John Irving

Literature's muscle man talks about how he wrestled his writing career to the ground and why he'd like to grind critics' faces into the mat.

By Joan Smith
March 4, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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it was John Irving's high-school wrestling coach, Ted Seabrooke, who told him that "talent is overrated. That you're not very talented needn't be the end of it." Seabrooke also told him: "An underdog is in a position to take a healthy bite." And Irving, who counted himself neither a born athlete nor a born writer -- he was dyslexic before that particular learning disability had been identified by name -- took Seabrooke's words as a kind of

"I was an underdog," the bestselling novelist writes in "The Imaginary Girlfriend," a long, autobiographical essay in his new collection of short pieces, "Trying to Save Piggy Sneed." "Therefore, I had to control the pace of everything. This was more than I learned in English 4W, but the concept was applicable to Creative Writing -- and to all my schoolwork, too. If my classmates could read our history assignment in an hour, I allowed myself two or three. If I couldn't learn to spell, I would keep a list of my most frequently misspelled words -- and I kept the list with me; I had it handy even for unannounced quizzes. Most of all, I rewrote everything; first drafts were like the first time you tried a new takedown -- you needed to drill it, over and over again, before you even dreamed of trying it in a match. I began to take my lack of talent seriously."


Since 1978, when he published "The World According to Garp," Irving has produced eight long novels, all of them bestsellers, and has become one of the best known authors in America, famous for his comically convoluted plots, his penchant for violent fates and endless epilogues (you always know, happily, what happened next in an Irving novel). But he still thinks of himself as that underdog, always revising, always somehow having to make up for his natural shortcomings with very hard work.

And he still wrestles. He writes about the wrestling room he built near his office at the home in Vermont he shares with his second wife (and literary agent), Janet Irving, and their 5-year-old son, Everett. And the black-and-white snapshots in "Piggy Sneed" are mostly a selection from the 300 photographs that line the walls of the wrestling room, many of them of his grown sons Colin and Brendan, though there are two of Irving putting little Everett through his paces.

There are also three "literary" photos: Irving with G|nter Grass, who is the subject of an admiring essay in "Piggy Sneed"; Irving with Kurt Vonnegut, who was his teacher at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop; and Irving with Stephen King. Irving has always loved the big sprawling novelists; his literary heroes include Charles Dickens, Robertson Davies, Salman Rushdie, George Eliot, Grass, Vonnegut
and Graham Greene, who taught him to "loathe literary criticism" because "the critics had dismissed him," and who "showed me that exquisitely developed characters and heartbreaking stories were the obligations of any novel worth remembering."


But most of all, Irving is still angry. He hates critics because he does not believe that they make themselves familiar enough with the work of the writers they review. And he hates that he is often accused of a fascination with the bizarre. Anyone who thinks that his characters and their fates are unusual, he says, has not paid sufficient attention to the conditions of ordinary life.

Salon spoke recently with Irving in San Francisco, sipping bottled spring water and tea in the plush armchairs of the Ritz Carlton's lobby.

“piggy Sneed" is not exactly a new book, is it?


The publishing history of "Piggy Sneed" is much more complicated than the book itself. There are really about seven or eight different versions of it. The Ballantine trade paperback edition being published now is itself different from the hardcover U.S. edition, which was published by Arcade. There are more photographs and there is a second postscript added to the last essay on Günter Grass that I could not complete until after my last trip to Germany.

So you were able to indulge your epilogue habit.


Yes, the epilogue habit. I could go on writing epilogues forever, it's so much easier than writing something new. In the case of this little "Piggy Sneed" collection, which consists of some old things and some newer things, the author's notes at the end of each piece were the most enjoyable part of putting it together because I was able to look back at these pieces I'd written and try to reconstruct the circumstances in my writing life at the time. Because I don't generally write shorter pieces. I've written more novels than I've written short stories altogether. I don't think I'll ever write another short story. I probably will write another essay. I might write another memoir, but I doubt it. The shorter pieces don't appeal to me so much, either to read or to write them.


