A magical evening at dinner with John Irving

In King Lear, the king is a fool and everyone knows it, John Irving was saying last night at a lecture in Dallas, a few hours before I found myself seated at dinner with him and his wife Janet and a half dozen other folks.

Right from the start, any fool or 12-year-old boy in the audience knows the king can't tell which daughter really loves him and which, in his words, are really scheming bitches.

"That's act one, scene one. So why do we care? Because Lear finally understand Cassandra. He figures out his mistake ... just in time to see her die."

That's the power of plot for you, he said, and I should note here that I wasn't taking notes. Read anything here in quotes as approximations of what he said, not exact transcripts.

He said he always most admired writers from the 19th Century, like Hawthorne, Thomas Hardy, Melville and Dickens, authors whose works were characterized by intricate plots that had long since fell out of favor by the time he knew he wanted to be a writer, as a 14-year-old at Exeter academy. (You can read more, much more, about Irving here, and see a video interview here.)

Later that evening, at a memorable dinner for nine at one of Dallas' least memorable restaurants, I asked him a question that had been on my mind since his lecture. If you were drawn to older writers from the 19th Century, was it because you found modern writers, like Hemingway for instance, unappealing, or did you enjoy their work even if you wanted to write differently than they did.

His utterly engaging wife Janet Turnbull gave me a look, friendly but knowing, as if to say, 'not a good question.' Turns out Irving hates Hemingway. "He was a such a bully," he told me. And more than that, his philosophy of writing -- the much-honored dictum to 'write what you know' -- is "total bullshit."

If a reporter's job is to ask questions that stir a reaction authentic enough to cut through the layers of artifice that surround any interview situation -- even as personal and relaxing as the dinner was last night -- then my question was a good one. He really hates Hemingway and what he has come to stand for. (Of course, had I known I was going to dinner with him I would have done some research, and found this interview in which he spells all of this out very clearly.)

I am drawn back to his comments about Hemingway because in disparaging him he used an epithet that caught my attention: journalistic. He said Hemingway brought a journalist's mentality to writing fiction, from his stripped-down -- and in Irving's view utterly banal -- sentences to what amounts to a disdain for imagination. He is responsible for a great leveling out of fiction by hordes of writers who have tried to emulate him, he said.

Shakespeare wrote about royalty, he said, though he wasn't royal himself. Sophocles, as he also mentions in the interview above, did not come from a family that resembled that of king Oedipus or have a history of incest like the Greek ruler encountered.

Turning to his own work, and the role plot plays, he said he was once told by an interviewer: 'Well, you seem to make us love characters that are not in themselves very lovable -- and then hurt them in terrible ways." ... Yes? Is there a question in that? Of course. That's what I do. That's plot."

He has published 13 novels, including his latest In One life,  and  He said his books are not biographical, but that in each case there is something in the story that utterly terrifies him -- that touches on something that he truly fears, usually things that could happen to people he cares for. "If I don't have that feeling, or if I ever didn't have it, I'd have to ask myself why am I writing this novel?"

I had gone to hear Irving because I care about writing and literature, and because my friend Arnold Wayne Jones had written a great profile of him this week in the Dallas Voice. and as I told him somewhat to his mock horror because I remember as a 10-year-old finding my parents' copy of The World According to Garp and reading in its first pages about the nearly comatose airman, dying from shrapnel wounds, whose erection his nurse ends up taking advantage of in order to conceive her child, Garp. In the novel, she became a feminist icon, but in real life it was the kind of writing that sticks in the mind of a young boy (or everyone else).

It is that kind of explicitness, and the willingness to write with clarity about sexual acts that don't fit into society's list of approved activities, that characterizes much of Irving's work. From the penis that gets bitten off by Garp's straying wife, when Garp unknowingly slams his car into the car in which she and her paramour were occupying the front seat, to the incest in Hotel New Hampshire, Irving has written about uncomfortable issues with what seems like ease.

I asked him last night if as a young writer he had to work up that. Did he have to practice writing in a way that pealed back inhibitions?

He told me he had. He had begun writing seriously as a 14 year old, and long before he had an active sex life he had an active imagination, and he would write stories containing explicit sexual fantasies. "I had a preternatural fear that my mother or someone else would find these notebooks. But it was later, when I realized that the things that I most wanted to keep hidden were the things that were different, things that were worth doing."

He said he was blessed -- as I was -- to have a couple very good English teachers in high school. He would show them his stories and journals and they'd encourage him. One older man, when Irving asked him if he thought anyone would ever publish any of sexually-themed stories or fantasies, told him that yes, maybe, by the time he was old enough to become published that might possible. That was enough to give him confidence, he said.

Of course I had gone to hear Irving speak last night because I was interested in literature and writing. But what I came away with was something else, namely admiration for the way he has used his novels to say something about the real world, not just the imagined one. Four of those books, he notes, have been what he calls political novels, by which he means novels in which he has taken a side, and that contain a polemical argument. In Garp, he sided with sexual minorities and for gender equality, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, he wrote about Vietnam. In The Cider House Rules, he said he intentionally wanted to tell a story that showed what criminalization of abortion could lead to. Orphanages, back-room abortions -- those things, he said, only existed in a world without reproductive freedom.

His latest book, In One Person, revisits his interest in the those whose sexual identities expose them to hatred or intolerance. The protagonist is Billy, a bisexual writer whose finds much distrust, hostility and pain as a result of that simple fact. Because it begins in the mid-century and introduces readers to many gay characters, the novel also is a novel about the AIDS epidemic, which Irving said -- returning to the theme of plot -- is sitting in full view of the readers off into the future, a deadly storm that the reader knows his characters will have to sail blindly into.

He wrote that book, which I haven't read  but now will, for his son Everett. Everett is 20, and as his mother told me coming into his own as a different kind of writer than his father. He is consumed by classes in theater and writing for the theater, and while his work is different it packs similar emotional depth charges, she said.

Irving says he didn't know that Everett was gay until long after the novel had formed in his head, but that by the time he began writing it, he knew. That shaped his attitude toward the book, if not the story itself. He wanted his son to read the novel before he fully grew up, before he reached his late 20s, and he wanted him to be proud, he said.

Everett told him that he ought to publish the book, and tell the press that he wrote it for his son, because it might help others who read it at a young age see themselves in the characters he has drawn. I thought that was as good a reason as any to write a book, and to talk about it. His character, as a boy, meets a transgendered woman names Miss Front. When he finally discovers this he blurts out that she's a transsexual. She rebukes him, "Please don't put a label on me. Dont make a category before you know me."

In reading those lines, I could hear a message he seems to be hoping his son would hear: Be who you are, get to know yourself and your place in the world, and in the meantime to hell with the labels and categories. 

That such a message is still needed is sad, perhaps, but voices like his help make it less so and more hopeful.