In John Irving's Vermont home, even the fan above his oven is covered with photographs. Images of smiling family members are taped to support beams, framed formal pictures stand tented on most counter surfaces and the lifetime of snapshots that line the bulletin boards in the bestselling author's office feel like the sort of milestones that flash before one's eyes in a near-death experience.
This is all very fitting for a writer who renders such detailed arcs of his characters' entire lives, with equal parts humor and gravitas, through childhood innocence to adult understanding and finally to elderly repose.
In conversation, Irving speaks the way he writes. Long, ornate sentences may take several parenthetical tangents, but they always come to logical conclusions, and often uncover profound human truths.
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Throughout the course of a two-hour interview, he effortlessly steps inside the psyches of characters he has invented in more than 40 years of publishing novels. Critics have suggested that too many of these characters are linked by constants like New England upbringings, parents who have abandoned them, enthusiasm for writing and/or wrestling and sexuality in full bloom. With his just released 13th novel, "In One Person," Irving does employ these conceits, but in a new way. And he may have written his most political book yet.
"The main character—the narrative point of view—is bisexual; the heroes—as I call them—are two transgendered women. Well, by definition, that's a political novel," says the author, leaning back in a chair in his home office. "In France, is that a political novel? In Germany? No! To me, it's kind of tragic that it’s a political subject."
What follows is the transcript of the full discussion. If you are in the middle of reading one of John Irving's books right now, be warned: The ease with which he references the works within his canon means that a spoiler or two is likely to sneak up on you.
Do you get a lot of visitors here?
Probably more journalists from abroad than from the U.S.; I think people from other countries are more interested in seeing where I live. That seems to be more interesting to them. The U.S. journalists, that's just a matter of convenience — they would rather see me where they are than come here. But, I also live part-time in Canada so I see more journalists there, both in Toronto, where I have an apartment, and on an island in Lake Huron, where I go every summer, than I do here. It's easier to get to Toronto than here — although I live in Vermont more months of the year than I'm in Canada. I probably end up having more interviews in Canada because it's easier to get to.
This is your primary work station, here, right?
Well, I write in long hand. I don't really have a work station. I like to be near my assistant. My day is better when I'm with my assistant than when I'm separated from whoever that is. But I can't make the case that I work better here than I do in my in my apartment in Toronto; or, I'm in Canada for two or three months all summer on an island, I work as well there as I do anywhere. It's just that the business of passing first draft pages back to [my assistant] Nick or whoever is working for me; getting those pages back, that process might be more, it's a little more cumbersome when we're not in the same place. But in terms of needing an environment — I work just as well in the city as I do in the countryside.
So, there aren't long searches out that window looking for a hidden sentence? [His office looks out onto the Green Mountains of Vermont.]
No, I barely look up.
We're sitting here in February, the book comes out in May. How long ago did you finish?
I finished a draft that I felt ready to show people —my so called "expert readers" — in December of 2010. It was a very fast book in the writing for me; quite a long time in the thinking, seven or eight years taking notes in my mind, seven or eight years until I knew the whole story. Whenever I finish whatever novel I'm working on in the present, there's always these boxcars. Some of them, like "Last Night in Twisted River" sit in the station for 20 years. "Twisted River" was the novel that I was always going to write. That was a boxcar in the station for the longest time. This one, by comparison, would've been sitting there in the station for seven or eight years.
[The story was] bisexual boy falls in love with transgendered woman; the rest of his life is shaped accordingly. Always that story, always that trajectory, always on a collision course with the AIDS epidemic; which any knowledgeable reader, reading this story, seeing who Billy Abbott is, seeing who his friends and lovers are, you know that's coming, just because of the date. There was always that positioning, of a moment in time, that any sensible reader is anticipating. Billy, as he's living the experience, doesn't know that it's coming, but you do.
Seven or eight years, I can't tell you if that's an average or whether that's relatively long for a car to be waiting in the station, but the irony is I never know when I finish writing — if I had to guess which of those books that's waiting for me to write —which one is going to be the next one. If I had to guess before I really thought about it, I'm always wrong. It doesn't have anything to do with how long it's been there. It has everything to do with which of the three or four novels that are kind of waiting around, which one of them is the most forthcoming about the ending. Which one gives me, in the most unchangeable detail, the last sentence, the last two paragraphs, the last three paragraphs? The one that it seems that I will begin is often not the one that I expected to be beginning; the one that I may have thought the most about, or have taken notes about, or have already done the most research about. Though there was very little research in this novel, there was, as you probably know, a lot of research in some of the other novels. Sometimes it takes 18 months of investigation before I really have that confidence that I need before I can start writing a novel; I have to get myself in the mindset of an OBGYN and I'm not. This novel did not present that obstacle which has been an obstacle for many of the previous novels.
It all comes down to the ending, how [claps hands] solidly do I have the language, the tone of voice, the surety that this is the last moment in the book? Whether that book has been in my head for 20 years or only five, that's the one that I know the best.
So what was the research process like for "In One Person"?
Not much. I lived in New York in the '80s, I lost friends to that terrible disease, It wasn't like learning the moves of a church organist or understanding the compulsion of a full-body tattoo worshipper [from "Until I Find You"] or putting myself in the mindset of an ether addict [from "The Cider House Rules"]. Some of those things were really hard; hard in the sense that I kind of had to go to school. I had to find somebody to teach me, I had to walk in his or her shoes. I had to do what you're doing and interview people and take notes. I had to say, "Can I even dream of being in the shoes of this 80-year-old OBGYN abortionist who's operating before I was born?" How much time do I really need to spend at a maternity hospital? This book presented no such obstacle.
