So today we are taking a slight detour south of the river, as one of my favourite late childhood authors, John Irving, was making a rare UK appearance at the Southbank to promote his new novel, Last Night at Twisted River, which is inspired in part by Bob Dylan’s epic, beautiful song, Tangled up in Blue.
I don’t know if I would have fallen in love with his work quite so hard if I’d discovered it later. But my parents had a copy of The World According to Garp hanging around, and when I first discovered it, around the age of nine, it was the first adult novel I’d ever read. I only understood fragments, but I was blown away by the living-and-breathingness of the characters, the Americaness, the sex, the drama, the language, the passing of whole lives, the mother, the death, everything. I went on to read The Water Method Man, Setting Free the Bears, The Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules and finally, on publication of A Son of the Circus, my love affair reached a sad conclusion, deciding that his early books had an energy and compression that seemed to have fizzled out (or maybe I just wanted a change. It’s not you, John. It’s me). He claimed the later ones are better as he had more time to work on them. I would argue that a shortage of time isn’t such a disadvantage, you cut to the chase, to the heart of the story, and the reader senses that urgency and keeps up. Having said that, his new one sounds good, and I’ll be buying it once I get past Mantel’s massive Wolf Hall. It seems the epic, doorstop novel is back in fashion.
Anyway, it was exciting to finally see my first writer-hero in the flesh. He’s a bit of a silver fox, with a composed, sober, dryly humorous demeanour. The Elizabeth Hall was absolutely rammed, and he received a very, very long round of applause before he’d said a word. This was an uber-author reading, not the usual yes-I’ll-sign-your-entire-back-catalogue-and-make-polite-chitchat scenario you see with the Kate Grenvilles and Tim Wintons and even Hilary Mantels of the world.
He left the stage without a backward glance, as people moved towards it waving old editions helplessly at his sturdy, swiftly departing back. Anyway, I scribbled down a few of his comments, which I will share here.
On having children: I had children from an early age, my first was born when I was twenty-two and still at university, my youngest is 18 and still living with us. So for all those years from 22 to 67 one or more of my children has been living with me. As a writer it’s been enormously beneficial. Having a child in your home, in your life, allows you to remember things about yourself at that age that you had forgotten. And for someone who has made children as important as I have in my fiction it’s been good luck to live with them for so long.
On being dyslexic, and how this has helped his writing: You assume nothing you do the first time is going to be right, so you rework it. I can’t think of a better habit for a writer than to believe your first draft is flawed. It’s a gift. It’s a shame more writers don’t have it. I would finish more books if writers would redraft them. Or even re-read them.
On knowing he wanted to be a writer: I was an angry child, with an angry mother. I started writing a journal and wrestling at the age of fourteen, and it felt like being in control. Writing and wrestling both taught me to stay in control, to focus, to not lose my temper. And I was not in control before that.
On advice to his students: In wrestling you repeat a little drill twenty times until it works. Rewriting is like that. If you can’t be excited by it, if you find it tedious, you’re in the wrong job. I had a student who said to me ‘I don’t like rewriting. I like the creative part.’ He was the only student I ever got mad at. I said ‘Rewriting is the creative part, asshole.’ I don’t know what he’s doing now. I haven’t read anything.
On having his novels made into films A novel loses nothing by not being made into a film. Sometimes it’s a triumph. Novels can do the passage of time, follow a character’s whole life from childhood to adulthood and the reader never loses sight of the child. You can’t do that with a film because you have to change actors. And you can’t lose the passage of time because how long it all takes to happen is what a novel is about.
On people trying to identify the autobiographical elements in his work: The things that compel us, that repeat themselves, are more interesting than those easily identified landmarks. I told Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter he was appearing in my book as the character’s teacher (as Vonnegut taught him at the famous Iowa University’s Writing Workshop) and she said ‘well he would only be disappointed that, being dead, he couldn’t tease you about it.’
On being taught to write: You can’t teach anybody that doesn’t already know what they’re doing. You can’t make a dancer out of somebody who has terrible balance. I taught TC Boyle, but it wasn’t really teaching him. I just recognised he was going about a hundred miles an hour and got out of the way.
On his favourite novel, out of the twelve he was written: They are like children. You may feel differently about some of them but you don’t single them out. I am aware of which are the most popular but it doesn’t influence me. I feel strongly that any of the last seven is better made, more conscious and careful, than any of the first five. Speaking as the builder, the architect, there is no question that the last seven are better built.
On writing the last sentence first: This becomes a roadmap back through the novel. Once I have the last sentence, I have the novel.