An Interview with John Irving

John Irving and I began our interview in a bathroom. It was a humid afternoon last May at a hotel in London. When I arrived, CNN was making a short documentary in Irving’s hotel room, delaying the interview half an hour. As I made my way into his room, the television crew were lugging their equipment out into the corridor. I stood in the narrow space between the bedroom and the living area, where Irving stood drinking a cup of tea.

“If you want more tea, you’re gonna have to go downstairs and get another cup, I’m afraid. There is none left,” Irving said, matter-of-factly.

He was dressed in a black shell tracksuit, a pair of white sneakers, and appeared as if he was getting ready to partake in an afternoon wrestling match. When I glanced back at him, he was standing directly in front of a mirror, watching himself drink tea, occasionally pausing to grab a cookie. Then he turned to me.

“Ever see the crazy things they have for the showers in these hotel rooms? What do you make of that, eh?” He walked into the bathroom, placing his hand firmly on the panel of white plastic that functioned as the shower door.

“You think they would just put a normal shower curtain in,” I said, uncertain as to whether I should follow him into the bathroom or shout my opinion from outside the door.

“I know, right! That’s exactly what I was thinking,” he replied, laughing.

I first came in contact with the world of John Irving eight years ago. It was a muggy night in an overcrowded train station in Varanasi. The train had been delayed twelve hours, and the only way to distract myself from the ensuing chaos was to leap into the New Hampshire world of baseball, magic, and divine intervention.

I was reading A Prayer for Owen Meany, a novel that is essentially about the loss of childhood. That first time I read it, I had misunderstood, thinking that Irving was a religious man. Then, later, when I realised it was actually about Irving’s lack of faith, the subject matter seemed even more poignant to me. When I boarded the train, I had a forty-four hour journey ahead of me, but with Owen Meany in my backpack, I didn’t care.

Eight years later, in a five-star-hotel bathroom, I suddenly wanted to reveal to Irving all the sentimental crap about what his book had meant to me on my travels around India as a naïve 21-year-old. Instead, I just nodded in agreement about how the standard shower curtain certainly seemed a more appropriate finish for this particular bathtub.

We finally moved into the living area, where Irving produced a copy of his latest novel, In One Person. It’s narrated by Billy Abbot, a bisexual writer who recalls coming of age in a small New England town in the 1950s. A thoughtful, tormented teenager, Billy takes a fancy to various people, including his stepfather, his friend’s mother, the captain of the school wrestling team, and the local librarian. The mood of the latter half of the book darkens when Billy moves to New York in the 1980s and witnesses the tragic fallout of the AIDS epidemic. - JP O’Malley

THE BELIEVER: What interested you about giving voice to a bisexual male in the character of Billy in this novel?

JOHN IRVING: I think there is often a kind of “what if” proposition that gets me thinking about a novel. If one thinks about A Prayer For Owen Meany, the big what if of that novel was what would it take to make a believer out of a non-religious person – out of me, because I’m not – and the answer to that is, a lot. I would need to be a witness to someone like Owen Meany. The premise of that novel is, the guy who is narrating the story is a believer. He believes in God because of his contact with Owen Meany. Honestly, [becoming a religious believer] is a much harder premise to get my imagination around than say, [being] someone is who is comfortable having sex with men and women.

BLVR: I’d like to talk about your own sexual identity as a teenager. Did you ever feel that you might be bisexual yourself?

JI: I think like a lot of boys growing up in the 50s, and 60s, you spent more time imagining having sex, than actually having it. Sex was much more unattainable, therefore more imaginable, than I imagine it is today. There was a period in that time of the old-boys-school-world, where I was frightened of half of my sexual fantasies. I was attracted to my friends’ mothers, sometimes more attracted to my girlfriends’ mothers than I was to my girlfriends. I did have an occasional crush on a boy in the wrestling team, and as it turned out, none of these things happened. I liked girls in my life, and it proceeded in a normal, unchallenged course. But I would assume most people have thought about having sex with people we never come close to having sex with. The idea is there, and the more embarrassing, the more quickly you are to repress it, or, forget that you ever had that thought. But writers don’t do that, writers think, well, what if that really happened? What would that be like?

BLVR: You never met your own father. How did this affect you as a kid growing up? Did it make you turn to inventing things in your life?

JI: I think exactly that, that’s a great way to put it. I mean, I use to tease my mother when I decided that I wanted to be a writer. I used to say, well you know, if you don’t tell me things about who my Dad was, I’m going to just make up things. I would never say that because I didn’t know who my father was, this made me a writer. That’s like a Disney story, or sounds like a cartoon to me. But it didn’t hurt, right? It was kind of terribly useful or constructive as a teenager to be left to my own imagination about who this guy was, because nobody would talk to me about it. In my own life, I have met a couple of half-brothers and sisters I never knew I had, people who had the same father. It turns out there wasn’t anything terrible or undeserving being hidden about him. He sounds like a pretty ordinary good fellow.

BLVR: The first sentence of this novel begins with a line from Dickens. The only other book I can think of that mentions Dickens in the first line, is Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Did this cross your mind at all when you put this line in?

JI: I don’t even remember that there is a Dickens reference in it. Even as a kid I never liked Salinger. I thought that book was disappointing. There was a period of time, when I was a teenager, when it was made difficult for young people to read that book, which of course only made them want to read it. Then, when I did read it, I was totally disappointed.