I always have a cast of first readers. Some of them never change. Some of them are my standby experts. They're just good readers. They're just fussy, picky people that I always want to read the first draft. For the most part, they're people who have some expertise that is beyond mine in an area of —or several areas of — the book that I'm writing.
In the case of this book, for research, I didn't have to go anywhere or learn anything. I had to reacquaint myself with some of the language of the medications and some of the associative diseases — which I remember clearly what they look like — that went with the HIV disease. I made a mistake about the terrible Hickman catheter. I had somehow moved the Hickman to the less severe-looking catheter that was on your arm instead of that terrible thing that was inserted in your chest. I attached an 'odor' to one of the drugs that I must have picked up from something else. There were some things of that nature that needed their [corrections]. It was mostly medical stuff, but in the case of this book — and this is common for all of the books — I need to know that I've got somebody of the right generation and of the right background. If I know that so-and-so is going to be a reader of this manuscript when I'm writing it, that gives me confidence. I think, "OK, if I make a mistake in this area; if I give something the wrong name, or if I mention it as an available drug two years before it was available, I know that I've got the guy who is going to say, 'Mmm, no, this wasn't in use before this date.'" In the case of this novel —I can't really claim that there wasn't any — but it was certainly easier than all of the logging detail in “Twisted River,” or the obstetrical gynecological surgery in "Ciderhouse," or the actual role of a body escort in the Vietnam War in "A Prayer for Owen Meany." For those things I needed to leave home and do some work. But in this case I knew that I had two people who are old friends, writers themselves, in whom I had the utmost confidence and whose area of expertise falls solidly in the terrain of this novel in different ways. [The first was] Edmund White, who is an old friend and someone whom I've long respected. I was reading his manuscript of "Jack Holmes and His Friend," while he was reading mine. I knew that if I made a mistake about this or that gay bar at this or that time in New York City, Edmund would say, "No, no, no, that was two years later."
More important, the medical detail, I had Abraham Verghese, who has long been a reader and a friend. I've read his books and manuscript too, but it was more as a doctor of infectious disease, as an AIDS doctor, that I was counting on Abraham's assistance in this case than as a writer. But he is also a writer.
Similarly when I was writing "A Widow for One Year," I had a policemen in the red light district in Amsterdam who I knew was going to be reading that manuscript over my shoulder and say, "No, that's not the way we do this," or "That's not how this fingerprint is taken." Sometimes the research is not what you need to do prior to writing. But, sometimes it's the confidence that you have up here because you know that you've got an authority who's going to be coming behind you.
The best story I have about research is that the biggest mistakes that I've made, and this probably won't surprise anybody, but the first time it happened, it surprised me: When I was writing "The Cider House Rules," I knew that I knew nothing about obstetrical and gynecological procedures — I had to see abortions, I had to see births, I had to talk through, [and ask,] "What is that?" and "Why do you do this?" I had to be talked through it; for a non-scientific person, it was very tough. The orthopedic procedures in 'A Son of the Circus' similarly were daunting; a little easier for me, because I've had orthopedic surgeries.
But, the irony was in 'Cider House,' I think I made one mistake of an OBGYN kind; it was in the first draft — and out of all of the doctors that I worked with and I gave it to them and it was a mistake that any OBGYN would be up in arms about, but it was an easy fix. But on the other hand, as a kid growing up in New Hampshire, I had worked on the apple farms through most of my life as a teenager. I had grown up working on apple farms. I thought that I knew everything that there was to know about apple farms; what you did, why you did and what you did with this chemical and did it kill that mouse or did it kill this mice; ya know, I grew up on an apple farm — I made many more mistakes about apple farming than about OBGYN procedures. It was a big lesson to me — they said, "Don't trust your memory." That thing that you think that you know so well, and that was the mistake about the Hickman catheter, it kind of came around that way. For some reason, and it may just have been how simply awful it was to see that thing, in where it was, it may just have been that I'll never in my life forget the name of what it was called, but I moved it, I made it in a much more comfortable place. And, you think, "How could I do that?" And I had been a visitor in many a friend's hospice room, and you can be betrayed very easily. That was the early '80s. How well do you really remember things? So, I've learned that you shouldn't trust what you think that you know, you might make a mistake where you least expect it.
Do any of these mistakes that the expert readers point out ever change the plot, or are they easy fixes? Are there any fixes that have driven the plot?
They've never been of that magnitude. It certainly could be, but, as you might imagine, because I've begin with the plot, because I know the plot, I usually am pretty good about asking questions of that kind [before I start writing]. The question doesn't pertain to "In One Person"; I didn't have to write to Abraham or Edmund and say "This story depends upon Billy not realizing as a teenager that Delacorte was also gay."
There was no such problem, but I did have to ask the questions before I wrote ["The Cider House Rules"]: If you are addicted to ether, how do you die? How tough is it to kill yourself with that drug? If you're abusing it, how easy? Am I writing about something that was relatively rare, with ether addiction? No. Death from ether addiction? Yes.
The question that you're asking, I anticipate, because I know what the story depends on, so I say to my doctors before I'm even beginning "The Cider House Rules," "Just so I don't build a whole story around a guy killing himself on ether, I don't want you to tell me five years later that it's impossible to kill yourself from ether."
