Interviews

John Irving, The Art of Fiction No. 93

Interviewed by Ron Hansen

John Irving was interviewed in the cramped back room of his otherwise large and luxurious apartment in Manhattan. A jump rope hangs on the door, a heavy set of weights “is always in the way” on the floor, and by one window is a stationary bike that Irving uses on days he doesn’t go to his private athletic club or jog in Central Park. He writes at a blue IBM typewriter beneath color photographs of his sons wrestling in prep-school competitions and black-and-white photographs of himself in prep-school and college matches. Among a great many books in the high bookcases are foreign editions of his novels in fifteen languages.

On the day of this interview, he wore a tweed coat, a green plaid flannel shirt, blue jeans, and running shoes. Irving is a vigorous, brawny man with brown hair that is increasingly gray. His height is probably five-feet-eight and he weighs only twenty-five pounds more than the 136 1/2 pounds he wrestled at years ago. He’s a storyteller and a generous teacher; when asked a question, Irving pauses for so long a time it nearly seems his inner works have stopped, but once his reply has been fully considered, he replies at length in a gentlemanly, New England voice.

 

INTERVIEWER

You’re only forty-four and yet you’ve already published six big and important novels as well as a great many uncollected essays, stories, and reviews. How do you get so much work done?

JOHN IRVING

I don’t give myself time off or make myself work; I have no work routine. I am compulsive about writing, I need to do it the way I need sleep and exercise and food and sex; I can go without it for a while, but then I need it. A novel is such a long involvement; when I’m beginning a book, I can’t work more than two or three hours a day. I don’t know more than two or three hours a day about a new novel. Then there’s the middle of a book. I can work eight, nine, twelve hours then, seven days a week—if my children let me; they usually don’t. One luxury of making enough money to support myself as a writer is that I can afford to have those eight-, nine-, and twelve-hour days. I resented having to teach and coach, not because I disliked teaching or coaching or wrestling but because I had no time to write. Ask a doctor to be a doctor two hours a day. An eight-hour day at the typewriter is easy; and two hours of reading over material in the evening, too. That’s routine. Then when the time to finish the book comes, it’s back to those two- and three-hour days. Finishing, like beginning, is more careful work. I write very quickly; I rewrite very slowly. It takes me nearly as long to rewrite a book as it does to get the first draft. I can write more quickly than I can read.

INTERVIEWER

How do you begin a book?

IRVING

Not until I know as much as I can stand to know without putting anything down on paper. Henry Robbins, my late editor at E. P. Dutton, called this my enema theory: keep from writing the book as long as you can, make yourself not begin, store it up. This is an advantage in historical novels. Setting Free the Bears and The Cider House Rules, for example. I had to learn so much before I could begin those books; I had to gather so much information, take so many notes, see, witness, observe, study—whatever—that when I finally was able to begin writing, I knew everything that was going to happen, in advance. That never hurts. I want to know how a book feels after the main events are over. The authority of the storyteller’s voice—of mine, anyway—comes from knowing how it all comes out before you begin. It’s very plodding work, really.

INTERVIEWER

Have any of your novels changed drastically as you created them?

IRVING

Along the way accidents happen, detours get taken—the accidents turn out to be some of the best things. But these are not “divine” accidents; I don’t believe in those. I believe you have constructive accidents en route through a novel only because you have mapped a clear way. If you have confidence that you have a clear direction to take, you always have confidence to explore other ways; if they prove to be mere digressions, you’ll recognize that and make the necessary revisions. The more you know about a book, the freer you can be to fool around. The less you know, the tighter you get.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give an example of one of those accidents? 

IRVING

One such accident was Melony. I knew she was the force in The Cider House Rules that would get Homer Wells back to St. Cloud’s; at first, of course, the reader is supposed to think that if Melony ever finds Homer, she’ll kill him. And in a way, she does; she has the power to bring him up short. But what she kills is his illusion that he’s living a good life. She’s a moral force, not a lethal one; she’s just as devastating to him as she would be if she were trying to kill him, really. She’s the one who tells him his life is shabby and ordinary. She has the power to do that. I didn’t know exactly what she would do, I mean physically, when she found him; then I thought of her frustrated rage in his bathroom, her very particular handling and dismantling of his things. I thought of that ugly, frightening weapon she constructs out of a toothbrush and a razor blade; she melts the toothbrush handle until it’s soft enough to stick a blade in it; when the plastic hardens, she’s got a lethal weapon. That’s a frightening moment, but she just leaves it in his bathroom medicine cabinet; he cuts himself on it, by accident. “By accident,” but it’s no accident; it’s a reminder to him of her potential for violence. That was a lucky discovery; it just fit perfectly.

INTERVIEWER

Except for The Water-Method Man, which you’ve said was called Fucking Up as you wrote it, you seem to know your novel’s title very early in your conception of it. Is it crucial to you to have a working title before you begin a project?

