STEPPING INTO THE LION'S DEN WITH JOHN IRVING—OUR ALMOS CANADIAN WRITER, WRESTLER AND MACHO-FEMINIST GUY
Brian D. Johnson
John Irving has a legendary disdain for critics, or at least those who have failed to fully appreciate his work. Interviewing him on CBC Newsworld’s Hot Type, in 1999, Evan Solomon voiced some
reservations about My Movie Business, Irving’s memoir of bringing The Cider House Rules to the screen. Solomon, a huge fan of Irving’s novels, thought their talk was convivial, and the author signed his book with “thanks for a great interview." But more than a year later, Irving said he was still wondering “why I didn’t wrap the microphone wire around Evan Solomon’s neck.” Journalists who watch movies for a living are even more suspect than those who prey on books. I once politely listened to Irving excoriate an American film critic who had taken issue with The Cider House Rules. Feeling a chill of paranoia, I later looked up my own review of the film, which said, “Something about it seems stillborn—you can almost see the forceps marks of John Irving’s marathon labour to deliver his novel to the screen with four successive directors.” Yikes.
In The World According to Garp (1978), which is about a novelist, Irving wrote that “Garp had a tenacious memory and the indignation of a badger,” as well as “a foolish ego that went out of its way to remember insults and rejections of his work.” Although Irving gets riled by any suggestion that his characters are autobiographical, I had reason to feel apprehensive about talking to him. And as I rode the watertaxi from Pointe au Baril to the author’s island cottage on Georgian Bay, three hours north of Toronto, I couldn’t help but identify with Patrick Wallingford, the hapless protagonist of Irving’s new novel, The Fourth Hand. He’s a TV journalist who has his hand bitten off when, trying to catch the roar of a lion in an Indian circus, he thrusts a microphone too close to the cage.
Among the lions of contemporary letters, Irving is one of the more formidable voices. At 59, he is among a handful of serious novelists who enjoy consistent best-seller status,
both in North America and abroad.
A former college wrestler—who competed for two decades and
coached until he was 47—he brings a gladiatorial spirit to the literary arena. Fighting for the title of Americas modernday Dickens, Irving has been engaged in a long-running feud with novelist Tom Wolfe, dismissing his work as “journalistic hyperbole described as fiction.” He’s also a fierce advocate for abortion rights, and was furious with the Democrats for sidestepping the issue in the last presidential election.
Wresde with Irving and you wresde with contradicdon. He’s a kind of macho feminist, a vocal champion of free choice who makes heroines of obdurate women, but whose fiction is fuelled by a male libido as robust as Henry Miller’s. He sees himself as a 19th-century storyteller, but loves to
push the boundaries of taste with graphic violence, like an R-rated Robertson Davies. An Oscar-winning screenwriter, he has seen four of his novels become films—and plans to adapt The Fourth Hand with Cider House director Lasse Hallström—but boasts he hardly ever goes to the movies.
Irving is an angry American who feels like a foreigner in his own country, and who sells more books in Germany than in the United States. But he has found a measure of solace in Canada. Since marrying his second wife, former Canadian publisher Janet Turnbull, 14 years ago (she’s now his agent), the New Hampshire-born novelist says he feels closer to Toronto’s literary community than to Manhattan’s. He keeps an apartment in Toronto’s exclusive Forest Hill, as well as a house
in Vermont. And the Canadian landscape has loomed large in his recent books, from the Toronto settings of A Prayer for Owen Meany and A Son of the Circus to the lavish quotations from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient in The Fourth Hand. Irving also seems to have adopted CanLit’s summer-cottage homing instinct. In his new novel, the promised land at the end of Wallingford’s promiscuous odyssey to true love is a hallucinatory image of a dock lapped by a northern lake.
