For John Irving, fiction is better than truth
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TORONTO - John Irving says today's reality-obsessed culture has affected the way many readers approach fiction and prompted a barrage of questions about whether the famed author's novels are based on his own life.
"We live in a time when people think that reality is more interesting than what can be made up," said the acclaimed 70-year-old writer, whose 13th novel, "In One Person," is out this week.
"Well, I've never felt that way."
"In One Person" tells the story of Billy Abbott, a sexually conflicted writer who begins life in a small Vermont town and ultimately navigates his way through the darkest days of the AIDS crisis in New York City. The subject matter, Irving says, prompted one U.K. publication to pursue a story on whether the author himself is bisexual (the piece was ultimately dropped).
Such pre-occupations are baffling to Irving, whose celebrated works include "The World According to Garp" and "The Cider House Rules."
"I published my first novel ('Setting Free the Bears') in the late 1960s. Through the 1980s, which would include 'A Prayer For Owen Meany,' which was published in '89 ... almost no one asked me an autobiographical question. No one said: 'Is this your father? Is this your mother? Is this your sister? Is this you?' No one asked me," he said.
"Now, it's the first thing you're asked ... I think what's happened to many people is ... they don't read as much fiction as they used to. They're not as consistently reading novels as people were 10 or 25 years ago and so they don't know how to talk about novels so much. They can't imagine a way to imagine a novel without thinking that it must have some personal connection to you."
Irving, who has an apartment in Toronto and spends his summers on Georgian Bay, notes that the current "reality or news-driven" climate has also spawned a voracious appetite among readers for true-life memoirs.
"There are more memoirs than I've ever seen, more memoirs than ever should be written in my opinion," he said, adding that there are only a handful of people who have lives interesting enough to put down on paper.
The topic is clearly one that engages the author as he launches into a tongue-in-cheek tirade about how a "reality trend" would have played out during interviews with past literary greats.
"I find it funny to think that if we had the opportunity now (to) segue back between 500 and 400 B.C. and we get to talk to Sophocles, would the first thing in our mind be: 'Did you come from an incestuous family? Did you murder your dad and not know he was your dad? What was your mom like?' ... Is that the line of questioning we'd pursue?"
He went on: "If we got to talk to Shakespeare, would we say: 'So, your dad's a glove-maker, nothing about gloves, but who are all these royals? Did you actually know any royals? Did you ever meet a ghost, a real one? Did you know any witches?' Where would it lead?"
North American writers, said Irving, have "suffered" from Ernest Hemingway's "tiresome" dictum: "Write about what you know."
Instead, he endorses the advice of Herman Melville, who said: "Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appal."
"Think about what you're afraid of, not what's happened to you" said Irving, who won an Oscar in 2000 for his "Cider House" screenplay. "Think about what you hope never happens to anyone you know or love or to yourself ... write about that."
The advice is particularly poignant given the achingly sad events of "In One Person."
While the book contains plenty of the author's signature whimsy, as well as many Irving standbys (Vermont, Vienna, wrestling), it's been called his most political novel yet.
The AIDS crisis is described with an astonishing level of detail. Still, Irving says the broad story didn't require nearly as much advance research as some of the topics in his other novels (the abortions performed by the ether-addicted Dr. Larch in "Cider House"; the rock dust that made Owen Meany's voice so high; the organ music and tattoo parlours in "Until I Find You").
"For most kids, I think, of my generation who are going to be in the writing business, in the movie business, who spend any amount of time in an American city, in the arts, of course you are going to know a lot of gay and bi- people, of course you are going to know a lot of people whose lives intersected with the AIDS epidemic," he said.
"In my case, too, it wasn't hard to put myself in a bisexual frame of mind. I grew up in the '50s and the '60s. And there was certainly a time in my pre-pubescent and early pubescent life when I desired just about everyone and was terrified about half of the sexual imaginings I had. I thought: 'I don't just like my girlfriend, I kind of like her mother. I'm also attracted to these older guys on the wrestling team.'"
Added the author: "I think I'm not speaking so much individually as I am for a number of boys from my generation who grew up largely not having sex but imagining it, for the most part, and when we did have it there were terrible constraints and fears attached to it."
For the medical specifics of "In One Person," Irving turned to his trust cadre of readers, including novelist and infectious disease specialist Abraham Verghese.
"The research for 'In One Person,' and this is true of all my books, a part of the research happens after you write it. You have to ask yourself: 'Who among my friends are experts at what I'm writing? Who are the doctors? Who are my best gay, bi-, trans- friends?' Because I want to line them up as readers."
While the early days of the AIDS epidemic have been explored recently in a number plays and movies, Irving dismisses talk that his novel might be in any way timely.
The author refers to his unwritten novels as "boxcars in the station." "In One Person," he said, had been percolating in his mind for about a dozen years. He began writing in June 2009, when the story was ready to be told.
"I remember that very clearly because even in May 2009, when my kids or my wife would ask me: 'What are you doing next? What's the next one?,' I didn't think it would be this one.
"I had a couple of other books that seemed more 'ready to go' and then the ending of this book .... just became rock solid and crystal clear. And I said: 'Oh, I see exactly how this book ends. This is the one.'"