(Just don't tell him we said so.)
December 1999/January 2000
By Jay Parini
Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark

Iron John: the novelist at home in Dorset, Vermont. His hillside domicile sports a full-size wrestling gym, where Irving goes through his moves every afternoon with an inflatable dummy.

Dickens, you're looking at a trip in the rain, asshole!" John Irving shouts at his frisky chocolate Labrador, who refuses to let us talk in peace. (The dog is, of course, named after his favorite novelist.) "You can say things to a dog you just can't say to people who annoy you," he says, relishing the edge of malice in the remark.

Despite Irving’s oft‑discussed background as a college wrestler, he carries himself more like a boxer, always ready to deliver a knockout punch to the jaw. He does not, at first glance, strike one as a sensitive New Age guy, the sort of man who would consider raising children a necessary part of life or devote fourteen years to a film that many will regard as a passionate defense of abortion rights. Feminist author Susan Brownmiller has no doubt about this writer's intentions. "Irving is one of the few major American novelists of either sex who take women's issues seriously," she has written.

Critics have, over the years, not always been laudatory. In 1983, when he appeared in an ad for Vanity Fair, wearing wrestling tights and assuming a defiant frontal stance, I heard many fellow writers dismiss him as a brazen self-promoter who spent more time honing his body than his prose. His writing was far too popular, they said. Real novelists, they said, don't pose in their Skivvies; they don't manipulate their readers with sentimental plots and scenes of absurd violence; they don't revel in sexy, newsy topics like feminism or abortion. And they don't succumb to the evil twin goddesses of wealth and fame.

At fifty‑seven, Irving has lost none of his Hollywood good looks, none of his intellectual and physical agility. He is still a tough customer, the novelist as gunslinger. As ever, he is ready and willing to discuss all aspects of the world according to John Irving‑and to throw down over the particulars. For example, recently Irving spearheaded a protest against Vermont's Act 60, which was designed to distribute school funding more equally among districts of disparate income levels. Irving sided with what are called the "gold towns," arguing that one should not diminish the schools in one district just to enhance those in another. He denounced the legislation as "Marxism" and complained in the Burlington Free Press that "Rich people are everybody's targeted minority." Needless to say, he was met with a torrent of scorn, and his liberal bona fides were thrown starkly into question.

When I first met him, he was a young novelist living in Putney, Vermont, with his wife and their two young boys, Colin and Brendan. He had just published The 158‑Pound Marriage, a wryly comic novel (his third after Setting Free the Bears and The Water‑Method Man) that signaled a growing conviction that family life is the center of all earthly drama. Like his central character, Severin Winter, Irving apparently found life without children impossible to contemplate:

"It's about my children," [Winter] said. I had heard him talk about them a hundred times, almost always in wrestling terms; he called them his weakness, his imbalance, his blind side... Yet he could not imagine not having children.

The novelist in his mid‑thirties struck one as a doting father and husband, deeply involved in the daily tasks of parenting. He was also a disciplined and ambitious novelist and a knowledgeable man of the world. His only problem -as a writer‑ was the lack of a large readership. Although his first three novels had been warmly reviewed, each had sold fewer than ten thousand copies.

That would soon change. An explosion of wealth and fame accompanied the publication in 1978 of The World According to Garp‑one of those rare books that becomes a cultural event in itself, complete with I BELIEVE IN GARP T‑shirts and paperback editions in a range of six brilliant colors. Irving's handsome face on dust jackets and in glossy magazines quickly became familiar to millions of readers around the globe. More important, his unique style‑lucid, fast‑paced to the point of seeming manic, often Dickensian in its melo­dramatic plotting and profusion of characters and incidents‑would establish his reputation as a major voice in contemporary fiction.

Garp was followed in 1981 by The Hotel New Hampshire‑an elaborate family saga that traces four decades in the lives of the hotel‑owning Berry clan as they move among establishments in New Hampshire, Vienna, and Maine. Like its predecessor, this novel features rape and other forms of violence rather prominently; only the family, Irving seems to argue, provides any refuge in a mad world. That novel landed him on the cover of Time, which described him as "the most successful 'serious' young writer in America." (It's worth noting that the author of the piece felt compelled to put the word serious in quotes, as if still unsure of his subject's true literary weight.) Four further novels followed: The Cider House Rules (1985)‑his highly controversial work about abortion, which has now been turned into a major film‑A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), A Son of the Circus (1994), and, most recently, A Widow for One Year (1998).

I visited Irving on a wet Sunday morning this past fall to discuss the upcoming release of his film version of The Cider House Rules: the novel that dared to make abortion its central subject. We sat in the spacious study of his immense, gray‑shingled house, which is built into a hillside in Dorset, Vermont, and sports a full‑size wrestling gym, where Irving goes through his moves every afternoon with an inflatable dummy. (It seems to stand in for all critics of his work, whom he giddily excoriates in strings of unprintable expletives.) Although his hair is grayer these days, and the inevitable lines have begun to etch his face, he seems almost shamefully youthful for a man who recently became a grandfather; as ever, he wants first to talk about his grown-up sons and their exploits, about his warm and intelligent wife (since 1987), the literary agent Janet Turnbull, and about Everett, their eight‑year‑old son (his third child, her first). Irving's primary life is here, in this house, in this family, and in this community, where he and his wife –spurred by the passage of Act 60- have recently helped to found a private school, which Everett attends.

Irving's life, now as before, is amazingly centered: "I don't go anywhere," he says, "unless I have to. I lead a regular and disciplined life, writing seven days a week, working out when I finish writing. In the evenings I like to watch movies till I get sleepy, but it's not as much fun as it used to be. Once I could laugh at bad movies. I used to sit around with Janet or maybe one of the boys, making fun of the ridiculous dialogue and the bad directing. Now that I've written a couple of good screenplays [the others were adaptations of Setting Free the Bears and A Son of the Circus] and know what goes into the making of a decent movie, I just get angry when I see this crap that gets produced. I get angry with the writers, the directors, the producers, and even the people who put up money for this junk."

The Cider House Rules is not junk. It's a sensuous, stately, and seriously wrenching film. It is also that rarest of things: a work of art that makes a strong political point. "I spent four­teen years on this script, Irving says. "Four directors, copious drafts. I could have written two or three novels in the time I spent, and I regret the loss of those books, but there are obvious satisfactions in having done a good job. By now, I've seen the film‑or versions of it‑sixty‑four times. We're still tweaking it, but it's basically finished, after all these years."

The "we" refers to himself and director Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog). "My first meeting with Lasse was sublime," he remembers, "especially after Michael Winterbottom," the previous director, whose view of the story clashed with his. Before that, the late Phillip Borsos and Wayne Wang had been attached to the project. In each case, versions of the script multiplied, to no one's satisfaction. All the while, Irving was learning a good deal about making films and the problems of adaptation. "I kept hearing different ideas," he says, "but I don't think I benefited from the different voices. The passage of time itself was the best teacher."

That Irving has seriously taken to screenwriting is evident from a little book that will appear in tandem with the release of The Cider House Rules. Though less than two hundred pages, My Movie Business: A Memoir (Random House) will strike some as more than they really want to know about one writer's struggle with the film medium. Hard‑core Irving devotees, however, will be enthralled. He charmingly describes his encounters with George Roy Hill and Tony Richardson, who directed The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, respectively, but he claims to have felt "detached" from those films. "I was really just a spectator," he tells me. "I was happy to stand at the sidelines." He was even more detached from Mark Steven Johnson's Simon Birch, the recent adaptation of A Prayer for Owen Meany. In that novel, which centers on a Christ‑like dwarf who accidentally kills his best friend's mother, Irving boldly explored religious themes in a way rarely seen in contemporary fiction. The screen version was simply awful. "The film was only remotely connected to my story, so I asked that my title and the names of my characters not be used," Irving says. "In the credits, they said the film was 'suggested by' Owen Meany. I actually liked the film, but Johnson only took my novel for a starting point. He went his own way. That was fine."

It's hard to believe Irving when he claims this "was fine," but that's another matter. The Cider House Rules is certainly his work, all the way. "And it's good," he says, unabashedly proud of what he and Hallström have accomplished. The vast panorama of the novel has been severely compressed, but the adaptation works. It tells the story of an orphan, Homer Wells (played by Tobey Maguire), who comes under the tutelage of Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), the head of the St. Cloud's orphanage in Maine. Despite the illegality, Dr. Larch readily performs abortions. He hopes that Homer will follow in his footsteps, but initially, the young man is reluctant. "It's not that he's against abortion," Irving says, "it's that he just doesn't want to do them himself."

