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Interview With P.J. O'Rourke on 'Holidays in Heck'

Former war correspondent's frightening vacation fun

Just get P.J. O'Rourke, 64, talking about his life as an older parent of three young children — the oldest is 13 — and then stand back and marvel.

Because here is sweetness, light and enthusiasm — all of which may surprise those who know O'Rourke primarily for his sharp-tongued political satire in magazines and journals and his dozen or more books in that same distinctive vein, including the colorfully titled Don't Vote — It Just Encourages the Bastards, Give War a Chance, and Parliament of Whores.

See also: Excerpt from Holidays in Heck.

Interview with P.J. O'Rourke, author of Holidays in Heck: A former War Correspondent Experiences Frightening Vacation Fun

Photo by David Howells/Corbis

P.J. O'Rourke.

Oh, the sharp tongue comes out now and then, but not much.

"We all know there always should have been something much more important than ourselves," says O'Rourke. "But I think we have trouble acting upon that knowledge. And I don't know if we feel it viscerally until we have kids. Then, all of a sudden, there's that moment right at birth when now there's something much more important than oneself in the world." He adds: "It's a little terrifying."

O'Rourke's latest book, Holidays in Heck, is a collection of essays about his adventures in far-flung locations such as Hong Kong and the Galapagos Islands with his wife, Tina, and kids in tow — as well as places much closer to home, like Washington, D.C., where he once lived for part of the year. Today, O'Rourke and his family live full time in the New Hampshire countryside, "with not a single house visible from ours." He spoke by phone with the AARP Bulletin recently about his life and work.

Q. Why are families not only a lot of fun but a lot of work?

A. They're fun because once you reach a certain age, you really don't get to see things for the first time. But when you take a kid along, there's a certain kind of innocence. When I took my 7-year-old son to see the last shuttle launch — wow. I think it was the only time he's been fully silent since he was born. He was just over the moon. Of course, I was pretty blown away myself.

Q. What lessons have you learned by having children?

A. I'm not sure I've learned anything other than what I suspected all along, which is I'm a pretty mediocre parent. Fortunately, I'm married to someone who's a pretty excellent parent! Otherwise things would be pretty chaotic around here. But I don't think it's something you learn, really. It's something you feel.

Next: Lessons that come with growing older. >>

Q. Families can seem so idyllic from a distance — while up close, they aren't always. Why the disconnect?

A. They exist at two fundamentally different levels. And it's easy to confuse those levels. At one level, the higher level, families bring the strongest emotional bonds, the deepest satisfactions, and the most important relationships of the human being's experience. It's incredibly wonderful, to the point where one feels sorry for those without families. But on the day-to-day level, there's an incredible amount of annoyance.

Q. It's the little things, right?

A. You're surrounded by, and have an intimate involvement with, a bunch of people you did not choose. Whew! And your time is not always your own. A psychologist might say it's similar to fame: From a distance, fame looks like a wonderful thing to have. Everybody pays attention to you. You're assured of your importance. You're catered to. But then imagine being unable to go any place without being mobbed. That's why I say one of the best ways to get along with the family is to get away from the family.

Q. You aren't away from yours much these days, though, are you?

A. I do have to travel a lot for speaking engagements. That probably improves my appreciation of them. My wife, as the mom, is in charge of micro-discipline. And Dad is just the big gun who's brought in to holler every now and then. My wife deals with the day-to-day stuff, with things like, "You're not wearing that to school." That's not an argument I've ever had.

Q. What lessons come with growing older, would you say?

A. The body is forever teaching us lessons. There are all sorts of things that we can't do, shouldn't do, had better not do very often or do for too long as we get older. The body makes its presence known. I could live without that aspect of aging. But everyone goes through it, so no sense complaining.

Q. Is it your plan to keep writing — are there lots of other books you want to write?

A. Oh, afraid so. Not only am I going to keep writing, but as the breadwinner for a family of five, I have but little choice. Retirement is just not on the horizon for me.

Next: An ideal retirement. >>

Q. What would your ideal retirement be?

A. I'd get rid of the business travel. I like the speaking, but the travel drives me crazy. Between airline deregulation, airline business failures, bankruptcies and consolidations, every seat on every damn plane is filled — and with a person twice my size. And with the charges for the luggage, every overhead bin is spilling out onto my head. Then there's airport security.

Q. How about video chatting or Skype?

A. Oh, people pay to meet and see you. They're only partly there for the content, and I wouldn't even want to go so far as to say what part that involves!

Q. You spent a lot of time as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. Do you miss that hustle and bustle?

A. During the Arab Spring, I was looking at what went on in Egypt and thinking, why is it that I'm not feeling like I'm old and out to pasture and wishing I were there, back in the action? I think I'd heard too many people yelling at each other and at me. That's a big feature of the Middle East. Everybody is quite dramatic. I'd even go so far as to say the whole region has an adolescent personality. It's very warm and charming and attractive in many ways, but socially it's stormy and unpredictable, with a predilection for physical and emotional violence that's just under the surface. I thought, boy, have I had enough of that.

Q. When you decided to live in New Hampshire full time — after splitting your time between there and Washington, D.C. — was that about knowing your own mind as a mature person, about being more decisive?

A. I'm a rather decisive type. There's no concern on that front. But when one is married and has a family, there is more than one mind involved.

Maureen Mackey is an editor and writer based in New York.