John Irving does not have the patience to be politically correct. He tells it like he feels it. At the 92Y last night he read excerpts from his just released novel, In One Person and spoke about the characters, his career, politics and of course as it was mother’s day, his mother.
Irving’s reading of In One Person illuminated the character of town librarian Ms Frost. You don’t know her until you’ve heard John read her. (John Benjamin Hickey narrates the audio version of the book, which I’m sure it’s a treat.) When I was reading the novel, I had an image of a bigger and broader version of the actress Wendy Malick. Ms Frost becomes one of the many “wrong crushes” for narrator Billy Abbott. She was the highly regarded wrestling champion of the town, when she was a he. Billy’s grandmother has only contempt for her. Ms Frost becomes a key figure in shaping the course of Billy’s life.
Being bisexual, Billy is a true outsider. He is not to be believed by either men or women. He does not belong to any party.
If you were, like me, at an all-boys’ boarding school in the fall of 1960, you felt utterly alone—you trusted no one, least of all another boy your age—and you loathed yourself. I’d always been lonely, but self-hatred is worse than loneliness. –Billy Abbott
I’ve seen John speak, read and answer questions probably 5 or 6 times. Each time something else is revealed to me. Here’s is what I learned at the Y last night:
On his mother: The time period of his life that he thinks made his mother the happiest was when he was wrestling. He started at 14, which coincided with the beginning of his writing career. His mother was a prompter in the theater as is Billy’s mother in the novel. He said that’s where the similarities end, as his mother was the most un-homophobic person he has ever known. He read the passage from the book that really got to me as I read it. It references the daily laying out of the clothes by Billy’s mother for him. When Billy turns 13, she stops the ritual and that is when he believes his mother lost interest in him. It seemed to me that maybe John lived through something similar in his life. He started off the evening by saying, “If you brought your mother here tonight (pause), I hope you bought her something else.” His mother would not be happy to be brought to one of his readings for Mother’s Day.
The advantage of writing with hindsight: In One Person’s narrator Billy Abbott is in his late 60’s looking back. It starts in the 50’s and then brings him into the 1980’s AIDS epidemic. Irving wrote about the Viet Nam War in 1989’s A Prayer For Owen Meany. The war ended in 1975.
Politics in his writing: He views a political novel as one where the writer is taking a side. A novel can be a form of advocacy. He cited The Cider House Rules, Owen Meany, The World According To Garp and In One Person as his 4 political novels. His most recent goal in writing this book was to broaden our tolerance for sexual differences. He thought it would be much easier to relate to Billy for having sex with both genders, as opposed to Johnny Wheelwright (Owen Meany) who goes through his whole life never having sex. It is thought that Johnny was in love with Owen, but never acted on it.
After writing Garp he thought he was done with sexual outcasts. He felt the need to revisit, as we’re still battling sexual discrimination. Irving’s thoughts: Shakespeare was more at ease with this than we are today.
The writing process: Many submitted questions about his writing ritual, which is to conceive the ending first and then create the backwards road map for the rest of the story. He said it is a process and nothing that he’s married to, but it works for him. It wasn’t until after his fourth novel, Garp that he was able to quit his other jobs and concentrate solely on writing. His mother was not impressed when he told her of his excitement in committing to full-time writing. Once he had the freedom to write, he struggled with it. He said he couldn’t work for more than three hours a day on The Hotel New Hampshire. It was a much more difficult road that he thought it would be. His next novel, Cider House, was the first of the constructed books. He had a method that worked for him.
His advice to writers: Don’t always write what you know. How boring! The thought exasperated him, as did the idea of Mitt Romney as president.
John Irving: writer, wrestler and forthright.
Listen to John on the Brian Lehrer show.