IRVING

Titles are important; I have them before I have books that belong to them. I have last chapters in my mind before I see first chapters, too. I usually begin with endings, with a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue. I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first? How do you know how to introduce a character if you don’t know how he ends up? You might say I back into a novel. All the important discoveries—at the end of a book—those are the things I have to know before I know where to begin. I knew that Garp’s mother would be killed by a stupid man who blindly hates women; I knew Garp would be killed by a stupid woman who blindly hates men. I didn’t even know which of them would be killed first; I had to wait to see which of them was the main character. At first I thought Jenny was the main character; but she was too much of a saint for a main character—in the way that Wilbur Larch is too much of a saint to be the main character of The Cider House Rules. Garp and Homer Wells are flawed; by comparison to Jenny and Dr. Larch, they’re weak. They’re main characters. Actors know how they end up—I mean how their characters end up— before they speak the opening lines. Shouldn’t writers know at least as much about their characters as actors know? I think so. But I’m a dinosaur.

INTERVIEWER

How do you mean?

IRVING

I’m not a twentieth-century novelist, I’m not modern, and certainly not postmodern. I follow the form of the nineteenth-century novel; that was the century that produced the models of the form. I’m old-fashioned, a storyteller. I’m not an analyst and I’m not an intellectual.

INTERVIEWER

How about the analysts and intellectuals? Have you ever learned anything from reading criticism about your work? Do reviews please or annoy you, or do you pay too little attention to them for that?

IRVING

Reviews are only important when no one knows who you are. In a perfect world all writers would be well-enough known to not need reviewers. As Thomas Mann has written: “Our receptivity to praise stands in no relationship to our vulnerability to mean disdain and spiteful abuse. No matter how stupid such abuse is, no matter how plainly impelled by private rancors, as an expression of hostility it occupies us far more deeply and lastingly than praise. Which is very foolish, since enemies are, of course, the necessary concomitant of any robust life, the very proof of its strength.” I have a friend who says that reviewers are the tickbirds of the literary rhinoceros—but he is being kind. Tickbirds perform a valuable service to the rhino and the rhino hardly notices the birds. Reviewers perform no service to the writer and are noticed too much. I like what Cocteau said about them. “Listen very carefully to the first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the reviewers don’t like; it may be the only thing in your work that is original and worthwhile.”

INTERVIEWER

And yet you review books yourself.

IRVING

I write only favorable reviews. A writer of fiction whose own fiction comes first is just too subjective a reader to allow himself to write a negative review. And there are already plenty of professional reviewers eager to be negative. If I get a book to review and I don’t like it, I return it; I only review the book if I love it. Hence I’ve written very few reviews, and those are really just songs of praise or rather long, retrospective reviews of all the writer’s works: of John Cheever, Kurt Vonnegut, and Günter Grass, for example. And then there is the occasional “younger” writer whom I introduce to readers, such as Jayne Anne Phillips and Craig Nova. Another thing about not writing negative reviews: grown-ups shouldn’t finish books they’re not enjoying. When you’re no longer a child, and you no longer live at home, you don’t have to finish everything on your plate. One reward of leaving school is that you don’t have to finish books you don’t like. You know, if I were a critic, I’d be angry and vicious, too; it makes poor critics angry and vicious—to have to finish all those books they’re not enjoying. What a silly job criticism is! What unnatural work it is! It is certainly not work for a grown-up.

INTERVIEWER

And what about fiction?

IRVING

Of course. What I do, telling stories, is childish work, too. I’ve never been able to keep a diary, to write a memoir. I’ve tried; I begin by telling the truth, by remembering real people, relatives, and friends. The landscape detail is pretty good, but the people aren’t quite interesting enough—they don’t have quite enough to do with one another; of course, what unsettles me and bores me is the absence of plot. There’s no story to my life! And so I find a little something that I exaggerate, a little; gradually, I have an autobiography on its way to becoming a lie. The lie, of course, is more interesting. I become much more interested in the part of the story I’m making up, in the “relative” I never had. And then I begin to think of a novel; that’s the end of the diary. I promise I’ll start another one as soon as I finish the novel. Then the same thing happens; the lies become much more interesting—always.

INTERVIEWER

Especially in your younger work, but even now, one gets the sense of a grown-up at play, of a very natural writer enjoying himself. Are you having as much fun writing now as when you began writing stories at Exeter?

IRVING

I can’t say I have fun writing. My stories are sad to me, and comic too, but largely unhappy. I feel badly for the characters—that is, if the story’s any good. Writing a novel is actually searching for victims. As I write I keep looking for casualties. The stories uncover the casualties.

INTERVIEWER

Some people say you write disaster fiction.

IRVING

Such things don’t happen? Is that what they mean? You bet I write disaster fiction. We have compiled a disastrous record on this planet, a record of stupidity and absurdity and self-abuse and self-aggrandizement and self-deception and pompousness and self-righteousness and cruelty and indifference beyond what any other species has demonstrated the capacity for, which is the capacity for all the above. I am sick of secure and smugly conventional people telling me that my work is bizarre simply because they’ve found a safe little place to live out the chaos of the world—and who then deny that this chaos happens to other, less fortunate people. If you’re rich, are you permitted to say there’s no poverty, no starvation? If you’re a calm, gentle soul, do you say there’s no violence except in bad movies and bad books? I don’t make much up. I mean that. I am not the inventor I’ve been given credit for being. I just witness a different news—it’s still news, it still is just what happens, but more isolated and well-described so you might notice it a little more clearly. George Santayana wrote: “When people say that Dickens exaggerates, it seems to me that they can have no eyes or no ears. They probably have only notions of what things and people are; they accept them conventionally, at their diplomatic value.”

