Big Think Interview with John Irving
John Irving is the author of twelve books, including “The World According to Garp,” “A Prayer For Owen Meany,” and most recently, “Last Night on Twisted River.” Over his career he has won a National Book Award, an Academy Award for his adaptation of “The Cider House Rules,” and many other honors, and has been translated into over thirty languages. A former competitive wrestler, he splits his time between Vermont and Montreal.
John Irving: I'm John Irving and “Last Night In Twisted River” is my twelfth novel.
Question: Does writing novels get easier with time?
John Irving: You know, because I write all my first drafts in longhand, in these lined notebooks, there's a certain excitement to me that that first blank page of paper doesn't know who you are, it has not read your previous works. So you feel as naive as this sounds, you feel as if you're starting a journey for the first time, whether it's the tenth or the eleventh or the twelfth time, and whether or not the same obsessions that have haunted you for most of your writing life will once again show themselves, you still feel it's a new adventure every time. I like that about the beginning process.
Question: How long was “Last Night in Twisted River” in your head?
John Irving: Well, for twenty years, my wife argues more than twenty years, but I have trouble remembering more than twenty years, for twenty years at least, this story about a cook and his pre-teenage son has been in my mind. Surprisingly I knew quite a lot about this story, as long as twenty years ago, but not enough to really get started. I began and finished several novels that have been in my mind not nearly as long because in their cases, the last sentences came to me and as you probably know, I never begin a novel until I've written that last sentence. In twelve novels, not even the punctuation in those last sentences has changed and once I get that last sentence, I can manage to make a kind of roadmap of the story, find my way back to where I think the book should begin. That's just been my process and continues to be my process.
But in this book's case, there was something missing from what I knew and I couldn't, for the longest time, I couldn't get that ending clearly in mind, although I knew a lot about the story. I knew these two men were fugitives. I knew they would be on the run for fifty years. I knew that the story began in a kind of frontier-justice sort of place, one law, a bad cop. I knew it was close to the Canadian border. And most of all, I knew why the cook had this twelve-year-old boy, because by the end of the novel, I knew that kid would have become a writer and it would turn out that he was actually writing the very story we've been reading. That may seem like a lot to know to not get started, but I saw that there were things that had been kept from this boy that he didn't know and I didn't know what those things were.
Question: Are there other sentences in your work that seem equally important?
John Irving: Well, there are certain sentences along the way that seem pivotal, or fragments of sentences. There are certain phrases that I see as being of use somewhere in a story. Sometimes actual chapter titles, sometimes locations. It's not a very elaborate roadmap, it's really a bunch of Post-It notes that either are on the wall in front of me or on the desktop where I work so that I can put my finger on any one of those signposts when I feel the need to. It's basically the skeleton of the story, it's the action of the novel. When did the characters meet? Do their paths cross again? Do they live? Do they die? If they die, when, where, how? Those kinds of things.
Question: What is your writing schedule?
John Irving: Well, when I'm not interrupted by traveling, or school holidays for children--those kinds of things--I get up pretty early. I feed the dog, I'm usually at my desk, [by] you know, 7:30, 8:00 in the morning and I work for eight or nine hours a day and I work seven days a week. But there are a lot of interruptions. I have three children, I have four grandchildren, I travel a lot. So I can't say that I work, you know, seven or eight hours a day seven days a week every week, but when I'm left to my own choices, that's what I do.
Question: How often do you change the events once you start writing?
John Irving: Very, very little. Sometimes in the middle of the story, there are things that can be moved around. The beginning doesn't change much, the ending never changes, but sometimes in the middle of the story, an event that I had imagined might be in the vicinity of the fifth or sixth chapter will actually end up being in the eighth or ninth chapter. So, I take a little bit more liberty with the chronology of events, the order in which I'm going to tell the reader certain things, I take more liberties with those things in the middle of the story, but they don't change, it's just their placement that moves sometimes.
Question: Did you know from an early age that you would be a writer?
