The world according to John Irving. Read Johanna Schneller’s National Magazine Award-nominated cover story “The Wrestler” (May 2012) on author and screenwriter, John Irving. Zoomer contributing editor Bryan Adams was also nominated for his photography for cover star Jann Arden.
Grappling with a prescient view of human nature is his calling card, and some of our most beloved and faithfully off-kilter literary heroes – think Garp, Owen Meany and Homer Wells – spring from the unapologetic world according to JOHN IRVING. Now, meet Billy.
Text: Johanna Schneller
“My grandmother died a few days short of her 100th birthday, and [near the end] her only memories were the ones that made her laugh or cry,” Irving says over coffee on a diamond-bright January morning. “She would be laughing, telling a story, and suddenly her face would darken because half the people in it were dead. I thought, ‘This is it. This is what you do: you think of the funniest fucking thing you can think of and then you turn it on a dime until it’s not funny at all.’”
Clearly, his method works. His first 12 books – from 1968’s Setting Free the Bears through his breakthrough, 1980s The World According to Garp, and beyond – have been translated into 35 languages, include nine international bestsellers and were made into five films. (He wrote the script for The Cider House Rules himself, and both he and its star, Michael Caine, won Oscars.) Novel No. 13, In One Person, drops this month, and it could cause a ruckus, given its timing – a U.S. presidential election year in which gay marriage is a hot topic – and its subject matter: it explores gender issues as fiercely and forthrightly as Garp tackled sexual politics and Cider House took on abortion.
“I wasn’t afraid of anything until I had a kid,” Irving says. “Then I was terrified because immediately I could imagine a hundred ways in which I could not protect him. But I also got my subject: what are you afraid of? The subject is always what are you afraid of. I don’t begin a novel unless there’s something about it that makes me say, ‘God, please don’t let this happen to me.’ ”
The new novel is merely one milestone that Irving will hit this year. He turned 70 on March 2, with a birthday bash in New York City. In June, he and his second wife, the Canadian literary agent Janet Turnbull, will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. 2012 also marks the fifth year that Irving has been cancer-free, after a successful prostatectomy in 2007. Sitting at the long wooden table in his bright, open-concept dining room, surrounded by scores of family photos – including his three sons and four grandchildren – you have to wonder: how did a guy who spends his days spinning worst-case scenarios end up with such a contented life?
It quickly becomes apparent that Irving likes to have as much control in a conversation as he did at a meet. His voice is thick and husky, and he speaks deliberately, as if each word were a brick; he positions them one by one until every sentence is a perfectly constructed structure. To say his answers are thorough would be an understatement: his transcribed reply to one question, about how his memory is holding up, runs five and a half typed pages. (Short answer: it’s still good.) Though he’s candid about his personal life, he much prefers jawing about his work. Just when you think you have him pinned with, say, a question about whether lust changes after mid-life – whoop, he flips you, redirecting the conversation to his characters.
“From the age of 14, I grew up with that wrestling mindset [of discipline and will power],” Irving explains. “There was something I wanted to do, and it required something of the rest of my life. I’ve always looked at writing that way, too. I’m not only dedicated to writing in the hours I give to it. It must necessarily affect the rest of my life.” As if to prove his point, he started book No. 14 on Christmas Eve.
Irving always knew he’d eventually get to AIDS. By the time he started In One Person in June 2009, the plot had been humming in his head for nearly eight years: Billy, a bisexual man in his late 60s, looks back to 1955. He was a 13-year-old boarding school student, struggling with his emerging, all-consuming sexuality, and his first love – Miss Frost, the much older librarian in their small New England town – harboured a profound secret. Irving knew what the book’s last lines would be; he always starts with his ending and works backwards. He also knew the message of those last lines: “Don’t think that by putting a sexual label on me you know who the hell I am,” he says, with a look that would flatten anyone who dared.
Yet he never thought of it as an AIDS book. “In the same way that – and this sounds crazy – I never thought of The Cider House Rules as an abortion novel,” he says. “Because those subjects were so integral from the beginning. I knew because of the time frame that many of the characters were on a collision course with the early 1980s. So AIDS was always waiting there. I think that was part of the reason I’d hesitated to write it. I lived in New York City in the ’80s and lost friends. I knew that writing about this would cause me to re-teach myself details I was rather happy to have forgotten.”
Typically, he spares none of them, including the guilt felt by the healthy; the horror of the hospice; the gruesome ravages of the virus; and the despair that Ronald Reagan’s government was ignoring it.