INTERVIEWER

Your literary debts to Charles Dickens, Günter Grass, and Kurt Vonnegut are pretty clear in your work, at least to some readers. How do you see their books contributing to your own?

IRVING

Well, yes, they’re all fathers of my work, in a way. The polite world calls them extremists, but I think they are very truthful, very accurate. I am not attracted to writers by style. What style do Dickens, Grass, and Vonnegut have in common? How silly! I am attracted to what makes them angry, what makes them passionate, what outrages them, what they applaud and find sympathetic in human beings and what they detest about human beings, too. They are writers of great emotional range. They are all disturbed—both comically and tragically—by who the victims of a society (or of each other) are. You can’t copy that; you can only agree with it.

INTERVIEWER

How did your stay in Vienna contribute to your growth as a writer?

IRVING

Living with Vienna’s history helped me look for history in my own work, make history for my characters, respect the passage of time as a finite kind of truth. I never really learned much about Vienna but I was taught to think about the past there—about my past, New England’s past, and my characters’ pasts.

INTERVIEWER

Have you studied the psychology of Sigmund Freud? Do you feel any kinship with his theories?

IRVING

I think Freud was a great novelist. Period.

INTERVIEWER

Period.

IRVING

Well, all right—a little more about that. Sigmund Freud was a novelist with a scientific background. He just didn’t know he was a novelist. All those damn psychiatrists after him, they didn’t know he was a novelist, either. They made simply awful sense out of his intuitions. People say Carl Jung is better, but Jung can’t write! Freud was a wonderful writer! And what a storyteller! I don’t think about his theories very much; sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t fit at all, but when people say Freud was “wrong” about this or that, I have to laugh. Was Charles Dickens “wrong” about Fagin in Oliver Twist? I don’t mean Fagin’s Jewishness either—I mean, how could he have been “wrong” about Fagin as a character? What a great character! So I love reading Freud: the detail, the observations, the characters, the histories. The hell with the rest of it.

INTERVIEWER

You say your work is becoming increasingly political.

IRVING

You’re right: I said I was becoming more political. I know I said that. I’m not, though. I am becoming more social; I care that the social abuses, the social evils and ills of this and every other time be exposed, vividly. I am interested in exposing wrongdoing, good and evil, injustice. That I am active in political causes has been well observed. I’m active, okay. But as a writer I am not interested so much in taking a political side as I am interested in exposing a corruption or an abuse (usually of an individual or group, but also by a law, or by a general indifference). Like Charles Dickens, I believe that society is a conditioning force, and often an evil force, but I also believe in absolutely good men and women, too. I read a critic of my work who found it ludicrous that I still wrote about “good” and “bad” people. Where has this man been? What has he seen? And I don’t mean what literature has he read. I mean, what has he seen of the world? There are bad people in the world; and good ones, too. Society is responsible for much that is evil; but no one thing is responsible for everything. President Reagan would like the American people to believe that the liberals in this country, and the Communists outside this country, have made the world as bad as it is. He seems to be meeting with fair success with this lunatic proposition, too. A Marxist view of literature is offensive to me. Also, a feminist view of abortion: it is as offensive as a Catholic view, if you’re not a Catholic.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think political considerations should be more important to American writers?

IRVING

Günter Grass and I were having dinner not long ago. He’s a great hero of mine. And he said he wanted to keep his fiction pure, that is, free of politics; but when he was not writing fiction, he wanted to be as politically active as possible. A good way to live, but perhaps it is a more successful way for a West German novelist than for an American. Chancellor Willy Brandt had the wisdom to let Grass write for him. What American political figure would dare to have an American novelist write for him—write real details, real arguments, real right and wrong? I tell you, Kurt Vonnegut would be a better president than any president we’ve had since I’ve been voting. E. L. Doctorow would be pretty good too. And what would happen if Philip Roth volunteered to write campaign speeches for a presidential candidate? I doubt that the promise that the speeches would be more concrete and literate and wise and humane would much influence the people making the self-canceling political “statements” that pass for speeches today. I doubt that any politician would hire Philip Roth or William Styron or Arthur Miller or any good writer you could name.

INTERVIEWER

How do you explain the comparative indifference of American novelists to national politics?

IRVING

I told Grass that there was no way for American writers to be politically active in this country. What we do, mainly, is join a general protest movement. We speak for causes; we speak to our friends; we speak to audiences already predisposed to agree with us. We have zero effect, in my opinion. We do a lot of political good deeds that make us feel self-righteous and not a part of the awful mainstream when yet another completely stupid and dangerous thing happens in this country. We say, complacently, “Well, I’m not part of that”; or, “As I said in The Nation”; or, “As I told the students at Stanford”; or, “When I was on the Today Show” (for two minutes)—and on and on. I think if we’re going to be politically active, it has to start creeping into our novels. Günter Grass may feel he has an effect as a political activist in Germany, and maybe he does. He certainly has uncounted effect as a wonderful novelist. But what effect do we political activists have here? I’m impatient with what I see; more and more impatient. So I look for novels that will make people feel more and more uncomfortable about what’s taken for granted in our society. Writers must describe the terrible. And one way to describe the terrible is to write comically, of course. George Bernard Shaw, who admitted to getting most of his satiric methods from Dickens, said that the thing to do is to find one true thing and exaggerate it, with levity, until it’s obvious. I know it is not very postmodernist to be obvious, but politically one has to become more and more that way.

