Page Two: Mysteries Unraveled
Part two of Louis Black's interview with novelist John Irving
It's the way vast endless snow turns purple under the moon tinted by the rare light from a home hidden by trees that you never forget. Things happen, often big things. You remember certain moments forever. Sometimes alone and lonely you spend too much time walking up and down an almost hidden state highway in Vermont in the snow heading down to the college or home to the off-campus dorm house you lived in a mile or so up the road. It is 1970. It is Windham College in Putney, Vt. Your first semester there you heard that there was a published novelist teaching but he was on sabbatical until next year. In Austin, where walking down any block you are likely to meet a couple of novelists, a recording artist, and an accomplished filmmaker, we are used to this celebrity. At that time I had never met a real novelist. With only one book under his belt, we did not suspect his magnificent future. But what he taught us was that writing was a discipline that required an enormous amount of hard work. Here is part two of my interview with John Irving about Avenue of Mysteries, his new novel about a Mexican-American writer named Juan Diego who revisits his past. (Spoilers ahead.) He'll be at BookPeople tonight (Thursday, Nov. 12). Read part one of this interview here.
Austin Chronicle: How did this novel evolve?
John Irving: The story of children at risk in a circus, children whose circumstances if they don't go to a circus might actually turn out worse than if they did go to a circus – that began as a screenplay on an Indian circus. That began with a trip to India in the winter of 1990, but Martin Bell, the director, and I couldn't get that movie made. A tiny piece of it ended up in the novel A Son of the Circus. The idea of a movie about children at risk, a crippled boy [with a] preternaturally gifted or extraterrestrially talented sister kind of stayed with me and with Bell. We located that idea for a screenplay still in Mexico and we found Mexican circuses. Martin was married for years to my old friend Mary Ellen Mark, the photographer who died last May.
It was Mary Ellen's photographs of such children, first in Indian circuses and then in Mexican circuses, that gave Martin and me the idea of a story. At first a screenplay, a story, about a couple of kids that find themselves in this risky place. The Jesuits were always part of it. When Martin and I relocated the story to southern Mexico, the Jesuits were a better fit, and guess what? There are still dump kids – children are still the ones that do the picking and sorting in the dumps. Yes, there are tighter restrictions now than there were in 1970, but we had better material for our film. What was in our imagination worked better in Mexico than it had in India, so the idea relocated itself there. And only, relatively speaking, after I wrote the first draft of the screenplay that I wrote about Indian children in an Indian circus in the late 1980s! That long ago! More than 25 years ago!
I was in India the winter of 1990. I was first in Mexico in 1997, again in 2002, 2008, 2011, 2014. Most of that time, save the last two trips, locating a movie. But, I began to think ... well, what would make this a novel is the passage of time. In other words, the movie was all about what happens when Brother Pepe meets these extraordinary dump kids and the dump leader in particular and shortly thereafter he's meeting the plane of the new missionary and the movie ends when Pepe and Rivera and Diablo, Rivera's dog, are watching Juan Diego leave Oaxaca with Señor Eduardo and Flor, and Pepe will repeat as he says to Juan Diego in the temple, "I'm already missing you." That's a movie! That's a movie! It always was a movie, it always was!
But, one day in the 2000s – 2008, 2009 – when Martin and I were making yet another trip to the Guadalupe Pacifica in Mexico City, seeing another crazy circus, I said: You know, what could be a novel about this story is 14 years later. The only thing you'd recognize about our Juan Diego would be his limp. What if – novels begin often for me this way – what if we meet him as a 54-year-old man, but he looks 64, he moves and acts like he's 74, or he feels like it. There is something wrong with his heart, he's on a med that he doesn't like, every time he nods off he's back in Mexico, he's 14 again, the most dominant thing in his life. He's going to the Philippines to make good on his promise as a 14-year-old to this poor lost American draft dodger, the good gringo, who extracts this promise from him in a bathtub. And that's what he's doing. He's going to pay his respects to the nameless slain father of the poor good gringo. Forty years after the fact. And his childhood will accompany him as if it were across the aisle on the plane. That's the story!
I said, What if! What if we did that? What if we did this back and forth in there? His angels of death that he last saw when his foot was injured and he was waiting for a miracle from the Virgin Mary, they're there. And, there's a Guadalupe church there, and that's where he's going. He's never going to get to that cemetery. I said to Martin, you know, whoa whoa, stop everything. Let's put the movie on hold, let's keep it to ourselves. Now, that's a process, okay?
It is not that unusual that it takes me that long to get started, so it's true I didn't begin writing Avenue of Mysteries, the novel, until Christmas Eve 2011 – roughly a year after I had been to the Philippines. I didn't begin the novel, as I always do, with the ending. But the writing of the novel took less time than any novel I've ever written. I finished Avenue of Mysteries, the novel, in early December of 2014. ... Why was it so quickly forthcoming? Well, the answer to that is, I'd already written the Mexican part, you know, Juan Diego and [sister] Lupe's adolescence in Oaxaca – I'd already written that! I'd written many drafts of that story. Señor Eduardo was already a character, Flor was already a character, Pepe was – well, in the movie he would be the voiceover character, he's the guy telling the story. So all these characters were known to me.
Everything that happens to them was known to me. Yes, I had to substantially rework it or revise it from a much simpler and more spare way of telling a story, the screenplay format, I had to give it flash and give it history and give it more dimensions and more literal visualization, sure, but the Mexican part of the two-part story, the Mexican part of the so-called parallel track that Juan Diego sees his life as being – yeah, that was already done, so in a way I only had half a novel to write.
AC: You often write with a terrific comedic sense, but this novel seems more in that direction than others of your works.
JI: I don't think as a writer that you have much control over whether you can be funny or you can't be. And if you can be funny you can't really control when you are. In other words, it comes out that way. I would call myself a comic novelist. Does that mean that sad or tragic things don't happen? Of course they do. Shakespeare couldn't help but be funny even when he was writing tragedies. What the witches try to tell Macbeth and what Macbeth doesn't hear is funny. It's funny! What the fool says to King Lear when he begs to know who he is is funny. It goes on in stories with happy endings [as well], but Shakespeare couldn't stop telling jokes. Well, it's kind of like that.
The juxtaposition of the dead horse, Mañana, whom Ignacio has to kill because the horse has the broken leg, and the dwarves fighting to get a look at Dolores in the outdoor shower when she's prone to fall down, it's a comic scene, but what's going to happen to Dolores isn't funny. So these two dwarves who really don't care about what Dolores looks like naked for a variety of reasons, they're having an anatomical argument between them about whether Dolores' boobs are bigger or smaller than the transvestite dwarfs. In other words, they aren't even being lecherous in their investigation. It's funny, but what's going to happen to poor Dolores, who falls on the dead horse – that's not comedy. So, there's always that, there's always that there. It's a funny situation, as you're dying, to be in the hands of arguably one of your more irritating former students, which Juan Diego is. Heck, a number of writer friends have said to me, "Oh god, is that how you imagine death?" ... [The former student] Clark can be an asshole, but he's also not a bad guy. Truth be told if you're gonna die with someone, he's not a bad guy to die with – he'll do the best he can, he'll stand up for you. Even for all of his beliefs, Clark has the fortitude to say to the old nun, "No priests, he wouldn't want a priest." Even Clark can overcome his fidelity, his somewhat doctrinaire adherence to his faith, to recognize that Juan Diego wouldn't want a priest. Clark isn't a bad guy. Do I make fun of him? Yes, I make fun of him. But I also like him. I like the way he tells the journalists they're shit when they haven't read Juan Diego's book.
AC: Well, one of the things I most admire about your fiction is there are very few bad guys. There are people you make fun of and there are bores, but there are not many evil villains.
JI: That's true. And when there is one, he's pretty plain. It's pretty plain that Ignacio is a bad guy but he's also minor. There's also a bit of comedy, ghoulish comedy in the fact that if you have a bad guy who's dedicated his life to taking advantage of young girls, what better thing can happen than to have a bunch of lionesses eat his face off? I think everybody would agree that Ignacio's got it coming. But, even the way that justice is served, I would hope everyone would agree that is a little over the top.
Don't forget that whatever Juan Diego's issues with the Catholic church are, with those man-made rules of an institution that grate on him so much, Juan Diego is a believer. Even the Virgin Mary, who is treated in a derogatory fashion by Lupe and by Diego – the Mary Monster they call her – they make fun of poor Rivera as a Mary worshiper, well, guess what? Mary's not a bad guy, either. If Mary doesn't shed tears, Juan Diego doesn't get to go away with Flor and Señor Eduardo [his adoptive parents]. Mary proves herself. Lupe's always taken a hard line toward these various virgins: Show me what you got, do something for me, if you're so miraculous, prove it. Well, Mary does prove it. ...
That's the point. What you want to believe when you want to be religious, what you want to believe are the miracles. Not the human interference of the institution, of any church, not just the Catholic church, but of any institution, not just the man-made rules to grate and can grate against anyone's principles of common sense. But, the miracles are why you're there. You're there because of what Guadalupe represents, you're there because of what the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child represent. Not for the Father Octavios and Father Alfonsos, who are saying, "Wait, wait, wait, let's see what the bishop says."
AC: And, going off of miracles and the miraculous, prescient children are common in your novels, but – I hesitate to use the term magic realism – Lupe takes it to a place almost different in not just her ability to read minds, but in her sensibility. It kind of grounds the novel in a second place.
JI: If you like this novel, Lupe seems to be the barometer for what your feelings for it are. People have told me that, especially women readers. Without women readers most novelists would have to get another job. ...
This is the third run I've taken at a character like Lupe. She has ancestors in my earlier novels, of course. But I've been tempted by the character in a story who knows a little bit about what I always know about my stories – namely, where they're going. I'm often tempted by that. Lilly in The Hotel New Hampshire thinks she sees what's coming down and jumps out a window. Meany [in A Prayer for Owen Meany] thinks he sees the future. He's mostly right, but what he gets wrong – namely that he's not going to die in Vietnam, but he is going to die because of it – what he gets wrong is what the novel is about. The power of how strongly he believes he sees what's going to happen and that he's almost right is also what makes A Prayer for Owen Meany work.
Now, we're told early on that Lupe's judgment about what has happened to you is likely to be more accurate than her estimation of what will happen. She's good at the past, or she's better at it. She's not so good with the future, and we'll never know if she was right. The point is, however, especially if you're young, and youth isolates you, Lupe is further isolated from the adult world because only Juan Diego can understand her and he doesn't translate everything she says, he wishes when she's gone that he had listened a little closer. But Lupe bears an awful burden for a 13-year-old. Even if she's completely wrong about the future, she thinks she's right. And if you're that young and that isolated and you see what you believe is your own future and the future of someone you love, your brother, so clearly – well, what would you be tempted to do, however rationally to change that future you believe in? So she's a character that has an effect, she affects what happens to her brother's life. She changes the lives of all those around her. She even makes the Virgin Mary cry, or to take the question further, what could possibly allow these two old conservative priests to ever condone a gay man and his transvestite lover adopting an orphan? Well, it would take the Virgin Mary's tears, that's what I think! They're not going to do it for any known reason! Haha! It's going to have to be something pretty big to make them give up that orphan to these two. So, the whole thing is a kind of setup premise and without the out-there-on-a-limb absurdity for Lupe's ability to read every mind in sight, including hombres, including those lionesses, well, without that there's no tears, there's no miracle, and Juan Diego never gets out. See what I mean?
AC: This novel is richly erotic, it's about miracles, in a way magic, it transcends normal reality. I want to ask you about the chapter in Iowa where it almost yanks you abruptly, because you keep going back to the past and to the present, and this is like the one side step in Iowa where Flor and Señor Eduardo are dying from AIDS, and that seems, not report-ish, but it seems grounded in a different way from the book, and it's the moment where it takes everything that has come before it and it really becomes a remarkable love story, I think.
JI: Well, it is. I hope it is. It also becomes the reason – I hope that that's clear – it becomes the reason why Juan Diego is so powerless, inexperienced, helpless, in the face of any relationships. That he can not imagine giving himself over to love like the love between Eduardo and Flor, that they are kind of an impossible act to live up to, the dedication of these two to their own flawed ways, to each other. They're of course also important because it's important to make good on what Dolores tells Juan Diego in the circus tent the last time he sees her, when he realizes and she's always known that he doesn't have the balls to be a sky walker. And she says, "Hey kid, don't worry about it, maybe you're gonna have balls for something else." And without that chapter, without the homophobic bully, in his high school years 10 years after Eduardo and Flor are gone, without that opportunity to show he's got the balls, he can't. He can't make good on what Dolores tells him. He can never pull the trigger on that, and that's what possesses his drunken doctor friend to tell him in the backseat of the car, if he'd done that a few years ago she would have asked him to marry her! It's an awkward moment but the word grounded that you use is very correct. I wanted to suggest that, when something has happened to Juan Diego of the enormity of what has happened to him at the age of 14 when he loses Lupe, I wanted to suggest that, well, what the fuck can happen to him later that will ever top that? When he's an old man and he falls asleep, of course he'll be back there. Of course the past will be more vivid than anything else that has happened to him. But for one thing, these two people who have stepped up and played the role of mom and dad in his life and were really dealt a bad hand. They're never bad souls, they're never bad people, but they become extraordinary people when they love each other.
John Irving will appear in conversation with Clay Smith of Kirkus Reviews Thursday, Nov. 12, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar.