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The 'What If?' Business
For the novelist John Irving, storytelling has been a "necessity" since youth -- and the mother of three decades' worth of unrelenting literary invention

June 17, 1998

widowbk picture Thirty years ago, when not angling for a takedown on a wrestling mat somewhere, John Irving might have been found shelving books after hours in the stacks of the library at the University of Iowa, where he was a student in the famed Writers' Workshop. Or he might have been selling cowbells, pennants, and programs at university football games. Or perhaps waiting tables at "Curt Yocum's Salvage," a truck stop and bar off Interstate 80. The jobs were necessary for Irving -- he had a wife and baby to support -- but they were also distractions from his long-standing habit of imagining stories. Luckily, that habit prevailed: to the envy of his fellow students, before Irving completed the workshop he had sold his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, to Random House.
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Previously in Books & Authors:

The Adventures of Jane Smiley (May 1998)
In her latest novel, Jane Smiley lights out for the territories in search of slavery and the American anti-romance.

Speaking of Race (May 1998)
Patricia Williams, the author of Seeing a Color-Blind Future, suggests that when it comes to the trauma of racism Americans have not yet learned how to speak.

In the Very Middle of Things (April 1998)
In his new book, Calamities of Exile, Lawrence Weschler's explorations lead him to some very strange -- and familiar -- places.

The Next Left (April 1998)
Richard Rorty, the eminent philosopher and author of Achieving Our Country, argues that the American Left, if it is to recapture its relevance, must take pride in its past.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Just over a decade later -- after years spent writing around the demands of teaching at one university after another, save for two stints of full-time writing made possible by a Rockefeller Foundation Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship -- Irving published his fourth novel, The World According to Garp, and the literary limelight was his. The success of Garp, which was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics' Circle Award in 1978, freed Irving from classroom teaching and allowed him to devote himself completely to his "real" job of writing -- and rewriting, and rewriting, as has been his dogged way at the typewriter throughout his career. (He has always written on a typewriter, and always will.) A new, expansive Irving tale has hit the bookstores about every four years since Garp -- The Hotel New Hampshire, in 1981; The Cider House Rules, in 1985; A Prayer for Owen Meany, in 1989; A Son of the Circus, in 1994; and, published last month and currently on best-seller lists in this country and abroad, A Widow for One Year, which Irving calls his first love story. (A special twentieth-anniversary edition of The World According to Garp was also issued last month, by the Modern Library.)

Irving lives with his wife and the youngest of his three sons in Toronto and in southern Vermont. He spoke recently with The Atlantic Monthly's Allan Reeder.

The writer Vance Bourjaily, who was a teacher of yours at the University of Iowa, wrote fifteen years ago in a letter to an aspiring novelist, "There's only one [writer] I can think of, among former students who've published a lot, who has made enough money to live on ... and that's John Irving. He pulled the lever when the slot machine was loaded and ready." How apt do you think this slot-machine metaphor is for your literary breakthrough with The World According to Garp?

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John Irving

I know where the slot-machine metaphor comes from -- it's kind of a friendly Vance-speak. But I don't know how accurate it is. The success of Garp has been inflated -- the book sold fewer than 60,000 hardcover copies. Pocket Books did print about five million paperback copies, but it is the outlandishness of that paperback campaign -- six different foil covers, ads on buses and in subways, T-shirts and hats proclaiming "I BELIEVE IN GARP!" -- that gets remembered.

Every time I publish a book I hear a certain piece of misinformation repeated -- recycled misinformation, as only journalists can recycle their own misinformation. Namely, that The World According to Garp is my best-known, most widely read novel. This hasn't been true for almost ten years, but journalists get their information by going back and reading what has already been written about an author. The information is out of date. The world over, in more than twenty-five languages, my best-known, most widely read novel is A Prayer for Owen Meany. Garp is not even second. The second most widely read of my novels is The Cider House Rules. Garp is a distant third.

Garp was a novel about sexual distrust, sexual polarization. Some of the things I say in the introduction I wrote to the new Modern Library edition are better than what I can say here -- about Garp, I mean. But the novel struck a nerve in what was a post-feminist period of re-evaluation of sexual relationships: the sixties said sex was all right, that we all could do it, but by the seventies the complications of sexual freedom had begun to set in. Naturally, there were feminist causes that men could champion alongside the women who were championing them, but there were also radical feminists who wanted nothing to do with men -- including men's "support" of their causes. These radicals were already wearing thin by the late seventies -- in Garp, Jenny Fields was a likable, even admirable character, but the Ellen Jamesians were neither likable nor admirable. Yet they came into existence in support of a genuine victim of male brutality -- don't forget that.