So, I usually ask those questions, and that's why I don't get caught. Maybe the trick is for things of that nature, there's quite an important episode in "A Widow for One Year," where Ruth is the witness to the murder of a prostitute, but she's thoroughly embarrassed or ashamed about how it is that she is a witness because she essentially paid a prostitute to allow her to observe a prostitute with her customer for her processes as a writer and she happens to be the witness of a murder. So, she's in a position where she has evidence to give, as a witness, but she wants to give evidence in such a way that the killer will indeed be caught and that the witness cannot be found, except years later by something she puts in her own writing, never suspecting that the cop is also a reader. Well, that's a pretty detail-oriented plot. So before I ever got there, I had to say to my Dutch publisher, "I need a cop, I need a guy with a lot of homicide experience, I need a guy who's investigated the deaths of a lot of prostitutes, who's comfortable enough with English so that I can work with him." Once I found him, I said, "OK, here's the situation, here's the evidence. How long does it take you to find the murderer? Would you also find the witness?"
I was creating a situation that was the reverse of the norm. Normally, you know everything about the witness, and not enough about the murderer. I said, "I need a situation where you know everything you need to know about the murderer, you'll catch the guy in 24 hours, but you won't catch the witness, except for one thing that she's not thinking about."
So, I said, "What does she see? What does she tell you about?"
I would say, "Here's what she tells you," and he would say, "I would catch them both in 24 hours. I know who they both are."
We had to build the box, see what I mean? Well, there was nothing of that nature in "In One Person." In truth, this may have been why [it took so long to write] even though the story had been in my mind a long time for "In One Person." And remember, too, it's not a short novel, but for me it's a shorter one. And it's a first-person narrative. Every first-person narrative, once you start writing it, is more quickly deliverable because you are an actor, you're a player who has a role, and you know who your character is. "The Hotel New Hampshire," "A Prayer for Owen Meany," "In One Person," they're all first-person narrators, which means that they're characters in the story, so there's no hesitation on the writer's part about their tone of voice because they're one of the actors on the stage. You know what they're capable of saying and what they're capable of not saying. So those novels, they write a little quicker, than a novel written in that third-person omniscient voice, which is more usually the voice that I'm in. But in this case, too, I did not have the obstacle of research that has confronted me in so many of my novels and I think that's why I didn't begin writing this novel until June of 2009 and to have a manuscript that was clean enough to show to an editor and a cast of my so-called expert readers in December of 2010. That's extraordinarily fast for me.
With those expert readers, was Edmund White the only representative from the homosexual community and Abraham Verghese the only one from the medical community?
Oh, no. Within those acknowledgments there are people who are gay, straight and bi and Abraham's not the only doctor. There are people who I think, "This is a good reader for this novel." And probably it's someone who's read two or three other books of mine, and I'm thinking of them because, maybe they're really good at the first-person narrative, and I'm thinking who among my friends, who I would never hesitate to read one of their manuscripts or do anything that they would ask me, who could I ask, you know, to read something closely and seriously?
What's the most important component of someone who's an expert reader?
It's someone who isn't trying to impress you, more like someone who's impressed by you — you're asking this person to read your book because, if this person finds something, whether it's a mistake or whether it's something that irritates them or rubs them the wrong way, this person isn't going to pussyfoot around. That's what you want. You're not asking for somebody to say, "Oh, wow, I love this" or something.
You've always seemed to enjoy writing about outsiders, in general, and especially sexual outsiders. Where in the spectrum of all your characters would you say that Billy from "In One Person" falls?
Think of how many characters in my novels are outsiders; think of out of those outsiders, how many are sexual misfits, or outsiders, someone who's not in the club of immediate approval. I'm not speaking only in terms of orientation.
Frank, the gay brother in "The Hotel New Hampshire," which was in 1981, the gay twin separated at birth in "A Son of the Circus," which was in 1994, the several transgendered characters before Miss Frost, before Donna, before most importantly Gee, in "In One Person." But think also of Dr. Larch in “The Cider House Rules,” who has sex once and then stops for life. That's pretty outside. Jenny Fields, Garp's mother, has sex once with a comatose man and never has it again; Johnny Wheelwright, the narrator from “A Prayer for Owen Meany” who behind his back is called a non-practicing homosexual, which in my estimation, he probably is, though he would deny it, though he's one of those most sympathetic gay men from my generation who would never come out. Though he would say that yes, he loves other people, but would he say that he's in love? Never! But, why do I say half a dozen times that this is what is said of him? Johnny Wheelwright never has sex with anyone, man or woman. Thinking of that panoply of characters, I choose for all of my novels… Billy Abbott is the bisexual narrator of “In One Person,” he's hardly the first sexual misfit in my novels, nor is he by any means, the most outside. Johnny Wheelwright is a lot more uncomfortable in his skin than Billy Abbott. So it was a lot harder, in a narrative balancing act, it was a lot harder to be Johnny in "Owen Meany." Almost no one in that novel is physically described except Owen, who is physically adored. The vein in his temples, every single thing about him is pictured in a kind of Vermeer-like verisimilitude, but there's no suggestion of how Johnny feels. He wouldn't acknowledge it if there were.
Or John Berry, in “The Hotel New Hampshire” is in love with his sister. Now that's a little more outside than being gay or bi, or I think in recent times even a transgendered than to be, well, John Berry is really alone.
I suppose consciously or otherwise, when I'm looking for expert readers, it isn't always to back me up on the verisimilitude of, in Edmund's case or in Abraham's case, gay or medical detail. That's easy. What may be harder is, "Who have you got reading who is going to get my identification?"
