I'll stop. Like, right now, I'll put it out as soon as it's finished.
GROSS: (Laughter) That sounds like a great solution. So - you know, you say that - you say in the film that the war won't stop for you until you die. And I know I interviewed you back in - you might not remember this. But I interviewed you for the first time - I think it was the first time - in 1980. You were doing a reading at Temple University, which is in Philadelphia, like our show is. The show was local back then. And I had you on the show. This was a year after you'd won the National Book Award for "Going After Cacciato." And in that interview, you insisted that you were not traumatized by the war. And I just want to play you a short excerpt of that interview from 1980, which is, like, over 40 years ago. Is that OK, if I just play the short excerpt?
O'BRIEN: Oh, I'm curious.
GROSS: OK. So let's hear it. And this is Tim O'Brien on FRESH AIR in 1980.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
O'BRIEN: I don't think of myself as an expert on war. I was just a lowly PFC when I - or, you know, private when I - then I came out a sergeant. And I don't think of myself as a soldier or even as a war writer. I wasn't traumatized. I wasn't - I don't dream about Vietnam even now. I don't have nightmares. I don't feel changed in any kind of obvious sort of way. You know, some people, I suppose, were traumatized by Vietnam. And some veterans continue to suffer. For me, it was a subtler sort of thing. My career, the thing that's most important to my intellectual and emotional life, is writing fiction. And I wouldn't have become a writer of fiction if it hadn't been for that experience. So I was changed in a - eventually, in a great, big way. Yes. But in terms of my personality, no.
GROSS: So does your 74-year-old self agree with the self from 40 years ago who was saying that you weren't traumatized by the war?
O'BRIEN: Yeah, mostly, I do agree. I don't dream about it a lot. I certainly in my waking life don't think about it a lot. And the reason is, I think, that for my whole life, it felt like it wasn't real, even in Vietnam. This can't be happening. This can't be happening. You're not a soldier - this constant sense that the war didn't feel real to me even as it was happening. And that's been compounded now that it's over. I'll sometimes look at my hands and think, God, these hands were in a war? That - you're not a violent guy. And you couldn't have pulled the trigger. And I know I did. And I know I was violent, that I shot at people. And (laughter) it just doesn't feel real.
And, I think, for a lot of my fellow soldiers, the guys, that is, I actually served with, it does feel, to most of them, real. I have one friend. His name is Buddy Wolf - that was his nickname in Vietnam - Bob Wolf (ph). And there's a quote in "Dad's Maybe Book" that comes directly from my friend, Bob Wolf, who pretty much says what I said, that - he said that he can't remember anything about his own war. And he said, maybe that's why I keep sending e-mails to all my friends, to get some memories. And I can identify with that. There's a sense of unreality to it. There was a - one day, we were in a firefight. And a grenade sailed out, landed between me and another guy, a big, large, hefty kid named Closson (ph). And the grenade went off. And he took almost the full blast of it. I had a radio on my back. And I turned my back to it.
And all I remember of that whole incident is looking down and seeing that grenade kind of fizzling. And I remember vaguely turning my back. But the rest of it is completely gone. I have no idea what happened to Closson. I don't know if he died or lived. I remember this kind of, like, bee-sting sensation, that I got a little shrapnel - not bad at all. And then I compare that incident to people with their legs gone, both of them, and dying and the most horrendous injuries around me. And to my incredible good luck, nothing on that order happened to me. And that part - maybe that's why I don't carry around such - I don't know - terror-ridden memories.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim O'Brien. The new documentary about him is called "The War And Peace Of Tim O'Brien." It will be available on cable and streaming video on demand starting next Tuesday. His latest book about fatherhood is called "Dad's Maybe Book." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Tim O'Brien. He's the author of several books about the war in Vietnam that are now considered classics, including his memoir, "If I Die In A Combat Zone," and his novels "Going After Cacciato" and "The Things They Carried." His latest book, "Dad's Maybe Book," is about becoming a parent in his late 50s. O'Brien is the subject of the new documentary "The War And Peace Of Tim O'Brien."
How do you think the other soldiers that you were with thought of you? Your nickname was College Joe because, I mean, you were a reader. You were a writer. You went to Harvard after the war. I don't know if College Joe was just a nickname or whether it was meant to be complimentary or derogatory or neutral. But, you know, a lot of the skills that you had - I don't know how physical a person you were. But a lot of the intellectual skills that you had might not have come in very handy when it came to, like, trying to protect yourself and other soldiers.
O'BRIEN: Oh, you're absolutely right. They did not come in handy. I hated Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts. I didn't like bugs and sleeping in the rain and none of that. And I didn't know anything about weapons. And a lot of the guys I served with were outdoor types. And they did like and know that stuff. So I think the College Joe thing was maybe not derogatory. But it was an acknowledgement that I wasn't cut out to be a soldier, and I wasn't. I did the one thing I could do, which was I just kept humping, just kept my legs moving. I didn't fall to the ground. I didn't quit, you know? I didn't say take me, you know, to some insane asylum and lock me away. I did keep going.
