Mary Ellen Mark is a longtime friend of the novelist John Irving; she photographed him in his private gym after a workout. “I was exhausted just watching him,” she says. “his little son has the same energy: I had to wait until he fell asleep to shoot them together. John Irving is that rare thing: a heavyweight populist. As he prepares to publish a new novel, Jean Nathan meets the master of storytelling.
September 4, 1994
Irving in his private gym. Personal discipline is evident in all areas of his life. Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark.
The author has exceeded by a few months his usual five-year gestation period for a novel. John Irving has just finished A Son Of The Circus, a 633-page story set in India, and is leaving his house in Dorset, Vermont, to unwind on Ozone Island, a remote spot on Canada's Lake Huron that his second wife's grandfather won in a poker game. He is willing to give a few hours on packing day to discuss it all.
Lewis Robinson, Irving's assistant, calls me to suggest staying at the Reluctant Panther, a bed and breakfast in the neighbouring town of Manchester. "Panther" seems appropriate for a book about a circus in India, and "reluctant" could describe how one might feel with just two days in which to read it.
Then Robinson calls back. "Don't even think of coming if you haven't read the entire book. John absolutely refuses to be interviewed by anyone who hasn't.” Robinson is really worried and calls Bloomsbury, Irving's British publishers, to express his doubts. "You won't have any trouble;” the publicity director calls me to say. "You won't be able to put it down."
I may not be able to pick it up if the phone calls don't stop. They do, and I do, gingerly. I begin to read. It is dedicated to Salman--that's Rushdie, an old friend of Irving's. Between the covers of A Son Of The Circus, I find a typical Irving literary high-wire act. I journey with a very likable Everyman, an Indian doctor, from Canada to Bombay, through serial killings and sex changes and religious conversions, with fortunes stashed in dildos along the way and circus dwarfs and drug smugglers and homosexual twins thrown in for good measure.
A local taxi driver arrives at the Reluctant Panther early the next morning to drive me to Dorset. I keep him waiting for half an hour, the time it takes for me to be able to say that I have read--and adored--every word of A Son Of The Circus. A travelogue comes with the ride. This southwestern corner of the state, it seems, is where the wealthiest Vermonters live. The driver points out their homes and tells me of an odd Hollywood grouping that includes the part-time residents Michael J Fox, Charles Bronson and Dom Deluise.
We pass a sign that says Dorset Chartered 1761 and someone's fantasy of a French chateau, but for the most part the houses are solid and sensible, built for the long, hard New England winters. We wend our way along country roads, then smaller offshoot roads, and then onto a mud track. Irving's closest neighbours are an oil and a record company executive. He has bought the two adjoining plots to avoid encroachment. We turn up a drive marked by a sign warning Private Drive--Keep Out. I spot some sort of wild sculpture on the lawn. As it comes into view it turns out to be an elaborate jungle gym--a slide, a swing, a sandbox contraption--the property of Everett Gibson Irving, aged two, the third of Irving's sons. (His older sons, Colin, 29, and Brendan, 25, live out west)
The house itself, I later realise, is Irving senior's jungle. He goes in to climb and slide and play, only it is incredible novels rather than sandcastles that result.
What I find inside, though, is the most orderly house I have ever seen; it is not what I expected. "Tidiness is a fault of mine" " Irving says later. "If you like long books, and I do, if you like plot, and I do, you have to be tidy or it's a mess. I mean I have to know what happens before I begin a book or I wouldn't know how to make it proceed. I always begin at the end and work backwards. My wife teases me that it's all very anal. It's a control thing'
Controlled, yes, but a three-ring circus all the same, with ringing phones providing the accompaniment. Janet Turnbull, 40, Irving's wife since 1987 and his literary agent, is tidying up loose ends before going on holiday.
"It's the worst day of my life," she laments, looking happier and healthier than most people do on the best.
She is giving her husband advice for an afternoon phone call. Flustered, she tells him to consult two of the "flaxes" that have come in. I was hoping to discuss the jungle set-up with Everett, but he is too busy watching a video, cuddled in his nanny's arms. "You're competing with The Cat In The Hat," says Irving apologetically.
