Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I always wanted to be John Irving ...

I always wanted to write just like John Irving. From the time I read "A Prayer for Owen Meany," I figured THAT'S the way to write a book.

Actually, Irving has written perhaps the two most "perfect" books I've ever laid eyes upon: "The Cider House Rules" and "Owen Meany." For him, I'd imagine, duplicating such perfection can be daunting ... sort of like asking The Beatles to top the three-year period where they produced "Rubber Soul," "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper."

You can try ... but how many times can you be perfect? That's why there have only been a handful or so perfect games in Major League baseball over my lifetime. Even when you're very good, you invariably fall short of the mark. It doesn't mean you've lost your stuff. Indeed, Irving has come through since "Owen Meany" with some fine writing. But the harmonic convergence of a good plot, some heart-tugging language, and some serious (in my case) geographical nostalgia put these two books right at the top for me.

To wit: He had me in "Owen Meany" when he started talking about Hampton Beach, N.H.

But the problem with wanting to write like John Irving is that you can't. Nobody can. This isn't to say nobody has the talent to write a Victorian novel in the 21st century (which is essentially what most of Irving's writing is). It's just that nobody can do it quite like he does, because ... well ... he's John Irving and we're not.

Last night, Irving -- at the behest of an advanced creative writing class at Boston University -- read a passage from the book he is now writing (and as usual, the plot is very UN-mainstream) and then answered questions afterward. For someone who has so thoroughly enjoyed Irving's writing over the last quarter of a century (God, am I that old that I can toss that remark off so casually??), it was a rare treat to sit in that lecture hall and listen to a real master.

I've always heard that it's difficult for geniuses to talk about their genius. John Lennon and Paul McCartney reveal(ed) their innermost feelings about their music in much the same way a hostile witness testifies in a murder case. And with pretty much the same expressions on their faces. In their eyes (and I daresay in most eyes) the muse is best left unspoken.

But Irving was pretty candid about some of the thought processes that went into some of his books -- most notably "The World According to Garp." He said he was angry when he wrote that book ... and it's main thrust is about sexual prejudices.

Having read the book once or twice (I think I've read all his books multiple times), it's an issue that I sense was "blowing in the wind," but I could never quite nail it down. But, he said, "Garp's mother is killed by a man who hates women; and Garp is killed by a women who hates men."

True enough. And when you add the whole aspect of Roberta, the transgender ex-pro football player, that point is reinforced even more (I still cannot see John Lithgow as anyone else BUT Roberta, unfortunately).

But there were other nuggets. He says that Johnny Wheelright in "Owen Meany" is "probably gay." He doesn't know. He thinks he is. In the book, he refers to Johnny as "a non-practicing homosexual" because that's the term his mother always used for such confirmed bachelors.

However, after broaching that subject, he offered this: I'm convinced that John Wheelright is the type of person whose feet were planted firmly in the closet ... and would remain there all his life. He just couldn't say it."

All of which brings up an interesting point that I wish someone had asked him (I got there too late to write down any of the thousand million questions I had): Is there symbolism, then, that the one time Johnny got sexually aroused -- while playing with his cousin, Hester -- it was in a closet?

His homosexuality -- even in its latent, "nonpracticing" form -- is one very plausible explanation, perhaps, as to why Johnny never got over Owen's death.

Irving said he lives by Herman Melville's creed of "woe to him who seeks to please and not to appall." And I say bravo for that! Irving's books wouldn't be nearly as interesting were it not for some awfully quirky characters who get themselves into insane predicaments. And there, too, Irving has it all planned out.

"What I do, basically, is create characters who are pretty likeable, but who get themselves into situations I'd never, ever want to be in myself," he said. "And then, I think of everything bad that can possibly happen to them."

Well, yes. That's what creates conflict and drama. He said he'd never want to be Wilbur Larch, the doctor in Cider House Rules, who -- childless -- nevertheless forges a paternal bond for Homer Wells. The conflict between them arises over abortion.

Wilbur is a ob/gyn who works at an orphanage, and he sees how scarred these orphans are from a lifetime of knowing that they weren't wanted, and he feels that rather than put innocent children through that kind of colossal rejection, it would be better for all concerned if they were aborted.