INTERVIEWER

Politically?

IRVING

Maybe I should stop using the word “political” and just claim that social observation is a writer’s business; just to observe the society truthfully is, of course, being “political.” I think New Englanders and Southerners have this in common, in their social observations, as writers: we recognize that America is a class society. People who differ from one another or draw lines between each other on matters of “taste” are a part of the class society, just as surely as wealth and power are parts of it. These are more than manners, in a society; these things politicize us. By demonstrating how Americans discriminate we are also being political, as writers. And as long as we have presidents who lie to us—who use language as irresponsibly as President Reagan uses it—we’ll be political just by using language clearly. But I’m getting tired of blaming Reagan for being Reagan; the American people have to take responsibility for this man—they wanted him; they wanted him twice. He is never held accountable. His first reaction to Marcos’s “victory” in the Philippines was to advise Mrs. Aquino to “respect the democratic process,” to accept her defeat gracefully, in other words. And in the face of so much alarming evidence, to say, as he did, that there had been manipulations of the vote by both sides—it was ridiculous. Well, in one sense, he didn’t get away with it; Marcos is out. But five minutes later we hear the Reagan Administration taking credit for “the democratic process” in the Philippines; do Americans simply forget what the man’s first, terrible instincts were? They do appear to forget what he, literally, said. This is very troubling to writers; we couldn’t have a president as irresponsible as this if the American people paid attention to language. The news is: language doesn’t matter. But writers make language matter; we describe exactly. You see? Even caring about language becomes “political.”

INTERVIEWER

Could you describe your involvement in the 1984 presidential campaign?

IRVING

I spoke for Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro and for the good guys running against the bad guys in North Carolina, Texas, Iowa, and Michigan. Campaigning was especially depressing on college campuses. I cared more about abortion rights than my audience of students who were fucking each other day and night and taking for granted that they would never have any trouble getting an abortion. I cared more about whether their generation was going to suffer another Vietnam in Central America—although, as I told them, I wouldn’t be one of the Americans sent to die there, those Americans would come from their generation. A lot of well-fed, well-dressed, career-oriented young people smiled back at me with a kind of what’s-he-worried-about? look on their faces. At the New School once some wit in the audience hollered out to me when I was talking about The Cider House Rules. The subject was migrant workers and the period in the late 1950s when I worked in the orchards with black apple pickers from the South, and I was saying that not much had changed for the migrants since then and that I felt great sympathy for poor people as a kid and I always wanted to write about them as truthfully as I could. And this jerk in the audience pipes up: “Will the migrants read it?” And there’s a small chant from about two or three of his pals saying “Yeah!” And raised fists; shouts. I don’t know exactly what their point was but they seemed to think they had made one—possibly, the migrants won’t read it, therefore so what? Of course, if you know the book, you know that’s one of my points about the migrants: They can’t read! Anyway, I thought it was funny, and bewildering, and typical.

INTERVIEWER

How?

IRVING

People are angry—politically—and the last people they see as helping a political or just plain social situation are the artists and writers and intellectuals. And as a group we have been of next to no help in this country. Every administration thinks we’re silly, not to be counted, and in the popular media, intellectuals and artists are always cast as totally unreliable and selfish people, as flakes and phonies and wimps altogether out of touch with the common man. Some problem, wouldn’t you agree? I have an instinct for victims; that’s all I can tell you. I see who gets hurt and I describe it. Do people like to see themselves as victims, or to hear about victims? In my experience, no.

INTERVIEWER

Probably no male writer has given as much serious attention as you have to the issues of adultery, rape, and now, with The Cider House Rules, abortion. Could you comment on that?

IRVING

I’ve been writing about one form or another of violence to women for years. And illegal abortion is simply a most sanctimonious form of violence against women. It is the most accepted form of violence in this country: violence against women. Rape is still funny, a wife is still the easiest person to beat up and get away with it, and the old line is still true: If men could get pregnant, don’t imagine for a moment that anyone would be complaining about legalized abortion. Some conventionally smug people, eyes tightly closed, say that all this violence to women in my books—as if it happened only there!—is exploitative. Others, who think violence to women is perfectly okay, think I am just a man of quaint concerns, or one writing feminist tracts. The same idiot who called The World According to Garp a feminist tract, by the way, also called The Cider House Rules sadistic to women. Does he mean I’ve changed? Does he even know what he means?

INTERVIEWER

You worked on a screenplay of Setting Free the Bears and on the acknowledgments page of The Water-Method Man you thanked that project’s director, Irvin Kershner, “for a valuable and exciting film experience”; and yet since then you’ve rejected every opportunity to become involved in screen adaptations of your novels. Why?