John Irving: I supposed I had a number of what I might call pre-writing moments as a kid. I recognized at a pretty early age, certainly I was pre-teens, I noticed that the school day was enough of a day to spend with my friends. I seemed to have a need to want to be alone. Even before I started making almost landscape notes in a journal, even before I started keeping a journal, which happened to me when I was fourteen, even before then I had a need to come home from school by myself and to be in a room by myself or in my grandmother's garden by myself. I guess the earliest sign was how much I liked being alone, how much I actually needed to be alone, the way you need, or I need, exercise or food or a certain amount of sleep. There was that desire to be, and a comfort, at being alone.
Question: Are the recurring themes in your novels, like bears and death, a conscious decision?
John Irving: It is. Well, there's a distinction to be made between the bears and the accidents, for example. Bears are just a sort of natural part of the landscape where I've lived most of my life. I live where there are bears, I see bears. The bear I saw most recently was swimming between one island and another. My wife and youngest son and I, we kind of followed it for a while in our boat. They don't seem, frankly, as special to me as they do to many of my readers. I've just kind of been around them. I'm aware that they're there.
There are other things, though, that are recurrent in my novels that are more on a level of obsession. I write very compulsively about what I feel. While there are many landmarks or signposts in my novels, factual things, that did cross my life or happen to me, those are the superficial autobiographical things that you see, I think, in many writers’ novels. To me, what's more revealing, emotionally, psychologically, autobiographical, are those things in my novels that never happened to me, but which I dread and which I fear and which I hope never do happen to me or to the people I love. The constant reappearance of the death of a child or the death of a loved one in a family, the idea that the more you fear losing someone, the more likely in the story itself, what you fear will happen. These nightmarish things that reappear that sort of haunt most of my novels, as much as I control the plot, the storyline of my novels, I don't control those obsessions. Obsessions, by definition, control you.
Question: Is there a certain thrill or enjoyment in writing about sex?
John Irving: Well, not when you consider in my stories how many terrible repercussions there are from the sexual moment. There seems to be some puritanical, ancestral thing, some New England thing, maybe I got it from Horthong, that sexual pleasure is sort of disproportionately rewarded with some kind of calamity. But it's always a part of my purpose as a storyteller to first create characters that the reader will be anxious for. You can't be anxious for a character if you don't care about the character, if you don't in some way like, respect, or even love the character, or at least have affection for the character. And then once I've established those characters, in whom the reader, I hope has some emotional investment, then it's perversely my job to make as many terrible things happen to those people we like as I can imagine.
Six or seven books ago, I might have told you that maybe I write so much about the things I fear as a way of hoping that if I write about these things, if I realize them in fiction, that they actually will never come true and they will never happen to me. But if that were the case, it clearly doesn't work, because I'm continuing to write about the same thing.
Question: Has wrestling helped your writing career as well?
John Irving: Well, I've been more successful as a writer than I was as a wrestler, I never won a major tournament as a wrestler. I got close, but anybody who has done any sport knows that close doesn't make you happy. I did it for a long time. I competed as a wrestler for twenty years, from the age of fourteen until I was thirty-four, maybe too long given the arthritis in my fingers and neck. But it was the first discipline I was exposed to. It was the first thing that I applied myself to with a tremendous amount of focus and determination. And as a young kid, you know, as an early teenager, you can be more proficient athletically at a younger age than you can ever expect to be as a writer as a fourteen, fifteen, sixteen year old.
My pursuits of wrestling and writing were simultaneous, they happened simultaneously. They came together. I began writing and wrestling at the age of fourteen. But for a number of years, of course, I was rewarded as a wrestler, I could see my progress as a wrestler long before I recognized any discernible progress as a fiction writer. But it was terribly useful to me to apply myself to this discipline. There was so much repetition involved that I think it has helped me, the wrestling, as a writer, because of how much revision, rewriting, is a part of my writing process and I think I have developed the stamina or the expectation that rewriting is part of the job, an essential part of the job. I think that comes from my training as an athlete.
Question: How often do you rewrite your books?
