Friday, August 12, 2005

John Irving and UNTIL I FIND YOU

John Irving’s novel Until I Find You has just been released. As you probably know, Irving has a long list of successful novels, including The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and The Hotel New Hampshire. So someone writing her second novel is going to listen to this man. Attentively.

Last night I attended a reading by John Irving in Vancouver’s St. Andrew’s-Wesley Church. In his prepared presentation, Irving read from Dickens more than from his own novel. He shared a scene from Oliver Twist where a psycho pit bull is compared to Christians. Irving said he might have chosen a different selection if he had known he would be speaking in a church. Of course, it’s possible that his choice was influenced by his having just flown out of George Bush Airport. Besides reading from Oliver Twist, he read the first paragraph of the last chapter and first paragraph of the first chapter of Until I Find You, as well as one of the penis-holding scenes. (Why is Until I Find You entitled Until I Find You: A Novel? Was it possible the publisher thought we wouldn’t figure it out? Like maybe it was an 848-page short story or screenplay?)

Irving’s best insights into writing came during the question-and-answer session. Since it was a large audience and time was limited, questions had to be written down before Irving’s presentation. While some authors give the impression that many (or most) of the questions from the audience are frivolous or naïve, Irving gave thoughtful and respectful answers—even to the question, obviously from someone who had already read all or part of his new book, “What’s with all the penis-holding?”

Please note that the questions and answers below are somewhat paraphrased, the questions because Irving grouped similar questions, the answers for brevity.

Question: Is it the duty of a writer to push boundaries?
Irving: If there wasn't something in a work that disturbed me, I wouldn't bother to write it.
He told a story about having lunch with his friend Stephen King. A snobbish neighbor who saw them together later said, "You and King? I find it hard to believe you have anything in common with HIM." Irving answered, "Stephen and I like to disturb people in different ways."

Question: What is your writing process?Irving: I write from the end to the beginning. The first thing I write is the last paragraph of the last chapter and then the first paragraph of the last chapter. I refer to those often for tone and to make sure I remember how it all comes out. Then I write the last and first paragraphs of the next-to-last chapter and so on. I find when I have the first and last paragraphs, it's easy to fill in the rest of the chapter. I find that knowing everything that will happen lets me concentrate on the architecture, that is, what to tell and what to hide, and when and how to reveal what was hidden.

My comments: I’m waiting for it to get easy. Maybe if I wrote backwards, it would! That part about hiding and revealing things confirms that I’m thinking along the right lines. That’s currently the main reason for my choice of POV characters for each section of the novel I’m working on. Deciding when and how to reveal what is hidden is crucial.

Question(s): Your new book is 848 pages long in hard cover. How long was the first draft? When you revise, do you find it harder to cut material or to add it?

Irving: I spent 6 years writing the first draft, with a few interruptions. My first draft was in first-person. Then I decided that this was really a third-person book. I spent a year rewriting it in third person, which naturally resulted in the loss of several thousand words, since third person is more economical. You need less exposition in third person, less explaining of how your narrator knows this or that. For me, revising is not usually about gaining or losing words or pages, since I write a lot of detail and find myself putting in as much as I take out.

My comments: It’s heartening to a beginner to see that a pro like Irving can write for six years in the “wrong” POV—and then spend a whole year correcting the mistake. POV is one of those BIG decisions I’ve been struggling with—until I decided to write on as I’m doing and then, if it doesn’t work out, change the POV in the next draft. If I do that, I’ll be in good company.

Question: How has having children influenced your writing--since you have child characters in almost all of your books?
Irving: I was twenty-two when my first son was born, and now, at sixty-three, I have a thirteen-year-old son. I have had one or more children at home almost all the years in between. Each age a child reaches is bound to make you remember yourself at that age, what you were thinking and doing. My whole life I never told anyone about the sexual experience I had with an older woman at the age of eleven or thought of it as abuse--until my oldest son reached that age. Then I told him.

My comments: I don’t have children, don’t plan to have them to give me more depth as a writer. In Counterfeit World, my FIRST novel, two characters, Laura Sedgewick and Shon Emerick (the “I” of the book) discuss how not having children—not being allowed to have children—may affect people who work in Space:

“People who choose the life of a Spacer, they’re willing to take more risks than most. They drink and drug more than average maybe. And a lot of them don’t like rules.” Then as if this was something she’d thought about for a long time, she added, “With reproduction forbidden to them, well, I think that keeps some of them in perpetual adolescence.”

Twenty-four months in space meant no babies. Ever. That was the law. One of many laws made by Earthers for Spacers. I wondered if Sedgewick had faced that
choice herself. Maybe she already had a husband and six kids before shipping out. Maybe that’s why she shipped out.

What I said was, “I suppose that’s a hard decision, whether to give up the chance to have babies. What if you feel one way in your twenties and another a few years

“Spacers aren’t much on regrets,” she replied. “Me, I left Earth late. Already had a kid. It changes you, having a person you care about more than yourself. It’s not that all Spacers are irresponsible or anything, but some of them never quite grow up.”

Moral of the story: Kids or no kids, when you’re a writer, you use what you’ve got. Even if you’re writing science fiction like Counterfeit World, your own experience is what you have to draw on. This, I think, is what’s really meant by “write what you know.” I don’t KNOW life on a space station orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars, but I do know what it’s like to be an adult without children and, in a sense, what it’s like to have that decision taken out of your hands.

John Irving on writers repeating themselves: All serious writers repeat themselves. It means you have something to say.
On complaints from those who disapprove of his work: I have no patience with people who are bothered by fiction. There are plenty of things in the real world to be bothered about.
On critics: It would be nice if people who don’t like long, old-fashioned plotted novels wouldn’t go on about how much they don’t like mine.
On reading his own completed novels: I reread passages from time to time. You can learn from yourself this way. I was trying to figure out how I could skip a long period of time in a novel. I went back to one of my novels where I had done that: “For fifteen years they were a couple.” Oh, that’s how you do it.
On why his books have deformed or disabled characters: Much of what I write has to do with missing things, with losing things, with not having things, with being “marked” in some way and how you handle this. The missing thing could be a hand—or a father. I write operatic—or gothic—novels and include a lot of perverse and macabre details.
On movies based on books: A book isn’t incomplete if it’s never made into a film. With Cider House Rules, I saw it as a movie from the beginning. It was the perfect shape for a film.
On the penis-holding: (Um… I think this post is long enough, don’t you?)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading about John Irving, what he had to say and your take on things. Thanks for sharing it.


5:58 PM  

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