IRVING

Well, movies, movies, movies—they are our enemy, of course. Movies are the enemy of the novel because they are replacing novels. Novelists shouldn’t write for the movies, unless, of course, they discover they’re no good at writing novels. I learned a lot from Kershner, who’s a dear friend of mine to this day, but I hated writing the script. I like people who make movies, and I’m glad some of them, who are terribly smart, are not writing novels. There are enough people writing novels, God knows. Anyway, the main thing I learned by writing a screenplay of Setting Free the Bears for Kershner was that screenwriting isn’t really writing; it’s carpentry. There’s no language in it, and the writer is not in control of the pace of the story, or of the tone of the narration, and what else is there to be in control of? Tony Richardson told me that there are no screenwriters, so there is at least one director who agrees with me. It could be that it was the most valuable thing I ever did—to have my shot at writing a movie when I was so young, right after my first novel was published—because I was never tempted to do it again.

INTERVIEWER

Have you generally liked the films made of The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire

IRVING

I helped George Roy Hill with The World According to Garp; that is, I commented to him on the Steve Tesich screenplay, and looked at some of the shooting and the rushes, and I even played a small part as a wrestling referee—that wasn’t acting, by the way; for years I used to be a wrestling referee. My kids got in the movie, too; they had a ball. And George is one of my best friends now. He did a good job with The World According to Garp; he took it to the suburbs and gave all the characters haircuts and made them much nicer than they were in the book, but he was true to the domestic line, to the main, linear narrative. He’s a good storyteller, George; witness what a good job he did with Slaughterhouse-Five, and look at The Sting. Good narrative. He was the right director for The World According to Garp. What’s missing from that film is, of course, nine-tenths of the book, but George was faithful to what he could do. And that’s another reason I’m not interested in writing for the movies, personally: the main job in making a movie out of a novel by me is to throw away nine-tenths of the novel. Why would that be any fun for me? Tony Richardson took a more difficult route with The Hotel New Hampshire. He was not as literal as George, and the storytelling is jumpier, but he tried to make it a proper fairy tale, which it is—people in Europe seemed to understand that better than they understood it here (in both the book and the movie). I thought Tony took great risks with that movie and I thought the film was sweet, charming. It has a better beginning and ending than a middle. It was originally going to be in two parts but Tony couldn’t solve the two-part screenplay—isn’t it hysterical how movie people talk about “solving” scripts?—and he couldn’t get anyone to finance a movie in two parts either. Then he truncated what he had into one film, and that hurt; that kind of cartooned the characters, made it too speeded-up, at least for people who didn’t know the book. But he made every frame of it with love and zest; there’s nothing cynical about Tony.

INTERVIEWER

As far as I know, the stories in The World According to Garp are the last you’ve done. Do you intend to work with short fiction again?

IRVING

No. I can’t write a good story. The closest thing to a good story I ever wrote was “The Pension Grillparzer,” and the reason I worked as hard as I did on that story was that I was writing it for T. S. Garp—I had to establish that my character was the real thing, that he could really write. I would never have worked on a story of my own that hard. I just don’t care for the short story form. The summations, the closed doors, the focus; not for me. I won’t ever write another story— except perhaps a story entirely meant to be read or spoken aloud. Something exactly forty-five minutes to an hour in length, and never to be published, just to be said. Once I publish something I usually don’t enjoy reading aloud from it anymore, but I read “The Pension Grillparzer” aloud, to public audiences, seventy-three times. Once a young woman spoke to me after a reading. “I’ve heard you read a dozen times,” she said. She’d traveled from New York to California, to Vermont, to Missouri, to Iowa, to South Carolina. And all she ever got to hear was “The Pension Grillparzer.” She looked a trifle disturbed. “I keep thinking you’ll read something different,” she said peevishly. I never read the story again. But now I feel like trying it again; the story is simply a length that is perfect, and it’s self-contained. I don’t have anything else like it. I like public readings, but the chapters of all my novels, lately, are one and a half or two hours of reading; and cutting them down doesn’t improve them; and all the necessary things one has to say to introduce chapters, or parts of chapters, from a novel-in-progress . . . it’s frustrating.

INTERVIEWER

How about the books of your contemporaries? Are you a good reader?

IRVING

My contemporaries; of course, I read them. Or I begin them. Among my favorites: Kurt Vonnegut, of course—he’s the most original American writer since Mark Twain and the most humanitarian writer in English since Charles Dickens. And Günter Grass, of course. I loved John Cheever; I knew his territory and I liked his sense of mischief and fair play—always at war with each other. And I really value my friendships with any number of writers I admire: Joseph Heller, Gail Godwin, John Hawkes, Stanley Elkin, Peter Matthiessen, Robertson Davies . . . well, there isn’t a “complete” list. I generally like other writers; I try to meet every writer I can—and read any book that anyone tells me about.

INTERVIEWER

How do you think this period in American literature measures up against earlier ones?

IRVING

As for my view of the contemporary novel . . . well, as I’ve said so many times: I’m old-fashioned. I believe in plot, of all things; in narrative, all the time; in storytelling; in character. Very traditional forms interest me. This nonsense about the novel being about “the word” . . . what can that mean? Are we novelists going to become like so many modern poets, writing only for and to each other, not comprehensible to anyone who isn’t another writer? I have only a prep-school education in the poems of John Milton. Yet I can read Milton; I really understand him. All that time has passed, and yet he’s still clear. But when I read the poems of someone my own age and can’t understand a single thing, is that supposed to be a failure of my education, or of the poetry?