Obviously, I must like these people whose lives would be described by their society — to be kind — as odd or eccentric. And the choice of the bi guy was certainly, in my generation — thankfully it's less so now — from the point of view of straight women, the bi guy was not to be trusted. Because who was he going to leave you for: Another woman, or a guy? He was doubly untrustworthy, and among gay men of my generation, many of them didn't believe that there was such a thing as a bi guy. That was just a gay guy with one foot in the closet, who was kind of hedging his bets about being gay, and everyone's saying, "Well, give him time, we'll see how bi he is." But what do you say when 70 years later, that's who the guy is? You have to change your mind. Edmund's written very well about that. But, there still is that reluctance. I wanted a guy who essentially, nobody's going to trust him. He's not a community member. He's not. But, Doctor Larch isn't a community member, Jenny Fields isn't a community member, but for other reasons.
I was recently reading "Imaginary Girlfriend," your memoir, and there was an interesting passage. You wrote that if your son kept you out of Vietnam, "the combination of being married and a father and my return to the world of wrestling kept me from experimenting with the most seductive hallmarks of my '60s generation; sex and drugs." Do you think that writing about sexual outsiders has anything to do with that? From being removed from those activities?
That's an interesting question. I wouldn't deny that. I would certainly say that's a piece of the "Why?" if there is a "Why?" I might question in the mind of someone whose work is principally imaginary how much there needs to be a "Why?" For example, I don't know how much of this is me, or how much of this is typical or not of my generation, but the passage you correctly quote, it separates me.
But, obviously before I was a writer, I was also a boy with an active imagination. Before I found something constructive to do with that imagination, and I, at a young age, at an age parallel to puberty, I started writing and I started wrestling and a short year after that, the commencement of both writing and wrestling, I was in the environment for five years of an all boys school, so that my earliest acquaintance with sexual desire was all over the map. I was attracted to faculty wives, to many of my friends' mothers, to many girls my own age, to Adonis-like older boys on the wrestling team.
My attraction to them and to their mothers was embarrassing to me. And when I talk to my gay friends of my generation, that whole element of self-loathing and self-hatred which was so common in gay men of my generation at that age was a feeling. I didn't become or turn out to be gay or bi, but I had all of those feelings. Does that translate to my saying I started wrestling at age 14 because of homoerotic attraction to wrestlers? No. But did I have the occasional homoerotic attraction to some god-like star (always older) on my wrestling team or on another team? Sure. But equally as disturbing to me was my attraction to my English teacher's wife with three children. You see what I mean? So, I'm not sure, to go back to your question, I'm not sure I would've needed the isolation of being married when I was still an undergraduate, deprived of experimentation with drugs and excessive drinking, because I was a jock from the age of 14 to the age of 34.
What is [that passage in] Chapter 1, paragraph 1, maybe paragraph 2? It was the very beginning of this book. It was almost the first sentence, but I liked "I'm going to begin by telling about Miss Frost." But the one that was almost the first sentence — because last sentences never change, but first one often do — is very close to it. [He opens his copy of "In One Person"]
"We are formed by what we desire."
That was the first sentence before I thought, "No, no, no, I'm going to begin by telling about Miss Frost."
Because Miss Frost is the shaker and mover of this story. I mean, Billy Abbott is the main character, but if you had to say, "Who are the two most heroic characters of 'In One Person'?" Billy doesn't qualify as a hero. The heroes of this story are Miss Frost and her young counterpart Gee at the end. Because when he meets Gee, it's Billy's opportunity to pay respect to this young girl wannabee, who— I never say this, but I think the reader knows — is kind of his opportunity to do something for someone who is going through what Miss Frost went through at an age when Billy never knew Miss Frost. It's this mess of a boy who we first see, who's taking an outsider's journey, more outsider than his; someone who doesn't allow him to feel sorry for himself.
In "In One Person" the character Kittredge is an interesting one. He is a jock who antagonizes Billy, yet he admires Billy for his relationship with Miss Frost. Where do you put him on the scope of hero?
I try not to be too proud of characters, but I am proud of him. He's a very complicated character, or I hope he was. I hope that all along as you meet him, as you're knowing him, you both hate him and recognize him and think of counterparts in your past who were like him. And you also recognize that there's something about him that you don't know everything about. There's always a character or a piece of a novel that I find you never stop revising when the book is done. And Kittredge is that element in this novel. There's no piece of this novel that was tweaked or shaded or that I inserted something about or took something away about as many times as I did with Kittredge and Kittredge's mother. He's the delicate one. He's the one where you always want the reader to be unsure, about Kittredge and to be unsure about that mother. And whatever Elaine's experience is or was, you want there to be a conscious lack of clarity there. Why does he seem to understand so much about Billy when Billy barely understands himself? Why is Delacorte so worshipful and afraid of him? Why is Atkins tongue-tied around him? It's too simple to say that he's this sort of bully jock in a jock culture in a — to use the language of the time — a homo-hating culture, which this all boys environment so very much is.
But it was always delicate with Kittredge to not give too much away, but I had hoped and think that this probably, I don't know where you fall in this scenario, but I had always hoped that there are different places in this novel where for every reader, where he or she will figure out Kittredge before Billy does. Just as I could ask you, "On which page did you figure out Miss Frost?" But it's before Billy does, way before Billy does, that you do. Is it the shoulder, or is it the collarbone or is it the fact that she's conscious about the size of her hands, when she sees her hands besides Richard's and takes them away? Is it the strange changes in her voice?
But Billy is like the last to know. And that's like a set-up in a sense, because in a way, he's the last to know about Kittredge too, when Delacorte, dying, says, "Leave it to him to be the one not to fit in." There are all these clues, but somewhere along the line [the reader finds out and then the character finds out].