Because I've always liked things more complete, more fully imagined.


Short stories do always seem to end just as you're getting involved.

That's always been my perception. But something else I've been doing lately between novels has been writing screenplays, because as a writer, especially a writer of long novels that consume five or six years, you need something to do during that period of
a year or two when you're starting a new novel. And in the past, I've written book reviews, which are less and less satisfying for me to write.

Why is that?


I'll tell you why. I have very little respect for most of the book reviews I read, and I don't mean only of my books. It's been very lucky, the way I'm treated, and though I'm not treated as well here as I am in other countries, it doesn't trouble me because I don't need the reviews to sell books. I have my audience, so I could care less. But I have less and less fondness for the posture of the reviewer, especially because I have so much experience in seeing how people write about books they haven't honestly read.

I taught freshman English for 10 or 12 years and I never had trouble reading an essay from some kid and knowing whether he'd read the book or not. So I don't care whether the review is favorable or unfavorable, but when someone pretends they've read my book and leaves it plain that they haven't, leaves it plain that they've gotten to page 120 and filled in the rest, I feel nothing but contempt. I didn't go through school like that, and I was an easy grader as a teacher except on that issue. When someone tried to pretend to me that they'd read a book and were writing a paper about it, that's when I would say, "Get the hell out of here and take somebody else's course." I have nothing but extreme distaste for the whole habit of it.

So when I write a book review, I feel that as a novelist I have to work overtime. Because I'm not just writing a review of a book I like -- and I don't bother, I don't waste my time writing about anything I don't like -- every book review I write has to be a model of the form.

In other words I not only have to read that book, I have to read everything that author wrote and I have to read things that are similar to it. And people always say, "I love your book reviews, you should write more of them," and people have asked me if I want to collect my book reviews, and that's a book I might do 10 years down the road, when I feel I've gotten to the point where I've written my last book review. I'd like to write an essay about why I've written my last book review and publish my reviews as a way of saying, "If you're going to write a book review, get it right. Do your fucking homework and get it right." So, you see, it's a real chore for me to write a book review because it's like a contest. It's like I'm writing that book review for every bad book reviewer I've ever known and it's a way of saying (thrusts a middle finger into the air) this is how you ought to do it.


I like to rub their noses in it. It is hard and it should be hard because if you're dealing with a book somebody spent two, four, five or six years on, you shouldn't turn this thing around in five or six days. This isn't college, it's not a late paper. This has been somebody's life for four or five years and you don't have to like it, but you do have to respect it.

But professional critics turn these things out for a living. I don't know if your rigor would really work, economically.

Well, the other thing I always say, which of course makes me a lot of enemies, is that I went to fairly large schools growing up and fairly interesting ones, and all the years I was growing up and going to school I never met anybody who wanted to grow up and be a critic. Until I got to graduate school, that is, and when you get to graduate school you get to people who have come to some sort of peace with themselves about what they can't do,
so that's what they end up doing. And people misconstrue this to mean that I entertain great loathing for journalism as opposed to fiction writing. That's not true. I don't think a good journalist is an oxymoron; I've been misquoted on that. But I do think that very few cultural critics -- film critics, book reviewers -- are any good because very few of them can accept the difference between invention and commentary, and the difference is enormous. The risks of invention are enormous.

I loved the piece about "A Christmas Carol" in "Piggy Sneed." Did you read it when you were a child?


It wasn't the first Dickens I read, but it was the first Dickens anyone read to me. Both my grandmother and my stepfather read it to me, and one of them -- I think it was my stepfather -- first read me "A Tale of Two Cities."
I've always thought that people who like Dickens and people who don't like Dickens can be divided into people who read aloud and people who don't. And I do, at least partly because I'm dyslexic and it is one of the things I was taught to do. My lips move when I read a book and, as a consequence, I read very slowly. Which is another reason I have no sympathy for book reviewers who don't finish books, because nobody reads more slowly than I do, and I really do have to read every word. I not only have to read every word, I have to mouth every word.

