Peppering a Novel With Obsessions

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.

Recorded on: October 30, 2009

For the novelist, obsessions, by definition, control you. Thus, try as he may to control the plot of his stories, a variety of recurring fixations inevitably work themselves in.

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