John Irving: Well, in the case of a book that was in the back of my mind for as long as this one, twenty years, and yet I didn't write that last sentence until January 2005, from the moment I got that last sentence and I began that roadmap we've talked about, and from the moment I started writing the actual novel, August of that same year, 2005, the writing of the first draft was rather quickly forthcoming. For me, very quickly, unusually quickly. But certainly more of my years as a writer are always spent rewriting than they are writing first drafts. Because I never begin a first draft until there is a plot, until I do know what happens to all of the characters, you might understand why those first drafts are pretty quickly forthcoming, but the rewriting process slows me down and I like everything about the writing process that compels me to slow down, to keep it slow. I write all my first drafts in long hand because you can only write so fast in longhand. And on a keyboard, you can cover too much ground in too fast a time, right? And I like to keep it slow, especially in that first draft stage.
And the longer the book you write, the more times you must pass through it because writer's voices change within a four, five year period of time, you're actually liking a different kind of sentence five years down the road, than you were four years ago. And one of the tasks of revising a novel of any length is to go back and make the whole thing sound as if it were spoken in one breath, as if your sentence style, your preference for the semicolon or the parentheses or the dash, just was constant, and you got to make it look that way, even though it wasn't spoken in one breath, it was spoken in very halting little bits, it's supposed to sound like it's coming right off the top of your head.
Question: Do you feel that literary feuds, such as yours with Tom Wolfe, help writing?
John Irving: I don't know, I think that they are all generated by a kind of compiled misunderstanding. I give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt that he did not write that sort of white paper manifesto about how the rest of us should be writing the great American novel, the piece he published in Harper’s, I believe, after “Bonfire of the Vanities” was first published. I don't imagine when he wrote that, that he was aware of how many writers who've been writing fiction longer and writing it better than he does, might have been offended by that prescriptive piece. Maybe he didn't know, maybe he was just, you know, speaking from the heart, and he didn't know it was, it would be irritating.
But I know that was the source of what provoked me at him and I know it was also the source of what provoked Updike, with him, too. I remember a letter from John saying that he never would've taken Wolfe so much to task in that New Yorker piece if it hadn't of been for that earlier manifesto.
But, you know, I think it's an overrated feud. He and I ran into each other, he was with his wife, I was with one of my children, we ran into each other on Washington Mall a few years ago, after all this squabbling had been much published, over-publicized in my opinion, in the media, and I didn't think it was an especially awkward or hostile meeting. I mean, we got through it without spitting and scuffling and kicking dirt on each other's shoes and, you know, they said nice things to my son and I believe that we were both perfectly cordial to one another. So not much of a feud in my opinion.
There are certainly people that you, in the media, don't know about that if I ran into them, more sparks would fly.
Question: Should rework our notions of the literary canon?
John Irving: I'm not interested in reworking anyone else's notions. You know, I think everyone's entitled to like, to prefer to bless the kind of literature he or she likes best. I'm just someone who says repeatedly, the nineteenth century novel, is and remains the model of the form for me. It was Dickens, it was Hardy, it was Melville, it was Horthong. Those were the writers that made me want to be a writer and when I read them as a teenager, what was the first thing in my unsophisticated way I latched onto? It was plot, of course. They wrote plotted novels. Usually about developed characters who were developed over an insignificant passage of time. There was also a kind of dramatic event or series of events at the heart of the storytelling. But the plot was what engaged me. The plot was what made me want to become a writer in the first place.
I certainly like Joyce's early stories. I loved “A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man,” the more internal, intellectually favored stuff, “Ulysses” and “Finnegan’s Wake,” frankly underwhelms me. But you have to remember that no one, even when I was a teenager, no one contemporary as a writer much appealed to me. No one even remotely modern much appealed to me. It was those nineteenth century storytellers who wrote those, mostly long, richly-detailed, abundant with visual detail, if you consider Hardy and Dickens especially, but also Melville, it made me want to write plotted, mostly long, and lavishly detailed, textured, visually seeable novels.