On the second-floor landing Lewis Robinson is typing away on a computer, decidedly more bookish in appearance than his famous boss (Irving is wearing khaki shorts, a purple T-shirt with a ski manufacturer's logo and the "active male" footwear of the moment, Teva sandals). Irving writes on yellow legal pads in a meticulous and legible hand and later types his words onto a red IBM Selectric typewriter. Robinson then transcribes it all onto a computer, an invention for which Irving shows disdain. "I've never used one and I don't want to.” he says.
Irving is not the tortured, Prozac-popping poet. He is a pragmatic ringmaster with a huge imaginative capacity and the muscular power to control it.
I follow the greying man with the movie-star looks through the house that he and his wife sketched out on a series of cocktail napkins placed end to end on the table of a Toronto restaurant. We pass a huge photographic blow-up of a New York Times bestseller list on which he figures. We pass bookshelf after bookshelf of living works in multitudes of editions and translations. There is Setting Free The Bears, his first novel; The Water-Method Man; The 158-Pound Marriage, his 1973 novel about spouse-swapping; The World According To Garp, which in 1978 catapulted him to international fame; The Hotel New Hampshire, the family saga that put him, at the age of 40, on the cover of Time magazine; The Cider House Rules; and A Prayer For Owen Meany.
Irving has built the shelves and what goes on them. The author as builder is an apt impression. "I take writing as a construction job, like building a house,' he says. "You have to have a plan. I'm a carpenter. I take a great deal of pride in how well the thing is made and that I knew what it was going to look like before I put it together. I'm a worker.”
Having sold more books than most living American writers, John Irving could have bought any available house in Dorset, but that is not how he does things. That would have been too easy. When he moved to Long Island about 10 years ago, he didn't like any of the houses he saw there either. So he moved one from Vermont. In his houses, as in his novels, John Irving likes it big and challenging.
The biggest room in the sprawling three-storey structure is the 30ft-square gym, and the biggest object in the gym, in the whole house, for that matter, is the 20ft-square Resolite wrestling mat that lines the floor, the Irving version of Proust's cork-lined room.
Irving has been a wrestler all his life. A poor student, he used wrestling as his ticket to college, gaining a sports scholarship, and he taught the sport when the big novels he was writing in his 20s and 30s were not yet supporting him. He was even selected as one of the first 10 members of the Hall of Outstanding Americans in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, whatever that is, in Stillwater, Oklahoma and he has handed wrestling down like an inheritance to his two grown sons, who have both achieved championship status. Every inch of the gym walls is covered with photographs documenting their achievements. At 52 Irving is still a perfect physical specimen, but he doesn't wrestle any more. "I lift weights, I jump rope."
"He jumps a lot of rope," marvels Robinison. "He'll do it for half an hour at a time."
"I do all the training, the preparation for wrestling, without the wrestling," says Irving. Every now and then he will have a go at Bill, his wrestling dummy. But Bill more often lies inert on the mat, as he is today, face down, like a war casualty. No more wrestling. At first, this strikes me as so sad, a man confronting the limitations that ageing brings to bear, but then I study his face and realise it is not sad at all. Perhaps means that Irving does not need to prove himself any more.
Irving embraces limitations. It is through them that he defines himself. They give him something with which to wrestle. Afflicted with dyslexia--as often as not he still spells the word "the" t-e-h--he chose to become a writer of books that average 600 pages. A mediocre athlete, he became a wrestling star.
John Wallace Blunt Jr was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1942. Soon after, his mother, Helen Frances Winslow, divorced his father and John went to live with his grandparents. When he was six, she married Colin Franklin Newell Irving, who adopted the boy and changed his name to John Winslow Irving. Colin Irving, a history teacher at Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school, is a respected teacher, known among Exeterites for his demanding Russian history course, which required "monster" Russian novels to be read at the rate of one a week. He later left the classroom to become treasurer of the academy.
"He was not a cuddly sort of person:' says a teacher who knew him. And what about John's mother? "Frankie was tough. She was just tough.”'
In his book biographies Irving describes himself as a "grim child”. "It's a kind of pleasureless syndrome, growing up in New England," he says. "There is very much a Protestant work ethic. It's probably the capital of abstinence and the capital of self-punishment and self-flagellation and all sorts of puritanical self-chastisements."