And I look back on that is the only kind of source of pride out of it all. Somehow, I endured it all. That's something. And the problem for me, really, is that I questioned the rectitude of the war period. I thought I was doing the wrong thing by being there. And it ate at me constantly, where most of the men around me thought we should, you know, invade North Vietnam and put a big iron curtain around Hanoi and then bomb the hell out of it. That is the - was one of the big psychological burdens. And it's been a source of continuing guilt and shame that I actually went to that thing and participated in it. If there's a single burden that I have to carry through my life that's the heaviest, it's that sense of I shouldn't have done it.
GROSS: Well, you considered deserting, right? You considered - first, you considered just, like, going to Canada. You were living in Minnesota. So you could've crossed the border. I think it was, like, 90 miles away or something. So you could've done that. And you considered doing that. But you thought that that would be interpreted as an act of cowardice. And I'm wondering why you thought of it as an act of cowardice as opposed to an act of courage, because you would've been taking a stand that you believed was the morally correct position to have.
O'BRIEN: Yes. It would've been an act of courage for me, but not viewed that way by people in a small, conservative - small-town Minnesota. It would've been...
GROSS: Does that include your parents?
O'BRIEN: No. One of my parents was for the war. The other was against it. But neither would've viewed it that way. The rest of the townsfolk, I'm very, very sure, would not have viewed it that way. They would've looked at me as treasonous and a traitor to his country and a coward, even though I would've viewed it as an act of courage that I - really, I couldn't do. I wasn't brave enough to cross the border into Canada. Instead, I let myself go to that war, not to please myself, but to please my hometown.
GROSS: You say in the film that there have been times when you've done a reading or given a talk and somebody comes up to you afterwards and says, thank you for that. Now I know for sure I want to enlist. And you're just kind of mystified. How is that the message that they took away from someone who was as anti-war as you are? I mean, how is that the message? Do you have any idea, like, why somebody would be convinced to join a war after hearing you?
O'BRIEN: Even if you listen to the most grisly, disgusting and horrendous war story imaginable, the imagination of some people bring to that - I can do better; I can imagine myself behaving with decorous, valorous behavior in the face of all that. It's that - Hemingway once said, among other smart things that guy said, that the problem with courage in a war is - and the problem with cowardice in a war is either too much or too little imagination. Those with not enough imagination can be really brave in a war, could charge the enemy machine guns because they can't imagine themselves dying, or they don't imagine themselves dying. They imagine themselves overwhelming the machine gun somehow. And those other people who don't charge the machine can imagine themselves being shot in the face. That was my kind of imagination.
GROSS: You know, the title of your novel, "The Things They Carried," is an allusion to the things that soldiers have to carry on them and in their backpack when they're in war and then also the things that you carry to keep your sanity, like the letters that you keep or the book that you carry with you or whatever it is. During the period when you were a young father and the things that you carried were probably, like, a diaper bag (laughter), you know, with all the stuff for your baby's needs, did you think about the comparison?
O'BRIEN: Yeah, I think about it all the time, even when it's not related to kits (ph). Yeah. The title, "The Things They Carried," was really meant - the word they is meant to encompass not just soldiers but of mothers of soldiers, the fathers, but to go even beyond that to things you carry as a broadcaster and an interviewer, the worries you carry. Did I do a good enough job? Did I ask the right questions? Did I elicit what I was after? You know, how you take those things home with you. There are successful interviews, and then there are ones such as this one that are less successful, and you carry it home with you, and you worry about it. It goes to doctors and stockbrokers, that we all carry physical stuff that represent who we are, but we also carry the emotional aftershocks of our lives, the joys and the sadness and everything else.
GROSS: In what sense is this a less successful interview?
O'BRIEN: My own performance. Some of the - the smoking question really flipped me, mainly because I knew you were right. But I don't know. I never feel that I'm - you're such a good interviewer that I always feel inadequate in your presence, and that's never - I'll be 90, and you'll be interviewing me, and it'll be the same damn thing.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's ridiculous. I have one more question for you. Have you ever visited the Vietnam War Memorial, the one with all the names of the people killed in Vietnam, designed by Maya Lin? What was that experience like for you?
O'BRIEN: It was tearful experience. I broke down and wept. I found the names of people that had died in my presence and put my fingers on their names and leaned against that wall. Makes me cry now, just remembering that moment. It was near dusk, almost dark, and the shadows of the wall were like the shadows of the war over me and my friends. It was an emotional time, and it's a beautiful, elegiac monument to human suffering.
GROSS: Tim O'Brien, it's been great to talk with you again. I really appreciate you doing this interview. Thank you so much.
