After years of tension, the actress reveals things have improved – slightly

By Liz McNeil
Updated May 27, 2015 02:40 PM
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Credit: Ron Galella/Wireimage

After Tatum O’Neal split from tennis ace husband John McEnroe in 1992, years of turmoil followed. Amid claims and counterclaims of drug use, violent tempers and escalating fights, their custody battle over their three children became an all-out war.

Today, the decades-long chill seems to be thawing ever so slightly now that their son Kevin McEnroe has written a well-received new novel, Our Town, a fictional portrayal of Tatum’s mother, actress Joanna Moore. (Kevin, now 29, is the oldest of their three children, alongside Sean, 28, and Emily, 24.)

After years of barely speaking, O’Neal, 51, tells PEOPLE, “John was really nice to me at Kevin’s reading at The Strand bookstore (on May 11). I was very impressed how he has evolved – and for being able to talk to me. I would say there isn’t a relationship but there is respect now.”

Asked about their parents’ contentious relationship over the years, Kevin chooses his words carefully.

“I don’t know if I know any other way,” he says. “We were brought up where they didn’t talk much unless we spoke to them separately. We loved them equally and separately, and through their struggles, I think we developed very different relationships because of it. I can’t say it was easier or harder than a divorce where people talked because I have no idea what that’s like. At times it was not easy, but I’m sure every young person from a divorced family finds that at times, it’s a difficult sort of bridge to cross, in terms of understanding how to deal with it.”

Still, even during his mom’s numerous trips to rehab in the Nineties, Kevin notes, “It was important [to my father] for us to have a relationship with her. I think he wanted to make sure she was okay so that we could have a relationship with our mother.”

RELATED VIDEO: Tatum O’Neal and Son: A Story of Forgiveness

As for his father’s reaction to his book, Kevin says, “I respect his work ethic and he is proud of me. I respect him very much.”

McEnroe tells PEOPLE via his rep, “He loves his son. He’s read the book and thinks it’s great.”

For the full interview with Tatum O’Neal and her son, Kevin McEnroe, pick up a copy of this week’s PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday