Native Son | Interview with New England Author John Irving

Author John Irving explains what it means to be a New England writer, the importance of mental discipline, and where he’s headed next.

By Kelsey Liebenson-Morse

Sep 29 2016

John Irving (c) Jane Sobel Klonsky
John Irving (c) Jane Sobel Klonsky
Photo Credit : Courtesy of John Irving

In 1968, John Irving published his first novel. He was 26 years old. Since then, he has written 14 novels. The most recent, Avenue of Mysteries was published in 2015. Irving, now 74, was born in Exeter, New Hampshire. Over the years, he established himself in the literary world as a master of mental and physical discipline. This is evident upon meeting Irving, who carries himself like an athlete—broad build, firm handshake. He writes longhand and begins his novels with the last few sentences, working his way back to the beginning. Hallmark preoccupations with sexuality, fatherhood, and identity resurface in his body of work. Tragedy and the miraculous often collide. Looking out on a rainy Central Park from the restaurant where we caught up with the writer, it was easy to imagine one of Irving’s characters joining us for lunch. Irving, who is equal parts thoughtful and expressive, told us a little about the novel’s evolution, Mexico, and what’s on the horizon.

Can you talk about the inspiration for Avenue of Mysteries?

It’s a hard novel to talk about because it wasn’t a novel for 20 years. It was, for the first 20 years of its life, only a screenplay. It was the kind of movie I like, which is very little in the way of passage of time: One year, 1970, the focus entirely on the children’s story. I first went with [filmmaker] Martin Bell to India in the winter of 1990, to look at child performers in Indian circuses. And for two years before we took that trip, we worked on a couple of drafts of a screenplay then set in India, which was remarkably similar to the story of this novel. The boy was always crippled. His sister was always preternaturally clairvoyant. But, simply put, we couldn’t get the film made. Not in India. Not with the adversity presented by the sensors in the Indian government. It is not a story that reflects well on what happens to children in India, nor should it. But we got sick of dealing with that interference and we first relocated to Oaxaca in 1997.

Cover of John Irving’s new book “Avenue of Mysteries”
Cover of John Irving’s new book “Avenue of Mysteries.”
Photo Credit : Courtesy of John Irving

What in particular drew you to writing about child circus performers?

In both cases, I had been drawn to do this story, or to consider this story, because of how well Martin and his wife, the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, knew not just my writing, but knew me as a father. They knew the subject of children at risk, something happening to a child, was a recurrent obsession of mine. And they thought the situation facing these child performers would interest me. It did. I mean, it appalled me, but that’s the same as interest to me.

Both in India and in Mexico the children who perform in the circuses come from very poor or deprived circumstances. The argument can be made that there’s more opportunity for them to have a life of some kind in the circus than there is if the circus never takes them. Prospects where they come from are awful. And that’s the rationale behind the fact that some of the things these kids do are very risky in both India and in Mexico. Most of the circuses, in fact, all of the circuses I saw have no safety net.

Avenue of Mysteries takes on the institution of the Catholic Church while also exploring Mexican folklore. How did you see these two aspects of “religion” working together?

The character of Juan Diego believes in the world of faith and spirits, even as he disparages the so-called man-made institution of the Catholic Church. He finds lots of fault with it, as do I. But he believes in the miraculous.

And you can’t be in any of those churches in Mexico and not see how many people believe. And it’s not the institution they believe in, it’s not the rules, it’s not the politics, it’s not the policies. I know lots of believing Catholics who don’t feel any differently about abortion, contraception or gay marriage than I do. I grew up with Catholics who were very faithful in what they believed, but they didn’t subscribe to their church’s silly rules then. Every Catholic friend I knew would never eat fish on Friday [only because] their mother was making them do it.

There’s always been a huge difference between the imposed policies and regulations of any church and what the people believe. If you go to a mosque, a synagogue, a church, it’s hard to find one that’s empty. Somebody’s always there. On their knees. Asking for something. They’re not asking the mullah or the rabbi or the priest. They’re going to the source. They’re going to the source of the miracle they believe in. And those miracles are exactly that. The Mary/Jesus story is a miracle. Mohammed is a miracle. Why wouldn’t you believe in them? But how fervently behind the time, or behind their own constituents, their own parishioners, every institution of faith has always been, for centuries.

I don’t think I’m saying anything new. I’m just saying there’s a big difference between what people genuinely believe and the kind of miracles anyone would want to believe in and the rather disappointing policies of the institution.

Do you see clairvoyance as a blessing or a curse?

It’s never a gift I give my characters. If they believe they can see the future, it always ends up being more of a curse or a burden. Lily in The Hotel New Hampshire believes she sees what’s coming. She jumps out of the window. It’s what gives that novel the last line: ‘You have to keep passing the open windows.’ Keep passing the open window, don’t kill yourself.

You’re known for your meticulous research, and you continue to travel extensively both for work and pleasure. How has this global perspective influenced your process as a writer?

I lived four years of my life in Vienna. I’ve lived in Canada for 30 years on and off. I never really felt—especially when I’m thinking of a story, when I’m thinking of a novel—I don’t think of it as having national boundaries or fixations.

New England has been in as many as half or more of the novels. But it’s been a lot of work to learn things that were foreign to me. The India-ness of A Son of the Circus was really challenging. The whole world of the Baltic and the North Sea, those European tattoo ports and the places where church organ music was born, the whole subject of Until I Find You was more foreign to me. But by no means is this the only novel with characters that aren’t Americans or aren’t New Englanders. Look at how much A Widow For One Year has a non-New England setting. It’s New York. It’s Amsterdam. It’s the Hamptons.

