THE TRUE STORIES BEHIND 'UNTIL I FIND YOU, 'THE LATEST FROM THE AUTHOR OF 'GARP,' ARE AS WILD AS HIS NOVELS. BY GREGORY KIRSCHLING
July 22, 2005
By Gregory Kirschling
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
"I KNEW I WAS IN FOR IT BACK IN APRIL 1998, WHEN I STARTED UNTIL I FIND YOU," says John Irving of his 820‑page autobiographical new novel. "I thought, 'This is gonna knock your wind out." • He had no idea. • Until I Find You is an epic about Jack Burns, a Hollywood actor searching for his lost father. Burns is also "the closest character to myself I've ever written," insists Irving. Raised by his mother and stepfather in New England, and obsessed with negligent parents in novels like A Prayer for Owen Meany and A Widow for One Year, Irving, 63, never knew his own dad.
But he accidentally found him four years ago, while smack in the middle of writing his novel all about a son on the lookout for his father. The story behind John Irving's new novel sounds an awful lot like a John Irving novel. Like The World According to Garp, the unconventional 1978 breakout megaseller that set him for decades as the most popular of "literary" authors, the real‑life tale features heavy‑duty revelation, unexpected tragedy, off‑kilter comedy, and discomforting sex‑very discomforting sex, as it happens. Just about the only John Irving staple it lacks, actually, is a transvestite.
Yet at least it‑ends happily, with Irving eager to discuss anything and everything about his life this afternoon. Sitting in his sunny home office overlooking Vermont's Green Mountains, he looks slighter than expected, with gray stubble for a goatee and his jeans hitched a little high on his tucked‑in polo. Famous for his athlete's physique, and sporting a tattoo of a wrestling circle on his right forearm, the former wrestler lost 30 pounds during a tailspin while he was writing the book, and it shows.
"The missing‑father stuff is certainly not new in my fiction," he says, also citing The Cider House Rules, whose 1999 film version notched Irving a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. "But not knowing my own father was more important to me internally, psychologically, than I have often in the past been willing to admit even to myself." Now, having "gone down that road all the way" with the "lost childhood" theme and missing father figure of Until I Find You, "I don't feel obligated to go down it anymore."
I was born JOHN WALLACE BLUNT JR.," says John Winslow Irving, whose name was changed when his mother, Frankie, remarried in 1948, when Irving was 6 and living in Exeter, N.H. She'd divorced John Blunt Sr. when Irving was 2. "But no adult in my family would ever talk to me about who my biological father was," Irving continues. "No one ever demonized him, no one ever said he was a prick, but no one would discuss him. It was very New England. So as a kid, I imagined that he must've been horrible. Because why else wouldn't he come looking for me? Why else would he so utterly disappear? When [my stepfather] Colin Irving adopted me and my name was changed to John Irving from John Blunt, I was kind of relieved to lose him, whoever this guy that no one would talk about was."
Still, when Irving wrestled in meets as a young man, he'd often imagine his father was watching him silently from the crowd. He never discussed it with his mother, who didn't acknowledge his biological father until one day when Irving was 39, already famous off the career‑making success of Garp and divorcing his first wife. She left a packet of John Blunt's letters, sent to her from India and China when he was a WWII flier in 1943, on the dining room table for Irving to discover. "All the letters were about how he was sorry that he didn't want to stay married to her, but he hoped she would permit him some relationship with me," Irving says. "Which she never did. Which I don't judge her for. I wasn't standing in her shoes in the 1940s in a small town."
The letters inspired the war adventures of the Wally character in 1985's The Cider House Rules. But it wasn't until Irving began Until I Find You in 1998 that he really started to grapple with his feelings about his long‑lost father. It was uncomfortable from the start; writing in the first person, he felt too attached to the story, even though the words poured out of him. 'The book just flowed," he recalls. "I got going so fast that I purposely interrupted myself." So he spent extra time on the Cider House Rules movie set. He collected his Oscar (and after his speech, "boy, did I have to pee"). And, in fact, he wrote an entire novel, 2001's The Fourth Hand, "as a very deliberate way of saying 'Let me step out of this dark journey.' I had to get away from Jack Burns."