In fact, Irving seems almost Canadian. But like the draft dodger who narrates A Prayer for Owen Meany, he remains unas-
similated, unsuited to the polite deference expected in this culture. “I don’t know where he fits in,”
says Toronto novelist Barbara Gowdy ( The White Bone). “He’s a culture unto himself.” In a postmodern world, Irving remains stubbornly unfashionable—a writer of sprawling yarns knotted with subplots. “I’d be afraid of losing my readers’ interest if I went off on the tangents he does,” says Gowdy. “But somehow he gets it to work. He takes an intense interest in every one of his characters, which makes for a kind of hearty writing. The primary story is never lost in these detours, and as a result it even has more consequence and poignancy.” Irving has drawn high praise from authors as disparate as Joseph Heller, Stephen King and the late Mordecai Richler. Critics, however, often roll their eyes at the burlesque extremes of his fiction—a carni-
val of grisly car crashes, amputated body parts, dead children, widows, dwarfs, prostitutes, animals and adulterers. And in trying to pigeonhole him, they are driven to metaphoric back flips. In The New York Times, John Leonard once described him as “Nabokov in jogging shorts.”
When I show up at the dock on Georgian Bay, Irving is in character. Wearing a singlet and gym shorts, he comes bounding down the island’s whale-skin slope of Shield rock to greet his latest visitor. (This is the stationary book tour. The previous week, journalists from the Netherlands and
the BBC showed up on the island.) Glistening with sweat from his daily workout, he apologizes for a moist handshake. He looks unusually fit and boyish for his age, with steel-grey hair and intense, handsome features. We climb up to the cottage—which has been in his wife’s family ever since her grandfather, according to legend, won it in a poker game. And after checking if I’m “an inside person or an outside person,” he pulls a couple of chairs into the sun on the wraparound deck overlooking the water. A chocolate Lab named Dickens keeps watch, barking after boats.
Irving talks like he writes, in long, looping tangents, and it’s hard to find room for questions. A simple inquiry about his tattoos reveals a
whole personal history. On his right forearm, a circle encloses a rectangle inked in red and green at either end. “It’s the starting circle of a wresding mat,” he says, then goes on to elaborate how wrestlers position themselves for a match. Pointing to a maple leaf tattooed above his left collarbone, he says, “That’s my wife. Ifs a Vermont maple leaf because it’s got more green in it. You don’t get tattoos ifyou’re not sentimental.” Irving explains that he positioned the maple leaf to distract from a scar left by shoulder surgery-— a legacy of his wresding career, along with operations on both knees (twice each) and an elbow. He incurred most of the injuries as a coach sparring with two sons from his first marriage, Colin, now 36, and Brendan, 32. (He and Turnbull have one son,
The tattoos came out of the research for Irving’s eleventh novel, Until I Find You, which he’s now writing. “I wanted to know what it felt like,” he says. “And I thought I’m old enough to be tattooed because I’m not going to change my mind.” The hero of Until I Find You has a mother who’s a tattoo artist and a wayward father who’s a church organist. In 1998, Irving travelled through North European ports such as Hamburg, Amsterdam and Oslo on an oddly double-barreled research mission: “I got to see some great organists and some great maritime tattooers.”
The author also got some hands-on
training with a tattoo artist named Hanky Panky from Amsterdam’s House of Pain. “He offered me his wife’s forearm,” says Irving. “I practised on grapefruits and oranges, then graduated to fresh flounder. Finally I got to do a cover-up on her arm. I turned the name of an ex-boyfriend, Joachim, into berries and leaves. I made a mess of the ‘m,’ and made her bleed a few times. You’re not supposed to go deeper than a 32nd of an inch.”
Although critics attack Irving’s novels for being too bizarrely imagined, and Tom Wolfe says he needs to get out of the house more, his fiction is grounded in scrupulous research. “My process of writing a novel begins with journalism,” says Irving, pointing out that he studied an OB-GYN abortionist for Cider House, a Vietnam body escort and a granite quarrier for Owen Meany, and an Indian-born orthopedic surgeon for A Son of the Circus. Once the research is done, Irving does not begin the first sentence until the entire story is mapped out, with the ending in place. “I’m not an experimental writer,” he says, “I’m a 19th-century craftsman.”