I’d spent a lot of time in Mexico, especially around the late years of the Vietnam War, not counting all the time I spent in Mexico for this novel, looking at orphanages, dumps, gay bars, transvestite bars, the morgue, the medical school, the hospitals—a lot of time. And a lot of time at the Guadalupe Basilica. But I found some of the things I had to do for those other novels more outside of my element.

The subject of foreignness as something that lives inside you, especially in those characters who, in the case of Jack Burns [Until I Find You], an actor; in the case of Ruth Cole [A Widow for One Year], another writer; or Danny Baciagalupo in Last Night In Twisted River; the sense of people who feel a kind of permanent foreignness in their soul, a kind of permanent immigration about themselves, I’ve written about that too. Dr. Daruwalla in A Son of the Circus was born in India and never felt at home. He lives all of his adult life in Canada where he’s a doctor, but never feels assimilated as a Canadian.

Do you think of yourself as a New England writer?

You know I think of myself as more of a New England writer than I do as an American writer only because that’s also how I think of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. I think of them as being New England writers. That’s who they are to me. But at the same time I say that, I don’t think I fit the profile of the so-called “American” writer and never have. My first novel, Setting Free The Bears, was a historical novel about two Austrian students that was largely about the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Vienna. There wasn’t an American in it.

How did early influences inform this sense of a more international writerly identity for you?

It goes all the way back to the interest I had in literature that made me want to be a writer in the first place, which also didn’t have an American source. Melville and Hawthorne are the only two Americans on my list. I’m not a Hemingway/Faulkner/Fitzgerald guy. I am not a part of the whole bullshit about the Great American novel. I missed that one. I missed whatever it was you’re supposed to feel patriotic about when it comes to literature. I thought anybody who wanted to write a novel wanted to write a good one. But an American one? As opposed to what? I loved Dickens. I loved Hardy. Later I loved Flaubert and Thomas Mann.

Your books have been translated into more than 35 languages. How do you account for this tremendous interest in your work abroad?

All over the world people are more and more interested in the writer then they used to be. They used to be interested in the book. I would say one of the reasons I have such a life in translation—and its true, half of my income as a writer comes from foreign languages—well, I think that the international interest that is in many of those novels is a part of the reason. I therefore strike European, South American, and Asian readers as less American.

But you have to remember…it’s unusual that we in the United States have so little interest in literature from outside our shores. American bestseller lists are very American. You look at a bestseller list in Germany, France, Spain or any of the Scandinavian countries—it’s all over the place. Big countries, Russia and the United States, have more in common with each other then we generally like to acknowledge; countries so big and countries so diffuse, so divided, into regions that are as mistrustful of one another as they are of foreign countries. I’m 74. I’ve lived years outside of my country. I travel a lot.

You mentioned your interest in “permanent foreignness” earlier. Is this a feeling you’ve experienced during specific periods of your life?

I think that all writers are a little inclined to feel like a new immigrant wherever they are, maybe most of all where they come from. The idea that the artist is an outsider is a perfectly true one. I would even argue that you’re supposed to be. You’re supposed to be looking through a long-distance lens. You’re supposed to feel somewhat detached. Rilke said works of art are of an infinite loneliness. He didn’t just mean all the time you have to spend alone to write a book, although that’s a part of it. I think he also means you feel alone or not like anyone else even when you’re at home.

New Hampshire was home for the first part of your life. Do you remember feeling at home growing up there?

I never went anywhere for almost 19 years when I was growing up in New Hampshire. I didn’t dislike where I grew up at all, but I dreamed of going away. The more foreign and further away I could imagine, the better. Long before I wrote anything, long before I had kept notebooks and began writing physical descriptions of things, I sought to be alone. I had friends. Certainly from the moment I started wrestling I had teammates. I wasn’t an antisocial kid. I’m not especially antisocial now. But I saw enough of my friends in the school day. My mother thought there was something disturbed about me because I didn’t want to play with other children after school. But I wanted to be by myself.

The first time I lived in a foreign country, which was Austria, and I was struggling with a new language, I loved how foreign it felt. It wasn’t the first time because I had felt foreign growing up in Exeter. There were a lot of very exotic people at the Academy. Even in those days 40 percent of the school was on scholarship. People came not only from every conceivable economic background, but they came from all over the world and all over the country. And the stranger the place they came from, the more interested I was. And I didn’t realize why, until that first year I went abroad. I couldn’t subdue my excitement. It was legitimate to feel like the foreigner, because I really was one. There was a kind of legitimacy to being alone because I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have to hide from people who wanted to play with me or socialize.

How do you feel about the recent decision to make Toronto your permanent home?

I always knew I’d end up in Toronto. It’s a great city. I love the city. I haven’t lived full-time in a city since I lived in New York in the 80s. I always had a house in Vermont, but I didn’t go there very much. You can take the subway to a part of town you don’t usually live in and it’ll take you two hours to walk back and you get to look at something. There’s a lot to see. I never thought I’d say this—I used to complain about the subway, but I love it. I realize being back in a city full-time how much I like how alone you can be in the city. You put on your best walking shoes and you can walk for two or three hours and you might not see anybody who knows you.