Garp was a complicated novel about male-female relationships; even the family wasn't sacred, although it was the only institution worth saving. I think readers were tired of one-sided sexual novels in which either the men or the women were villains. Garp was a depiction of a sexual world gone mad; as such, it was a plea for sanity, for common sense.

My work is often characterized as bizarre or farcical, but I use farce to demonstrate the need for common sense. My novels aren't nearly as farcical as having Ronald Reagan for President for two terms -- or as the ongoing, made-for-television soap opera of President Clinton and the sexual witch-hunters who are pursuing him. American government -- not to mention Hollywood -- has been a farce for years! My novels are positively orderly and reasonable in comparison.

Your novels are best sellers not only in the United States but also in several foreign countries. What differences do you see between the American best-seller lists and those abroad?

I sell more hardcover books in Germany than I sell in the United States and Canada combined. I sell almost as many hardcover copies of my novels in France as I do in this country. Even if A Widow for One Year tops 300,000 in sales in the United States, that will be a low per-capita showing alongside the 45,000 copies of A Son of the Circus sold in Norway or the first printing of 75,000 copies of A Widow in Holland. Our best-seller lists incriminate us among the Western countries: only the lists in the U.K. are worse -- "worse" in the sense that fewer literary novels are represented on the fiction lists than in any other Western country.

We expect the smaller countries -- Canada, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway -- to have high literary representation on their fiction best-seller lists. We say, "Well, they're real readers, all right, but they have a small population -- easier to educate," and so on. But look at France and Germany: not small, not necessarily "easier to educate," yet their best-seller lists are also impressive. They have a high representation of literary novels, too. A Son of the Circus was on the German best-seller lists for sixty-three consecutive weeks. I doubt I will ever have a run of that duration here.

We don't value reading in the United States, especially novels that make a demand of the reader. We're an easy culture. Just look at the movies: they get stupider and stupider.

"What got Ruth in trouble," you write, in A Widow for One Year, about novelist Ruth Cole's long experience with fan mail, "was that she used to answer her good mail; but it was the good mail that you had to be most careful about not answering." Has responding to "good mail" ever gotten you into trouble?

No, I have never gotten in trouble by answering my fan mail, but I have found myself with unwanted pen-pals. I appreciate hearing from people who've liked my books. But I'm a private person. I know enough people!

The problem with writing to thank a stranger for a fan letter is that there's no way of knowing how needy the person is -- or what expectations these fans have for a possible role you can play in their lives. It's better for me not to answer any letters, or to have my assistant drop the fan a note -- something like, "Mr. Irving appreciated hearing your thoughts about his latest book." More than that and you open a door that's difficult to close without being rude. "I would like to meet you, just have a cup of coffee with you" can quickly become "Why won't you meet me? What makes you so superior? Other people like me." And so on. I'm not kidding -- it happens.

Your novels display your knack for exposing the comedy in catastrophe, for evoking laughter from characters' sometimes horrific predicaments. It occurs to me that your choosing of characters who elicit minimal sympathy from the reader may be as important in the creation of such humor as are the decisions you make about those characters' particular misfortunes. Is there any truth in this speculation?

Choosing characters who elicit, as you say, minimal sympathy from the reader is a part of the same process by which I choose characters who I hope will elicit maximal sympathy from the reader. I make a street map of a novel before I write the first word. I need to know who all the major and major-minor characters are. I need to know when their paths cross, how they meet, how vulnerable they are to certain people when they meet them, how long they're separated and when they meet again. I need to know the end of the story, absolutely know everything about it, before I write the first word. As for the humor, I don't pick the places. I trust it to be there, in the established tone of voice, ready for any incident that might provoke it into the foreground of the action. But it's always there, inherent in the story. I don't make rules for comedy, in other words.

Sprinkled throughout your new novel are suggestions of a connection between anger and the development of a writer's voice. What is the connection, in your view? Is your writing fueled by a particular kind of anger?

Anger is fuel. Laughter is fuel. Joy is fuel. Love is, hate is, envy is. You just have to direct these emotions and put them to work for you. I've always been able to do that. When I lose my temper at a dinner party, my friends and family alternately feel sorry for me and are irritated with me. But it's just a release -- like exercise, like eating good food or drinking good wine. I like anger, but only if it's contained, directed. Anthony Lewis once wrote a wonderful piece about Dickens in which he suggested that Dickens's energy was triumphant because his anger was directed very democratically, that absolutely everything made Dickens angry, generously angry -- he singled out everyone. I try to do that, too. Make the targets specific, but have as broad a range of targets as possible.

