Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Widow's Walk

John Irving discusses his latest novel and the process of fiction writing

By Nicholas Patterson

JULY 6, 1998: 

JOHN IRVING'S A Widow for One Year (Random House, 608 pages, $27.95) opens with Ruth Cole, age four, walking into her mother Marion's bedroom and discovering her having sex with Eddie, the 16-year-old assistant to Ruth's father, Ted. This memorable scene sets the stage for an event that changes Ruth's life forever: Marion's abandonment of her. Crushed by the deaths of her two sons, Thomas and Timothy, in a car accident before Ruth was born, and convinced that her grief prevents her from being a good mother, Marion decides to disappear from her daughter's life.

The rest of the novel examines how this abandonment shapes Ruth's development and how she comes to terms with it. Irving reintroduces us to Ruth at age 36, now a successful author who experiences the trauma of witnessing a prostitute's murder and struggles to decide whether to marry a man she doesn't love. Finally we find Ruth at age 41, a recent widow and single mother, about to fall in love for the first time.

Combining his sharp wit with keen observations about human nature and sexual politics, Irving creates a fascinating portrait of a difficult and angry woman. As in his previous work (which includes The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and The Cider House Rules),
A Widow'splot is complicated and its
characters often eccentric.

I spoke with Irving for almost two hours before he appeared recently at the Brattle Theatre. This interview is an edited transcript of that conversation. The final question was posed by a member of the Brattle audience.

Q: Your novels often explore emotionally charged situations. A Widow for One Year revolves in many ways around the aftermath of a car crash that kills two teenage brothers and the effect this has on their sister, who was born after the accident. Why do you choose to deal with these kinds of explosive issues?

A: It seems to me that if a writer is unwilling to commit himself or herself to an emotional novel, to the creation of people whom you shamelessly intend the reader to be moved by -- if you don't dare to do that, you can't very well expect readers to be moved. If you haven't taken the risk, if you don't risk the fire of sentimentality, then you don't get the reward of readers who are more than intellectually curious about your book, who are psychologically, emotionally involved in the lives of your characters.

It's why the 19th-century novel remains the model of the form to me. It's the pinnacle of what the novel can achieve, both as a form of entertainment and as a work of art that engages you on all levels -- intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically. I remain underwhelmed by what modernism and postmodernism have given us in the novel. I'm unimpressed. Even the contemporary writers that I most admire are essentially 19th-century storytellers at heart: Robertson Davies, Günter Grass, [Gabriel] García Márquez, Salman Rushdie. All these people are writing huge, labyrinthine, plot-driven, character-oriented novels. They are all comic novels. I feel I am decidedly rooted in another century: I can't wait for the 20th century to be over [laughs].

Q: A Widow for One Year is your first novel with a traditional linear plot since The Hotel New Hampshire, in 1981. Why?

A: That's a tough question. So much of what I do is very planned and very deliberate and considered over a long period of time. But in this case, frankly, it's for no better reason than that it's been 17 years and three novels since I did a relatively simple chronological narrative. I kind of missed it. I thought that it would be fun to begin one of those stories that goes "when she was four . . . " But even so, I resisted the idea for six months or so.

I felt it was essential to create Ruth's story, because she is not a warm and cuddly character; she's a bitter, sexually frustrated, sexually insecure, sexually angry young woman. I wanted to afford her the most sympathy I could, because I thought, she's going to need it later when we see how she treats her father. She hardly sheds a tear at the funeral, [and] we see the kind of sexual self-deprecation she is capable of, the sexual experimentation, the kind of cold view she takes toward herself. I think that if most of us had first met her at 36 or 41, we'd be troubled. I don't know that this is a likable woman. This is someone to be careful of. But I think if we see what hits her upside the head when she is four years old, and you see how she has grown up -- the womanizing father, the mother who leaves her when she is four, the horrible awareness that these dead brothers whom she's never met are clearly more important in her mother's and her father's life than she is. That is a tough thing. I had to begin this story at the beginning to give Ruth every available amount of the reader's sympathy I could summon.

Q: How do you research and write your novels?

A: My process is to spend at least six months, more frequently a year, making a kind of street map of the story. I feel I not only have to know what happens at the end of the story, but I have to experiment with writing the end of the story and find what I imagine might be the tone of voice at the end of the story. I need four or five pages of an end, which as I begin a story I am constantly fiddling with, so that by the time I get there, I have already been there. It's a tone of voice that you are conscious of trying to imitate from the opening sentence.

It's built on a very simple premise: that in all our lives there probably aren't more than three or four other people who really have changed the course of our lives, for better or for worse. And if you are going to tell anybody's story, you have to know who those other people are.

Lawrence once said of the novel that it was the most subtle example available to us to demonstrate the interconnectedness of things. Well, that's good, I don't dispute that, and in his hands he made good evidence of that. But I would also say that it can be a most unsubtle example. There's nothing subtle about me. Lawrence is subtle, more often than not, but I'm not.

The demonstration of the interconnection of things, in my case, usually means the interconnectedness of characters' lives. It means that at a critical moment of self-doubt, Ruth is going to meet Scott Saunders. Why is she going to decide to marry this guy, who is a decent man and a good man and knows her like a book, but whom she is not in love with?

Q: Women play important roles in your work, but Ruth is your first female protagonist. Why did you finally choose to make a woman your principal character?

A: I felt that many of the things that I wanted my character to be vulnerable to are things that men are not as vulnerable to as women. Men don't hold themselves as accountable for their sexual misjudgments as women do. Women feel just awful when they've picked a bad boyfriend. Most guys have had bad-girlfriend equivalents, and most guys say, "Oooh, that was a mistake." But they don't berate themselves, they don't go into a mode of three months of self-deprecation and self-loathing for having made that kind of mistake. Women do. That's just psychologically true. It's not my job to say why; it's my job to observe that.

Most people with interesting lives have, by a certain age, some kind of sexual past. Men can tell jokes about it, even to their wives. It's okay to have a sexual past if you're a man, provided that you don't endlessly repeat yourself. But if you're a woman and you have a sexual past, it's the kind of thing you keep quiet about. It's the kind of thing that you realize you don't tell your husband about, or your husband feels miserable for three years. You're kind of taught to keep your indiscretions to yourself. There's a double standard.

I wanted, in other words, for the book to reflect points of vulnerability in a woman's life that a man might not necessarily feel.

Q: But you make Ruth a very tough person. She beats her boyfriend senseless after he sexually assaults her. Although you stack the deck against her, you make her up to the challenge.

A: Well, I try to. It's true, she is tough. She is responsible. I think that she is responsible for her actions. It's what we want of people, it's what we expect of people at their best.

Q: A Widow is populated by writers -- Ruth, Ted, Eddie, Marion. All of them grapple with the question of whether writers should base their work on life experiences or imagination. What are your thoughts on this?

A: I think it is a much more complicated subject than it is usually seen as. I think most journalists' approach is that if there is any convincing verisimilitude at all, it must have really happened to one degree or another. I think most fiction writers resent that presumption. At the same time, I think most fiction writers, like Ruth, deny the existence of what legitimate autobiography is there. So I wanted to trap her and make her aware of how she is skating herself out onto thin ice. But at the same time, I think I demonstrate in the descriptions of her work that she is capable of imagining things truly. She writes a book about being a widow before she is a widow, and she comes out of her year of mourning with a vengeance, saying, "God damn, I knew what this was like before I knew it."

I believe that autobiography is a perfectly acceptable grounds for a novel. I just feel that many novels are compromised as fiction by the inability of the writer to go beyond or to imagine anything beyond his or her personal traumas.

The only autobiographical character who is no amalgam and no invention in my nine novels is the grandmother in A Prayer for Owen Meany, who is a minor character and who is as much like my grandmother, who died just before I began that book, as I could make her. I really gave that character every quality I could remember of my own grandmother, including my own grandmother's name, which was Harriet -- I mean Helen. Close enough.

As many similarities as there are between Ruth and me regarding what we think a novelist should be, there are also serious differences. I have never suffered from the public role of being a writer, as most of my women writer friends suffered. That aspect of Ruth, of feeling on the defensive, much beleaguered, all that tension she feels in the public part of her persona, is nothing that troubles me or has troubled me. I spend so many years writing a book, four or five, that I really enjoy the brief amount of public life I have when I am in between books. This time I did a four-city tour, which is one city more than I usually go to. I usually go to Los Angeles and Denver, because my two grown children live there. I go to New York, because you can do a lot of national media from New York. And that's it. More than half my income comes from translation: I'd rather spend a week in Germany than in the United States, or a week in France, or two weeks in the Scandinavian countries. I'm psyched to go to Europe in a way that I'm not enticed by the prospect of traveling around North America.

Q: Do you think there is a different kind of readership in Europe than in the States?

A: Writers are valued in those cultures in a way that writers are not valued in this culture. We're the fast food of culture in this country. We're a movie culture. We're a TV culture. We not only value our literary authors insufficiently, we don't really care what they think. The two worst bestseller lists in Western countries -- and when I say worst, what I mean is the two bestseller lists that are least populated with literary fiction -- are the bestseller lists in this country and, even worse, in England. I'm not offering any social observations as to why that may be the case, I just know it is. It used to be that Americans would defend how many bad books or how few so-called serious books were on our list. I mean, what books are there? This is my second week at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and how many literary novels are on the list with me? Who else is there? Bob Stone is gone -- he was on a week or two. He is a wonderful writer. He's off. Cormac McCarthy, he's for real. The guy who wrote Cold Mountain, he's probably still on the list. Maybe there's one more. If you look at the Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Dutch bestseller lists, more than half of the books are by serious writers. They are well represented internationally, which rarely happens in our case. For all the wonderful reviews that [Salman Rushdie's] The Moor's Last Sigh got when it was published in our country, and it deserved it, it was only on the list a couple of weeks.

