Page Two: Fictional Fiction According to John Irving
Louis Black interviews his former writing teacher about his latest novel, Avenue of Mysteries
In 1972, John Irving was a creative writing teacher at Windham College in Putney, Vt. Already he had published Setting Free the Bears. The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage would follow, both to minor critical attention and not great commercial success. A decade after I first met him, the publication of The World According to Garp changed everything. The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany established Irving as one of our most important contemporary novelists. What Irving taught was that writing was work, not inspiration; craft, not literary intoxication; and, at its best, an act of imagination, not autobiography. Last week, on the occasion of the publication of his new novel (his 14th), Avenue of Mysteries, and in anticipation of his visit to Austin to speak about it (Thursday, Nov. 12, at BookPeople), we talked on the phone, continuing the conversation on the art of the novel and the life of the novelist begun decades ago and only sporadically continued since.
Below is a consideration of fiction, writing, and the writer. Next week in "Page Two" we'll run another chunk of the interview.
Austin Chronicle: Is Avenue of Mysteries a work of imagination or of autobiography?
John Irving: Ah, well, I didn't have a limp the last time you saw me, did I?
AC: No, but the novel uses elements of autobiography and of imagination. There is autobiography in it, and yet it is not bound by autobiography.
JI: Well, I hope its evident in the 14 novels that I have sufficient imagination to not be easily contained within anyone's autobiographical experience but especially my own considerably meager and uninteresting autobiographical experience. One of my own kids pointed out to me when he read Garp, when only 12 or 13 years old, that "I don't know everything about your life before I knew you but I know that... this guy isn't you and that these things haven't happened to you but it's all about what you're afraid of."
No one would probably know that about me as well as one of my own children – the subject of children at risk, of children facing potential harm, children actually dying, being more than thematic over many of my novels, being a repeated or recurrent obsession. That's never happened to me but that doesn't mean I escaped it happening to me in my imagination or worst fears or... the worst fears or nightmares of any parent who is also possessed of an imagination. I've said about many novels now that the most autobiographical element in them is not that they're about anything that has happened to me but that all of them in one way or another reflect what I hope never does happen to me or to anyone I love. My novels are, this one no exception, worst-case scenarios. There's been nothing worst-case about my life, which has been, for the most part, boring and uninteresting.
The only memoir I ever wrote was a small collection that is easily held between your pinky and your ring finger and I don't plan to write another one that is a memoir. I'm not possessed of the memoir spirit. I don't think my life is very interesting. The few things in it that have found a use in my fiction have been utterly changed over and over again from what basis in reality they ever had.
The not knowing for many years who my father was indeed has provoked my imagination. Many mothers who have kept secrets from their children and many interesting missing fathers or possible missing fathers. My mother never saw herself in any of the mothers I wrote about... in fact what refutes any viable claim that these novels are autobiographical is no one in my so-called real life has ever written me or phoned me and said "how dare you!" – meaning, how dare I have written about them, because I haven't.
My mother expressed some exasperation once that she didn't know who all these mothers were because she kept waiting to find herself and never had. I said, "Well, would you be happier if you did?" She didn't take long to think about it and said, "Well, I don't suppose there would be much to say."
And once when there was a publication party for The World According to Garp, she said, "Well, should I wear my nurse's aide's outfit?" My mother was a nurse's aide but not a nurse and bore little resemblance, save the feminist strife, to Jenny Fields. She was kidding me... She wasn't serious about it.
I recognize that a lot of fiction is autobiographical at its source. A lot of writers don't have an imagination to think beyond or outside their personal experience, American literature is especially often regionalized – perhaps that's why we even have a "Southern novel." Many Americans – most Americans, in fact – set their stories pretty close to home, especially my generation of Americans and an older generation of Americans.
I'm encouraged to see the foreign landscape coming with younger, newer American writers. Jonathan Franzen's most recent book for example is much more international than you would expect from most American writers. Not from me! This isn't the first time I've had a main character who was not an American, a born American. Or the first time, certainly, I've set a novel in, so to speak, foreign countries. The doctor in Son of the Circus was an Indian born Canadian citizen. The full body tattoo addict who is the missing father in Until I Find You never sets foot in the United States. He's a European church organist and tattoo addict. [Avenue of Mysteries] is a novel largely set for the most part in Mexico and the Philippines. Those intervening 40 years between what we see of Juan Diego as a 14 year old in Mexico and what we know of him as a 54-year-old man 40 years later, traveling to the Philippines, those intervening 40 years hardly appear in the novel.
The notable exception to that, the one designated chapter to the United States, concerns the deaths of Señor Eduardo and Flor, rightly so because Juan Diego loves them and they did the best they could to look after him. The miracle, or one of the miracles of the novel, I suppose, is that they ever would have been allowed at any time, but especially in 1970, to be his adoptive parents. That's the miracle that only the Virgin Mary's tears could cause.
This is fictional fiction. It's not autobiographical, it isn't. Are there notable signposts or landmarks that I hope, for fun, my readers or readers of my previous novels will spot and see, novels that I ascribe to Juan Diego, which are clearly parodies or imitations of novels of my own? Sure. But those are little surprises and pleasures for people who have read those novels.
This little part about Juan Diego, who is [more] happy to stay home and be a writer than he is to talk about it, that aspect of Juan Diego as a writer is doubtless true of me. Yes, I was a student and a teacher at the Iowa workshop. Well, so were a couple of hundred of writers that I can think of. You know, it's the man's singular loneliness. Like a lot of my characters, the fact that something at that threshold age – about the time of puberty – happens to him and is so calamitous and life-changing that this event in childhood or early adolescence determines the adult he will become – well, that's a feature of my novels that I have done many times. There are many characters we first meet or get to know because of a formative something that happens to them between the ages of 12 and 15. I do that a lot. That's more of a literary device or tic than it is autobiographical. I can't think of anything remotely traumatic that happened to me between that ages of 12 and 15 that to any degree made me the adult that I am. Nothing as defining as becoming a father and the fear of something happening to one of my children. Nothing as defining as that.
That's a long way of saying: no!
AC: When I studied with you 45 years ago, what was so incredible to me about the experience of you teaching creative writing was your emphasis on it as a discipline, a job of work. You said – and I quote things you said to me all the time – but one of them was, if you meet a writer and they are more interesting or as interesting as their writings than they're not a very good writer. That the writing should be the best part of them. Literally this idea has shaped my whole career and the way that I think about the work I do and the seriousness that I take with it. What always been amazing to me about you as a novelist is the absolute joy and exhilaration of storytelling and creating characters combined with your extraordinary sense of discipline about what it is you're doing.
JI: I think that I would like to allow everyone to continue to have the illusion that creative acts happen in a blinding flash of light. But in fact everything you say about the job of writing, about the craftsmanship of it is, for me, a matter of doing everything I can to move very slowly and very deliberately and probably most important of all to wait. To wait a long time before I begin writing a novel until I have gathered enough knowledge of the story to know almost every turn it takes before I begin, but most especially, to know absolutely where it's going, where it's ending up. I never don't know that!
I never start a novel, begin the writing thereof of that novel not only until I've written the last sentence but with that last sentence comes 10 or 12 preceding paragraphs to that sentence and most of a final chapter. So that [I'm] not only knowing what happens to people but knowing the voice it's in when I'm going to tell you what happened to them. [It] becomes a pretty fixed object that I'm writing to, I'm writing towards. I don't know how else to inject as much foreshadow into the story as I always do and can. I don't know how you do that if you don't know exactly what's going to happen.
How to put those two women all in black, apparent mourners, in one of the front pews in the Jesuit temple whom Juan Diego sees briefly when he's lying in pain with his crushed foot, waiting for the Virgin Mary to, it is Rivera's hope, heal him? He briefly feels the pain abate and at that moment sees these women and imagines, "I must be dying, they must be mourning me." Then in an instant just as quick they're gone, the pain is back, he thinks, "Oh, I'm going to be okay, I'm not dying, here's the pain again." He's not dying then, and yes they've disappeared but those women, as you know, will come back as they always been and have always been attending him, they're just waiting for the right time.
And you can't insert whoever those figure of Miriam and Dorothy are, you can't insert them in the Jesuit temple after the accident with Rivera's truck, without names, without faces, just briefly have them there to make an appearance and disappear, you can't do that, if you don't know when you'll see them all in black and mourning him again, this time for real. See what I mean?
I don't know how to do that, I'm not clever enough to make it up. I don't tell stories by the seat of my pants. Which is why something that becomes the novel often has been something else – a collection of notes, sometimes, the idea of an original screenplay. Sometimes, a story that seems to be kicking around has a good ending but [I] don't know how to begin it or has a plausible beginning but no idea what happens. Piles of paper often sit and wait and accumulate in one other form or another for as many as eight or ten years. In the case of Last Night in Twisted River, those characters, accumulating notes about them all, sketches and such just ... sat waiting for twenty years before I began to write it.