You're able to sustain narrative momentum for hundreds of pages. As narrative momentum can reflect the degree to which novelists are in control of their stories, I wonder how you go about establishing control over your lengthy narratives -- and how you retain that control during the several years you spend at the typewriter?

Control over a lengthy narrative begins, as I've said, with knowing what happens before I begin -- as much as I can. The process takes a year, sometimes eighteen months. I keep lists: details about the characters' lives and their habits, details about the turning points in the story, details about the layers of the story, too -- namely, how many stories are running parallel and which of them are primary, which of them are secondary, and which of them are virtually hidden, seemingly unimportant, but will become important later. I also have to know exactly when "later" is, because the passage of time, and the effect of the passage of time on my characters, is all-important.

Twenty years ago you wrote about young T. S. Garp: "As he would learn all his life, nearly everything seems a letdown after a writer has finished writing something." Have you experienced something similar over the years? Is the feeling any different after the completion of your ninth novel?

No, I don't feel a letdown upon completing a novel; I never have. I don't agree with Garp. I don't agree with him on many counts. If you remember, he is one of those writers whose first work ("Grillparzer") is infinitely superior to everything that follows it. And he is always imagining, even envying, the prospect of having a "real" job -- because he can't quite feel that writing is a real job. I know a lot of writers like Garp. I'm not one of them. I always felt writing is a real job. I hated having what Garp calls a "real" job -- that is, something other than writing.

I feel better and better with each novel I finish. By that I mean that I feel more patient about starting a new one. I am not yet ready to start my next novel -- I'm not even at the note-taking phase. I'll spend this summer revising my screenplay of The Cider House Rules. Miramax is producing the film in September. Lasse Hallström is the director -- the fourth director. The first, my friend Phillip Borsos, died of cancer at the age of forty-one. The next two directors "died" in metaphorical, less-tragic ways. After thirteen years, I'm as eager to see this screenplay leave my desk as I am to see it made into an actual film (though I'm not a moviegoer).

You've commented about the writer's task of self-invention, and have written, in your essay "Trying to Save Piggy Sneed," that "we can always imagine a better detail than the one we can remember." With that in mind, what do you imagine you would have done following college and during the past thirty years if writing novels hadn't been an option?

I never imagined I would be self-supporting as a novelist. That came with my fourth novel, and it was -- and remains -- a great surprise. (That further refutes the slot-machine image: people who play the slot machine always imagine themselves winning.) I suspected I would always teach English and coach wrestling to make a living; I expected I would always write in my alleged "spare time." I suppose I would always have written novels -- maybe unpublished ones, but novels nonetheless.

Storytelling has been a necessity for me since the age of twelve or thirteen. Narrative motivates me. At fourteen I started writing in spiral notebooks. I rarely wrote out my "thoughts" -- I'm not sure I had any. (I still don't!) I wrote out stories. I'm in the "What if?" business: I speculate on what's possible, what might happen, what could happen if ...

It's hard to guess what I might have been doing if writing novels hadn't been possible for me. Certainly not movies! I mean, not writing them -- the writer is the least important person in the movie-making process. I suppose I might have tried acting. Becoming another character is a big part of the storytelling process. I admire actors -- especially their ability to be someone other than themselves. Of course there are a lot of actors who can play only themselves -- I suppose they are the equivalent of autobiographical novelists, writers who aren't able to pass beyond the confines of their own experience. It's fine to be autobiographical in your fiction, but you must go beyond what merely "happened."

I suppose I have acted, too -- I mean, in Setting Free the Bears I was an Austrian motorcycle mechanic who lost his family in World War Two; in The Water-Method Man I was a documentary-film editor with a deformed urinary tract; in The World According to Garp I was both Garp and his mother; in The Hotel New Hampshire I was a boy in love with his older sister -- although I never had an older sister -- and the father of a family in the hotel business; in The Cider House Rules I was an eighty-year-old, ether-addicted obstetrician and gynecologist and abortionist; in A Prayer for Owen Meany, a granite quarrier and body escort in the Vietnam War; in A Son of the Circus, an Indian-born orthopedic surgeon, specializing in crippled children and dwarfs; and in A Widow for One Year I was two women, both Ruth and her mother. If that isn't acting, what is?

Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. John Irving photo credit: Cook Neilson.