Then, in December 2001, halfway through Until I Find You, Irving’s life changed forever. An assistant at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where Irving taught and went to school, called him up and said, "Look, I've been on the phone for an hour with a guy who says he's your brother. All I can tell you is, he doesn't sound like a kook." "And I knew," Irving insists. Irving's half brother Chris Blunt had seen a profile of Irving on CBS' Sunday Morning and put the pieces together. "All he'd ever known about me," says Irving, "was when he was 22, our father sat him down and said, 'When I was your age, I got a girl pregnant, and I never see that kid.' That's the only conversation they had about it." From Chris, Irving learned of two other younger half brothers and a younger half sister; John Blunt had married four times and had children with three different women.
"When Chris and I first talked on the phone," Irving says, "I can't even remember how long it took me to ask, 'Is he alive?' I didn't dare ask the question. I was just so happy to be talking to somebody who knew him that I didn't want to know if he was alive. But he wasn't. He had actually died in 1996, at the age of 77."
That's the tragic part of the father‑son story. The bizarre part is yet to come. Irving always begins his novels at the end‑he writes his last sentences first‑and by 2001, he had already completely conceived Jack Burns' father, 'William, who appears in the novel's last chapters, as crazy and institutionalized, but endearmg. He had, it turns out, perfectly imagined his own father years before he ever learned anything about his life. "John Blunt died insane," Irving says. "He was severely bipolar, and he suffered depression. He was a Christian Scientist, so he refused all medication. But the good thing is that his kids loved him. They thought he was a good father. To know that about him..." It means a lot. "The scary thing," he says later, "was that all this only confirmed I was right to have imagined William Burns as I imagined him, in all his insanity and all his charm."
Irving's mother is still alive. Frankie is 82, he says, "and not quite well enough to read" Until I Find You. (His stepfather "read the book and loved it.") Irving supposes that his portrait of Jack's mother, Alice, turned slightly, almost unconsciously harsher after he found out about John Blunt, but he is adamant that he doesn't question his mother's decision to stay quiet all these years. "She gave my imagination a gift," he insists, "just by saying 'This is a closed door. If you want to know something about it, you imagine it. If you want to know who he was, use your imagination." Irving might not have become a novelist if not for that.
[excerpt]"I feel that the character waiting in the last two chapters is the father I have best imagined."
As he talks, it's not always easy interrupting the storyteller with questions; at times, going through this family stuff in his crisp New England accent, his speaking style resembles incantation. Meanwhile, in front of him on his desk, across the room from his Oscar and down the row from his IBM Selectric and Ticonderoga pencils, sits a postcard from his old teacher Kurt Voimegut congratulating him on the new book ("What a perfectly tremendous piece of work"). On the picture side of the card is a large quote: "Life is no way to treat an animal."
It's credited to Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut's literary alter ego, but it sounds like it could have come from Irving, whose books usually have one eye out for the freak and jaw‑dropping catastrophes that regularly befall his unluckiest characters. ("Beware of the Under Toad," famously warned Garp.) In Until I Find You, a typically Irvingian calamity visits Jack Burns when he is 10 years old and is sexually abused by a heavyset Portuguese kickboxer in her 40s named Mrs. Machado.
Maybe it now explains something about Irving's entire body of work, which has frequently unnerved (or delighted) readers with its weird and unsettling sexuality, to learn that he is ready to reveal that this part of the book is autobiographical as well. "I was 11 when I had sex with an older woman," he admits plainly. "Because I came from a small town, I can't be really specific about who she was, and I haven't talked about it till I've unburdened myself of this novel. But I was so young that I didn't know that sex was what we were having, only that I was following her lead and I knew that this was our secret."
She was a woman "in her late teens or early 20s, someone who was trusted by all the adults in my family." He didn't think of it as abuse at the time. "I never would've used the word," he insists. "I totally doted on this woman, and I thoroughly believed that she completely adored me as a child. She obviously knew it was wrong because it was our secret, and it happened repeatedly throughout the summer of 1953 and 1954. And when it stopped, when she went away, I missed her, and didn't know how abusive it was to me, like Jack, until I was old enough to be having sex on my own initiation with a girl my age and realize, Oh, that wasn't the first time. Oh, that's what that was." Like Jack in the book, then, this happened to him even before he started masturbating? He bows his head: "There you go!"