It seems amazing that someone with a disability like yours would have become a writer.

People are surprised by that, but I think it's quite logical if you look at it this way, that what you learn if you have that kind of a learning disability is to pay more particular attention to the way a sentence works and the way a word is sounded than people for whom the act comes naturally. I could never have been a doctor because I could never have amassed the information in the requisite period of time. I could never have been a lawyer for the same reason. I could never have been a historian. I move too slowly, I just do. But who said writers should move fast? The object of a book is to write it well enough so that the reader can move through it. You don't move through it that way.

If I do more than three or four pages a day, I'll spend the next day revising. You work seven days a week instead of five and you work whenever you can. The constancy of it is important. I had to do that to get through school and my friends didn't. As a consequence I paid closer attention, and if what I had to pay closer attention to was the language, if I had to go slowly just to understand it, what language was it that I would probably like? Was it going to be history. Un-uh. Sociology? I don't think so. It was going to be fiction, or poetry, because that's where the language is good.


It's interesting about disabilities. A friend of mine met a blind man on a train who told him that he feels sorry for people who can see because he thinks sight gets in the way.

I had a friend I used to wrestle with who is blind. There have been many blind wrestlers who've been very good. The illusion that you have to see in order to know what your opponent is going to do is a betrayal of your other senses. And in fact if you ever watch people who are really good wrestlers, they are almost never out of contact with one another. Because if you are touching someone, you can feel what they are going to do before they do it. I've wrestled people who were so much better than I was and I'd think, after wrestling them three or four times, "If I could just get this guy's hand off of something for three seconds I could take his legs out from under him, I could rip his head off." But the fact is that the reason he's so good is that you CAN'T get his hand off you. You peel the fingers off this wrist and there's a hand on your thigh, you peel it off your thigh and it's on your stomach. It's like Braille. It doesn't matter where it is, only that he's touching you.

Your piece about wrestling, in "Piggy Sneed," will probably introduce a lot of people to the sport who might not otherwise have known anything about it.

I know a lot of people who were bored to tears by "The Imaginary Girlfriend." A lot of my friends said to me, with as much generosity as they could summon, "Well, I hope you got that out of your system." I've always had these two sets of friends in my life who haven't gotten together very well. When I have a dinner party I don't invite three wrestlers and three writers and have them all sort of stare across the room at each other and think, "Jesus, what the hell are we doing here?" I never invite my wrestling friends to publishing parties. They know what I do, but most of them have never read not only my books but other books. They don't like me or know me because of the books. But in this case, because of "The Imaginary Girlfriend," I could send them a copy and say, "There's a piece in here, never mind the rest of the book, just the second memoir in the memoir part, read that. And look at the pictures." So they read it and they said, "Wow, this is really great." And, inevitably, they'd try one of the other pieces and get nowhere, and they'd say, "Hey, any other good pieces in here?" And I'd say, "Nah."

How has wrestling affected your writing?

Only in the way that I talk about in the book, that in both wrestling and writing I think what success I've had is more a testimony to my stamina, to my ability to work hard and work long than it is to any talent I would consider God-given or natural.

Was it really Dickens who inspired you to write novels?

I just know that there was a way I felt when I finished reading "Great Expectations." It was the extremes of it that captivated me. The irony of the title itself, this young man who has no reason to think his expectations should be great at all. The power of self delusion. The power of wishful thinking. The idea that because he wants Miss Havisham to be his benefactor, he believes she is. That because Estella seems so unattainable he must have her. It was a great story, a story that moved me and when I finished it I wanted to begin again. I was 14 when I read it and I'm sure there were other books in my childhood that had a similar effect on me. But it's the
first one I remember.

Do you think it made a difference that your grandmother and stepfather read to you?

