Novelist John Irving gives us a glimpse into the creative process that propels his bestselling narratives including his latest book “Avenue of Mysteries.”
For we mere mortals, the tens of millions of readers who have been on the John Irving train since 1978’s starmaking The World According to Garp, the author’s obsession with how things will – one is even tempted to suggest must – end should come as no surprise. (“You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed,” Irving weaved through The Hotel New Hampshire as a poignant, occasionally irreverent refrain, after all). Neither will Irving’s legion of fans be stunned that Mysteries, his 14th novel, which debuted last month in the Top 5 of New York Times Bestseller List, revisits other recurring leitmotifs from the Irving oeuvre: orphans, writers, violent collisions, circuses, dismemberment, transvestites, a high morality and baroquely comic glow. Alas, there are no bears in Avenue of Mysteries.
Irving, who studied under Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, has never been a prolific novelist exactly, but Mysteries was conceived nearly 25 years ago when the novelist was laboring over an aborted screenplay adaptation of his 1994 book, A Son of the Circus. (Other Irving books – including Garp, Hotel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Widow for One Year, and The Cider House Rules, for which Irving won an Academy Award for his adapted screenplay – have all been reborn for the silver screen, while HBO recently announced Garp would enjoy new life as a miniseries in 2017). Irving insists he’s not slowing with age. Instead, “Good writing is about rewriting,” he says. Though Irving’s (arguably) most beloved character, T.S. Garp, once declared that “we are all terminal cases,” with Mysteries, Irving dodges his mortality once more, even if he does know how it’s all going to end. The book is transcendent, delicious, deranged, and ultimately redemptive.
So much of your work feels autobiographical. Where does the truth stop and the fiction begin?
Well, Avenue of Mysteries is not autobiographical, not at all to the degree that a book like Until I Find You was. Jack Burns (the protagonist of Until) was the closest I have come to writing about me.
For all of the twists and turns, the ways that horror and magic touch your characters’ lives almost simultaneously on occasion, sometimes terrifying, other times exhilarating, there’s also a wonderful inevitability to the narratives you weave.
For a writer who writes last sentences first, like me, who always knows the ending — all of my novels are a little bit inevitable. I don’t know how to do it any other way. Isn’t life like that, though, at least a little bit? The ending of our lives is always a little bit inevitable, but oftentimes arrives with a bit of surprise. Some of my novel’s endings feel more inevitable than others to me. With Last Night at Twisted River, for example, the reader knows, almost from the beginning, what’s going to happen: The cowboy is coming after the father and son and he’s going to find them. No one can keep the father safe forever. You know the shoot-out is coming at the end. It’s inevitable – at least if you know Chekhov’s rule about showing the gun in Act I.
Your novels, at least since Garp, have been about stories and storytelling as much as anything else. Recent work like Twisted River and Avenue of Mysteries are no different.
I’ve written several novels about writers. They are often also about the process of becoming a writer. It’s a subject I know pretty well. I’ve often created characters who can only save themselves by beginning again and again, even if it’s only a book they keep on beginning over and over without being able to – or maybe, subconsciously, even wanting to – finish. My characters, like most people I know and love, have significant losses. My characters, like most people I know and love, won’t get over them. But for some of my characters, the act of constant invention and reinvention keeps them alive. It wouldn’t surprise me if the main character in however many novels I have remaining to write is always a writer.
It feels like everything is out to get us in the world according to John Irving: man, machine, nature, and animal alike.
Herman Melville wrote: “Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appall!” To appall is good storytelling. I try to appall. To write about what you fear is also a little autobiographical — even if what you fear has never happened to you. When I start a novel, I try to create a situation I never want to be in myself. If the situation scares me, even to think about it — well, I know that’s a good start.
That sounds very much like something one of your mentors, the author Kurt Vonnegut, might have said. In your novel, Twisted River, there is a scene between your protagonist and Mr. Vonnegut. How much influence did Mr. Vonnegut have on your life and work?
Maybe there are five or six people who saved my life in some way – people I met who changed me, or they altered the course of my life at that moment in time, or they had a profound affect on my attitude about everything. Kurt was one of them; I was lucky I met him when I did. I was at a point of self-pity that was almost unbearable; I was unable to control my anger. In effect, Vonnegut said: “You’ve got one thing going for you – you can tell a story. Don’t blow it.” We watched the Six Day War in his kitchen because I didn’t have a TV. I had a two-year-old. Kurt opened all the kitchen cabinets and let Colin sit on the kitchen floor with a wooden spoon, banging all the pots and pans. “Good accompaniment for a war, Colin – bang away!” Kurt said. He cranked the volume up on the TV, and Colin banged away; both our marriages were doomed, and Kurt and I knew it — we had that in common, too. Later, when I lived in Sagaponack, Kurt was my near neighbor. He used to come over for coffee in the morning. I would find him sitting on my porch step when I woke up in the morning. After I made coffee and we talked for a bit, he would ride his bike home, and my son Brendan would go out on the porch and pick all the cigarette butts up from the lawn. Sometimes there were a dozen! We figured that Kurt must have been sitting on my porch step for a couple of hours. Maybe he got there when it was still dark.
Your books have almost always been sharply, heartbreakingly political. Avenue of Mysteries is no different, though they don’t necessarily feel awash in politics or dogma. Tell me what politics mean to you as a man, a father, a writer, and what is the author’s responsibility — if there he has one — to shake hands with history on the written page.
I think only two of my novels are truly “political”: A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules. I love my characters for their convictions, but I don’t necessarily share my own as freely – I’m just not as convinced about things as they often are. I am sometimes disgusted with what an unthinking, heedless country we are – we have a sizable dumber-than-dog-shit population, as Ketchum (in Twisted River) would claim. We lack education. We lack tolerance. My grandmother told me, when I was a child: “Be intolerant of one thing only – be intolerant of intolerance!” I get tired of waiting for America to catch up to much of the rest of the world, while many Americans go on believing that we’re the best at everything; a kind of bullying, blustering patriotism that just blows a fog over some pretty obvious truths.
A few years ago, you won an Oscar for your Cider House Rules screenplay. Will you and Hollywood dance again?
I have four screenplays in progress. I don’t know if any of them will ever be made. It’s much easier to write a screenplay than it is to write a novel, but it’s not easy to have an intelligent film produced of that screenplay. The written word, and what the author wants and intends to say, is still sacred to book publishing; writers don’t matter very much to the movie business. So I put less and less time into screenplays now. I do pat my Oscar on its gleaming bald head when I leave my office at the end of a workday, and I remember that the film of The Cider House Rules was as gratifying to see made as seeing any novel of mine published.
What is one thing we would be surprised to know about John Irving?
In the course of a normal workday, I spend more time with my dog than I spend with other human beings. Writing is solitary work; if you’re going to be a writer, you better like being alone. “Works of art are of an infinite solitariness,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, and he was a poet. If he thought poetry was lonely work, he should have tried being a novelist!