PROFILE | JOHN IRVING
He slaps the side of my head–twice, in quick succession–then hooks a hand behind my neck, and we lean hard into each other, our weight stuttering us one way, then the other. “Keep your elbows in,” he says, his breath hot on my face. “Nothing’s going to stop me from tearing into you except those elbows.” He bullies his chest forward, and I block him with an elbow. “Good.”
In a gym in midtown Toronto in February, I am wrestling John Irving. We are surrounded by treadmills, barbells, medicine balls. The floors are padded and the walls mirrored, our reflections grappling all around us hundreds of times over. Irving is 69 at this point, and though his hair has silvered and his mouth is creased by lines that look like parentheses, he works out several hours every day, a self-proclaimed gym rat who moves like someone half his age, square-shouldered, thin-waisted.
He seizes my arm and twists it painfully inward so that my shoulder feels as if it may snap from its socket. I force my elbow up, which is exactly what he wants me to do, darting into the hole I make for him, dragging me down, slamming my body to the mat.
He whispers tenderly in my ear, “That’s called a duck under.”
My shoulder is paralyzed and my face flames with rug burn, but when Irving scrambles upright, holds out a hand, hoists me to my feet and says, “Let’s try that again,” I do as he says, because it’s not every day that you get flung to the mat by one of the greatest writers of our time.
It is impossible to imagine the American–or international–literary landscape without John Irving. As his friend the novelist and physician Abraham Verghese says, “I can’t think of anyone else who has endured in quite the same way: adored by a loyal and ever growing readership because he is capable of producing novels in steady succession, each of which becomes part of our cultural heritage.”
In 1968, at the age of 26, Irving published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears. He is the author of 12 more, including The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany and A Widow for One Year. He has a trophy case of honors: a National Book Award (for Garp), an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (for Cider House), his 1992 induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He has sold tens of millions of copies of his books, books that have earned descriptions like epic and extraordinary and controversial and sexually brave. And yet, unlike so many writers in the contemporary canon, he manages to write books that are both critically acclaimed and beloved for their sheer readability. He is as close as one gets to a contemporary Dickens in the scope of his celebrity and the level of his achievement; the two of us couldn’t walk down the street or order a coffee in Toronto without his being hyperventilatingly recognized by a fan.
That success aside, there comes a point in anyone’s life–whether they have spent their career as a mechanic, a postal worker, a banker, a writer–when they begin to account for a lifetime of work, its worth and impact. For Irving, that moment is now. He turned 70 in March. He and his wife are celebrating their 25th anniversary. Three decades have passed since he appeared on the cover of this magazine. And he has a new novel, In One Person, out May 8.
All of which make 2012 a year of reckoning. And quite possibly the year of his return.
These past few years–with the release of The Fourth Hand, Until I Find You and Last Night in Twisted River especially–his sales have dropped, and some reviewers have accused him of writing baggy, protracted plots. In One Person should silence them.
Irving is known for his sensitive treatment of sexual outsiders. Dr. Larch, the saintly abortionist in The Cider House Rules, has sex only once in his life. The same goes for Jenny Fields, the heroine of The World According to Garp, who strips off her nurse’s uniform and lowers herself onto a terminally wounded invalid not for pleasure or companionship but because she wishes to have a child on her own. The narrator of A Prayer for Owen Meany is referred to as “a non-practicing homosexual,” and indeed, he seems to love Owen, even if he will never come out of the closet and say so.
Billy Abbott–the narrator, main character and, to use the term Irving invented for Jenny Fields, “sexual suspect” of In One Person–likes men and women. In Vermont in the 1950s, Billy says his bisexuality “meant that I would be categorized as more unreliable than usual by straight women, while at the same time (and for the same reason) I would never be entirely trusted by gay men.” There is some poetic justice to this. Irving’s good friend the author and critic Edmund White says, “He’s always been bi-curious as a storyteller. Rounding up all his misfits in his novels who prove to be sympathetic and compelling characters could populate a Key West bar.”