The reader is always ahead of Billy and that's a common motif for me. I got that from the theatre. If you're watching a play, a good one, you know way before what happens to Lear, what Lear's problem is. In Act 1, Scene 1, you know he has it wrong about which daughter loves him and which two don't. You know! You could be 12 years old and comprehending a third of Shakespeare's language, but you know that this old king is a fool, he's got it all wrong from the beginning. I think with you, the reader, there's that sense, that offstage Shakespearean sense, like Elaine, that you feel wronged when Kittredge dies offstage, and word comes from afar from as bumbling a source as Bob. And like Elaine, you feel, "Fuck, the guy has got away with something," but you know that you're going to see him again. But there's that moment, I hoped, in the theatre, when they're doing "Romeo and Juliet," when you think, "It is him," when Billy thinks it's him. There's just a second there where [it's him] instead of this disappointing version of him, this angry kid who's half as interesting, or complicated as his father was. But, in a way, it is like “The Cider House Rules,” where you know that Homer Wells is going to go back to the orphanage. You know that he didn't learn to be a doctor not to be one, from the moment the doctor's bag goes under the bed in the cider house you know that he's going to have a use for it, you just don't quite know when or where.
The return of Miss Frost, that's almost like saying, "OK, this is your freakin' chance to be of use to somebody, and to recognize that someone is taking a journey on a road without a lot of company."
Let's talk a little bit about that aspect of the journey in your writing. The first work of yours that I read was "The Cider House Rules," and every work since, they all have this devastating arc of life. When you see Dr. Larch at the beginning, you know that he's going to be an old mess and die at the end. It's devastating as a reader, because you get to love these people. Writing through that arc, does it exhaust you?
One of the struggles for me as I get older is my awareness that I want seriously and consciously to be trying to write shorter novels, again, not short, just shorter. "Twisted River" is 50,000 words shorter than "Cider House," 80,000 words shorter than "Owen Meany." "In One Person" is 35,000 words shorter than "Twisted River." A book I began on Christmas Eve I would estimate to you to be shorter by 50,000 words or more than "In One Person." I'm trying to bring the size down. The challenge is that the passage of time is what makes most of my books long, and the effective passage of time is an essential ingredient to most of the stories. The principle difference between the film that I wrote about "Cider House" and the novel is that 15 years passed in the novel before Homer Wells goes back to St. Cloud, while 18 months pass in the movie. That was hard.
Yeah, I'll bet.
Forget about the other characters or storylines, the piece of my heart that is hardest to lose is how much more it means for Homer to have a partial life away from that life into which he was born before he says, "Shit, this is where I belong." But how short can a novel be if the very arc you describe is an essential part of what you feel every essential story is about? It's about what changes you and what stays the same. [In "In One Person"] it's about that moment when his mother dies and Billy is fixated not on his mother but what Miss Frost would think of him now. "What would she think of me?" And he doesn't mean his writing. He means, "What kind of person does she think I am?" and, he has to meet Miss Frost and he has to lose Miss Frost, and no one can ever match Miss Frost. At the end of the novel, he has to meet someone who is like Miss Frost to be selflessly devoted to, just making her life a little easier.
Well, I don't think that I'll ever lose my interest in the passage of time, which is probably while I'll never write another novel this short and yes, it's tiring, but what can you do? It's trivial on the one hand, but it is part of my process as a writer on the other, but I'll be 70 next weekend. I feel pretty good for the age I am. But, what's the thing as a writer, that I really have to keep watch on? It's my capacity to remember the story that I have made up, the capacity to remember the chronology of a made-up story. I don't care if I don't remember a person's name who I've seen twice and haven't seen in five years, that part of remembering things isn't something that gets to me. The things that I forget in real life, while they may be embarrassing, when one of my children calls me and says, "You told me you would call me last night," and I think oh sure, it's embarrassing, but it's not where I live, so to speak. Where I do live is I want to know the difference, I want to keep in my own mind what I know about Kittredge, everything, and how he'll end and that it's his son that causes Billy to repeat what Miss Frost says to him. The most important line in the book: "Don't put a label on me — don't make me a category before you get to know me..." that I know everything about that detail is what I kept back from you, and when is it that I told you, exactly where was it that I talked about the photograph that Mrs. Kittredge's face is transposed on the wrestler's body and Kittredge's face is transposed on his mother's body? And how many times should I remind you of that photograph? Is two times enough? Is three times too many times? That's the kind of thing that I don't want to lose track of. That's why I'm saying, "OK, no more novels as complicated as this one."
This is the hardest of my novels, both to write and to read. It's not the longest. "Until I Find You" is the longest, but "Until I Find You" is easy on the reader. It's completely chronological, whereas this isn't.
I've read most of your works, but just to be sure, is there anything you have written that does not take place over somebody's full lifetime?
"The Fourth Hand." That's the only one. And that's why it's the shortest novel, because there's very little about [the character] Patrick Wallingford as a child. By comparison, it's a novel that is a window of a life and not, as you say, the arc of, or trajectory of a life. But,"The Fourth Hand" is decidedly an unusual novel for me. It sets itself apart from the rest.
I notice that you have some of your own books on your desk here, and they have all these little Post-It notes, what's going on there?
I'm using a version of this book as a novel that a fictional writer writes that is not about his life, but is tangential to his life. Also, some of these notes are as old as the earliest draft of a screenplay of this story, which is not an adaptation, because the screenplay —which has never been made — was written before the novel. The screenplay is still a work in progress.