In 1999, Irving had spent a year studying tattoos and church music when he was suddenly detoured into writing The Fourth Hand. He and Turnbull were watching a TV news item about hand-transplant surgery when Turnbull said, “What if the
donor’s widow demands visitation rights?” Irving was up all night. “And 48 hours later,” he says, “I could see the whole thing—the ending, how he lost the hand, that it’s not the hand that’s missing from his life, it’s the life that’s missing from his life.” Clocking in at 313 pages, The Fourth Hand is much shorter than most of Irving’s novels. Influenced by the screenwriting discipline of The Cider House Rules, it’s the first that doesn’t span a generation or two, and trace its characters from childhood. In the spirit of journalism, it unfolds as a calamitous rush of events, moving from sharp satire to warm sentiment. And it’s a brisk page-turner. Irving admits that a plot summary of this, or any of his novels, “doesn’t sound fit for daytime television, but that’s the challenge—to make emotionally real something that, when you just outline it, sounds absurd.” Here goes: After Patrick Wallingford, a correspondent for a tabloid news network, loses his left hand in a lion’s jaws on live television, he is a candidate for America’s first (failed) hand transplant. Doris Clausen from Green Bay, Wise., volunteers her husband, Otto, as a donor, although he is young and healthy. The hand becomes available when, waking still drunk from an erotic dream on Super Bowl Sunday, Otto accidentally shoots himself. Just before Wallingford enters surgery, Doris jumps
him to conceive the child she never had with Otto. Famous for the wrong reasons, Wallingford remains a loser celebrity— forever branded as “the lion guy.” And as he is bedded by a series of sexual opportunists, including another woman who wants his seed, he dreams of sensible Doris and a sun-warmed dock.
Recalling Carps Jenny Fields, I suggest to Irving that this isn’t his first novel in which a woman jumps a strange man to get pregnant. “So what’s up with that?” I ask, expecting his defences to fly up.
“Jesus, I don’t know,” he laughs. “Some tortured form of wishful thinking probably. I never realize those things have happened to me twice or three times until I’m halfway through the story. The most embarrassing example is when I was writing my first physical description of Owen Meany, of having skin so thin the blueness of veins was visible on his hands and face, this embryonic portrait of someone who looks like he was born too soon. I liked the image enormously. But as I was reading it to Janet, I said, ‘I have a terrible feeling this is something I’ve read.’ And Janet said, ‘You idiot, it’s the way you describe Fuzzy Stone in The Cider House Rules.' "
Irving’s fiction dwells on lost children, but he says his own upbringing was happily uneventful. One of three children, John Winslow Irving was born in 1942 in the colonial town of Exeter, N.H. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boys’ school, where his father taught Russian history. Despite a learning disability— his dyslexia still requires him to move his lips as he reads—Irving made his way through universities from Vienna to Iowa, winning a BA and an MFA, to become an assistant professor of English at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
At 26, he published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, a picaresque tale that drew on his student travels in Europe. But not until his fourth novel, The World According to Garp, did he score a major breakthrough. There are now more than 10 million copies in print in 30 languages. Curiously, the very first review he ever read of Garp was by Mordecai Richler, in the Book-of-the-Month Club newsletter. Richler wrote that Garp “should be savoured as a cry of puritan outrage against mindless violence... redeemed by a disarming tenderness and a large talent that announces itself on practically every page.” Irving says, “That was the first in-
dication this book might have a different fate than the others. Although I didn’t know Mordecai
very well, I have a special connection to him.”
As the success story of a novelist with a flair for melodrama and a passion for wresding, Garp launched its author’s career as a feat of self-fulfilling prophecy. But no matter how much of Irving’s life went into the novel, its brilliance lies in pure invention, in scenes like the outrageous collision that shatters Garps family: one child dies and the other impales his eye on a broken gearshift in Garps car as he drives it into a parked vehicle where his wife, caught in
flagrante delicto, drives her teeth clean through a lover’s penis.
Irving’s wildly eventful novels make them ripe, almost overripe, for adaptation. After quirky screen versions of Garp (1982) and Hotel New Hampshire (1984), and Simon Birch’s travesty of A Prayer for Owen Meany, Irving grappled with The Cider House Rules. Before finally making the film with Hallström, he spent eight years working on a darker version with the late director Phillip Borsos and producer Peter O’Brian, the Canadians behind The Grey Fox.