It’s true that In One Person, with its many gay and transgender characters, is not a departure for Irving; his familiar touches are everywhere–in the settings (New England, Vienna), the wrestling (Billy learns the duck under for self-defense), the absent father, the protagonist who becomes a writer, the delirious treatment of humor and pathos. But it is also a daring novel, politically charged, infused with tenderness and forgiveness and love–between parents and children, between lovers, between friends.
Life is so hard for sexual outsiders, Irving says, and it makes him love them all the more. Which is what he told his youngest son Everett when Everett revealed he was gay: “I love you all the more.”
On this matter, Irving wishes to be very careful and clear. He began taking notes on the novel in 2002, long before he even knew Everett was gay. He did not write In One Person because he has a beloved gay son, and the novel is not about having a gay son.
Readers have a tendency to want to find the truth in fiction, to interpret the characters as veiled versions of the writer. “Billy Abbott’s experiences are not based on my experiences or my son’s,” Irving says. But he acknowledges that the fiction might potentially be helpful in imparting some truths. “Probably, because Everett is my son, I must have felt more urgency about making In One Person my next novel–about writing it sooner rather than later, about wanting Everett to read it while he was still in his late teens or early 20s.”
Irving is famous for his endings; he always conceives his final sentences before he begins a book. Two transgender women are the heroes of this novel, and in the final passage, one of them, Miss Frost, says to Billy, “My dear boy, don’t put a label on me–don’t make me a category, before you get to know me!”
Irving says that making too big a deal over Everett’s connection to a novel about sexual tolerance or failing to see this novel’s obvious relationship to several of his earlier novels–and his process as a novelist, one who always builds a story from the end to the beginning–would be to miss the point.
But, he says, the timing of this book does feel urgent, not only because of Everett but also “because of the resurgence of gay bashing and a homophobic backlash against gay marriage in the U.S. at this very time.”
After two hours of racking weights, jogging the treadmill and grappling on the mats, Irving and I hit the steam room. He massages a kink from his neck, then holds out a hand and flexes his fingers. “This is my most important instrument,” he says.
He writes all of his first drafts in longhand, and if his fingers ever cubed and stiffened with arthritis, he doesn’t know what he would do. So he takes precautions, sticks to the smaller barbells now. Less weight, more reps.
The same rules apply to his fiction. “I am writing shorter and shorter novels,” he says. “My commitment to this is no different than my exercise routine or my decision to give up drinking beer. I am aware of the limitations of aging. And there is nothing more important to the novelist than the preservation of memory. My grasp of fictional detail and chronological story is worsening, so I must work with what I have to make sure I’m fully cognizant of what I’m creating.”
Until I Find You runs 824 pages, Last Night in Twisted River clocks in at 554, and In One Person is by comparison a scant 427. Irving’s next novel, which he began Christmas Eve, will be even shorter–and, he predicts, the next novel shorter still.
In One Person might be brief by Irving’s standards, but it has his characteristic sweep. The story moves from Vermont to Vienna to New York and encompasses the repressive ’50s, the exuberant ’60s, the promiscuous ’70s. The chronology does not move in a straight line but flashes forward and back. This generates suspense–you witness the outcome and wonder how it came to pass–but it also makes time as restless as gender.
We see that Miss Frost, the small-town librarian who in the novel’s opening scene recommends that Billy read Great Expectations, setting him on the path to becoming a writer, was once Big Al the wrestler; we see that Uncle Harry the lumberman ends up wearing his dead wife’s clothes around the nursing home. There are drag prostitutes and sexy macho wrestlers. White says Irving shows us men and women “in all their clangorous, multihued variety. Just as he breaks down the walls of place and time in the dissolving bath of memory, so he breaks down all gender distinctions.”
Irving pulls on a watchman’s cap, zips into a blue down jacket. The wind that blows constantly off Lake Ontario wobbles a stop sign as if it were a red balloon. Reflections of pedestrians ripple along the windows of boutique shops and coffeehouses. This is the midtown Toronto neighborhood Irving calls home.
He walks with his head down, staring hard at the sidewalk as if reading something there, the cracks in the concrete like the messy cursive that fills his many notebooks. He points out the Champion Tae Kwon Do studio where he used to spar regularly, the sensei there an Iranian immigrant, a misfit who came here with nothing and made a great life for himself. “There are so many Canadians like that,” he says.