I sell more hardcover books in Germany than I sell in North America. A Son of the Circus, certainly one of my hardest books to read, spent 63 consecutive weeks on the German bestseller list. The paperback is still on the list. That will never happen to a book of mine here. This book is doing better, and will do better than any other hardcover of mine, at least so far. The thought of it being on the bestseller list for a year -- maybe it could happen. But I would be surprised, I'd be staggered. But my German publisher wasn't surprised in the slightest. I sold almost as many copies of A Son of the Circus in France as I did in the United States.

Q: Why do you think this is?

A: I just think that there is an established tradition that good books make demands of good readers. Something that burns a few more brain cells than The Bridges of Madison County is a likable challenge to good readers. I'm heartened that even in this country, a writer as difficult as Umberto Eco is usually on the bestseller lists for a lengthy amount of time. Eco is someone who sells very well all over the world. For a writer like myself, who writes complicated novels -- novels that I feel make demands of the reader -- they are not easy reads. They are not read on a weekend, they don't fit easily in purses, and they are not easily read on your back in bed. A lady once recognized me on an airplane and complained, "You know, I can't read your books in bed." I thought at first that she meant they put her to sleep. But she said, "They're too heavy." And I thought, there's a criterion. It was the first time someone had accused me of giving them carpal tunnel syndrome. Don't read it in bed -- it'll give you tendinitis. You have to put braces on your thumbs. I take such encouragement at Eco's success.

Q: Wrestling has been an important sport both in your life and in a number of your books. Although Ruth's brothers, Thomas and Timothy, are athletes at Exeter, they don't wrestle. Any significance?

A: Most people aren't wrestlers. I was trying to make those two boys as goldenly common, all-American boys as I could. We had more people in the Exeter wrestling room than most prep schools ever got. We had 45 or 50 people in that room back in the 1950s, 1960s. That doesn't compare to the 250 people who go out for soccer every year, or the 325 who go out for hockey. The goddamn hockey rink is used from seven o'clock in the morning until nine o'clock at night. Well, the wrestling room is empty most of the time. In most people's estimations, it's still weird.

The Imaginary Girlfriend [a memoir about Irving's life as a wrestler and wrestling coach] was published as a book in other countries and as a part of the collection Trying to Save Piggy Sneed in the United States. In every other country in the world it was published as its own book. That was in recognition of the fact that people in this country are significantly less interested in wrestling. You can imagine how well The Imaginary Girlfriend has done in Eastern European countries, or even in Germany.

Everywhere I go in Germany, the front two rows are full of guys with -- I don't have to ask them who they are, I just look at their fucking ears, their ears are worse than mine. I mean, I know where they got that. I landed in Munich one time and a Russian émigré met me at the airport, driving the car with a grin from ear to ear. He was Ukrainian. He held out his hand and I said, "Okay, what weight class are you in?" You know, it was obvious. These guys follow me around. It's fun.

Q: Squash plays a large role in A Widow. Why did you choose this sport?

A: Wrestling and squash have a level of individual gratification that you get from doing something one-on-one. In Ruth's case, I needed to find a sport that was very combative. And, of course, I needed to give her a weapon -- I needed a racket sport of some kind [Ruth beats her boyfriend, Scott Saunders, with a squash racket]. Good women tennis players can't play with good men players, even good men players who are over the hill, because men can hit the ball so much harder. But a good woman squash player can get just as much on that ball as a man. Because it's not a matter of muscular strength but of how you hit the ball and snap your wrist, and nobody has a lot of strength in their wrist.

Q: Do you know what your next novel will be about?

A: It's not too premature to talk about the next novel, but you have to accept that it may all change. I'm not going to get to that novel for quite a while because my summer job is to finally complete the screenplay to The Cider House Rules, which has been 13 years in progress with four different directors, the first of whom died. The middle two were fired. And finally with the fourth, the Swedish director Lasse Hallström [What's Eating Gilbert Grape], we're making it with Miramax this fall. I've been trying for 13 years to get this interruption to my day job off my desk. I am as eager, to be honest with you, to see it leave my desk as I am to see it made. But that's finally happening, so I'll be a while before I get into this new book.

I was doing some research a couple of months ago in Edinburgh, where the story begins. It's a story about a tattooist's daughter who falls in love with a church organist, and then the organist leaves and goes to the New World. It's one of those immigration stories where the guy says, "When I get to Halifax and get settled into a church somewhere, I'll write you," but he doesn't. So she goes after him. That's what it is, sort of. It's called Until I Find You. But I'm a long way from knowing much about all of it. So don't be surprised if it turns out to be something different.

Nicholas Patterson is on the staff of the Boston Phoenix.

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