No one ever found out. "I never told my first wife. I told Janet," he says, referring to his current (and second) wife, with whom he has a teenage son named Everett. (His sons Colin and Brendan, from his previous marriage, are long out of the house.) "And you can be sure when each of my three sons became 10 or 11, I told them. I said, 'Look, this is something that you should know about. This could happen. Just be aware of the fact that if a woman of any age approaches you, this does, or will, have an effect on you. Even if at the time you think it's kind of nice.'
“The abuse comes later," he continues, "when you are attracted to older women, and you don't even know why. I found myself more interested in most of my girlfriends' mothers than I was in the girlfriends. And I knew I wasn't supposed to be. And it was always a secret. I believed it was all the bad genes of my father." If an older woman initiated a relationship, he says, he couldn't resist. Did it happen a lot? "More than I like to say, yeah," he says. He is wordless for a moment. "I mean, it was something that haunted certainly my teenage years but particularly my 20s." Even after he was 22 and married to his first wife? "Oh, yeah." It was too uncomfortable for him to make Jack 11 years old too, so Irving made him 10‑in the novel. "It's just an idiotic way of self‑protection," Irving says, "but it works. It's a kind of a shield." But not enough of one. Irving spent the last two years before he turned the book over to Random House‑from April 2002 to April 2004‑in a funk. "Those two years were tough," he admits. That's when he lost the 30 pounds. He also tried antidepressants. "Janet was worried about me," he says. "She knew I couldn't write and take even 10 milligrams of Lexapro, I just can't. That stuff makes you feel like somebody else. I'd wake up in the morning and Janet would kind of look at me like, Who is this guy?" He quit using it after a few days.
One of Irving's close friends and collaborators, The Cider House Rules producer Richard Gladstein, is not surprised that Irving had a hard time after his family life exploded. "He is so driven and wears his emotions so freely, and that's one of the reasons I adore him," Gladstein says. "He's volatile, emotional, sensitive, brilliant, raw, honest‑I mean, so honest. He pours so much of himself into whatever he's doing that he's going to put himself through a wrestling match with whatever it is. It's sort of how he is." But what exactly was eating at him? "It was really my closeness to Jack Burns," Irving says. "I just felt too close to this guy, and there were things about him I didn't like, that were too close to home." And he was writing in the ultraconfessional first‑person voice, no less. "Those last two years, trying to get this book out of my life and into Random House's hands was a way of saying 'Goodbye, Jack, go away. Enough," he says. "Just get rid of it."
He finally did. But the book refused to leave him. Here the story takes another odd twist. Literally two or three days after turning the manuscript over to Random House, he shot up in bed early in the morning and said aloud, "It's gotta be a third‑person novel." It would mean rewriting the whole thing, all 820 pages, but it was, he says, "just so clear as a bell." "When he told me this idea he had, to change it from the first person to the third," says his Random House editor Kate Medma, "I got goose bumps. I thought it was a fabulous idea. But I said, 'That's so much work!' And his reaction was 'Well, if it's the right thing to do, then it's just work, no problem."
The task was considerably trickier than just changing all the "I"s to "he"s, and Irving rewrote furiously for nine months to make his summer 2005 pub date. "Why didn't I think of it three or four years sooner?" Irving asks himself. "I think the answer is that I so identified with Jack Burns, so much of my emotional and psychological baggage was into Jack Burns, and I couldn't disassociate myself from it. I couldn't imagine that this was simply a mechanical question." As soon as he switched to the third person, he says, "the cloud lifted."
In the process, the novel lost 30,000 words. For his fans, that first‑person draft sounds like a terrific rare collector's item. "Yeah," laughs Gladstein, who got to read early versions, "1 saved mine."
As extraordinary as the real‑life story is, Irving is sure Until I Find You wouldn't have worked as a memoir. It needed to be a novel, so that fiction could improve on the truth. "How deeply ungratifying and unrewarding it would be," he says, "to make a journey through a novel this long, and this emotional, and then have Jack find out that he has a sister, and have her say, 'Yeah, but your father died five years ago!" He pauses. "That's not a good ending. That is what I found out. But of course he's gotta find him." As for himself; says Irving, "I feel, 'Okay, I've found the guy.' I feel that the character William Burns who's waiting in the last two chapters of this book is the father I have best imagined."
Irving gets up to check on salmon marinating in the kitchen. But before he leaves, he hands over a copy of Until I Find You with his favorite passage dog‑eared and highlighted. It includes the quote featured on the back of the hardcover: "In this way, in increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us‑not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss."