I've heard, and this is usually used in a complimentary fashion, I've heard my writing described as cinematic. For someone like myself, who really doesn't like the movies very much, I find that a little strange. What the people who say cinematic, when they describe my writing mean, what they mean is it's very visual. It's very vivid, you can see what's going on. But I didn't get that from the movies, I got that from Dickens, I got that from Hardy, I got that from Melville. I got that from the way those nineteenth century writers composed. There was nothing minimalist about them.
Question: What don’t you like about movies?
John Irving: It's less what I don't like about movies as what I do like about the theater. It's what I like better about plays. Before I was even sophisticated enough to read those long, nineteenth century novels, before I was a teenager, I saw quite a lot of theater. My mother was a prompter in a local amateur theatrical society. I spent quite a bit of time backstage where the prompter sits and I saw some simply terrible plays, but also some pretty good ones. And I realized at a pretty young age that, you know, even a pre-teenager could see a Sophocles play or a Shakespeare play and failing to understand as much as a third or a half of the language, there was never any question about the story. You could see what was going on. Shakespeare would not be such a burden to the kids in school who are exposed to Shakespeare, to read in Shakespeare for the first time, if you could ask the kids to read a play and then see a production, they'd get it. They really get it. You know, you can miss a lot of the language and see King Lear and know right away that, you know, that two of those daughters are bad and one of them is good and Lear's got it all wrong. You know, you can pick that up when you're twelve or thirteen years old, even if you don't understand everything that they're saying.
Question: Does this not translate to movies?
John Irving: Well, it's just that there's a kind of, the first movies that excited me, I did like westerns. I liked the inevitability of violence that is a part of the western movie. Naturally I liked westerns. Oh, how many centuries from now might western movies be the most significant gift to the culture of American storytelling. Who knows? I don't know, I'm just guessing.
But I didn't really begin to like movies until I was in high school and I began to go to the nearby university town, Durham, where the University of New Hampshire was, where they had, you know, an art cinema and I got to see for the first time, all those foreign films with subtitles and realized that there were some wonderful films out there, many of them, indeed for a time, most of them, not American. And I like them, but there seems to be so much compromise in the film business that why wouldn't you like the freedom and individual license that the playwright is granted on stage and in the theater. Why wouldn't any writer like the theater better. Writers aren't important to the movie business. Or they're not valued. Whereas, you know, I think playwrights are still treated respectfully.
Question: Do you feel that movies are too collaborative?
John Irving: You just have to be lucky to get a good film made at all. You just need to have a lot of luck. I had an excellent experience with the Cider House Rules. But it took thirteen years to make that film, four different directors were involved. One died, I fired two. And finally Less Holstrum and I were put together and we clicked, we worked well together. But a lot of things have to fall in place in order to make a film come off. It was a great experience for me, that film, its success. But nobody notices, much less rewards, the screenplay for a film unless everybody else associated with the film makes the film look good. If you don't have solid, across the board acting performances from your actors, nobody notices how good the screenplay might have been. If you don't have a good director, if you don't have a good art director, if you don't have a good editor and a good director of photography, nobody will know that it was a good screenplay. So you need a lot of help, is what I'm saying, you need a lot of help.
Question: What are your thoughts on the future of the book?
John Irving: If I were twenty-seven and trying to publish my first novel today, I might be tempted to shoot myself. But I'm sixty-seven and I have an audience so I'm not especially worried about my future in the book business. But I think it's much harder to be a young writer, a writer starting out today than it was when I started out, when my first novel, Setting Free The Bears, was published back in the late sixties. Here was a novel that wasn't even set in this country, it was about a couple of Austrian students and it had a historical section which was easily half the length of the novel about the Nazi and then Soviet occupation of Vienna, not a very American subject. I remember years later asking the guy who published that first novel if he would publish that novel if it came across his desk today, this was back in the nineties, and my old friend and editor and publisher, what I saw was, he hesitated too long. You know? He waited. He thought, "Oh, God, how do I answer this one?" And then he said, "Well, of course I would publish it today." And I said, "No, you wouldn't. I saw the hesitation." And he laughed and said, "No, of course, I wouldn't." Very telling. And I think it's a lot tougher to be a first novelist, to be an unknown novelist today than it was for me and so I worry about what's going to happen with those good, younger writers. But I don't think the book is in any particular peril, I think the book is going to survive
Question: As a writer, what is your relation to America?
