Writer in Residence

Eighty Feet Without a Net - Conversations with John Irving

By Kevin Hardcastle

About a year ago I got an email that I had to read about twelve times over before it really settled in. That email was from Janet Turnbull Irving, the wife and agent of one of the most famous literary fiction writers in the world, John Irving. At the suggestion of Nick Mount (fiction editor at The Walrus, University of Toronto English Lit professor, and general champion) they asked me if I’d be interested in interviewing for a position as Irving’s assistant. Long story short, that assistantship ended up going to a far better person for the job, but I got along well with John and Janet, and talked a long while with them about a range of things from writing to wrestling to mixed martial arts to Georgian Bay. We stayed in touch over the past year, and I have been lucky enough to speak to John at length about various other things, literary or not, and to have had his endorsement of my short story collection, Debris. Surreal as it is to have that on the back cover, it speaks to Irving’s openness and willingness to engage with a writer just beginning their career.

Recently, I was asked to speak to John and write a profile on him for the National Post. Emily Keeler set that up and I owe her many, many high-fives. In meeting John again, I spoke to him for a long while about his new novel, Avenue of Mysteries. That book has been a great success, and the profile was well received, but I thought I’d ask John if I could share some more from our conversations with the good readers of Open Book Toronto. Irving said that it would be alright. So, as my final major post during my Open Book residency, I thought it would be nice to draw up some of these discussions of writing craft and the business of writing with John Irving, along with a bunch about his latest novel, and how it came to be. I don’t know about you, but I’ve not had a ton of access to this kind of insight from a writer who has been a the top of the field for so many years, and hearing Irving’s take on it was very interesting to me.

In any case, here it is for you to take a gander at…

Irving Studio

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JOHN IRVING LIVES IN TORONTO

Roughly five months ago I watched John Irving read at a launch party for Brick literary journal, in a room full with regulars from the Toronto literary community. In his introduction to the stage, the audience was told that Mr. Irving was now living full-time in Toronto, and that sent rumblings through the crowd. Some knew it already. Most didn’t. One of the most famous American novelists of our time lives in Toronto, and that is something. However, to John Irving, the move did not hold any special significance. In fact, it was a practical choice that had been in the works for some time.

“Janet and I have been living in Canada for as much as three or four months of the year now, for thirty years,” Irving says. “We spend every summer in Georgian Bay. We’ve always had a place in Toronto. I feel I have been living here for a long time.

“Because this is a move I was essentially long going to make, it doesn’t seem like a big thing. I will always be a US citizen. It’s highly likely that my perspective as a writer will remain an American perspective, but, when you think of it, this new novel, not exclusively - the subject of my novels is often an international subject – the characters in my novels are often not Americans. There’s very little of this new novel that’s even set in the United States.”

There is certainly something to be said about Irving’s draw internationally, and the fact that he has always seemed to be writing characters that capture the imagination of readers outside of North America. As I am a writer that spends his time reading a lot of rural American writers from the south, and my own work seems to befuddle mainstream Canadian markets, I’ve long been chasing after the idea of an eventual US breakthrough, and to have my books read alongside writers like Daniel Woodrell or Cormac McCarthy. Irving, as a born and bred American writer, and one coveted by many of his countryfolk, has a markedly different approach to those who might be looking toward the US in their writing.

“I went to school in a German speaking country,” he tells me. “One of my children was born in Austria. I’ve spent a lot of time abroad, and have spent a lot of time abroad in my fiction. So, you know, I’ve always been a lot more international the many American writers are. Many American writers are, what I would call, regional writers. The desire to write the so called ‘Great American Novel’ has always been a baffling idea to me. I hope to write great novels, but I fail to see what needs to be 'American' about them. So, let’s just say, the occasional bullying patriotism for which my country is, occasionally, well known, has not been an aspect of my countrymen I have ever much shared or participated in.”

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BLOOD ON THE MAT, BLOOD ON THE PAGE...

In my first conversations with Irving, we discussed his wrestling career and my far less capable skills in Muay Thai (Thai-Boxing or Kickboxing). I knew how good of a wrestler he was, and what that is worth, mainly as a result of my interest in Mixed Martial Arts, and the UFC, as so many excellent wrestlers end up in that sport after they run out of options in wrestling. In fact, wrestling is likely the best base you can have as an MMA fighter.