He returns bearing old snapshots. Does he think his childhood was stolen from him? "I feel pretty strongly that that's the case," he says quietly, handing over an old gray photograph. "I don't have a picture of me the summer I was 11. But to give you some idea, that is the summer I was 12." It's a faded Little League team picture from 1954, with a chubby, nearly unrecognizable Irving down front in a Dodgers uniform (see above). "So imagine me a year younger than that kid. That's when I had the experience." It's not so easy to imagine at all.
A short while later, Irving drives down the hill to pick up his son Everett at the local haircutter's. The boy is a friendly and polite 13‑year‑old, with a high voice and a mop of dark hair, but he looks too lanky to make much of a future wrestler. "I really don't like wrestling," Everett confesses, crinkling his nose.
"It's a relief to me," says Irving as he takes the chair for his own shampoo and haircut. He coached Everett's brothers Cohn and Brendan to high school titles. "It would've been hard to go back to the wrestling world, but if Everett had wanted to, I would have. Now, I'm pretty active and Everett likes other stuff. Two summers ago he wrote a 45‑page story."
"Forty‑eight," Everett counters. "Forty‑eight, I apologize," Irving replies, playing along. "Never get cheated out of a page!" What was the story about? 'Well, it's kind of complicated," Everett says. "Attaboy!" Irving interjects with a gruff chuckle. He is such a fan of complicated novels that the family's chocolate Lab is named Dickens, after Irving's favorite writer.
Everett hasn't read many of his father's books yet, but Until I Find You is dedicated to him, "with my fervent hope," writes his dad, "that when you're old enough to read this story, you will have had (or still be in the midst of) an ideal childhood‑as different from the one described here as anyone could imagine."
POSTED ALONG IRVING'S WINDING DRIVEWAY IS A yellow "Watch Children" hazard sign. Everett seems a little old now for such a precaution, so it seems fair to ask Irving, as he cooks for an evening dinner party in a kitchen decorated with family photos, if he is still legendarily wary of death and disaster, and if he is still constantly watching out for the Under Toad. Everett, who'd been playing with Dickens on the floor, has just disappeared into another room when Irving begins his answer. "You know, if you have children, I don't think you ever get over the Under Toad," he says, the gray whoosh in his wavy hair now flattened straight back thanks to his shampoo at the barber's. "You're always afraid and concerned for them. There was a moment earlier in our interview when the phone rang, but we were talking so I let it go, and then when it stopped ringing I had one of my 'Oh my God, it might've been something about Colin or Brendan,' who happen to be in Costa Rica this week. I think you always have those. Your children grow up, but they're still your children, right?"
Irving is always going to keep writing, too. "I don't look like a guy who's gonna retire, do I?" he asks as he begins chopping a small mountain of asparagus. His next novel will concern a cook and his son. "And, uh, something happens," he says. "I'm not gonna tell you what it is. But they have to leave town in a hurry, until eventually the son makes the decision it's not necessary to run anymore and the best place to be is the place they're running away from." He might not write it next, though: He's also working on screenplays for A Son of the Circus, The Fourth Hand, and an original feature. He may also try to adapt Until I Find You for the movies. "A lot of me feels that I should go on to the next hardest thing because I'm 63," Irving says. He's just not sure what that is.
Irving has long insisted he writes novels that are meant to affect readers "emotionally, not intellectually," and Until I Find You, he believes, "is a key book for me in that area of thinking." Yet he has also maintained that he never gets too caught up or emotional when he writes; he compares writing a book to building a chair or table. But this book was so personal. Perhaps writing parts of it moved him in ways that writing the other books didn't?
"There's a scene in the third‑person revision which had been so tough to write in the first person," he admits. "It's when Jack has his first orgasm with Mrs. Machado. '[Those are] tears of joy, leetle one,' she says. Well, I remember the line. It was such a relief to write 'He felt something leave him,' instead of 'I felt something leave me.' Because he thinks maybe that something was his childhood then." He stops slicing asparagus. 'Well, you know, that passage really kind of roughed me up for a couple of days when I was writing it in the first person. And all of a sudden, to get there in the third‑person voice, I just kind of‑" He blows a breath of air lightly through his teeth, executes a short dance step across his kitchen, and moves his hand in a subtle wave motion. "I just sailed through it."