Just two weeks before shooting was due to start with Matthew Broderick, the film’s Hollywood coproducers sat in Irving’s Vermont home, a converted barn, and asked him to give up his right of script ap-
proval. O’Brian, who was therewith Borsos, remembers that moment in the kitchen: “John stood up immediately and walked out. We just sat there for about 10 minutes. ” Finally, O’Brian went out and found their screenwriter in his gym, pumping iron. As Irving recalls, “I said I’m not getting out of here until those f—ers are gone. By the time they left, I could hardly hold a fork. ” Borsos, crushed by the projects failure, died of cancer in 1995, at 42. But O’Brian prefers to say, “He died of filmmaking.”
The other Canadian who changed Irving’s life was Janet Turnbull. As publisher of Bantam-Seal Books, she first met him as his host at a Toronto reading in 1986, which ended with a large dinner party on Queen Street. “There was nothing romantic about it, except I couldn’t get her out of my mind,” recalls Irving (who divorced his first wife,
Shyla Leary, in 1982). “I spent half the summer thinking about it, then wrote her a letter and said, ‘I
must be in love with you.’ I work very slowly. Everything is slow with me, not just novels.” But after a first date in Manhattan, he persuaded Turnbull to spend the weekend, and lost no time proposing. “I’ve never met anybody as confident as he is,” she says. “The weird thing is, I didn’t think it was pushy or presumptuous or egotistical.”
As Irving’s wife, agent and first editor (he reads each draff of each chapter to her out loud), Turnbull remains his most devoted fan. “I never tire of listening to him,” she
says. “Even with 10 other people at the
dinner table, I always hope I get to sit near John.” But she concedes that he’s “very obsessive and compulsive,” and can be difficult away from home. “As soon as he’s taken out of the place where he can work, and work out, every day, he’s not easy to be around. When John’s surrounded by too much spontaneity, or too little order, he’s often in a bad temper.”
Irving shows me where he writes, on a red IBM Selectric typewriter in a corner of the sleeper cabin—he gets it oiled at the local marina. He doesn’t use a computer, but owns a fleet of Selectrics. On the desk is a gum eraser, a map of Amsterdam’s redlight district, a first-draft notebook in three colours of ink and a stack of fresh typescript—the first two chapters of Until I Found You. He’s not sure which should go
first. Would I like to read them? he asks, then hands them over, carefully squaring the pages. In the living room, beside a halfdone jigsaw puzzle of Van Gogh’s room in Arles, I read the manuscript, taking care to go slow, while Irving prepares dinner. Like much of A Widow for One Year, the first chapter takes place in Toronto’s Forest Hill, around the Bishop Strachan School, Turnbull’s elite alma mater. And the second chapter ends with a primal scene witnessed by a young boy, not unlike the one in Widow. I vote for putting the second chapter first, and he seems to agree.
Irving cooks all the family meals, as his father did. As he works on a citrus beet
salad with pine nuts, his son Colin, an actor-screenwriter visiting from Los Angeles, composes an appetizer. The author’s interview schedule is posted on the kitchen wall.
“How did the one today go?” young Everett asks.
“It’s rude to talk about the one today when he’s still here,” his father says with a smile.
So I stay for dinner, joined by mutual friends from a neighbouring island and their kids. A cottage dinner party. Several bottles of wine later, Everett asks Dad to tell the story about the three-breasted lady. It’s one of Irving’s childhood memories, about trying to sneak into a sideshow at the age of 11, and he stretches it like a practised raconteur. Later, he asks me not to quote it, because he is still trying
figure out how to work it into his fiction—“I just can’t think where.”
“It could have been a good back story for Wallingford in The Fourth Hand,” I offer.
Irving laughs. “I could have built a whole childhood around it!”
“You could call it The Third Breast.”
At home, and on schedule, the literary lion finds his inner pussycat. For a long time, he sits back and lets the children run the show. To great hilarity, they get everyone at the table to take turns snorting like a pig (a ritual that should be de rigueur at literary dinner parties everywhere). Then, upping the ante, the master of the house opens his throat and unleashes a cougar’s snarl. It sounds eerily authentic.
Read more online from Brian D. Johnson’s conversation www.macleans.ca