John Irving Opens Up at BookPeople

Garp author talks his new novel, how he writes, and sex

John Irving Opens Up at BookPeople
Photo by John Anderson

“Without women readers, most novelists would have to get another job.” Women outnumbered men three to one at BookPeople Thursday. John Irving’s Chronicle interview with Louis Black proved a topical blueprint for his SRO in-store – monologing about process, new novel Avenue of Mysteries, and eros for 80 pin-drop minutes.

But Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, and Roberta Muldoon all made surprise appearances.

The English novelist, Canadian poet, and transgender ex-tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles figured prominently in Irving’s storytelling. Dickens comparisons still stamp the 73-year-old, wrestle-fit author enough to land on the back of his new book jacket, and live that methodical layering of narrative held a second floor landing sit-in absolutely spellbound. When he read 10 graphs from pages 2-3 of Avenue of Mysteries – drawing out words and syllables as he did: deliberate, punctuated, inflected – you could almost imagine him bedside, retelling the book page by page, night by night.

Kirkus Reviews Editor in Chief (and former Chronicle books editor) Claiborne Smith cannily steered his jocular subject into explosive territory. First, religion – a topic that revealed an alternate epigraph for the book everyone in attendance had purchased for the signing. Where now it begins with “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, it could’ve started with a line in a novel by Jeanette Winterson: “Religion is somewhere between fear and sex.”

Sex and the act of writing it – “Did it come easily for you?” Smith inquired to a burst of laughter – also proved a juicy conversation piece when Irving launched into bemused deconstruction of The New York Times “prude” who took down his 14th title in print. Yes, even Oscar-winning writers read their notices. What do sex and faith have in common?

“They both make people do extraordinary things,” stressed the talent.

Smith saved his best for last in asking Irving to assess the evolution of gender politics between the creation of Roberta Muldoon for 1978’s The World According to Garp and today. The now-Toronto-based New Hampshire native all but gritted his teeth and growled in response.

“Tolerance has a lot more transformation ahead of it.”

He went on to describe the rage that gripped him during the birthing of Garp – “Forty years ago today I was writing it” – as his disillusionment with the sexual revolution: “It’s an extreme novel about sexual hatred and violence.”

Worse, the anger fueling 1985’s The Cider House Rules won’t abate anytime soon. Citing its Roe v. Wade impetus, Irving’s face flushed crimson and bilious when he blurted the word “abortion” in utter exasperation over the never-ending crusade against women’s health rights. Not even an Academy Award for adapting The Cider House Rules into a screenplay was going to ease Irving’s ire.

Finally, he answered a few written questions, yielding news of a World According to Garp miniseries he’s currently writing for HBO, and a Finnish-Canadian operatic production of his most popular book in any language, 1989’s A Prayer for Owen Meaney. There was one query that had never been posed to him: Does he consider himself a “naturalist writer”?

“No one else does, but I do,” said Irving. “My characters are perfectly real, and what I write is true to the natural world.”

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

BookPeople, John Irving, Clay Smith, Jeanette Winterson, Louis Black

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