For all his love of control, Irving can make some candid admissions. Here’s a good one: “There’s always this euphoria when I begin something where I think, ‘This is really exciting, this is different,’ ” he says, chuckling at himself. “But I don’t have to get very far before I think, ‘Not this again. Shit.’ ”
So often do themes recur in Irving’s fiction that his Wikipedia page features a chart, with his books broken into categories such as New England, Vienna, Absent Parent, Writers and Sexual Variations. The Writers box is ticked for every one (the man writes what he knows). The Sexual Variations category is broken into subcategories including adultery, transsexualism and older woman-younger man. In One Person isn’t posted yet, but if it were, all the above boxes would be checked.
Just don’t expect Irving to admit that the antecedents of those recurring themes are autobiographical. In One Person focuses on a boy at a formative age, who’s beginning to figure out that adults are keeping things from him. Billy has a frosty mother, a kind stepfather and a missing father (who, he eventually learns, is a Second World War veteran). He attends a boys’ boarding school and has a formative experience in Vienna. His first sex is with an older woman. He loves theatre and becomes a writer. His grandfather, who loves theatre, too, acts in drag. All of those things – all of them – are true of Irving, too.
He was born John Wallace Blunt Jr. in New Hampshire and attended Phillips Exeter Academy, where his beloved stepfather, Colin Irving – the only father he ever knew – was on the faculty. Young Irving fell in love with Shakespeare. (In their all-male productions of Romeo and Juliet, he longed to play Juliet, but was always typecast as combative Tybalt.) He revered meaty novelists like Melville, Hawthorne, Hardy and Dickens. And he lusted after pretty much everyone.
Irving knew a little about his birth father, and an older cousin passed along what nuggets he could glean – Blunt had dark hair, he was in the Air Force, he survived being shot down over Burma. But though Irving was open to meeting Blunt, he didn’t want to initiate it. “My mother was emphatic that she’d wanted him gone, and I didn’t disrespect that,” Irving says. “I wasn’t standing in her shoes in 1942. And I felt, by seeking my biological parent, I would somehow be slighting my genuine love of my stepfather.” (They’re still close – Colin Irving is one of the first readers of all Irving’s books.)
A few years ago, after Blunt died, his youngest son, Chris, contacted Irving. He filled in more details, including evidence that Blunt may have attended Irving’s wrestling matches. That struck home with Irving because there had been a period when, warming up before a match, “I would look into the crowd for someone who would be inexplicably looking at me,” he says. “Later, I used to think he’d show up at a book signing. But it never happened.” Irving is still in touch with three of his half-siblings, and a wartime photograph of Blunt hangs on his gym wall.
Married at 22, with a son on the way, Irving never imagined he would be self-supporting as a writer. Of his first three novels, only one sold into paperback, and each sold fewer than the last. “I had no reason to believe that the fourth novel [Garp], which was written in exactly the same way, would be the one that would liberate me,” he says.
“I didn’t get into it for that. It was a compulsion, an obsession. I would have written 13 novels by this point whether anybody had published them or not. You either recognize in yourself that you will never live without it – in which case, you better do everything you can about your life to feed this habit. Or you’ll always be unhappy.”
Success did come, of course. So much so that when asked to name his lowest period, Irving struggles to cough up an answer. It wasn’t his divorce; that was amicable. The first six weeks after his prostate cancer diagnosis were worrying. “But again, I don’t call that a low point,” Irving says, “Even at that time, I thought, ‘I’ve had a great life.’ ” He took his sons and grandchildren on a vacation to Cozumel, then had the surgery. He’s had no recurrence or side effects.
So the lowest ebb Irving can think of is almost laughably high: a period in the 1980s when he was single, a best-selling novelist in New York. Because his priorities were his sons, writing and wrestling, in that order, “I’m not proud of what passed for my sexual relationships then,” he says. “There were a lot of them. I was at a place where I was opposed to anything resembling a committed relationship. But I can’t say I liked myself for deliberately choosing to go out with women that I knew perfectly well I couldn’t have a serious relationship with.”
He boldly announced to his older son, who shared his apartment, that not only did he not want to live with a woman, he didn’t want any woman’s things in his home. (This led to an amusingly mortifying moment, when he threw away a dress he found in a closet, only to discover it belonged to his son’s girlfriend.) Two weeks later, he went to Toronto to read with Robertson Davies at Harbourfront, met Turnbull and promptly fell in love. “You never should embarrass yourself so much in front of your children,” he says, grinning.