Let's talk about that notion of memory and having a story in your head, and the boxcars you mentioned, getting ready to leave the station. How do you make sure the conductor, as it were, doesn't get confused?
More than two years ago now, I thought I should take every step that I could to make my short-term memory better. When people start getting older, it's their short-term memory that goes. Your memory of what the hell happened to you at age 14 is pretty vivid, but your memory with what you intended to do with this character in Chapter Five and that you remembered when you were at the end of Chapter Two but somehow forgot in the middle of Chapter Three, that memory is not so good as it used to be. So more than two years ago I stopped drinking everything but beer. And, I never drank a lot to begin with because I'm sort of a physical fanatic. I want to be in shape, so I never drank much, ever. But I stopped drinking everything but beer.
So, three or four beers, that's it.
In that period of time, I saw that short-term memory get a little sharper. So, this New Year's, I said, "Well, would I see any difference if I didn't drink any beer, anything at all?"
And incrementally, now that it's been two months, I don't see as much of a change because the difference between three or four beers and no beer is [minimal]. We're not talking about a lot of alcohol to begin with, but I see enough of a difference to say,"Yes, this works."
I'm not making a big deal of it. What I'm saying is that I see that as a step in the same direction as trying to design/plan a novel that is incrementally a little shorter than the last one. It strikes me at age 70, that's what I ought to be doing. Because knowing how many times and exactly when and where in my story I told you about that photograph of Mrs. Kittredge and Kittredge and their faces transposed and having that detail vividly clear to me at every phase of writing "In One Person," as you might imagine, is important. So if I didn't care about plot, if I didn't always begin a novel with the ending and make a roadmap of the book before I begin, if I were a poet, if I were a short story writer, I would not have ever have said —nor do I think anybody who knows me would say — that I drank enough that I had to stop drinking while I was drinking, but it's just that little gesture.
I'm connecting that to your observation about exhaustion.
So, no vices at all now?
I really don't want to be perceived as somebody who perceives drinking as a vice. I don't think it's a vice at all. If I did something else with my life — if I had another life —I can't ever see that the role that alcohol had played in my life would have an impact. If I wrote screenplays, who would care? I mean, anybody can remember a screenplay. It's 115 pages long, who can forget that? But novels are a little different, right?
In the sequence of your writing, and making sure the last sentence is what you want before you write the beginning, is there a particular age in a character's life that you especially enjoy writing? Are you ever thinking something like, "Oh, I can't wait until Billy gets to be an adult"?
I like those situations where you, the reader, you see more of what's coming than the character on the page sees. I like that situation, and it no doubt is enhancing to that situation that I am writing a novel in the point of view of a young person, the point of view of someone not quite old enough to know what's going, or in Billy Abbott's case, who he is, who he is evolving to be, becoming sexually. And so much of writing a novel for me is the ability to just keep asking the "What if?" question.
Many kids have these, as [a character in "In One Person" refers to them] polymorphous perversions; to have a broad spectrum of terrifying desires that you really don't mean and you hope aren't true. But the truth is that you do desire just about everyone, and you hope that those desires will pass because you'll certainly have a complicated life if they don't. Well, in Billy's case, suppose that they don't. Suppose that's who you are, and who in this small claustrophobic town, might know enough about you, more than you do, who would be of help to you? In Billy's case, who but Miss Frost? Who but Grandpa Harry? Those are the sympathetic souls. ... I forget where I was going with this.
I was asking about the ages of characters in that proverbial arc of a life, and what age gives you the most fulfillment to render into words.
Well, I'm saying, think how many books begin at the point of view of a kid, or an adolescent. Danny, at the beginning of "Twisted River," thinks that his father is being mauled by a bear because his father never tells him that he's in a love relationship with the Indian dishwasher. The reader knows that Injun Jane is not a bear, but Danny doesn't know.
[In "In One Person"] we know who Miss Frost is, the whole town knows, everyone at a certain age at least. But nobody told Billy, and Billy doesn't know.
[In "The Cider House Rules"] Homer Wells knows. It's not until he takes the lid off of the operating room table and sees the fetus and thinks, "Oh, what's that? This isn't how you deliver a baby."
There's always something that point-of-view character doesn't really know, even [in "In One Person,"] the episode in Vienna, [when the main character learns of the death of JFK on the night that his girlfriend is going to make her debut at the opera] the reader probably knows what's wrong before Billy knows. Billy's one of the last.
Were you in Vienna when Kennedy was assassinated?
I was! But that wasn't my experience. I was a student there, but I wasn't at the opera that night. But the city, the scene in the city was similar. Kennedy had just been in Vienna, he had just been in the Soviet Union and had just come then for serious Cold War talks, which took place in Vienna because Austria was neutral country, but I like that age, you see.
Think of Ruth from "A Widow for One Year." It's Ruth who comes in and finds the hired assistant sleeping with her mother. "Don't worry, honey it's just Eddie and me," Marion says, which will be [claps hands] repeated at the end of that book. This is what I call a dialogue ending. The ending to "In One Person" is the third one. They're repetitions of phrases that we've heard in dialogue usually in a different context, often from a different speaker.
The repetition of "It's just Eddie and me," so many years later in "A Widow For One Year," the repetition of the benediction that Dr. Larch uses to bless the orphans, "Princes of Maine, Kings of New England," that refrain at the end of "Cider House" and here in "In One Person" it's "My dear boy..." that whole admonition, "Don't put a label on me. Don't think that by calling me a transsexual that you've defined me. Don't think that by calling me gay, bi, lesbian, that you have put me in a convenient cubby, convenient category. That's not all about me."
