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John Irving's latest novel is about a novelist, but the World According to Garp author insists that all they have in common is an aversion to autobiography.

By Patricia Maunder.

John Irving focuses on the tale end

John Irving
Credit: Everett Irving

One of many notions swirling around John Irving’s new novel, Avenue of Mysteries, is of a moment in every child’s life when their future begins. Sitting down with the 73-year-old author in a Toronto cafe, the inevitable question is: Was there such a moment in his?

His response, as is the case throughout the two or so hours we spend together, is like his novels: long and rich with details, concepts and opinions that wander down side tracks, approach the heart of the matter, then veer off again. When he speaks, ideas, even phrases, slip together. His brain speeds ahead of his mouth. At other times, he takes substantial pauses, or tries two or three different words before achieving the desired nuance.

This idea of a profound youthful moment is drawn from Graham Greene, explains Irving, who then argues that several moments in childhood and adolescence, not just one, can “make us the adults we become”. This notion applies to most of his characters, he adds, before making the leap that this is why his novels are so long: because “the passage of time really means something”. He swerves towards the belief that as we get older, memories of our distant past are more vivid than what recently transpired, and gives the example of his grandmother, who remembered her childhood and young motherhood after everything else had faded away.

In the midst of this monologue, he briefly approaches a direct answer by suggesting that he hadn’t noticed the moments that defined him, because his life was neither traumatic nor dramatic enough. After being nudged to consider a moment that was important to his career, he zeroes in: “The fact that my biological father was a mystery to me for many years of my life no doubt evoked an idea of an undisclosed or an unclear parent, which has played a role even in this novel, and in other novels a stronger role.”

Otherwise, the circumstances of Irving’s birth seem unimportant to him. “It really isn’t a very interesting story; I’ve made up better ones,” says the author, whose mother was jilted while pregnant with him. She was supported by her family until marrying the man Irving, though cognisant of the essential facts, has always regarded as his father. In his 60s, when he discovered he had half-siblings, Irving learnt that his biological father was a “sweet guy”, despite the youthful indiscretion.

Twelve minutes after that first question, he concludes: “This is a long way of saying that line from Graham Greene has meant a lot to me as a novelist, and the characters in my novels have much more interesting and traumatising childhoods and adolescence than I had.”

 

Irving is a deep thinker, whose appetite for intellectual stimulation and reflection is as unrelenting as his obsession with crafting stories. Here, also, is someone accustomed to being listened to.

Currently in the midst of interviews and festival appearances for his 14th novel, Irving has often been the focus of attention since his fourth book, The World According to Garp, became a critical and commercial triumph nearly 40 years ago. It was soon adapted for screen, with Robin Williams in the title role. Four other novels caught Hollywood’s eye, including The Cider House Rules, which saw Irving score an Oscar for his screenplay. Remarkably, having met him, his acceptance speech ran to only 40 seconds.

Irving is accustomed to attentive audiences, but there’s little evidence of self-aggrandisement. Although the luxurious crop of silver-grey hair belies his age, he’s physically unremarkable: somewhat short, and wearing plain, dark-coloured clothes. It’s Irving’s words that reveal the substantive man underneath the quotidian style.

His latest book – written, like all his novels, in longhand – is the story of Juan Diego. A successful novelist who migrated from Mexico to the United States as a child, Diego is shown to us as a man old before his time, on a strange pilgrimage in the Philippines. During this journey, he vividly recalls his childhood in Mexico, where he grew up in a dump, a Jesuit orphanage and a circus. Past and present merge, in a story filled with mysteries that may be miraculous or supernatural, or merely the workings of Juan Diego’s overwrought imagination.

Diego’s life is indeed more extraordinary than Irving’s, but the real and imagined authors intersect. The fictional one’s funny, fleeting encounters with journalists and fans, anxieties about not being recognised or appreciated, and musings on the writing process, are surely rooted in Irving’s own experience. Ironically, though, they are most alike in their shared view that fiction is more about imagination than autobiography.

“The part of me that is like Juan Diego,” says Irving, is “if you give me a true story such as I didn’t know for a number of years who my father was, and I make up stories about who a father might be, well I’m not surprised to discover that every story I made up about a missing father was a more interesting story than my own missing father’s story.”

The imagination-versus-autobiography debate peaks in Avenue of Mysteries at a literary event, when the authorship of Shakespeare’s works is discussed. Could one man conceive all the scenarios and insights those celebrated plays contain? Speaking with scornful emphasis, Irving asserts that “the only people who have cast doubt on the Bard of Avon being the actual Shakespeare are people who themselves have very little imagination, and do not even as writers work from their imaginations by their own admission.” Mark Twain and Henry James are among those in his rogues’ gallery.