One of the reasons for that is the ability to control where the fight takes place, by being able to take the opponent down or to fight off takedowns if need be. This all has to be developed for MMA, but, the work ethic that wrestlers have is second to none when compared to other athletes. After our first meeting, John gave me a copy of his wrestling memoir, The Imaginary Girlfriend, where he chronicles his life in the wrestling room and how this relates to his writing life.

I wrote Irving a letter about this after reading it, as I found my training had made me a better writer, and that the focus necessary for a combat sport, and in dropping your ego entirely, relates very well to what you need to be ready for in the writing room as well.

“I’d agree with ninety percent of (your thoughts on that),” Irving tells me. “I’m not a hundred percent sure that the combat sport part of wrestling was what has become so lifelong and enduring in it’s effect on my writing. What I mean by that is, even if you’re not at the top level of competition, if you’re competing against people who are at the top level of competition, you have to train as hard as they do. And, I’m not sure that the combat part matters, in that, I think I could’ve been a skier for twenty years, or a tennis player for twenty years.

“But if you do it against the best people, for that long, with any sport, there is a brutal amount of repetition, which, if you don’t love it, you’ll never do it. And to most people, it would bore them to tears. The minutiae, for example, in wrestling, of how many times you drill with a workout partner, with a sparring partner, how many times you executed an outside single leg, or a high crotch, or an armdrag, or a duckunder, the number of times you hit those moves repeatedly and repeatedly (your opponent) hits his moves on you... and, even before you start the live sparring, the kind of drilling that precedes most workouts and concludes most workouts, is just... it’s numbing how many times you do the same small thing. For reasons I know you understand, when you’re out there with somebody in competition, you have to be able to react without thinking. Things that are not second nature have to become as if they were second nature. And those things don’t happen naturally.”

This is more to the point that I was trying to make, and that I flubbed in our talks while trying to connect my brain with the words coming out of my mouth. In that I believe that in wrestling, or in Muay Thai, or in MMA, as in writing, it is an illusion that somebody pulls off some sort of magical, transcendent performance out of nowhere, from either natural skill or some kind of divine inspiration. Good wrestlers or fighters, and good writers, do some creative or seemingly inspired things after years and years of drilling and practice, and that sort of fluidity of invention comes after all that work is put in and you can trust your foundation. You add talent to that, and you can find something truly special, but anyone who does not put in the work will be exposed over time.

And there it makes sense that Irving is known as one of the most industrious writers in the world, and has long ago given up on any precious ideas for his work, and there he finds the ability to rework busted ideas and move forward without his ego gumming up the works. That his work in the writing room is very similar in approach to his work in the wrestling room.

“Well, I can think of nothing that would’ve been better preparation,” Irving says. “For what I think one of my strengths as a writer is: which is my capacity, as a writer, to revise, reconstruct, rewrite, something I’ve already written, a hundred times. To just do it again, and again, and again. Even to the degree, and this is germane to Avenue of Mysteries - and this isn’t the only time this has happened - where I write something as a screenplay, I put it aside, I look at it. It’s a window into a life, that takes place in a small amount of time, and the novelist in me begins to imagine 'what if we didn’t see him again for forty years? What if.' And, all of a sudden, that thing you’ve written four, five, six drafts of as a screenplay has another possibility. And all of a sudden it’s not a movie anymore, and it’s me writing that part of the story – in the case of Avenue of Mysteries, the Mexican part of the story – as a novel.”

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WHERE AVENUE OF MYSTERIES CAME FROM…

Irving’s new novel, as he says, began as a screenplay. Originally he was shown photos of circuses in India and the child performers and acrobats there. Those images, some of which he showed me in his studio, were taken by his friend, the renowned photographer Mary Ellen Mark. These are powerful shots of young performers who would “skywalk” eighty feet from the ground, upside down, using only their feet, and then would take a bit in their teeth and let go of the rope, dangling in the air. Then they would be lowered to the ground while spinning, holding on by the strength of their bite on the anchored bit.

“I first wrote a couple of drafts of the screenplay in the late nineteen eighties,” Irving says, based on those photos shown to him by his friend, Mary Ellen Mark. “And, her husband, the British born filmmaker, Martin Bell, and I, thought this would be a movie that would really work for me. Children at risk, in a circus, where, arguably given the circumstances they’d come from, the circus might actually be a good idea. Or a better alternative to what happens to them if they don’t get to go to the circus. Maybe. But it’s still eighty feet without a net.”