Random House, Irving's first publishers, are also doing a little repenting. 'We're pleased to have him back," says a relieved-sounding Harold Evans, the company's president and publisher. Random House had published Irving's first three books with what Evans, not there at the time, calls "diminishing success”.
“We let him go and he went off and wrote Garp, one of the greatest literary commercial triumphs in recent memory" says Evans, describing the "comic history" of his house's relationship with Irving. The joke was on them.
A Son Of The Circus, which Evans says has "all the gross richness of a Dickens novel", is Irving's latest triumph in a battle he is still fighting against modernism and the state of the contemporary novel.
"I feel I'm very much a dinosaur in the literary culture of today.” he says. "I love plot, but plot is considered a kind of has-been of literary artifice. I think it's an obligation of the novelist to make up a good story. That's a very 19th-century thing. So is writing long and complicated novels that make a certain demand on the reader's concentration.
"I do not write those 125-page novels with no plot, with one character, all in the present tense in very short sentences with wide margins and type large enough for the legally blind. I feel I'm drifting in boredom in so many novels that I read today; they're not imaginative, in the sense that they are all drawing on clearly autobiographical fiction that has at its root the writer's belief that he or she is interesting. I feel the novel has to perform more imaginative acts than that, that you have to create a whole world, a whole other life.”
So does Evans. Random House learned the hard way that readers like the Irving approach. "He is putting his faith in story-telling," Evans says. "It is not a television script worked into prose. I think people have become quite sick of those tracts of self-esteem masquerading as a novel. They become very tedious. They have no appeal to the imagination. Like EL Doctorow, Irving remains true to the Balzacian and Dickensian tradition."
Irving says: "I would feel very confined to a kind of perpetual boredom if the subject of my novel depended on my personal experience. I'm not very interesting. I don't think I'm a good dinner companion. I think that what I do is interesting because I have an interesting imagination.
"I know I've been criticised for being someone who, generously, writes for readers, and I do. It seems to me that entertainment is a requirement of the novel. And by entertainment I don't mean frivolity. I think we are entertained when we are frightened, when we are shocked. It is the novelist's responsibility to seize the attention of the reader and to hold it, and this is especially true in the case of long plotted novels. The reader must be more involved and more interested on page 300 than on page 30 or they're never going to get to page 400. People clearly do finish my novels, and I think that's why.
"I write novels that require quite an investment on the part of the reader, and I don't think readers would make that investment, as they have, if they weren't being rewarded. And I think the way they are rewarded is not intellectually--it's emotionally and psychologically. They get involved." His conversation, like his writing and his house, is big and rambling and spacious. But it pays off.
He does, though, have help. To pull off his acts, Irving has established a safety net of what he calls "expert readers”.
"The presence of those people enables me to write about a world that is not my world. The world of the orphanage in the 1930s, the world of the granite quarry and gravestone-making, and the Vietnam body escort, nothing I personally experienced. That old sort of Hemingway dictum that the only sort of authentic writing, even of fiction, is writing about what you know seems to me to have dulled us all.
"But the caveat is: if you're going to presume to write about an Indian-born orthopaedist returning to India, where he is overwhelmed, then coming home, where he has always been overwhelmed, you have to be humble enough to realise that you don't know about that. And you have got to find people you can say to, 'Back me up. This is the story I want to tell,' and they've got to say, 'No, no, no, you idiot, this would not happen.'
"For example, I could spend a week, which I did, going to the brothels in Bombay at different times of the day and night. I saw a lot of things, but what I could never know was whether what I saw was unusual or happened every day, because it was all unusual to me. I would go there and I would think, 'Did you see what that woman did?' And I would go home and think, 'That's a good scene.' But then I needed someone to say to me, 'This happens so often that it's boring.”
That John Irving doesn't just write about what he knows is a question of predilection, but also has deeper roots in a sense of inferiority stemming from his youthful academic and athletic inadequacies.
"I think it's very beneficial to me that I grew up feeling I was really not as smart as other people and therefore I had to be more diligent. I think I was aided as a young kid by learning that everything took me longer than it did my smarter friends. I just had to give myself more time. I had to isolate myself a little more.
"I was always a poor student. I didn't know I was dyslexic, because learning disabilities were never called that in the late 1950s and the early 1960s when I was in school. No one had a learning disability, you were either slow and dumb or smart. And I saw myself as slow and dumb. I needed five years to get through a four-year prep school. I could only go to college on an athletic scholarship. I never thought I was stupid, but I thought I was slow. Somebody would call me up and say, 'Let's go out and have a Coke and watch Maverick on TV', and I would say, 'Jesus, have you read this history?' and it was 75 pages and they would say, 'Yeah', and it would have taken them 45 minutes. It would take me three hours. You can't do very well when you have five courses that way. But it was only when I had one thing to do that I realised, 'I can do this. I just take longer. I take longer to write a book, too. Circus took five years and five months.
"It's a healthy thing as a writer for me to presume my first draft is crap. Half the job of writing for me has always been rewriting. Maybe it's a non-artistic inclination, but just because I thought it up doesn't make it right. It's not right until I've rewritten it, rewritten it and rewritten it.
"I had a similar experience athletically, although it's a kind of irony that I read about myself constantly like I was some kind of super-jock. I am really very modestly gifted as an athlete. I'm not what you would call a natural athlete. I don't play a lot of games and the ones I play I play very badly. I was quite a successful wrestler because I eliminated all other sports from my life and diligently disciplined myself to it . It gave me great confidence to know that these were my limitations. And that, if I worked out a little longer and if I really made my technique perfect and stayed out of crazy situations, I could prevail by a modest score. You realise that if the wrestling season starts in the first week of November and other people start running and lifting weights and skipping rope on the first of September, you probably ought to start in the middle of July.
"I don't like short cuts. The pleasure of writing for me is how hard it is. I feel good when I've been working hard."
I am thinking of the tortoise and the hare when a gust of wind threatens to blow all my papers away. I look for something with which to weigh them down and reach for Everett's Big Jeff, a plastic toy truck at my feet. "Everett wouldn't appreciate that” says his father, grabbing a decorative tortoise to place there instead.
It does not take Irving long, however, to hatch an idea. In the case of this new book, it took the time it takes for a traffic light to change. The idea for A Son Of The Circus was born about seven years ago at a red light on a Toronto street corner. Irving and his wife were in a cab when he spied a pedestrian also waiting for the light to change. "He was a very well-dressed man, what the newspapers would call an immigrant of colour. I couldn't tell if he was Indian or Middle Eastern or Persian. It wasn't clear, but it was clear that he wasn't a fifth-generation Canadian. He looked successful, well educated and all those things, a well-to-do tourist maybe, but more likely a very successfully assimilated immigrant. "I began just imagining that sense of the foreignness of the life he had come from, which is invisible to most of the people who would know him in his adopted country, but also how foreign we must seem to him - that sense of that man sort of perpetuating foreignness. A foreigner, when he goes home to wherever home was, is foreign for the rest of his life." Green light.
Irving continued "dreaming about that man", and realised he would make him an Indian. "The friends I had who were Indian would repeatedly say, 'I don't feel I belong here, and when I go home I don't know where I am any more.” But then I also realised that the only way I could write about an Indian-born man would be to make him an Indian for whom India was as foreign as it is to me. I mean, I would not choose a point-of-view character who was comfortable in India, because I could be there for 10 years and still be uncomfortable."
The idea gelled during the weekend visit to his friends, the photographer Mary Ellen Mark and her husband, Martin Bell. "I knew they had been in India, but that didn't mean anything to me because I knew they were pursuing the children in the Indian circus and at the time they were trying to make a documentary.
"I told them I was thinking I was going to write a novel about a woman novelist. They were just back from India and Mary Ellen had a whole bunch of new photographs of children in the Indian circus. I said I'd also been thinking about an Indian novel. I think it was Martin who said that they were having trouble financing their documentary and perhaps it should be done as a feature film."
Bell asked Irving to write a screenplay about these children. "'Just make up a story about them,” he said. And I said: 'I suppose if I did that I could meet all your friends and I'll do your circus story, but there are other things I want to know that don't have anything to do with the circus.' And one thing led to another and I started fooling around with children in the circus. But I went to India with my own shopping list. My list read: children’s hospital, orthopaedic, preferably crippled children; police station, two homicide detectives, at least, one retired, one active; connections to drug trafficking; Goa connections; must talk to madames in at least three different brothels - transvestite brothels preferred."
It wasn’t your usual itinerary, but Mark and Bell knew where to find it all.
The circus was not on his original list, but it got onto it when he realised his orthopaedic surgeon could go to India to work with circus dwarfs. Irving began to see the circus as the great catch-all for those who belong nowhere else in society.
"Indian circuses are unique for the business of where they get their children. They're there instead of on the street. And most of them are girls because their options in poor villages are far worse. It's one thing to be a beggar; it's a whole lot worse to be a child prostitute. It gives a certain edge to those performances you see. They're performing for their lives. I don't think the circus has that edge in other places. I hope, I think I've conveyed, too, that it's enormously organised and clean and optimistic, especially when you see it as it is, as a kind of cloister. It is a kind of oasis, a safe haven in a world that is otherwise chaotic.
"The circus is also the image to me of the main character's alienation. It's something that he quite literally adopts. He's no more a son of the circus than you or I. That's the point. It's a very ironical title. He is from a world of peculiarity, and there is a perpetual and self-perpetuating foreignness to his existence.
"In the future, it seems to me, many of the best-educated and most interesting people in the world will be like him. We will all be born someplace, educated in a second place, married to a woman who's not from where we came from and living in a third. And I don't think that to feel alienated is unique to being an Indian in North America by any means. Many of my friends feel that way. Writers always feel that they don't really belong.”
Irving says the list is long of writers who "reach into a world that they have not lived, but who reach into it with a certain social authority"; it includes his heroes, such as Dickens and Graham Greene. And Irving finds his work has something else in common with the work of those other writers: a comic tone.
"It's there in Dickens, in Robertson Davies and Guenther Grass. In what I read about them, what I most often feel is neglected is what should be most emphasised--just how entertaining they are. To me, at least I write comic novels and I don't say that with any apology. I don't believe that a comic novel is anything less aesthetically than a self-serious one. In fact I think as time goes on there will be more productions of Much Ado About Nothing than there will of King Lear and Hamlet."
The sense of fun is prevalent in Irving's oeuvre, but you have to work for it. "The reader may not have to work as hard as I do, but I think they have to work a little themselves in order to appreciate how hard I've worked. They have to keep the simultaneity of many stories in the back of their minds consciously and unconsciously, even if I remind them with a little elbow here and there'
Having to work for it. That's that Protestant work ethic. And the self-flagellation comes in also, as he demonstrates how he turns the ringmaster's whip on himself.
As suddenly as that gust of wind came up, Irving's head is in his hands, he's whimpering like a wounded animal. He is telling me that he has found a mistake in A Son Of The Circus. It is a missing er.
"It just kills me;' he whines. I turn, as instructed, to page 294, expecting to find it tear-splattered. "Ad majorem Dei gloriam... see the Latin there? In the book it has been translated as 'To the great glory of God' when in fact it means 'To the greater..." I find this very funny, but Irving is in extremis.
"It was in every hymnal I ever went to school with. I grew up on 'To the greater
glory of God' and I just didn't see it. I'll have letters from 450 Jesuits after it's published. There's always a mistake. In The World According To Garp, I had Garp reading the meditations of Marcus Aurelius in Latin, but he wrote only in Greek. Every classical scholar in the world wrote to me about that. In The Cider House Rules I have Dr Larch listening to a piece of music in the abortion clinic which was Mahler's Kindertotenliede. The only problem is that Mahler hadn't written the Kindertotenliede, at the time Dr Larch was listening to it:.”
I try to calm him. I suggest poetic licence . "I. don't believe in poetic licence,' he says, inconsolable. I think you have to get it right. I hate to use my wife's word because I find it very offensive--anal--but I am obviously a neatness person. There's a great conflict in being a neatness person book, but I think I usually deliver.
