Bookforum talks with John Irving

Last Night in Twisted River: A Novel BY John Irving. Random House. Hardcover, 576 pages. $28.

John Irving always starts his stories at the end, which is why it has taken him nearly twenty years to write his twelfth novel, Last Night in Twisted River (Random House, $28). “The ending just eluded me,” he said in late September, when he spoke to me by phone from his Vermont home. “I knew only that there was a cook and his son, in a rough kind of place, and something happens to make them fugitives.” The protagonists in this exquisitely crafted, elliptically structured novel—a gripping story that spans five decades and extends across northern New England and Ontario—are Dominic Baciagalupo, a cook at a logging camp, and his son, Danny, who will eventually become a successful writer, much like the author. Writers figure prominently in Irving’s fictional worlds, and portraying them is often an opportunity to poke fun. But Danny offers a rare glimpse into Irving’s own literary evolution, confessed the sixty-seven-year-old author. During the course of our conversation, Irving defended the plot-driven novel against postmodernists and stuck up for the virtues of at least one famously cranky gun-loving libertarian.

BOOKFORUM: You’ve said you always start writing a novel with your last sentence and work your way backward. How do you imagine the whole story before that sentence?

JOHN IRVING: I had many learning disabilities as a kid—dyslexic kinds of things. Maybe it’s just a very plodding way of being careful. I probably wrote half a dozen books before I thought, This is how I do it. The first couple of times it happened I thought, Why begin at the back of the story and work your way to the front? I didn’t know anybody else who did that, and you wonder if you’re going about it in the right way. After five or six novels, I thought I was getting better at it, so why change it. And I began to anticipate that last sentence. I wait until I feel there’s an ending that is completely there, and then I start constructing a story.

BF: Danny is hardly the first writer to show up in one of your novels, but his literary evolution would appear to mirror yours.
JI: The World According to Garp [1978] is about a writer. So is A Widow for One Year [1998]. A Son of a Circus [1994] is about a doctor who is a not very good writer. I wouldn’t say this novel is autobiographical, but Danny’s method is very much my method. In the case of Ruth Cole [from A Widow for One Year], I was making fun of the kind of research many writers do, but I wasn’t writing about my process, although I feel a lot closer to her than I ever did to Garp. With The World According to Garp, I was writing about the kind of artist that as a young man I had a low regard for, someone who was always looking for other things to do rather than be a writer. When I was writing my first four novels, I wished that all I had to do was to be a writer. I didn’t become self-supporting as a writer—
BF: Until after Garp.

JI: Yeah. I was teaching English and coaching wrestling. I was already married and had a child when I was still a college student, and I didn’t know what [self-supporting] writers were complaining about. I thought, Jesus, if I could afford to do this all day, what’s the problem? I never had writer’s block.

BF: Critics pounce on authors who revisit themes and images, as you do: writers, bears, deadly accidents.
JI: I’ve always been interested in the impatience the critic has with a novelist’s many ways of repeating him- or herself, because to me, repetition in fiction is the necessary concomitant of having something worthwhile to say. Would someone say of Shakespeare, “What is it with all these dysfunctional royal families?” “Is everybody’s mother sleeping with their uncle?” How many good marriages did Tennessee Williams write about? [Laughs.]

BF: Have you ever considered writing a book of essays on the art of the novel?

JI: I’ve been tempted to, but every time I start, I think, Why don’t I just say it in a lecture and write another novel? Increasingly, I see myself as a very old-fashioned, plot-oriented, character-oriented storyteller. The intricacy of plot and construction was very apparent to me as a reader of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, but it’s not so recognizable in modern literature and even less so in contemporary literature. I feel I am standing up for a world of literature that is not much practiced anymore when I say that the nineteenth-century novel is the model of the form for me. When I hear plot disparaged as outdated or unbelievable or not worth doing anymore, I can’t help but wonder if the writer who is saying that is saying that because he or she can’t do it.

BF: Danny, a sensitive soul, believes it is necessary to be detached in order to become a keen observer and a good writer.
JI: At one point, Danny says something I’ve heard myself say: The things that have affected him most are the things that he has to wait awhile before writing about. It’s been very true of me. I was pretty determinedly not a practitioner of autobiographical fiction. But the longer I get away from something—the political anger, the personal hurt, the psychological obsession—the easier it is to write about. And the more I can afford to be playful or, a better word, manipulative. The most formative experiences for Jack in Until I Find You [2005]—his relationship with his mother, of not knowing who his father is, the too early and too many sexual experiences—were the closest I’d come to writing about my unknown father, my relationship to my mother, and my preadolescent sexuality. But it was not my first novel; it was my eleventh novel. I was already in my late fifties when I began, and I knew I would be over sixty before I finished it. I could have written that novel in my twenties or thirties, but if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to invent a mother as awful as Jack’s. I would have been too attached to my own autobiography to manipulate it. My earliest sexual experience, at age eleven, was with a woman in her twenties—I don’t think it screwed me up nearly as much as I intended for it to screw up Jack. But I was writing about it years later so that I could make Jack ten and make that woman in her forties, a woman who had already abused one of her own children. I think you see things better when you can ask, “Am I still angry enough to write about it? Yes. But I am not quite so angry that I can’t change some of the particulars of how it affected me and make it affect someone else differently?” A well-made novel is a whole lot looser than whatever your messy life has been.

BF: Your mentor Kurt Vonnegut, who passed away in 2007, makes a cameo in these pages and counsels Danny about publishing. Did he actually say these things to you?

JI: Almost word for word. Unlike Danny, who never sees him again, though, Kurt was a big part of my life, long after Iowa. We lived near each other in Sagaponack [New York]. I saw more of him in those years than I did when I was his student in Iowa, although we did watch the Six-Day War together in Iowa City. He knew I didn’t have a TV. This was in 1967. I used to go to his house with my two-year-old son, Colin. Kurt didn’t have toys around, so we went into the kitchen, and we dragged out all the pots and pans and put them on the floor and gave Colin a wooden spoon and said, “It’s a war, Colin. Make the appropriate noise.” And we cranked up the volume on the TV and watched the war, and Colin beat the death out of the pots and pans [laughs]. Thank God the war didn’t go on for too long!

BF: Danny has another interesting mentor: Ketchum, a master embellisher, who also happens to be an illiterate logger and a libertarian in the truest sense.

JI: I wanted a part of Ketchum’s cantankerous libertarianism to be speaking from a kind of brutal frontier logic, which I think is more widespread in regions of this country than people suspect. There’s something certainly understandable if not always attractive about a libertarian position. I had lunch in 1999 with Charlton Heston when we were promoting the film of The Cider House Rules [1985], at a Planned Parenthood fund-raiser following a special screening. I only met him that one time, and he was a far more sophisticated fellow than the Ketchum I imagined, but where I’ve lived most of my life—New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine—a lot of people think that way. Anyway, people were terribly upset that Mr. Heston had shown up because they viewed him as a right-wing, conservative gun nut: How dare Heston appear at such a liberal thing as a Planned Parenthood event. I said, “You got this guy all wrong. This guy is a libertarian! He wants to hang on to his guns for the same reason he doesn’t want to tell anybody she can’t have an abortion.” I was the only one who would sit with him [laughs]. I thought, C’mon, guys, he’s giving money to your cause! He has supported you all along. Heston said he could see he was making the abortion rights people anxious, and he couldn’t convince them he was on their side. He said, “I always know how to get them riled up.” And I said, “How’s that?” And he said, “I ask them if they’d like to come see my guns.”