Homer, an orphan (and this, here, is Irving talking last night) knows that the only thing his mother EVER gave him was life ... and, seeing the situation from the other side, isn't as eager to see the procedure as a way out.

If ONLY John Lennon were as poignantly up front about some of HIS music. I mean, I was hanging on every word.

Much of Irving's discussion last night involved the writing of novels themselves. In other interviews, he's said that writing a book is like building a house. Last night, he shared some of his blueprints.

For example, he said, he writes the ending first. He always knows where his stories want to end up. And then, he says, he works backwards to a beginning. He also said he never wants the voice of the book -- in whatever form it takes -- to sound the same as it does at the end. For a lot of reasons, he said. All his books involve the passage of time, which means that his characters mature into adulthood (and sometimes into senior citizen-hood) as they progress. They grow, both chronologically and emotionally, and he has to tailor his characters -- and their dialogues -- accordingly.

He also meticulously outlines his plots ahead of time so that by the time he's ready to write, all he has to worry about is the writing.

Someone asked him if he was ever surprised at how things turn out in his books. No, he said. He didn't like surprises. In fact, he said, he could almost tell you the chapter -- and sometimes be able to pinpoint it even closer than that -- in which momentous things happen to his characters.

He always writes the last lines of his novels right away ... and, he said, they've never changed. His beginnings? They always change. In fact, he said, he has trouble writing beginnings. But never endings.

Also, he writes all his books -- at least in the initial draft -- in longhand, because it forces him to go slow. He doesn't want to write quickly -- a luxury, he says, that being self-supporting with his writing affords him.

"My last seven novels were better put together than my first five," he said, "because by then I was self-supporting, and had more time to write them. You can't do your best work when you only have an hour or two per day to write them."

He also said -- perhaps to the dismay of many budding authors in the crowd -- that he constantly rewrites ("I love to rewrite"), thus adding more labor, and time, to the process. Since few people I know have that kind time, hearing that was a rather depressing and daunting thing.

Irving is a man who -- in his writing and in person -- doesn't mind poking you with the sharp end of the stick. For example, he said he got all over a journalist ("wouldn't be the first time a journalist has pissed me off") because, in a reference to Melville's "Moby-Dick," he forgot the hyphen.

"Do you know how important the hyphen is?" he asked. "Without the hyphen, Moby's just one of a family of Dicks. There's Mrs. Dick. And maybe Robert Dick."

Needless to say, he had his fans in hysterics.

Now, I have to confess here that, as one who did not see all the greatness in "Moby-Dick," I didn't know there was a hyphen. And I'm guessing that not a lot of people do either. It's liberally written both ways. And, in fact, there's dispute as to whether there ever was hyphen in the first place (a cursory Google search just now reveals this).

But as a standup routine, especially for one who is no Robin Williams, it wasn't bad.

(Parenthetically, the only thing we ever did, as kids, when we had to read it, was add an apostrophe to "Moby," making his Dick possessive.).

But take heart, people. One of the last things Irving said was that his way of writing was his way, and he'd never be so presumptuous as to say it was the only way. It works for him. That doesn't mean it works for everybody.

But it makes sense. Especially if you're like me, and -- because of what I do for a living -- you think in short bursts and get it all out there in 700 words or less. You do need to know where you're going ... and how you intend to get there. Otherwise, you're just Bullwinkle J. Moose yelling, "go, go, go! But watch where you're going."

I've always wanted to be John Irving. Sort of like Being John Malkovich.

And it's always bothered me that I cannot. I creates writers blocks in me that have always prevented me from achieving one of my lifelong goals: to complete a novel. I've started more than I can count. I always run into a wall. And one of the reasons I've always run into a wall is because -- to bastardize a modern-day question -- I always start asking, "WWJID."

Perhaps a better question would be, "WWMCD."*

*(What would my CHARACTER do?)

This doesn't mean I don't take the advice as it's given. Obviously, his success points to the validity of his methods. But -- as someone said to me yesterday -- perhaps it's time to stop trying to be John Irving and start being Steve.

OK. Maybe it is.

1 comment:

Karen said...

How great you went to see him Steve - I agree, those 2 books are the best ever. What did you think of Until I Find You? I was really disappointed in that one - as one reviewer said: "It's particularly disappointing that Until I Find You proves to be such a flabby belly-flop of a book." !