But it's more complicated than that. Homer is naive and judgmental. He thinks that people should be able to control themselves, sexually and otherwise. He says as much to Dr. Larch over the grave of a young girl who has died from a back‑alley abortion. When Homer makes love to Candy , Kendall (Charlize Theron), who seduces him while her boyfriend is away at war, he begins to understand the complicated nature of human sexuality, and his sense of morality deepens. He is tested further when a friend who has become pregnant by her father decides to seek an abortion, a procedure Homer knows how to perform safely. "He's like the retired gunslinger in the old cowboy movies who must come out of retirement to save the day, not because he wants to but because he can," Irving explains. "It's an old plot twist, but it works."

Like Dickens, who figures in both the novel and the film as a guiding spirit, Irving is unafraid to stake out a specific ideological position on a controversial subject. "I didn't set out to write a story about abortion," he says, "but if the story contributes anything to what I consider the correct position on this issue, so be it." It's that sort of attitude that in 1988 won Irving the Good Guy award from the National Women's Political Caucus. (Not incidentally, Irving is himself the grandson of a famous obstetrician, Dr. Frederick C. Irving, who taught at the Harvard Medical School.)

Irving has not always been perceived as a defender of women's rights, as anyone who has read The World According to Garp must realize. That novel made fun of radical feminists in a way that outraged many. Critics Janice Doane and Devon Hodges, for example, argued that the novel displayed "strong ambivalence toward feminism" and was, in fact, a covert tract that "protects narrative conventions" and "reinforces patriarchal power." Irving's response to this interpretation is unambiguous: "They are members of a cultural police force, not real critics. I don't take them seriously. Why should!?"

Garp also includes the famous scene‑one of the most bizarre and memorable in modern fiction‑in which Jenny Fields, a famous feminist author, manages to straddle a comatose, dying soldier in the hospital where she works as a night nurse. In this way, she conceives her son, T. S. Garp, "no strings attached… An almost virgin birth." Life and death, in John Irving's world, are intimately connected, and the life that Irving gives to Garp takes both to an extreme. The novel teems with unlikely couplings, accidental mutilations, and violent deaths. Rape plays a central role in the story, and Garp is ultimately assassinated by a radical feminist. It's a wild ride.

Many have taken Garp as the ravings of a macho writer terrified by the feminist movement, but a close reading suggests the opposite. Irving takes women's issues seriously. Garp is, after all, a man haunted by the subject of gender, as when he dresses as a woman to attend his mother's funeral or befriends a transsexual ex‑football player. In one of the primary, self‑defining acts of the novel, Garp adopts a young rape victim: yet another gesture that epitomizes Irving's own vision of what it means for a man to take women's issues seriously‑he makes them men's issues as well.

"I've written a lot about women," Irving tells me. "There was Franny in The Hotel New Hampshire. I consider her the hero of that book. In Cider House Rules, there was Melony. She's a powerful character‑so powerful that I had to remove her from the screenplay because her story would have taken up too much space. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, there was Esther, and in A Son of the Circus, there was Nancy. These are powerful characters. And, of course, A Widow for One Year is a woman's story."

Irving has created more substantial and sympathetic female characters as he has matured as a writer. While in Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, and The Cider House Rules, rape‑and the Hardy‑esque figure of the woman as victim- seems almost a fixation, he has moved steadily toward a vision of the woman as hero in A Widow for One Year, a novel which focuses on the life of Ruth Cole, who writes "big" novels that‑like those of her creator‑enjoy critical esteem and best‑seller status. It's a story, as critic Jonathan Bate put it, "about parents and children‑together with surrogate parents and surrogate children‑losing and finding each other."

In fact, over his career, Irving has grappled with the meaning of family and the complications of gender more explicitly and obsessively than most writers of his generation. His male characters, in particular‑including the elusive, endearing Homer Wells‑increasingly incorporate traits one might call "feminine." From the divorced father in The Water‑Method Man on, his heroes are men who feel a strong desire to care for children, and who worship at the family shrine. These men, at least in their best moments, treat their female partners as equals. They consider rape the ultimate violation of a woman's humanity, and they believe that abortion ‑however perplexing from a moral standpoint‑can be a compassionate act. The Cider House Rules‑as novel and film‑makes this point with dramatic force and candor; even those critics who doubted Irving in the past will, I think, be surprised by the screen version's integrity as both polemic and work of art. Yes, John Irving is a successful and a serious writer, shedding those quotation marks once and for all. He's also one tough broad.