John Irving and The Values Of Wrestling, Writing and Repetition
John Irving appreciates a careful reader.
The novelist is famous for starting with his last line and constructing an entire book around the ending. He wants to be in control of the careful unfolding of a story all the way to that final line. If you haven't read his latest book, "Avenue of Mysteries," yet, don't ask too many questions about the plot.
He won't tell you.
Because of a delay from the publisher, my copy of "Avenue of Mysteries" arrived the day before I was scheduled to talk with Irving over the phone from his home in Toronto. (He's speaking at the Kentucky Author Forum at the Kentucky Center for the Arts on Nov. 10.)
I'm a longtime reader of his work. A "Prayer for Owen Meany" and "The World According to Garp" are among my all-time favorites. I've even read his early novels, "Setting Free the Bears" and "The 158-Pound Marriage." I was looking forward to reading this new one, but I was only able to get through about 50 pages before it was time to give him a call.
He was annoyed — not at me, but at the situation.
"It's exasperating to write a book and spend however many years and then talk to people who haven't read it," Irving said, sighing. "But I understand the circumstances."
My first couple questions fell flat because Irving didn't want to spoil the book for me. (I told him I plan to finish it later, and I'm already about halfway through.) It's the story of a man named Juan Diego: a former "niño de la basura" (literally, a garbage child) near Oaxaca, Mexico, who goes on a personal mission to the Philippines later in his life.
When I asked Irving why he chose the Philippines for Juan Diego's journey, he was cagey about revealing too much.
"Like many older people, especially older people who've had a formative, life-changing experience in their childhood or adolescent years, Juan Diego is one of those older people who lives a lot of his life most vividly in the past," Irving said.
"He thinks he's making this trip to fulfill a promise he made to this runaway boy, a draft dodger in Mexico whom Juan Diego meets in 1970," Irving continued. "He's going to pay the respects that this boy never got to pay to his father, who lies among all the dead American soldiers in that vast cemetery in Manila. That's Juan Diego's purpose for taking the trip, but my reason to bring him there is that I wanted his past and his future to come together. It's not an accident that he goes to the Philippines — it's a plan."
The genesis for "Avenue of Mysteries" started with a trip to India with the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, to learn about the lives of child circus performers, with the idea of eventually writing a screenplay. Along the way, the main location shifted to Mexico, and the screenplay became a novel. Irving said he sometimes uses the screenplay form to work through ideas, whether he thinks a movie will be made in the end or not.
"It's not all that unusual that something I write as a screenplay turns into a novel," he said. "If you think about it, it's a lot easier, a lot more natural a process, to allow something to expand or grow, such as a screenplay into a novel. That's a much more organic evolution than the very unnatural process of writing an adaptation from a long novel as a screenplay, where the process begins by killing half of your characters and throwing two-thirds of the story away."
In John Irving's novels, terrible things happen to his characters, and often those terrible things happen to children. He has said in previous interviews that he writes about the things that most scare him.
You'd think a writer constructing the life story of a character would enjoy limitless freedom, he said. But people don't get to choose what scares them.
"What you’re most afraid of chooses you," Irving said. "There has to be an aspect, a chapter, a section, a moment in what’s waiting for me to write. There has to be something that I’m really not looking forward to. If there isn’t something I’m dreading, well then, why bother?
"Because if there isn’t some element of the story that upsets me — that isn’t keenly about what I hope never happens to me or to anyone I love — why would anyone feel invested in it? Why would anyone be anxious for this character or that character? It’s not something intellectual or artistic that makes a novel better 200 or 300 pages in than it was when you were just starting. What makes something better is that you’re afraid of what will happen."
Wrestling is an ever-present motif in Irving's novels. The sport also resonates in the author's life. Irving himself started wrestling as a teenager and was later a wrestling coach.
A 2014 real estate listing for his Vermont home includes a photo of a spacious gym with a red wrestling mat.
Writing is no contact sport, but there are similarities with wrestling, he said. Each require discipline.
"Dedicating yourself as an athlete to any sport requires a certainly unnatural ability to focus, and the focus is often a matter of giving your attention to very small details that need to be repeated and repeated and repeated," Irving said. "There’s a tremendous amount of repetition involved, which for most outsiders would be excruciatingly boring in the extreme."
Sparring partners drill various maneuvers — "outside single leg, the high crotch, the duck hunter, the arm drag," he lists — to hone their skills. And then they do it again. It's drilling a person would never do without loving the process itself, Irving said.
"And you’d better not call yourself a writer or dream of being a writer if you don’t have the willingness not only to reread, but to rework, revise, reconstrue, reconstruct, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, what you already have written a hundred times. And then put it away and wait. And then go back to it and do it again," Irving said.
"That patience isn’t natural. You have to love the process itself. You have to love the doing it. If you’re only enamored of the final product, the moment you get to put on the singlet and walk out in front of the crowd and wrestle for seven minutes, the moment when you have a publication, which is the end of anywhere from five to seven years of actual writing and how many years of taking notes before that — if you’re in it for that, well, you won’t do very well. Being an English student didn’t teach me that as much as wrestling for 20 years and coaching until I was 47 did."
He's said he's looking forward to the event in Louisville because his interviewer, Sam Tanenhaus (formerly with The New York Times and Sunday Book Review), is someone he's worked with before.
"Sometimes these onstage interviews are ... well, you know, they can be like a blind date," Irving said, laughing. "They don't always work out. But I have no concerns about this one or about Sam because we know each other well enough to have a pretty easy and forthcoming conversation."
We can only assume that Tanenhaus has had time to read the book.
(Note: the event at the Bomhard Theatre is sold out, but there is overflow seating available in the North Lobby of the Kentucky Center, with a live stream from the Bomhard on a large screen. Tickets are $10 each and are available here.)