With his huge reputation, millions of sales and shelf-full of awards, John Irving is one of the world’s best-loved authors. Last week he made a rare visit to Manchester to talk about his latest novel Avenue Of Mysteries for an appreciative, sold-out audience at Literature Live.
Jeanette Winterson is a big fan of the great American writer, and I guess it’s part of her job description as professor of creative writing at Manchester University to chair events like this one at its Centre for New Writing. But it’s pretty obvious that she will have hardly chafed at the duty, not least by the wholehearted way she warns that she’ll “fucking kill” anyone whose mobile phone rings to interrupt their chat. Less entertainingly, it also means that she effectively dominates the first 15 minutes of their conversation at the Whitworth Art Gallery, repeatedly offering her own views on a book most of the audience might not have yet read and even veering perilously close to spoilers.
But once the fan-girl stops showing off and everyone in the room gets used to Irving’s measured way of speaking, sometimes simply staring ahead as he gathers his thoughts, the event turns into a fascinating insight into a man who has written 14 brilliant, insightful, funny, tragic and erudite novels including A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules, all since 1968’s Setting Free the Bears was published in 1968 when he was just 26.
The casual revelation from this elegantly relaxed and youthful looking chap that he’s now 73-years-old lead to gasps of admiration, mostly from the women who, he maintains, make up something like two-thirds of his audience, as they do most contemporary novelists.
“Whenever a guy comes up to me, he pretty much always says something like ‘my wife’s a big fan’,” he laughs wryly.
One exception to that rule, improbably, was none other than Julia Child, the American culinary legend immortalised in the Meryl Streep film Julie And Julia.
Irving, who’s what some of us shorter people like to call a ‘sensible size’ was, he recalls “in a food store with high shelves in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was reaching for a box of cereal or something and this very tall woman came up and said, ‘May I help you?’. I immediately recognised her, of course, and told her I’d read all her books and loved them. She said, ‘oh, my husband has read all of yours,’ and that’s pretty much the only time I’ve ever had that said to me.”
Like many of his novels, Avenue of Mysteries is a big book – “an impatient reader is not my reader, ever” – he observes, and was long in the gestation. He always thinks about a novel for a long time before starting to write, he says, and never begins writing until he knows the ending.
“I always know where it’s going. I’m writing toward a sentence, usually to much more than a sentence, to many paragraphs, close to a last chapter. It’s like a piece of music that you’re writing toward and this is how it sounds when I get to the end. Because I wouldn’t know how I’m supposed to sound at the beginning unless I knew how I was going to sound when I got there.”
In Avenue of Mysteries, he explains, “Juan Diego, a 14-year-old boy who was born and grew up in Mexico, has a 13-year-old sister. Her name is Lupe and she thinks she sees what’s coming, specifically her own future and her brother’s. Lupe is a mind-reader and she knows what most people are thinking regarding what has happened, as opposed to what will. She is usually right about the past but doesn’t know the future as accurately. But consider what a terrible burden it is, if you believe you know the future. What might a 13-year-old girl be driven to do, if she thought she could change the future?
“As an older man, Juan Diego will take a trip to the Philippines, but what travels with him are his dreams and memories. He is most alive in his childhood and early adolescence in Mexico.
“As we grow older, sometimes, we live more vividly in the past than in the present. Or at least that’s what I’ve found to be true,” he chuckles.
Avenue of Mysteries was first conceived as a screenplay, he reveals, but then morphed into a book.
It all started decades ago when he went to India for a photo shoot with his friend, the late photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and her film-maker husband, Martin Bell, where she took many pictures of young children who worked as circus performers in India, later publishing them alongside similar pictures she had taken in Mexico.
“Mary Ellen knew that the very idea of kids in harm’s way, especially kids in a situation where the harm they put themselves in at the circus was arguably a better place for them to be than where they were coming from, would interest me,” he remembers.
He and Bell had hoped to make a movie about these young circus performers. This never came to fruition, but Irving started imagining what might happen to children like them when they grew up, which was the seed for the character Juan Diego. We meet him as a grown man, a well-known writer traveling to the Philippines. But in his memories and dreams, he keeps returning to his childhood in Mexico, where he and his sister live on a huge garbage dump on the edge of Oaxaca.
Circuses, orphans and transgender characters appear regularly in Irving’s work, which often mixes the real with the surreal to unexpected, often hilarious, effect. He also frequently uses aspects of his own life, but his fiction is by no means thinly-disguised memoir.
“On the contrary,” he insists, “I’ve always written about what I fear. Maybe the most autobiographical element in my novels is that they’re not about what has happened to me at all, they’re much more about what I’m afraid of, about what I hope never happens to me or to anyone I love.”
An apparently straightforward question about writing for films as opposed to novels provokes a particularly long pause for thought before he offers the superficially surprising advice that novelists might want to think about working on teleplays instead. I can’t resist glancing across at Emma Unsworth sitting next to me, who has just told me she’s working on a screenplay of her own novel Animals and is at the event on her first day as a fellow at the Centre For New Writing. It subsequently emerges that one of several projects Irving has in the works is a teleplay for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The World According to Garp, which has already been made into a movie. Irving didn’t write the screenplay for that film but he did adapt The Cider House Rules for the big screen. That effort won him an Oscar, but he suggests that it was his earliest film experience, writing a film which never actually got made, which gave him the most valuable lessons.
“I was lucky enough to work on a screenplay of my book Setting Free the Bears, and that project’s director, Irvin Kershner, who’s a dear friend of mine to this day, showed me that novelists shouldn’t really write for the movies, unless they discover they’re no good at writing novels. Screenwriting, at least for movies as they’re made now, isn’t really writing, it’s carpentry.”
Dickens is an acknowledged inspiration for him, along with Melville, Hawthorne and Hardy.
“I follow the form of the 19-century novel, that was the century that produced the models of the form. I’m not an analyst and I’m not an intellectual.
“I’m old-fashioned, a storyteller.“
- Upcoming Literature Live events include: Ian Maguire and Rupert Thomson (February 8); Jeanette Winterson In Conversation with Louise O’Neill (February 22) and Helen MacDonald (February 29); Howard Jacobson: Shylock Is My Name (April 11); and Vona Groarke and Adam Thorpe (April 18). More information here.