O'BRIEN: You're the best of the best, Terry. There's nobody that's as good as you, and I don't think there ever will be.
GROSS: Thank you. That means so much to me. Thank you for the interview and for your books, and I'll look forward to the next one.
Tim O'Brien is the subject of the new documentary "The War And Peace Of Tim O'Brien." It will be available on video and cable on demand starting Tuesday. His latest book about fatherhood is called "Dad's Maybe Book."
After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new true crime book "Two Truths And A Lie" by former reporter Ellen McGarrahan. It relates to the execution she witnessed years ago that went terribly wrong. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says that a new true crime book by former reporter Ellen McGarrahan called "Two Truths And A Lie" tells a profound story of redemption, and that redemption story is McGarrahan's own. Here's Maureen's review. I'm
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: obsessed with tales of obsession. Chances are you are, too, judging by the unflagging popularity of true crime stories, podcasts, documentaries, movies and books. What sets Ellen McGarrahan's just-published true crime book "Two Truths And A Lie" above so many others I've read is the moral gravity of her presence on the page and the hollow-voiced lyricism of her writing style.
McGarrahan earned both qualities the hard way. Long ago, when she was a young reporter for the Miami Herald, McGarrahan witnessed an execution gone wrong, and she reported on the case and the executed man, a convicted murderer, by relying on, as she says, the state's version of events as the truth. "Two Truths And A Lie" delves deep into McGarrahan's over two-decade odyssey to rectify that mistake.
"Two Truths And A Lie" opens in May of 1990 at a prison in Florida, where McGarrahan has gathered with other reporters to witness the death by electrocution of Jessie Tafero for the murder of two police officers at a Florida rest stop in 1976. McGarrahan volunteered to be there because she wanted to prove herself. She was then the only woman in the Herald's state capital bureau, and she was young. Five years earlier, she tells us, I'd been deconstructing "The Executioner's Song" in literature class at Yale.
But nothing McGarrahan read could have prepared her for the grotesque reality of the execution that followed. Because of an electrical malfunction Tafero's went on fire. Months afterwards, a reporter friend advises the shaken McGarrahan to go see another one; that'll get it out of your mind. Instead, McGarrahan questions the point of journalism, her dream career, and takes off for California, where she works on home construction sites. In my tile work at the time, she recalls, I was setting a lot of limestone - countertops, walls, floors. And I kept noticing the fossils, tiny living creatures embedded in the stone, frozen forever, exactly as they were when disaster hit. I thought, that's me.
Then one evening, McGarrahan returns home from work and turns on her TV to hear Barbara Walters announce that new evidence suggests that Jesse Tafero may have been innocent. Soon after, fate intervenes to prompt McGarrahan, at the age of 32, to interview for a job as a private investigator. McGarrahan doesn't tell the head of the detective agency about the Tafero case. Nevertheless, when he hires her, the boss shrewdly says, you're motivated by guilt, which means you will never stop till the job is done. McGarrahan tells us her career as an investigator eventually brought her full circle to the mystery I tried so hard to leave behind.
You'll notice I'm barely saying anything about that mystery, the question of who murdered those two police officers at that highway rest stop in 1976. Jesse Tafero was sleeping in a car at that rest stop, along with his girlfriend, her 9-year-old son, their baby daughter and another man. One of the officers went to check on them, and within minutes, both officers were shot dead. Like Tafero's execution, the murder scene - as McGarrahan imagines it - haunts her. She finally allows herself three months to work on the case full time, and her investigation spans continents. That's all I'm going to say because the experience of inhabiting that investigation with McGarrahan is so intense readers should experience it for themselves.
For me, the even deeper draw here is McGarrahan's struggle to come to terms with the evil she was drawn into as a young reporter. Here she is speaking of the blur of stories which gives her book its title. (Reading) There's an old party game called Two Truths and a Lie. Maybe you've played it. Someone stands up and says a few things about herself - the more outlandish, the better. The trick is in guessing which parts are made up and which are true, and the goal of the game is to get you believing something that never happened. As played among friends over a few drinks, it's harmless fun. But add an electric chair and put that game on the Internet, and there's a price to be paid by the listeners, the families, the witnesses. I was trapped in that game for 25 years. I paid the price, too.
Maybe that statement sounds a little self-aggrandizing, but once you read McGarrahan's pensive book, you'll understand how restrained she is in assessing the damage done.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Two Truths And A Lie" by Ellen McGarrahan.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll hear the story behind the most famous video of the January 6 insurrection, shot inside the Senate chamber. My guest will be Luke Mogelson, who made the video while reporting on the riot for The New Yorker. It was excerpted in the presentation by the House impeachment managers at Trump's second Senate impeachment trial. I hope you'll join us.
I'm Terry Gross.
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