The movie stalled, but John did not quit on the idea. Instead, he kept it fluid while he worked on other projects, and even utilized some of the material for an earlier, famous novel.

“I wrote a novel, A Son of the Circus, which, to a very small and very slight degree only, utilized that idea of those children at risk, Martin and I thought ‘okay, if we can’t get it made in India, where else could this story happen where it would be no less true, in fact, more true.’ And once again, Mary Ellen provided us with photographs of children, this time in a Mexican circus. And so, a trip to India, with Martin and Mary Ellen, as long ago as 1990, turned into many trips with Martin and Mary Ellen to Mexico (1997, 2008, 2009, 2014), looking at circuses, paying my respects to the Guadalupe shrine in Mexico city, citing locations for a film in Oaxaca, in the dump, in the Jesuit temple. And then, when the 'what if' idea occurred to me, and I thought, ‘well, I see the movie, I’ve always seen the movie.’ The movie, it begins with brother Pepe meeting the dump kids, and it ends with brother Pepe at the airport watching Diego leave with senor Eduardo and Flor. That’s the movie. But, the novel begins forty years later, when he’s on his way to fulfill that crazy promise. And, so, from the moment it became a novel, and I said to Martin, ‘woah, woah, woah, let me do this novel first and then we’ll come back and revisit the film.’”

In that way, this fourteenth novel by John Irving came to life. It is already being called one of the most successful works of his career, and has become another bestseller for the man. Still, Irving is not done with the material. He intends to make that part of the novel, entirely set in Mexico, into a feature. His friend Mary Ellen Mark sadly passed away last year, but Irving and Martin Bell have more plans for the remarkable circus and dump kids of Avenue of Mysteries, especially its two main characters, Juan Diego and Lupe.

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FATE, MYSTERIES, MIRACLES, HAUNTINGS - THE DANGEROUS LIFE OF A LONE WRITER

In Avenue of Mysteries, Juan Diego Guerrero is a dump kid, in a basurero where fires burn the mountains of refuse and where the children and dogs are the one constant, both trying to scavenge a living out of the trash. Dead dogs are thrown into the fires. Jesuits lament the lost children there. But, Juan Diego has taught himself to read from the books he has found, and has learned English as well. His sister, Lupe, is wild and speaks madly, but she sees far, reads thoughts, and knows possible futures for Juan Diego.

When we first meet Juan Diego, all of this is long gone. The basurero and Mexico and his sister exist only in his rather slippery memories. He is an old man at middle age, with a crippled foot, and is tinkering with his beta-blockers. He is the “ultimo perro,” the last dog. It seems another of Irving’s fated characters, on a journey toward the inevitable…

“You’re right. It’s not the first time I’ve been heavy with the foreshadowing,” Irving says “He’s a fifty-four year old man but he already looks ten years older? He’s already limping? He’s screwing around with his meds? – This is a journey to the end of his life. It’s that kind of a story, even if he doesn’t know it.”

Juan Diego is on his way to the Philippines to see the body of a soldier, the father of a man he knew in his childhood, a draft-dodger who died too young. His escape from Mexico some forty-years before was only made possible by a “miracle,” and the actions of his psychic, defiant sister. Juan Diego, as a boy, has seen the mysterious figures of two women, and, as a man, meets a mother and daughter on his travels who are not as they seem.

“My impression always was that those frightening women all in black, those two women mourning, in the temple where Rivera carries him (Diego) with his crushed foot – when he sees those women, and the pain goes away, and he thinks 'oh I must be dying. There is no pain. Oh, they must be mourning me.' And then when he looks again they’re gone, and the pack in back, and he thinks 'oh, I’m not going to die.' Not then. Right. Not then. But those women, or some ghostly or spiritual manifestation of them, they don’t go away. They will come with him, until he’s dead. And I think, just as I hope we feel the farther into his trip into the Philippines he goes, the more in danger or in peril he becomes. Even he begins to question, 'who are these women?' Which, most of us who don’t live as entirely in his imagination as Juan Diego does, most of us might have said 'give me your fuckin’ cellphone and let me see who you are.'"

Irving is referring Juan Diego’s strange state of consciousness, as a result of his being off his meds, and the way that dreams and reality blur together, they way he just allows these women into his life and does not think on it too deeply, until it is too late. He experiences moments of euphoria and painlessness with them, much as he did when he was severely injured as a boy.