I think so, although I read as many things as I could get my hands on to my two grown children, Colin and Brendan, and one of them is a reader and one of them is not. People say, "I'm a great reader because I was read to
as a child," but I don't buy it. I think you're a reader because you want to read. I'm not a reader anymore. I'm a very poor reader. I have read a lot classically because I was a big reader as a kid. But when students ask the perpetual question, "What's your advice to someone who wants to be a writer?" I always tell them to read everything they can now, because if you're going to write, you will. If you're going to keep doing it, you won't stop. And once it happens, if it happens, if you really are a writer, it's all you'll want to do. You will not want to read, you will want to write, and that's one way you will recognize that you are a writer. I don't
get on a plane with a bunch of books, I get on a plane with a manuscript. And as soon as I can lower the tray table I take out the manuscript and start to work.

Schopenhauer has a very funny essay about how people who read books all the time never think and never create anything.

I'd be in a funny position to mock readers. If I get on a plane and see someone reading a good book, I like them instantly. I once flew all the way to Europe sitting next to somebody who was reading a book of mine while I was writing a book of mine, and there was never a word between us. It was fun.

You never told her who you were?

Definitely not. If you see someone reading your book you don't want to interrupt them. They might stop by themselves. You don't want to be the cause.

You write about how much more important literary ideas are in the public discourse there. Is it more interesting to discuss your books in Europe?

You don't even have to debate it on the level of discourse. All you have to do is look at a bestseller list. In 1978, when I published my first bestseller, "The World According to Garp," you could count on at least five of the 15 books on the New York Times bestseller list being literary fiction. Now, as you know, weeks can pass and none of the books is literary. All of the 15 books are shit. These days you can sell books in as many numbers as you ever have -- and each of my hardcover books has sold more than the previous book -- and be on the bestseller list about two months less. Because the gap is growing between any literary novelist, even a bestselling literary novelist -- and I am one of the bestselling literary novelists in this country, so I have nothing to complain about -- and books by people like Tom Clancy or books like "Bridges of Madison County."

It just isn't like that in the rest of the world. If you look at the Canadian bestseller list, as many as 10 of the 15 books are literary fiction. Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient" was a bestseller in Canada for months and months and months, long before there was a movie. Half of the books on the German bestseller list are literary and a third of them are foreign. And that's also true of France and England. Look at the kind of praise Salman Rushdie's novel "The Moor's Last Sigh" was given in this country. It was as good as I've ever seen it and as good as it should have been, but the book was on the bestseller list for maybe two or three weeks. And my wife, who is also my agent and who is Canadian, tried to persuade Ballantine to publish my last novel, "A Son of the Circus," as a trade paperback rather than a mass market paperback because the novel is set in India and she said Americans are not interested in foreign subjects.

More than half of my audience, more than half of my income, is in translation. "A Son of the Circus," my last novel, sold as many hardcover copies in France as it sold in the U.S., and I'm not talking per capita. I'm talking actual copies. And it was on the German bestseller list for 60 consecutive weeks and sold more copies in Germany than in the U.S. and Canada combined. So my biggest market is not English language and it hasn't been the United States for years.

"A Son of the Circus" was such a delight. How did you become interested in dwarves and circuses and, of course in some of your previous novels, trained bears?

I've never been as interested in bears as people are interested in my bears. In Vienna I knew a guy who had an old circus bear he sort of looked after, and I looked after the bear on weekends when he went away. I knew what they were like and to what degree they were trustworthy and to what degree it was not safe to think of them as just a kind of big dog. The thing I remember most vividly about the bear is that it is a dangerous animal for many reasons, but principally because its face is always concealed. Its face is enduringly expressionless. It's not like a dog that will raise its hackles, not like a cat that will sort of narrow its eyes and flatten its ears. It has this huge head and a furry face and very small expressionless eyes that don't change. Its eyesight is very poor so it's always sort of squinting at you (he squints) and its sense of smell and its hearing are very keen, so it always has this expression the most terrifying aspect of which is: "Who are you? What are you?" And the judgment of what you are can suddenly change. Because it doesn't see you clearly. It doesn't know
what you are.

That's scary in anyone.