INTERVIEWER

Setting Free the Bears, The Water-Method Man, and The 158-Pound Marriage were innovative, or at least postmodernist, in their designs, in their mixing of points of view or first- and third-person narrative, in their great concern for language. Your novels after them have been less concerned with experiments in storytelling and more concerned with the story itself. How do you account for that?

IRVING

The novel is a popular art form, an accessible form. I don’t enjoy novels that are boring exercises in show-off writing with no narrative, no characters, no information—novels that are just an intellectually discursive text with lots of style. Is their object to make me feel stupid? These are not novels. These are the works of people who want to call themselves writers but haven’t a recognizable form to work in. Their subject is their technique. And their vision? They have no vision, no private version of the world; there is only a private version of style, of technique. I just completed an introduction to Great Expectations in which I pointed out that Dickens was never so vain as to imagine that his love or his use of language was particularly special. He could write very prettily when he wanted to, but he never had so little to say that he thought the object of writing was pretty language. The broadest novelists never cared for that kind of original language. Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville: to such novelists, originality with language is mere fashion; it will pass. The larger, plainer things they are preoccupied with, their obsessions—these will last: the story, the characters, the laughter, and the tears.

INTERVIEWER

How helpful were your years spent at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

IRVING

I was not necessarily “taught” anything there as a student, although I was certainly encouraged and helped—and the advice of Vance Bourjaily, Kurt Vonnegut, and José Donoso clearly saved me some valuable time; that is, they told me things about my writing and about writing in general that I would probably have figured out for myself, but time is precious for a young writer. I always say that this is what I can “teach” a young writer: something he’ll know for himself in a little while longer; but why wait to know these things? I am talking about technical things, the only things you can presume to teach, anyway.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the more important “technical” things?

IRVING

“Voice” is a technical thing; the choice to be close to this character, distant from that character—to be in this or that point of view. You can learn these things; you can learn to recognize your own good and bad habits, what you do well in the first-person narrative voice, and what you do to excess, for example; and what the dangers and advantages are of a third-person narrative that presumes historical distance (the voice of a biographer, for example). There are so many stances involved, so many postures you can assume while telling a story; they can be much more deliberate, much more in a writer’s control, than an amateur knows. The reader, of course, shouldn’t be aware of much of this. It’s brilliant, for example, how Grass calls Oskar Matzerath “he” or “Oskar” at one moment, and then—sometimes in the same sentence—he refers to little Oskar as “I”; he’s a first-person narrator and a third-person narrator in the same sentence. But it’s done so seamlessly, it doesn’t call attention to itself; I hate those forms and styles that call great attention to themselves.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve also said you made some valuable friendships as a teacher at Iowa.

IRVING

Yes. Especially with Gail Godwin, Stanley Elkin, and John Cheever.

INTERVIEWER

And you met J. P. Donleavy at Iowa.

IRVING

I like meeting other writers, and Iowa City is a good place to meet them, but I didn’t enjoy Donleavy. John Cheever and I, who were in a particularly ritualized habit of watching Monday Night Football together, while eating homemade pasta, were happy to hear that Donleavy was coming. We’d both admired The Ginger Man and we wanted to meet the author. I went to the airport to meet him; I’d written three novels—but not yet The World According to Garp; I wasn’t famous. I didn’t expect Donleavy to have read anything of mine, but I was surprised when he announced that he read no one living; then he asked if we were in Kansas. I told him a little about the Workshop, but he was one of those writers with no knowledge about writing programs and many prejudices about them: to be a student of writing was a waste of time; better to go out and suffer. He was wearing a very expensive three-piece suit, very handsome shoes, and handling a very posh walking stick at the time, and I began to get irritated. In a meeting with Workshop students, he told them that any writer who was lowering himself by teaching writing wasn’t capable of teaching them anything. And so I was quite cross by the time I had to pick up the great man and drive him to his reading. I said we would be taking Mr. Cheever with us to the reading, and that both Mr. Cheever and I were great admirers, and that although I knew Mr. Donleavy did not read anyone living, he should know that Mr. Cheever was a wonderful writer. His short stories were models of the form, I said. But when I introduced Cheever to Donleavy, Donleavy wouldn’t even look at him; he went on talking to his wife, about aspirin, as if Cheever wasn’t there. I tried to say a few things about why so many American writers turned to teaching—as a way of supporting themselves without having to place the burden of making money upon their writing; and as a way of giving themselves enough time to practice their writing, too. But Donleavy wasn’t interested and he said so. The whole trip he was taking was tiresome; the people he met, the people everywhere, were tiresome, too. And so Cheever and I sat up front in the car, excluded from the conversation about the evils of aspirin, and driving the Donleavys about as if they were unhappy royalty in a hick town. I will say that Mrs. Donleavy appeared to suffer her husband’s rudeness, or perhaps she was just suffering her headache. Cheever tried a few times to engage Donleavy in some conversation, and as Cheever was as gifted in conversation as any man I have ever met, I grew more and more furious at Donleavy’s coldness and unresponsiveness and total discourtesy. I was thinking, frankly, that I should throw the lout in a puddle, if there was one handy, when Cheever spoke up. “Do you know, Mr. Donleavy,” Cheever said, “that no major writer of fiction was ever a shit to another writer of fiction, except Hemingway—and he was crazy?” That was all. Donleavy had no answer. Perhaps he thought Hemingway was still a living writer and therefore hadn’t read him, either. Cheever and I deposited the Donleavys at the reading, which we spontaneously decided to skip. It was many years later that I met and became friends with George Roy Hill, who told me that he’d been a roommate of “Mike” Donleavy at Trinity College, Dublin, and that “Mike” was just a touch eccentric and surely not a bad sort. But I remembered my evening with Cheever and told George that, in my opinion, Donleavy was a minor writer, a shit, or crazy—or all three. I should add that drinking wasn’t the issue of this unpleasant evening; Cheever was not drinking; Donleavy wasn’t drunk—he was simply righteous and acting the prima donna. I feel a little like I’m tattling on a fellow schoolboy to tell this story, but I felt so awful—not for myself but for Cheever. It was such an outrage; that Donleavy—this large, silly man with his walking stick—was snubbing John Cheever. I suppose it’s silly that I should still be angry, but George Plimpton told me that Donleavy has a subscription to The Paris Review;* this presents an apparent contradiction to Donleavy’s claim that he doesn’t read anyone living, but it gives me hope that he might read this. If the story embarrasses him, or makes him angry, I would say we’re even; the evening embarrassed Cheever and me, and made us angry, too.