Readers strongly associate Irving with New England, the setting of much of his fiction and the place where he grew up. (He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, where his stepfather Colin F. Irving taught history.) But he says he doesn’t feel grounded there. He splits his time between Toronto and Vermont but finds these days a stronger connection to Canada for its political liberalism, its acceptance of cultural and sexual diversity. “I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of Americans of a certain liberal persuasion talking about moving to Canada,” he says. “With me, it’s not all talk. I’m proud to be an American–but remain frustrated by how backwards and misinformed we obstinately remain.”
We stop by Irving’s apartment to pick up his wife Janet Turnbull, a literary agent with a bright laugh and hair that moves from red to chestnut, depending on the light. She runs her own agency and represents Irving, but when they first met she was working as an editor for his Canadian publisher. Irving gave a reading, and at a meal following the event, he couldn’t stop talking with Turnbull, so enchanted by her that he neglected everyone else at the table.
Tonight we eat at Pastis, owned by Georges Gurnon, the same restaurateur who oversaw their dinner that night so long ago. He greets us at the door, and when he takes Irving’s hands in his, he turns to me and says, “He is a very famous writer but also a very humble man.” The tables are draped in white linen, the walls a roughly textured stucco painted canary yellow. A picture of Robertson Davies, the Canadian author who read at Irving’s wedding, hangs forbiddingly in a shadowy staircase. But before we find our table in back, we sneak into the kitchen.
This is where Irving did much of his research for the restaurant scenes in Last Night in Twisted River. When we push through the swinging door, we are met with a blast of heat and a flurry of surprised smiles as the cooks jokingly tell Irving to throw on an apron and get to work.
Research has always been an essential part of Irving’s writing process, and he tells me now to study the cooks, to watch their flashing knives and flaming pans, as he did for so many hours with his notebook in his lap. “What I like especially is how they move around each other, the choreography of the kitchen,” he says.
We are joined at our table by several friends, among them Marty Schwartz, a doctor who serves as a medical consultant for all of Irving’s novels. In The Fourth Hand, he introduced the idea of formication, the imagined feeling of insects crawling all over one’s skin. In Until I Find You, he helped Irving figure out how a woman might die while having heroic, athletic sex. In Last Night in Twisted River, he told Irving to dose up a character on aspirin so that he might die of blood loss from a severed hand. And in In One Person, he helped principally with the sections concerning AIDS symptoms and treatment.
The novel begins in an era when the worst thing that could happen to you after sex was an STD or pregnancy; it propels Billy through the onset of HIV, the fear and panic and bewildering lack of information about it. Toward the end of the novel, Billy joins the New York Athletic Club and bloodies his nose when sparring with a wrestling partner. The horrified response of the other men, who race away from him as if the mere sight of his blood could cause infection, is the quintessential example of Irving’s melding the personal and the political, a character’s story intertwining with the community’s.
Irving tends to talk in the same careful, premeditated manner in which he writes. Typically, when I pose a question, he leans back and knits his fingers together on top of his head. His jaw flexes as if he is tasting his words before he shares them. When he finally speaks, he does so slowly, with many asides and pregnant pauses.
The exception to this: politics. When our discussion of In One Person bridges into the coming U.S. election, he brings his hand down in a karate chop that shakes the table and rattles the ice in my glass.
“When I wrote The World According to Garp in the 1970s, I thought the furor over birth control was over, I thought the abortion debate could potentially settle down following Roe v. Wade, and I thought I would never again feel the need to write about sexual tolerance. Just as I never thought I’d see the country as divided as it was during ‘Nam.” He tightens his mouth. “I was too hopeful. Here we are again. Here I am again.”
His most iconic characters never left. Glenn Close played Jenny Fields in the 1982 film adaptation of Garp. It was her first feature, and she considers the role definitive in her career. “Every part I’ve played since then, I suppose you can say, Jenny gave birth to. I’m almost always, at one extreme or another, a sexual suspect.” She mentions her recent film Albert Nobbs, in which she plays a woman who poses as a man. “There are so many people out there who fall through the cracks, so many people out there who are hiding in order to survive.” Empathetic narratives about them are necessary, revolutionary.