BLVR: Would it be true in saying that you follow the tradition of the nineteenth century novelist, that you dislike the modernists?

JI: I’ve always just liked the very old stuff. I think it helped that my models have been dead for more than a hundred years. They were safe people to imitate. There was no way I could sound like Dickens or Hardy if I tried. I can’t think in their terms because the language has changed so much. It’s like imitating Shakespeare. You might get close but nobody would know. I liked Sophocles and I liked Shakespeare; the moderns, I didn’t care so much about them.

BLVR: Do you see all of your novels as following in the great tradition of New England writers? I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what writers like Hawthorn, Melville and Emerson bring to your own imagination and intellect?

JI: Well, Emerson isn’t a favourite of mine, but Melville is, he made a huge impact on me, principally Moby Dick, but then the much shorter Billy Bud. Also as a young writer, what Melville said to writers, famously: “Woe to him who seeks to please, rather than appal.” That was so refreshing. That made me feel encouraged in my earliest inclination to write about what I most feared – to write about what you hope never happens to you or anyone you ever love. You don’t so much write about what has happened to you, as what you dread thinking could possibly happen to you or to someone you care deeply about. With In One Person, the AIDS epidemicis sitting there. It’s waiting for these characters. Billy doesn’t know it’s coming, but every reader does. You think, Shit, I’m listening to a guy who is remembering his sexual coming of age, half of his lovers are gay, and somewhere he is going to cross that road. Somewhere he is going to hit that epidemic, and what’s going to happen to half his friends? There is always that element to my books, and that comes from Melville. Everyone who gets on the Pequod knows that Ahab is the disaster waiting to happen. The first time you read that book you think, no don’t go with this crazy guy! You’re going to go with a one legged captain who has it in the for the whale? This is a bad idea!

BLVR: The way you portray the 1980s AIDS epidemic in the book is particularly moving. I wonder could you talk about your own recollection of that period in American society. Was there a distrust of homosexuals, a very conservative, sort of reactionary response to the disease? And what was your impression of how the Reagan Administration responded to the crises? Do you think the government fell short there?

JI: I don’t think short begins to cover it. For seven out of eight years of his presidency, Reagan did not utter the name of the disease. He would not say it. Of course his Administration could have done more. What I think in hindsight is even more incriminating, with Reagan, personally, is that it’s hard to imagine that we ever had a president, or will ever have again, who personally knew as many gay guys as Reagan must have known, because he was in the business. He was in the arts for Christ’s sake. He had to have personally known so many gay guys, and even then, he turns his back. It’s unfathomable. It was a very selective decision not to care. There were people in his Administration, Pat Buchanan etc, who were quick to call this a kind of God-sent judgement, a plague on the evil sinners, that this was a justifiable punishment. That was actually said by people who were in Reagan’s administration, while Reagan maintained a kind of silence. You know, many of my books entail a lot of research. This novel, alas, didn’t require much of that because I knew so much about the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York. I was living there at the time. It wasn’t hard to remember.

BLVR: Did you have friends close to you who died of AIDS?

JI: I was living in New York in the 80s. Yes, I had friends die, and I also, as a straight guy who had gay friends, had friends that I subsequently found out were gay, because they were dying. I hadn’t known they were gay. Parents found out about their children being gay when they were on deathbeds from AIDS.

BLVR: When you finished The Cider House Rules in 1985, did you feel that you were writing about an issue—abortion—that would be resolved soon?

JI: No, I didn’t feel that way. I thought this is just going to get worse. It’s no surprise to me to find that most people in the US who oppose abortion rights, are the very same people who oppose gay rights issues, too. And it’s coming from the same place. Their attitude is, I don’t like this, therefore it shouldn’t be allowed. I don’t even like thinking about this, therefore it should be stopped. It’s what I call in America “the old Prohibition instinct.” You don’t like drinking, nobody should do it, you don’t like abortion, no one should have one. Prevent and destroy, stop, stop, stop.

BLVR: Of all your novels, the two that are perhaps the most political are A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules. What drove you to write such political novels? And why haven’t you haven’t written returned to writing such a political novel until this one?

JI: Well, you know, I kind of held off on writing this one, too. When I finished The World According to Garp in 1978 I was naïve to think that I would never write about this subject again, that our intolerance of our own sexual differences would surely go away, and that Garp would be seen as a sort of a relic of the-post-sexual-liberation-days, when men and women still literally were killing one another. In The World According To Garp a man is killed by a woman who hates men. His mother is murdered by a man who hates women. It’s a kind of duel sexual assassination story. It’s a pretty cynical way of saying, you think there was a sexual revolution, well how come men and women hate each other? How come that is still happening?

BLVR: But there isn’t anything as extreme in current novel.

JI: True, but it’s still the same damn subject. It’s still about our obstinate intolerance of sexual differences. It’s still about a lingering suspicion, or distrust, or dislike. Billy is a character who thinks, oh, you think you’re tolerant? What about this? Tolerate this. You still think you are tolerant? I remember when I first thought about this book, and thinking, not this again. I was the opposite of elated. I thought, oh, here we go again. This cloud just moved over me again.