So the age where the character's eyes are opened or receives his or her first impression of this sort of wisdom that will be echoed later on in the story?
I think so. I don't know. This is pure speculation, but I certainly feel that way as a father, and I wouldn't be surprised if this was also of terrific influence on me as a writer, but when you think of it, there has been one or more of my children living in my house, under my roof for an unusually long time. I have three sons, the first born when I'm in my early 20s, the youngest now a college student, only two years out of the house. From the age of 22 to the age of 67, one or more of my three boys have lived under my roof with me. Well, any parent would tell you this, but if you're around young people a lot, it keeps you connected, it keeps your memory connected to who you were and what things were like when you were that age. You're reminded of things that you wouldn't be otherwise. You are suddenly in the presence of a 17-year-old or a 15-year-old or a 20-year-old that you love and know very well and when he or one of his friends says something or reacts to something, or says anything, you're back there! It's a synapse that just fires and sometimes what you see is a point of difference and more often what you see is a similarity, but in either case, you are in some way reconnected with feelings you've been separated from, or you've felt superior to that you are no longer attached to in your 20s. You think, "Oh, that's exactly how I saw things!"
I don't know. I feel fortunate for that. I feel that it's been a crucial part of my storytelling process to find that point-of-view character who, to use your word, their eyes are open, their receptive senses are alive, and they are about to learn something that they didn't know about.
[Think about] those audiences, in roughly 500 to 400 B.C., who saw a cycle of a plays. They knew those stories; they knew that Oedipus would kill his father; they knew he would sleep with his mother, before Oedipus knew.
One of my favorite devices that you've always used is that stopping for breath in the advancement of plot. Like in "A Prayer for Owen Meany," where you meditate on how people's scents leave their clothing after they die. Do you come across those while in the plot, or do you have separate books of observances that you just weave in?
I know exactly what you mean, but I don't think I have a single truthful generalization that I can make in the answer. The answer isn't very interesting, but it varies. Sometimes those are isolated phrases that I put in a notebook and roll by itself on a blank page, thinking, "Well, you can use that." And other times, it is much more integral to the action of the story, the forward momentum of the story than you might suppose. But, it's simply a moment that is isolated enough that you think, "Oh, this should be prefaced by an asterisk and a page break," This gives you a clue how consecutive my mind is when it works well. [At this point the author opens up his copy of "In One Person" and finds a passage to point out.] There is one such phrase that you mean; see the space break?
"Oh the winds of change, they do not blow gently into the small towns of New England."
That was at one point a phrase that would've been... let's see... if I can find such a thing. [Irving then wheels his chair around to a notebook on his other desk. On the right hand pages is written long passages of text. On the left hand pages, only intermittent scrawls.] This is my first draft, I always write on this side, so I can make notes to myself, insertions, later things, they will appear on the blank side of the page. [He finds the "Oh the winds of change" sentence on a left hand page.]
Was it tempting to politicize gay marriage in this book, in the way that "Cider House" seemed appropriately timed to the pro-choice/pro-life debate?
In the end of the novel, Billy kind of hopes that even as tough of a guy as Larry is, he might be proud of him, for being at least a little more, as Larry would say, "involved." Even Larry might approve a little that Billy is making himself a little more politically available. But Billy is Billy, I couldn't, having created a character with Billy's nature, it wouldn't have run true, it wouldn't have made him into as political an animal as I've always been, because that wouldn't have seemed like Billy. Had Larry been alive, Larry would've been all over it.
I don't think the question really applies to "In One Person," but I can answer it better in a more historical way. It is a political novel, it is a novel of a polemical kind that makes it a brother or a sibling to "The Cider House Rules," to "A Prayer for Owen Meany." It belongs more in the subject matter to "The World According to Garp" because of the subject of sexual differences.
Like many novelists, I'm good at leaving a subject alone and looking back on it. I'm good at distancing myself from something before I write about it; making the abortion story in "Cider House" happen historically, not in the confines of the present debate. Writing my Vietnam novel, "Owen Meany" many years after the fact; the Vietnam War ended in April of '75, "Owen Meany" was published in '89.
Hindsight is kind of my game. This novel, as I've told you, was around pretty much fully formed for seven or eight years before I wrote, "I'm going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost" before I committed to it, but even those seven or eight years were long removed from the 1980s when I lived in New York and I saw the early days of that crisis before it had a name.
One of the mistakes, by the way — since corrected — was that in the galleys I put the name of it, AIDS, before it had a name. I had both Larry and Billy being tested before there were tests. That would be allowable, because it's first-person narrative and he's an older man. But in my view, it required a tweak. At the time it was known as "the disease." The HIV name itself wasn't immediate upon discovery. Where were we going?
Tell me more about the politicizing...
I guess what I mean is that I'm never good at predicting the future, that's not what my kind of novelist does. I have no confidence in it. I would've said in the Vietnam years that I would never see this country as divided as it was divided in those years. Well it's more divided now, for more reasons, not only over a war, but for many more reasons. I would've been wrong about that.
I remember feeling when I was writing "Garp," which is much more radical of a treatise on intolerance of sexual differences than "In One Person," when you consider that it's a sexual assassination story about a man who's murdered by a women who hates men, and his mother is murdered by a man who hates women. And, it's more of an extreme novel, socially, than "In One Person."
But it is a protest novel. Sexual liberation was barely a decade old when that novel was written in the late '70s. I was writing it in the heart of the '70s, but with the '60s less than a decade behind. I was thinking, "You call this sexual liberation, people hating each other for sexual differences?"