INTERVIEWER

John Cheever’s fiction was frequently informed by a Christian sensibility. How about your own? Are you a religious man?

IRVING

I am now. I had the usual, fainthearted church experiences of an average New England Protestant. I was a Congregationalist; then I became an Episcopalian because more of my friends went to that Sunday school than to the Sunday school in the Congo, as we used to call it. And if I have a preference now it’s Congregational again, although I’m still cross with them for consolidating—you know, they kind of unionized, like all the other churches, and I liked them better the old way, when they were independent from all the other churches, even all the other so-called Congregational churches; that was more Yankee, that was very New England. I’m actually writing a religious novel now. What I mean by that is that I’m writing a novel that begs the reader to believe in a miracle. It’s a small enough miracle to be fairly universally believed, I hope; and it’s a questionable enough “religious experience” to be exactly that, to a religious reader, and acceptable on other terms to my readers who are not believers. I’m a believer, by the way. Haven’t always been. And there’s a day every now and then when I’m frankly worried, or just your average doubter. Well, for the sake of the new novel, I am bolstering up what belief I have. I’m a very conventionally religious person—you know, I find it easier to “believe” when I’m physically in a church, and I kind of lose touch with the feeling of how to pray when I slip away from the church for very long.

INTERVIEWER

Are you willing to say anything more about the novel you’re working on?

IRVING

It will be called A Prayer for Owen Meany. It’s about this little guy—both a hero and a victim—who believes that he’s been appointed by God, that he’s been specially chosen; and that the rather terrible “fate” he encounters is all part of his divine assignment. And it’s the writer’s job, isn’t it, to make the readers wonder if maybe this isn’t entirely true? Even the doubters. I have to convince them of little Owen Meany’s special appointment in the universe, too. In that sense, maybe, writing a novel is always a religious act, in that we have to believe that our characters are appointed—even if only by us—and that their acts are not accidents, their responses not random. I don’t believe in accidents. That’s another aspect of how old-fashioned I am, I guess.

INTERVIEWER

You’re a public figure now. Does that interfere with your goals as a writer?

IRVING

No.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t have a drinking problem. In fact, your capacity for serious exercise is well-known; you’re in good shape. But so many writers drink to excess. I’ve heard you lay the blame on what’s wrong with this or that book on the author’s drinking problem. You’ve said, for example, that the reason both Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote their best books in their twenties (they were twenty-seven when they wrote The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby) is that they “pickled their brains.” Do you really believe that?

IRVING

Yes, I really believe that. They should have gotten better as they got older; I’ve gotten better. We’re not professional athletes; it’s reasonable to assume that we’ll get better as we mature—at least, until we start getting senile. Of course, some writers who write their best books early simply lose interest in writing; or they lose their concentration—probably because they want to do other things. But Hemingway and Fitzgerald really lived to write; their bodies and their brains betrayed them. I’m such an incapable drinker, I’m lucky. If I drink half a bottle of red wine with my dinner, I forget who I had dinner with—not to mention everything that I or anybody else said. If I drink more than half a bottle, I fall instantly asleep. But just think of what novelists do; fiction writing requires a kind of memory, a vigorous, invented memory. If I can forget who I had dinner with, what might I forget about my novel-in-progress? The irony is that drinking is especially dangerous to novelists; memory is vital to us. I’m not so down on drinking for writers from a moral point of view; but booze is clearly not good for writing or for driving cars. You know what Lawrence said: “The novel is the highest example of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered.” I agree! And just consider for one second what drinking does to “subtle interrelatedness.” Forget the “subtle”; “interrelatedness” is what makes novels work—without it, you have no narrative momentum; you have incoherent rambling. Drunks ramble; so do books by drunks.

INTERVIEWER

How big is your ego?