"This book won't even be published until the end of the month and there's already a goddam mistake in it! I just think that when you invent something, you are responsible for every detail.
"It is just homework. Imposing order is essential. I have a swivel chair and as close to me as my desk is the stand on which the unabridged dictionary stands, because I spend a lot of time turning around and looking for something, not only because I don't know how to spell but because I'm not always sure that a word, even if I've used it a hundred times, is one that I really know what it means. I just go very carefully." I momentarily forget that this Sturm und Drang performer is also capable of such levity. He is so clearly racked by doubts.
It is also hard to imagine the comic potential in his next novel's subject matter. A Widow For One Year exists, so far, in 200 pages of "notes' In typical fashion, Irving knows the title, and how it ends. "It is about Ruth Cole, a woman novelist. Her husband has died unexpectedly, and she has been in a year of grief and mourning and seclusion. She is about to re-emerge, she's testing the water. She's seeing if she can come back to the world again.'
It was the book he was working on when he spotted the man on the street in Toronto, and now, six years later, he is returning to it.
"Son' he says, "would have been the easier book, even though the territory of Widow seems much more familiar. Let's put it this way. The foreignness of India stands to me in small relationship to the foreignness of women. In other words, when I was wondering which was going to be more work--going to India and learning about an Indian-born-doctor or this--I though, well, I'd rather deal with that right now than make the point-of-view character a woman." (This is not to say that Irving has not created a stable of strong and very good women characters. He has--in each of his books.)
Widow is the story of a past coming back to haunt, a big concern of the Irving oeuvre. It is his contention that "for all those sexual inequalities which are pointed out and which truly exist for women, one of the greatest is that a woman's past is always less forgivable than a man's.
"A man's past is his exotic territory, however dull, however much the reliable husband, the good father, the dependable man he may become. Whatever. he was as a younger man is permitted, even enhances his sense of himself. Short of murder and sexual abuse, those things which are criminal in nature anyway, the things men do in their past on a whim or the boys--will-be-boys stuff, are all forgiven.
"Not for a woman. It's held against her in rape trials, for Christ's sake, and in all other kinds of things. And so I want to write about a woman as near-perfect as I can imagine, a model of a mature, older woman who is also a good novelist. She's been a good mother, she's been a good wife, she's a good person and she has taken an admirable kind of control of her life at various difficult points and toughed it out. But she did a little something that if a guy did it wouldn't matter; and it comes out in her work and back to haunt her.'
He will not say more than that. “Was it sexual?" I ask.
"Sure, of course," is the reply.
Presumably Irving is still lining up the experts. So far preparation has consisted of reading biographies and autobiographies and the work of women writers he admires, including Muriel Spark, Alice Munro and his friend Gail Godwin. "Gail has been a longtime encourager and one of my principal advisers in terms of saying, 'Oh, you can do this and I'll help you, and if you get it wrong, honey, I'll tell you.”
He is off to Ozone Island. I am heading back to the Sodom and Gomorrah that is New York City in July. I call Robinson in a panic the next morning: "Catch John before he leaves. It's all too perfect, so clean. Maybe he has taken the skeletons from the closets to the town garbage dump, but what were they?"
An hour later Robinson calls to read me the note Irving has penned in response. "Skeletons? I was divorced in 1981; remarried in 1987. Never lost touch, close touch with the two children of that marriage. Skeletons? A bad girlfriend or two. Doesn't everybody?"
Come on, I say to Robinson. Maybe a little drug addiction in his past, alcohol...
"What he really likes to do is sit at home and write books," says the ever-patient Robinson. "He always says, “I'm a boring guy."' John Irving's teacher once told him anything he did except writing was going to be vaguely unsatisfying.
The wrestler has prevailed, by much more than a modest score. It must be so satisfying, but he is ever humble. 'We're all performers, aren't we?" I said to him.
"To a degree that's true. And were all dependent on the entertainment of others, how other people like us. Whether it's a good fighting clown act or a bad fighting clown act, you've got to do something that makes you vulnerable and might look a little foolish.”
John Irving with his two-year-old son Everett.
“A kind of oasis, a safe haven in a world that is otherwise chaotic.”