I remember thinking at the time, "Well, I hate thinking about this subject. This subject makes me angry. Whatever I write. I'll never write about this again."
It is different, but the backlash against gay marriage, the constant gay-bashing right now, with all of the Republican candidates for the Presidency is just nonstop, ceaseless. These Republican candidates, many of them are saying things that even high school students would be reprimanded for or even suspended from school for, and they're saying it with the utmost confidence to boorish rounds of applause.
When I wrote "Cider House," many of my feminist friends thought it was kind of quaint that I was writing about this subject so long after the fact.
That one I got right.
I said, "This isn't going away. You think Roe vs. Wade is a done deal, that you're out of these woods? You're wrong!"
The climate regarding the acceptance or tolerance of abortion rights, at the time the film was released in '99 — the novel was published in '85 —was far worse, and is worse today.
You've got two of those candidates, Gingrich and Santorum [at the time of this interview, these candidates were still in the race] who even subscribe to the Mississippi notion of so-called "personhood" being attached to the fertilized egg. [Rolls his eyes] Oh please. It's nothing but a way of undermining not just abortion rights but also [those who use] many acceptable forms of contraception would be considered killing said personhood of an unfertilized egg.
It's disturbing to see, as an American whose novels have been translated into 35 languages; as an American whose livelihood as a writer is more than 50 percent supported by my earnings abroad and translations. It's embarrassing to see what a backward, juvenile, barely formed country we are, sexually and have long been. And I think if the so-called social conservatives who allege to speak for us are any example, we're in a dinosaur-like fashion, fleeing backwards by the minute.
Why are we still debating a woman's rights for abortion? Why are we still debating that gay rights is a civil rights issue? How could someone like Santorum run around claiming family values, namely his, while denying the right of gays to be married or presume to have a family? Where does this kind of narrowness of definition come from?
[In "In One Person"] the main character of the narrative point of view is bisexual, the
heroes are two transgendered women. By definition, that's a political
novel. [He leans back in his chair.] In France, is that a political novel? In Germany? No. To me, it's
kind of tragic that it's a political subject. It could easily be a
historical subject. It makes us a joke among countries who are a little more grown up sexually than we are —which would be most of them.
So when you say "politicize," to go back to the boxcars in the station metaphor, when I finished "Last Night in Twisted River," here was this one, and it had only been seven or eight years —which is not a long time for me — there were a couple of novels which were sitting there which had sat there longer, that I had arguably done more notes for, had done more research for, novels which required more research, in some cases. But the political motivation to write ["In One Person"] I would be lying to say that that was another reason that I chose to do this one now, because, as I've told you, whatever I might desire to write next doesn't matter as much as that ending. I've got to have it. I have to see it and I can't seem to force it.
I can't say that because this is the next boxcar in the station that I would like to move on a forward track. I can't make the ending happen. If the ending to one of those other boxcars comes first, I'm going to go with that one.
So that is the reason, but unconsciously, subconsciously, under the surface, did I feel there is a reason to write "In One Person" now as opposed to five or 10 years from now?
And I could not make that claim for a couple of those other boxcars which were novels -- to go back to your phrasing, which were novels that did not have a political kernel. This novel, like "Garp," like "Cider House," like "Owen Meany" has that.
Essentially, there was a very simple premise. Of course, many of the feelings that I've had, the level of anger, emotion, attentiveness to the news that is peripheral to my vision while I'm writing a novel that is some years ahead of that news, in the case of "In One Person," a lot of feelings are similar to "Cider House."
And here I am writing about the '30s and '40s at a time when that procedure was unsafe, unavailable. Essentially I had set myself the task of saying, "Well, make everything in this story be things that would, could only happen in a world where that procedure, a standard D and C, is unsafe, illegal and unavailable."
If you make it legal, the story doesn't happen. There is no St. Cloud. There is no problem about what Rose Rose has to do or who she has to find: End of story, no story. There is no St. Cloud's for Rose to go back to.
The way I felt when I was writing this novel reminded me of that. The ridiculous "personhood" argument not withstanding — the attention to preserving the life of the fetus and declaring that the fetus has a soul, whatever — all of the religious arguments in favor of the life of the unborn fetus, whatever they may be ... don't forget, that there is a part of the resistance to abortion rights which is very similar to the resistance to gay rights, very similar in my mind. It is that view, that these people, young girls who get pregnant, who aren't married, people having same-sex sex, that what they do is promiscuous and should be punished, not forgiven. Bring the child to term!
Remember, the people, many of them attached to the Reagan administration, who declared that the AIDS epidemic was a pestilence, that "these people," as if they were a different species, had this disease.
You probably saw, I'm sure, it was in the news all around Boston, remember Santorum's remark to the young woman in New Hampshire, in one of his audiences? She was not a heckler. She was very polite, nicely dressed, looked to be maybe a few years out of college or possibly still in college. She was very well-spoken, and she asked him to please explain to her, his opposition to gay marriage. He sneered at her, he mocked her, he laughed at her. He said, and it was a "these people" kind of response.
He said, "Well, will you next be asking for marriage between three people?"
He was so disrespectful to the tone and politeness in her question! I couldn't roll back the clock and say that I was feeling such a motivation back in June of 2009 when I wrote "I'm going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost," but when I saw how Santorum reacted to that woman I was glad that this was the boxcar that I brought out of the station when I did. Does that make sense to you? Does that connect to the politicized question?
It certainly does.