IRVING

It grows a little smaller all the time. Being an ex-athlete is good for losing ego. And writing, in my opinion, is the opposite of having ego. Confidence as a writer should not be confused with personal, egotistical confidence. A writer is a vehicle. I feel the story I am writing existed before I existed; I’m just the slob who finds it, and rather clumsily tries to do it, and the characters, justice. I think of writing fiction as doing justice to the people in the story, and doing justice to their story—it’s not my story. It’s entirely ghostly work; I’m just the medium. As a writer, I do more listening than talking. W. H. Auden called the first act of writing “noticing.” He meant the vision—not so much what we make up but what we witness. Oh, sure, writers “make up” the language, the voice, the transitions, all the clunking bridges that span the story’s parts—that stuff, it’s true, is invented. I am still old-fashioned enough to maintain that what happens in a novel is what distinguishes it, and what happens is what we see. In that sense, we’re all just reporters. Didn’t Faulkner say something like it was necessary only to write about “the human heart in conflict with itself” in order to write well? Well, I think that’s all we do: We find more than we create, we simply see and expose more than we fabulate and invent. At least I do. Of course, it’s necessary to make the atmosphere of a novel more real than real, as we say. Whatever its place is, it’s got to feel, concretely, like a place with richer detail than any place we can actually remember. I think what a reader likes best is memories, the more vivid the better. That’s the role of atmosphere in fiction: it provides details that feel as good, or as terrifying, as memories. Vienna, in my books, is more Vienna than Vienna; St. Cloud’s is more Maine than Maine.

INTERVIEWER

One of the predominant characteristics of your protagonists is that they gain success in their occupations without any formal training—T. S. Garp skips college altogether, Lilly Berry publishes a novel while still a teenager, Homer Wells practices obstetrics without a medical degree—and yet you earned a graduate degree and you’ve worked as a professor at a number of colleges. How do you account for this disparity between your own experience and that of your characters? Are you implying that higher education is unnecessary?

IRVING

I needed prep school; I needed the experience of going to school, or having to struggle in school, and I needed that much education. And I got quite a lot of education at Exeter, by the way; at least I learned how to learn, how to find things out. There’s another key to education: you learn how to pay enough attention, even though you’re bored. A very important trick for a writer to pick up. But college was a waste of time for me. I stopped paying attention after I left Exeter—I stopped paying attention in school, I mean. By then I already wanted to write; I was already a reader. I wanted more time—to read more and more novels, and to practice my own writing. That’s all I wanted to do, and all that really benefited me: reading lots of other novels, and practicing my own writing. Of course, you do get to read some novels in college, but you also have to waste all that time talking about them and writing about them, when you could be reading more novels.

INTERVIEWER

How about writing classes?

IRVING

Writing classes bought me time, and they gave me a little audience. And Thomas Williams and John Yount at the University of New Hampshire were very important to me; they encouraged me and they criticized me, and that saved me time, too. I would have learned what they taught me somewhere, sometime, eventually, but it was wonderful for me to learn it then, and from them. And Kurt Vonnegut was important to me at Iowa, as you already know. But I’m talking about three other writers who patted me on the head and passed a pencil over my sentences—I didn’t need the college part of the education. I suppose I did need those silly degrees, because I wouldn’t have gotten a teaching job without those degrees, and teaching was an honorable and not-too-time-consuming way to support myself (which I needed to do) in those years I was writing the first four books. So that’s always been true of an education, isn’t it? You get one, you get a better job—right? But if I was a good teacher—and I was—it was because I had read a lot of novels and I had written and written and written; that provided me with the substance, with what I actually taught. I didn’t need college to be a writer; I needed what a lot of people need from so-called higher education: the credentials! And let’s tell the truth: I wouldn’t have been given those college teaching positions simply because I had a B.A. and an M.F.A. I got those jobs because I published. School didn’t help me get published.

INTERVIEWER

How did you first get published?

IRVING

I was lucky from the start. Tom Williams sent a couple of my undergraduate short stories to his agent, Mavis McIntosh. She sold one, “A Winter Branch,” to Redbook for $1,000, and so I had an agent. She retired less than a year later and passed me along to Peter Matson, who’s been my agent ever since. That’s my longest literary-business relationship, and he’s also one of my dearest friends. Now that’s lucky, that Peter and I were right for each other; that’s good luck. And Peter found me Joe Fox at Random House, and Fox was very good for me, too—a good editor, a good man with a pencil, which I needed. And when Random House wasn’t exactly promising to change their ways and pull out all the stops for The World According to Garp, it was Fox who gave me the right advice: to leave him. That’s class. And Henry Robbins published Garp at Dutton, and that was a success. The first unlucky thing that happened to me in publishing was that Henry died. He was a lovely man and it crushed me. But the Dutton people did their best—a very young editor named Jane Rosenman did a good job with me and The Hotel New Hampshire. And then I met Harvey Ginsberg, who was actually an old friend of Henry’s—a classmate at Harvard—and just when I’m writing The Cider House Rules, where does it turn out that Harvey is from? Bangor, Maine. You think that’s not lucky? And so now Harvey and I are together at William Morrow, and I’m so happy I don’t have plans to change publishing houses. How many writers do you know who’ll say that? Hear many happy publishing stories? I’ve been very lucky, and I know it, and I’m grateful. So much bitterness exists between writers and their publishers and representatives, but I’ve been spared it, and that means I can think about my writing instead of worrying about how I’m published—which provides many writers I know with an absolutely crippling distraction. You have to eliminate the distractions. You’ve got to keep focused.

 

* A complimentary subscription—Ed.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.