According to Irving, his novels’ most autobiographical element is that he writes about what he fears. “That says something true of you, autobiographically – I hate the word – that is perhaps truer than writing about your own not very interesting life, because you’re saying something that’s very true of your psychology.”

Slowly, Irving begins to illuminate those fears. “Juan Diego’s imagination is not his friend,” he says. “He is very unlike me in several ways: he lives alone, he has no children, he is free to live almost entirely in his imagination ... A lot of how I imagine is a sort of what-if kind of thinking. If I lived with no one, if I didn’t have children and grandchildren ... The only thing that really attaches me to the real world is having a family. Because if you have a family, well, guess what, you can’t write all the time.”

The importance of family in Irving’s life is apparent in his workspace, an entire apartment in a rather nice condominium tower near the cafe. There are dozens of framed photographs of loved ones on the walls, and posters of films adapted from his novels.

The first of his three children was conceived in similar circumstances to himself, but the 22-year-old university student and aspiring writer was “resigned to doing the right or responsible thing” and married his lover. Though he now regards the situation as “pretty mundane”, he recalls being “full of the kind of self-pity that maybe you can only have at that age, thinking to myself: ‘Oh, what could be worse than this?’ A part of my life was, in my estimation, over. I had no foresight, quite the opposite to myself as a novelist, no perspective beyond my own petty sorrow.”

Irving later realised that being a husband and father precluded him from the Vietnam War draft – he was still living in the United States at the time – and that the writer finally had a subject: the unexpected “unequivocal love” he felt for his son enabled him to understand “the fear of something happening to someone you love”.

 

Irving famously finishes his novels before he starts them. The first thing he produces is the final sentence. At one point in our interview he announces that “real life frankly is a mess”, but his books are always meticulously planned.

“I don’t write endings first because it’s an intellectual discovery,” says Irving. “I write endings first because I get endings first, because I see endings clearly, and if I don’t see an ending, if I haven’t completely committed myself to what I think is an ending waiting two, three, four years or more ahead of me, I wouldn’t begin writing.”

Before arriving at his endings, however, there is considerable research and contemplation. Avenue of Mysteries started life more than 25 years ago, when Irving was developing a screenplay about a boy in an Indian circus. It morphed into a novel, 1994’s A Son of the Circus, then several years later Irving revisited the screenplay and turned it into a story about a boy in a Mexican circus. Like the original, this screenplay was not picked up – his earlier matter-of-fact statement that “nobody in Hollywood is much impressed by that Oscar” begins to seem credible – but became the basis for Avenue of Mysteries.

Irving conjured the title during a research trip to Mexico, as his taxi inched through a crowd of pilgrims and tourists approaching the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “I looked out a window and saw the sign on the street: Avenida de los Misterios ... When I saw that street sign, I thought the whole thing is an avenue of mysteries, the whole story is one imaginary or superstitious or religious mystery.”

The novel’s ending came from a trip to the Philippines, at a time when Irving was considering turning the screenplay of the Mexican circus boy into a novel that included the protagonist’s later life. The boy had made an unlikely promise to visit the grave of a stranger’s father in the Philippines, so when Irving received an unexpected invitation to the country, he “went with my notebook as if I were Juan Diego”. By chance he discovered the church in Manila that is, like the Mexican basilica, dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. “Those connections don’t mean anything if you haven’t been thinking about something for a long time,” says Irving, who had been “thinking about this virtually since 1988 or 1989”.

Irving’s response to the final question, about whether he knows what his next novel is, and its final sentence, is a near 20-minute epic bursting with ideas, opinions, reflections and the wisdom of a man with 73 years and 14 novels under his belt. He has stopped giving away last sentences, because he’s more interested in people focusing on his latest book. He plans his novels from finish to start but even when he taught creative writing he never prescribed this method. He wouldn’t mind if he found a better ending while writing a novel, but so far “it just hasn’t happened”. He is writing a screenplay for an HBO mini-series of The World According to Garp.

Amid all this, Irving works over the idea that, while there are three candidates for the next novel, there is one idea in his arsenal that will never become a book. “A few years ago I recognised that I had let that one sit too long,” he says. “It was too big a novel, too long a novel, too complicated a novel for me to write now ... It sounds really stupid, but I haven’t been this old before and I’ve not encountered this situation.

“A lot of stuff happened to me on that trip to the Philippines when I was pretending I was this lonely Mexican-American man, and among them I thought: ‘Oh well, that’s the novel he should be writing, the one he never gets to finish, because you are not going to finish it either.’ ”

And with that, our interview finds its conclusion.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2015 as "The tale end". Subscribe here.

Patricia Maunder
is a writer, editor and broadcaster based in Melbourne.