John Irving: Well, it's odd that I've written two novels out of twelve about Americans who leave this country and go and live in Canada and stay there, although the characters who do that are very different and their reasons for doing so are also different. The reasons are political in the case of Johnny Wheelwright, the narrator of A Prayer For Owen Meany, he does hate his country. That's not the case for Danny Baciagalupo and his dad, they're fugitives, they're running away, it's not their choice to go to Canada, although it does become Danny's choice to stay.
I couldn't do that. I couldn't do it primarily as a writer. I think if I'm going to continue to pick on my country in some way as a writer, I better live here. I better be here first hand, not as an expatriate. So I would disagree with the Ketchum character in Last Night In Twisted River when he tells Danny that he should leave this country and stay away. I would disagree with that, in my case.
In my case, too, unlike Danny, I have three children and four grandchildren, I'm not going anywhere. I live part time in Toronto because my wife is Canadian, but I'm an American and I always will be. I remember thinking in the last years of the Vietnam war that I would never see this country as divided again as it was in those years, but I was wrong. I think we as a people are more divided today. I think back in the latter years of the Vietnam war, it was chiefly that war that divided us. I don't think it's fair or enough to say that we are divided today because or, or only because of, the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. I think there are other deep political and cultural rifts in this country. Conservative/liberal rifts, religious and not religious rifts. I think there are any number of differences among Americans that divide us angrily and sharply.
And, you know, boy, I really have the highest hopes for President Obama. I'm very excited about him, but he has inherited such a mess. Such a turmoil that I hope people will give him time to sort it out and to undo at least some of the damage that George W. Bush did to this country. And I think I'm already too old to realistically imagine that even if Mr. Obama is hugely successful, that he can actually undo all the damage George W. Bush did to this country's reputation, to the way we are seen outside of this country, to the way other people in the world see us. Maybe that can be recovered or that reputation that we once had can be regained, that good reputation. Maybe it will be regained in my children's lifetime, but I don't expect to see it happen. There is, of course, a lot of anti-Americanism around the world that is simply hostile and vehement and motivated by the desire to see any democratic way of life destroyed.
But there's another kind of anti-Americanism that we have contributed to and it embarrasses me. I'm sick of seeing this country's bully patriotism used as a smoke screen and as a cover up for things we haven't done right.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
John Irving: Well, my first child was born when I was still a college student, I was an awfully young father the first time and I don't know if my age contributed to my terror that something might ever happen to this child, but having children in my life, having them be such a presence in my life for as long as they have been, that boy was born when I was twenty-two, I'm sixty-seven now, and my eighteen year old still lives under my roof in my house for another year before he's off to university. And that's kind of a long time from the age of twenty-two to sixty-seven to have had one or more of my children living at home with me for all those years. It certainly has informed what I write about, how childhood and adolescence are in ten out of twelve of my novels, such a vital part of the story. So I supposed it would surprise no one to think that my principle anxieties in my real life are parental. They're anxieties for my children and my extension now, for my grandchildren, and for my wife. For everyone I love. I'm a natural worrier, it's what I do for a living. I create characters that I'm very fond of and visit upon them the worst things I can imagine. It's, as you might well understand, it's hard not to do that when you leave your office. You don't have the opportunity to stick your imagination under your desk and say to hello to it again the next morning, it comes with me. It goes where you go.
So, with three children and four grandchildren, I have a lot to worry about before I turn my attention to the state of the world. But it's not that that leaves me entirely at ease either.
Recorded on: October 29, 2009
Big Think sits down with the author of twelve novels, including "Last Night in Twisted River."
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