Many writers try to avoid partisan fiction, believing that art should raise questions instead of answer them, but what distinguishes Irving is a consistent zeroing in on the toughest issues–abortion, religion, sexuality, AIDS–that both define and divide America at various times. He does it with unbounded generosity toward his characters, not just the heroes but also the villains. And he does it almost exclusively through fiction. He’s not in the op-ed pages, nor is he writing book reviews or magazine pieces. He’s old-fashioned in that light–critical to the literary landscape but also apart from it.
The walls of Irving’s apartment are crowded with black-and-white portraits–of Günter Grass, Kurt Vonnegut, friends and mentors–and a charcoal profile of his son Everett. In his office hangs a poster for the film adaptation of The Cider House Rules orbited by shots from the set. But the dominant decoration, hanging over his desk, is a giant cluttered tackboard busy with family photos, some new, some faded and curled at the edges. He fingers one, an image of him wrestling his boys in the backyard, and says, “That was a long time ago.”
Though I hate to bring it up–because it implies the grave, because Irving is fit enough and sharp enough to write for another 20 years–there is the unavoidable question of legacy.
Of course Irving could guess how critics or friends would respond to this question. Edmund White, for example, says, “I think John’s distinctive place in the American literary landscape is as a Dickensian fabulist who has invented many great plots and tableaux and who will be remembered primarily as a humorist and as someone who tackled taboo subjects.”
But when Irving finally speaks, it is with no such definitive language. He hasn’t written his last sentence. He rolls his shoulders, not with a shrug but a stretch, as if we are once again facing each other in the gym. “You have to know as a writer the difference between how you consider yourself publicly and the way you must continue to only consider yourself a lowly practitioner,” he says. “Every new page you start, you are a beginner. And I am writing every day to challenge myself, to make myself better and stronger.”
His mouth hikes up, and his voice takes on an amused, challenging tone. “You never see a great wrestler who doesn’t drill, who stops fanatically practicing his best shot. My old coach used to say that if you were in it for the match, if you were in it for the trophies, you were in it for the wrong reasons.” He pauses for a long time, hinging together two thoughts as if with one of his trademark semicolons. “If you presume to love something, you must love the process of it much more than you love the finished product.”
This is his way of saying that legacy does not concern him so much, that his life as a writer has been about the drills, the practice, the lovely drudgery of putting one word in front of another and building characters and worlds that may speak of their time but will also, with the help of faithful readers, be lasting.
But then his gaze skips over to his bookshelves, weighed down by hardcover and foreign editions of his novels, as if to account for more than 40 years of dreams, the many worlds and lives stored in one person.
FOR MORE TIME STORIES ON JOHN IRVING, GO TO time.com/johnirving
Our takes on his hits
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP
“The World According to Garp is an extraordinary work whose achievement is echoed in Garp’s own discovery ‘that when you are writing something, everything seems related to everything else.’ That is easier said than written, but John Irving has written it. At 36, he moves into the front rank of America’s young novelists.”
THE CIDER HOUSE RULES
“The Cider House Rules is essentially about abortions and women’s right to have them. It is impossible to miss Irving’s message, but his method of conveying it is ingenious in the extreme.”
A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY
“As usual, Irving delivers a boisterous cast, a spirited story line and a quality of prose that is frequently underestimated, even by his admirers.”
A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR
“His new novel is in many respects his best since Garp. But over the past two decades, serious fiction has been elbowed ever further toward the fringes of popular culture. The adulation that once greeted Garp now goes to sitcoms and celebrities, a development that the hero-author in the novel foresaw and deplored.”
IN ONE PERSON
The story of Billy Abbott, a young man coming to terms with his bisexuality, marks a return to politically charged form for Irving; the novel’s intolerance of intolerance is timely, its characters timeless.
PHOTO (COLOR): Bear country Irving at his desk in Vermont. He splits his time between New England and Toronto
PHOTO (COLOR): Academy man Irving with his screenwriting Oscar for The Cider House Rules in 2000
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Up in arms Irving with Robin Williams on the set of Garp in 1982
PHOTO (COLOR): Best seller Irving appeared on the cover of TIME in 1981 when he published The Hotel New Hampshire, his follow-up to Garp
By Benjamin Percy