It is pretty scary and I think there probably are some people around like that too. As for the dwarves and the circuses, I like people who have sort of staked out a margin, an existence at the periphery of where most humans live, and yet have to go through the same kind of common everyday existence that the rest of us do. What I liked about the character of Vinod in "A Son of the Circus" was that he was going against the grain. If you're a
dwarf in India, the only job you can have is to be a clown. But Vinod wanted to have another job, he wanted to have his own car company and drive a taxi and he figured out a way to make it happen. I like that, his wanting to be something other than the cards he was dealt. I've always been interested in that aspect of making do with what you have.

And the circus in India is a very different kind of thing than the circus everywhere else. The circus is not an Indian thing, so it was a perfect image to me because it's like so many things that have come into India -- Christianity, for example -- that have not been indigenous to India, but have not exactly been driven out of India. The British were driven out, but not Britishisms, for instance. And what the Indians do is they retain something of what came to them and then they mutate it in some weird way, so it's often said among Indians and English alike that they almost willfully set about to imitate almost all of the worst habits of the British -- the class system, which they thought was kind of a mirror of their caste system and which they happily embraced, the incredible pedantry of the pecking order, the kind of clerical fascism of someone who has a position or job or rank that is a notch and a half above yours, the sort of officious bowing to superiority and seniority and then turning around to your inferior and treating that person as badly as you've been treated, sort of like the army. It's interesting to see what's happened.

The circus came to India in the early 19th century from Italy. Some Italian came and thought, "Here's a place where they've never seen a circus before. We're going to knock their socks off and make a lot of money. They have elephants and tigers and monkeys -- not very safe or interesting monkeys, but we'll figure out something to do with the monkeys -- and a lot of dogs, so we'll see what we can do." And the Italian put together a kind of ragtag circus and picked up some Indian crew members who started to imitate the acts, and the Indians looked at the clowns and said, "We have these people who are funny, we have dwarves, we've been laughing at them for years." And the Indians weren't as good at the trapeze acts, but they said, "Wow, it is neat to see people do double twists and be caught by the other guy on the trapeze, but when we do it we always fall and the audience really has a howl because they think it's really funny, so that's how we'll do it." Not "Can the woman who's so beautiful ride the elephant?" but "Can the woman who's not so beautiful fall off the elephant into the arms of the dwarf who can't really hold her and so he drops her?"

So the poor Italian was very cocky and he looked at the Indian acrobats and saw that their acrobats always fall and he looked at their clowns and saw that their clowns were dwarves, not clowns, and he thought that his horses must be faster than their horses, so when the prince of Rajistan proposed a horse race with his famous Rajistani horses and the Italian's circus as the stakes, the Italian agreed and lost his circus. I mean, I didn't make this up, I just showed up a century later and thought, "What happened to the circus?" Because now all the performers are children and dwarves, because who else is going to agree to fall off the elephant and get stepped on by the dog?

So the things that really do happen are so much more bizarre than the things you make up.

They really are. And to come full circle with this business of reviews and critics, one of the silliest things I read about myself is that I'm bizarre. I'm not. I've just paid attention. I went to a man who was a body escort in Vietnam, and I said, why did they choose you, and I looked at him, and before he could begin to answer I knew why they'd chosen him, because if you're someone who's going to come home with the body and say to the wife, the father, the angry brother, well, the helicopter went down, the mortar shell landed only 10 feet away, here it is, it's in the bag, you don't want to look at it, here's the flag, and of course the rage and despair is going to be vented on you, you get that job because you look like someone so sympathetic most families have to accept what you have to say. And I thought, well, why not someone who looked like Owen Meany because what can you do when you're full of loathing and a guy who's 4-foot-8 comes up to you and opens his mouth and says (in a squeaky little voice), "Here is the flag.'' So I began "A Prayer for Owen Meany" with that idea, and it's not me who thought that up, the Army thought it up, and they've been thinking it up for generations.

I don't go out of my way to find or invent things that are bizarre. It just seems to me that I notice more and more how commonplace the bizarre is.

Joan Smith

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