This should not have been surprising, because my mom and I have both read all of John Irving’s books, and they all describe—and in many cases focus on—a variety of sexual practices and situations. My mom says he talks about sex in an amusing way. Irving describes himself as being “drawn to sexually extreme situations.”
Fortunately my mom did not seem fazed by this, and I kept my eyes mostly trained toward the front of the sanctuary. We’re both grown-ups, right?
Irving was reading from his new novel In One Person, about the coming of age of a bisexual man. He remarked when he first began to speak—haltingly—that he was glad to hear about President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality today, although in his opinion it came too late. Irving said that when he wrote The World According to Garp in 1978 he expected that it would eventually become a relic of a time when our nation was sexually intolerant, and he is chagrined that it’s not the case, and that this new book takes on a different topic but the same challenge of a society that has a hard time knowing what to do with anyone who is outside what we perceive to be the sexual norm.
One of the questions Irving answered after the reading was why he writes about incest so often. No more than Sophocles, he answered, who wrote three plays about it.
Irving said he likes to write with sympathy about characters who would be decidedly unsympathetic when plastered across a tabloid headline. “The more any of us is made to feel like a minority, the harder it is to accept who we are,” he said.
Many interviewers have asked him about why he made the main character of In One Person bisexual, and Irving said that choice seems much more normal to him than some of the sexually extreme characters he’s written before, such as Nurse Jenny in Garp who hates men and has sex only one time, with a comatose patient. Or Johnny Wheelright in A Prayer for Owen Meany who is a closeted gay man who never has sex at all.
“It’s a whole lot easier for me to imagine having sex with everybody than to have sex once and then stop, or never have sex at all,” he said.
He talked a bit—reluctantly—about his own mother, in response to a question about the mother figures in his books. She was a nurse’s aid in a center that cared for abused women, he explained, and she had a “sharp judgmental eye toward men.”
Another audience member asked him why he liked bears so much, since they often figure prominently in Irving’s books. “I don’t like bears at all,” he said, “I don’t invite them into my house.” And he went on to explain that bears are dangerous and people who get mauled by them are stupid for thinking they are Disney-esque creatures who are thoughtfully regarding the nearby humans, vs. animals with poor eyesight who can’t see what you are.
Speaking of poor eyesight, he mentioned a reading he gave once in Vancouver in which he received two questions directed toward Margaret Atwood. He said he tried to answer them as he thought Atwood, who is a friend, would have. He said when he returned to the States he received a “rather cold letter from her saying that was NOT how she would have answered those questions.”
Irving also recounted a strange correspondence he enjoyed with John Updike, because a couple times a year each of them would receive a package of fan letters actually intended for the other one. “Well, John is a fairly common name,” Updike postulated to Irving at one point.
While Irving maintains he has no favorites among his characters, he referred often to Cider House Rules, which seemed to mark a turning point in his career. He said while he wrote his first four books he was also coaching wrestling and teaching English literature to earn a living. After that, he was able to support himself as an author and over the course of writing The Hotel New Hampshire, figured out how to do it. During Hotel New Hampshire he would write for about two hours and then get distracted, and was terribly disappointed with himself. When it was over, he had developed a process. Now he writes sveen or eight hours a day, seven days a week, which he says is “a great luxury.”
He says he loves the writing process, and that you have to love the details to be a writer. He compared it to wrestling, as both require teriffic repetition and attention to small details. “You must love the process more than you love the end of the match or producing a book,” he said. When you do these unnatural acts over and over, they become second-nature and they look natural to the outside. But in the meantime, it’s not always easy. In wrestling, he said, you’re dealing over and over with “the same small number of sparring partners whom you could find in the dark by their smell. And that’s not a compliment.”
“I don’t have a lot of fun writing a novel,” he explained, because when he writes, he’s imagining the worst thing he could think of happening to him or someone he loves, and is determined to explore it. “What’s the thing you don’t want to happen?” he asks. That’s where the book lies.
The worst piece of writing advice he’s ever heard, Irving said, is Ernest Hemingway’s “Write what you know,” which he called “blowhard bullshit.”
“How could you read Hemingway and want to be a writer?” he asked.
On the other hand, he champions Herman Melville’s philosophy: “Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appall.” Mr. Irving, I think you have succeeded. And thank you.