“Yeah, the limp almost seems to disappear,” Irving says. “They have a magic touch of some kind… Let’s put it this way, it’s not the first time I’ve written about writers, but, it also… if it serves my purpose to medicate him, it also serves my purpose to make him a writer, because he’s a writer who lives alone. He has a pathetic love-life, and he’s very prone to imagine things. More than what he’s writing.”

In preparation to meet with Irving, for the Post profile, I watched a couple of two minutes promos for the new novel, put out by Random House. In both videos, it’s just Irving sitting and talking from a café table in Kensington Market, and in one of them, he tries to put that myth about autobiographical writing to bed, stating that he writes not about his life, but about what he fears could happen to his loved ones. Something I’ve talked about in my previous post on writing from real life.

“Not what has happened to me, but what I hope never does…” Irving says.

In the next video, he then goes on to talk about Juan Diego as a lone writer, with no family, who lives on his own. This idea that the lone writer is in real danger, with no checks and balances on their imagination, and no family to fear losing. I told John that I took this personally, as I basement-dwelling, single writer. He had a good laugh about that. But I did get his point, in relation to Juan Diego and how reality shifts for him. I also brought up a bit I’d heard recently by the comedian Bill Burr, about how living alone for too long might not be the best thing in the world for a person. To have nobody ask you: “Just what in the hell are you doing right now?”

“You can get in a lot of trouble that way.” Irving says. “No, it was important to… It was also important, I thought, to make the point that – and this is also something that is recurrent with me – I’m clearly attracted to that age between twelve and fifteen, where so much is changing in us. The whole adolescence to adulthood thing, the whole passage into or through puberty thing. That’s a period of your life where, if bad things happen, they will be more formative than if they happen to you later. And, you know, that’s a vulnerable time, and I’ve often begun a novel or begun a story at that sort of threshold. It’s an interesting time. And it can, in the case of Juan Diego, it does… what happens to him – or I should say, what happens to Lupe, which he can never explain, which can’t be explained – is extremely formative to the adult he will become. And that’s certainly thematic in my work, or even schematic, I suppose, in my work."

What happens to Lupe is tragic, and seems fated, like the eventual end-run of Juan Diego. But, it is all built by little bits of chance and decisions that she makes in order to get Juan Diego into a position to leave Mexico. Here, we find the “miracle” in Avenue of Mysteries, and another uncanny event from a John Irving novel. When a number of decisions by Lupe, who sees possible futures for her brother, leads to her death, and a weeping statue of the Virgin Mary when her ashes are laid there. Something she would have abhorred earlier, as an ardent supporter of the Virgin Guadalupe over Mary, an “imposter Virgin,” that is not indigenous to Oaxaca.

“Of course, the so-called 'miraculous' has interested me before,” says Irving. “In Owen Meany and Hotel New Hampshire, and in other things… Lupe is in the phase of hating the Mary Monster and putting all her chips with Guadalupe. And then does a turnabout. Well, the Mary Monster is… she wins them over…”

This all happens as a Jesuit priest, who has fallen for a trans prostitute, is planning on leaving the church and taking Juan Diego with them to America.

“And, that was what I was looking for as I thought, the real miracle is that the church would ever condone letting this boy go, with a homosexual man, and his transvestite hooker as a partner. And, the only thing that would make them do it, is if the virgin cries. And now they’re stuck. The miracle is that Juan Diego gets to leave.”

Earlier in the story, Lupe has told Juan Diego “we are the miraculous ones,” and eventually it turns out to be true. While Avenue of Mysteries deals in miracles and the supernatural and fated lives, in is also a very human novel, rooted in these two extraordinary children surrounded by trash, and hellfires, and the bodies of dogs. In the hands of a lesser writer, the fantastical elements of Irving’s latest novel might have been overwhelming, but, as always, the humanity of Irving’s characters makes these miracles and mysteries all the more significant, believable, and transformative.

There is one last thing that I wanted to ask Irving, about Diego’s “fated” end. In that these characters live hard lives, and they’re judicious with their faith. They’re not strictly “religious” but they don’t give up entirely on the faith. I very much liked that toward the end, Juan Diego still has his dreams and is still remembering his life – and in them he is the “skywalker” at the circus in Mexico, “The Wonder.” Which he never really got to be. The novel supposes that these characters dream the lives that they “wished they’d lived,” these “heroic” lives. And that seems enough for Juan Diego. Even if he knows this is part of the dream.

“Well, it makes him feel a little better about Lupe.” Irving says. “That realization or that recognition that, oh, it isn’t the life after that you get. What you get is the life you imagine you might have had. Which is a surprisingly kind of sunny life-after thought, or sunny for me anyway.”

Avenue of Mysteries - Launch_1

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CHANGES IN THE WORLD OF WRITING, AND WHAT THAT MEANS FOR JOHN IRVING

It is well known to young writers today that the industry has changed, and that you have to bust your ass a whole lot from the beginning, and do a number of things that were not always the job of a successful literary fiction writer. I have talked about this at length in my time as Open Book Writer-In-Residence, that there are a number of things that a writer must do now to be successful, and that they have to be very aware of the reality of what “success” really means these days.

Well, it is very interesting to talk to a writer who has had massive, global success with literary fiction, and who still manages to keep it up in the current publishing climate. Even for Irving, things have changed. I asked Irving how he has managed to be so successful as a true literary fiction writer in this era of publishing. Irving maintains his success and readership hinges partially on the strength of that international reach that I wrote about at the beginning of this post.

“I’m lucky I do (have those foreign markets). I’m lucky that almost half of my income as a writer is from translations,” Irving says. “And, you should also include, in the answer to why I moved here (and sold the house in Vermont), the most… probably the most true and unromantic reason of all, is that even for a writer who is doing as relatively well as I am, I sure am not doing as well as a writer as I was two or three books ago. By far. Nor is any writer.”

Nonetheless, Irving has stayed at the top of the literary world, and this is likely because of his work ethic and his base as a tenacious, industrious author. I have talked some on Open Book about the obligations of an emerging writer, outside of just the writing, and how much work you might have to do to get there, and how much more might come if you are truly successful. I have seen this firsthand through the runaway success of titles from my publisher, Biblioasis, during this fall season. Writers at the top, like Irving, are touring constantly, and putting up with weirdos like me who ask to talk to them for profiles and interviews and so on. So, while Irving might have lived through a much different time in literary publishing, he has also adapted and worked to stay in the forefront. He has followed sideroads to screenwriting and to non-fiction and children’s fiction, and always has a number of projects in the works.

At the moment, Irving is touring for Avenue of Mysteries, and he also tells me that he is working on the teleplay for a five part miniseries based on The World According to Garp, this between his tour dates for the new novel. After that, it looks like he’ll be onto the screenplay for a Spanish language adaptation of Avenue of Mysteries that will breath life back into Juan Diego and Lupe.

As ever, Irving is working tirelessly and putting in those hours in the writing room. He is still focused on the craft, on the words and the lines. He is always capable of making a little bit of magic happen, and able to work his way toward it if he doesn’t get there the way he planned at the beginning.

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That is all for me. I hope you found some of those topics interesting, and that our discussions of them struck a chord in one way or another. I know it is a pile of information, and it is not as succinct as the shorter profiles I’ve written on John Irving for the Post, in print and online. Still, I wanted to share some of these conversations with you on my last day as Open Book Toronto Writer-In-Residence. It only seems fitting in that we’ve started together at the beginning, from first stories and first books, and end up here, rubbing elbows with a literary fiction writer with the kind of readership worth aspiring to.

Thanks again for reading. It has been a good month. Know that I appreciate all of you Open Book readers, and all of your responses to my posts. If you ever want to see what I'm up to, check out my crap WordPress. New Hardcastle writings and writing things and news are only a click away...

So long.
Hardcastle

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Kevin Hardcastle is a fiction writer from Simcoe County, Ontario. He studied writing at the University of Toronto and at Cardiff University. His work has been widely published in journals including The New Quarterly, The Malahat Review, Joyland, Shenandoah and The Walrus. Hardcastle was a finalist for the 2012 Journey Prize, and his short fiction has been anthologized in The Journey Prize Stories 24 & 26Best Canadian Stories 15, and Internazionale.

Hardcastle’s debut short story collection, Debris, was published by Biblioasis in 2015. Debris won the 2016 Trillium Book Award, the 2016 ReLit Award for Short Fiction, was runner-up for the 2016 Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and was a finalist for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize.

His novel, In the Cage, will be published by Biblioasis in Fall 2017.