Review: Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
Writer John Irving has mined directly the loves, losses and lessons of his life for his novels -- but the hordes of autobiographical demons never seem to be fully vanquished, he tells Julia Molony
'I sometimes think," John Irving says, "that the obsessions that I keep repeating, novel to novel, tell more about me than the factual details from my own life." It's true that the facts of Irving's life form the backbone to many of his stories. No more so than in his latest novel, Last Night in Twisted River.
"This is the first time I have given to that character, Danny, the process which is also mine," he says, in the considered manner of a man used to speaking. In Last Night in Twisted River the protagonist's journey is from boy to artist, and many details of his life are biographically similar to Irving's.
When Irving talks, he considers each sentence carefully before delivering it in a voice firmly in the baritone range. The effect of this is that everything he says sounds very definite, almost absolute. It's less a chat than a narration.
"I tried to be as faithful to myself as possible, even to the degree that Danny is exactly my age [he's 67] and he went to all the schools I went to. And there are recognisable places in the roadmap of his life as a writer that absolutely coincide with mine. However, what I gave Danny was a life that was not my own."
Yet it's not the raw facts but the abstract themes that are the real key to the complex workings of Irving's mind.
His fears, his hopes, his understanding of life and relationships, emerge through the alchemy of his fiction. And so, with this latest novel, it is not the story, but once again, the motifs, character details and themes which reveal the man.
In terms of fact, he certainly has plenty to draw on. When not yet in his teens, Irving was involved in a sexual relationship with an older woman, an experience which finds incendiary expression in his novel Until I Find You. As a young, recently married man just out of college, he escaped the draft due to having become a father, lost several close friends and later tackled the issue of the Vietnam War in A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Many times, he has mined directly the loves, losses and journeys of his own life and turned it into fiction. Fatherhood, the collapse of a marriage, growing up without a father, all are features of Irving's life, all are narrative turns in his fiction.
But then there are the repeated ideas, the issues and events which are not autobiographical, but which Irving as a writer is continually preoccupied with.
"Let's take one detail, like losing a child, which happens so often in so many of the books," he says, "but never, thank God, to me. Maybe the first two or three times I did that, I imagined that it was some help to me personally. Maybe there was a part of me that was superstitious, and I was imagining that, if you write about this demon, if you bring it to life in your imagination, maybe it will go away. Maybe you won't have nightmares about your own children any more."
But, obviously, given the thematic consistency of threat and fear in his writing, it hasn't gone away. He admits this fact with resigned laughter.
"Obviously, if I keep coming back to it, the magic has not worked. Whatever my personal demons are, they haven't left me. Six or seven books ago, I probably would have said, 'Oh yes, I'm hoping to banish these personal ghosts and sleep better at night,' or something. But now I'm just more resigned to the fact that I can be a kind of control freak with the plot of my story and I can make a design that is in my control. But I don't really have control over those elements that are always scary or threatening in a story."
And so he continues to write, for the love of the craft and the discipline, clearly, but also as a way of confronting his gravest fears.
On a worldwide tour to promote his latest doorstop novel, Irving, despite claiming to be tired (he has been up making long-distance phone calls to his son, who is preparing his university application), possesses the taut dynamism of a coiled spring. He was a wrestler in college and even now he retains a solid, muscular bearing. His face is utterly open in that earnest, New World way, and his soft brown eyes seem to retain a trace of solemnity, even when he laughs or smiles.
Irving grew up in New Hampshire. His first novel Setting Free the Bears was published when he was 26, but it was not until he wrote The World According to Garp (made into a movie starring Robin Williams) that he was able to devote himself to writing full-time.
In the same way that dark themes of threat repeat across his catalogue, so too do character archetypes that somehow speak of unfulfilled longings for certain influences in his own life.
"The character of Lady Sky," he says of one of his fictional creations, who impacts profoundly on the life of the protagonist of this latest novel, "this big woman who falls out of the heavens, who is a kind of supernatural figure -- bigger than anyone, sexually confident, more aggressive than any of the male characters around her, but also a kind of protector, a kind of rescuer -- well, she's so vivid to me, that character, and she has been, with different names, in many of my previous books.
"She was Emma in Until I Find You. She was Hester in A Prayer for Owen Meany. She was Melanie in The Cider House Rules. Always the same person. Seems vulgar, seems dangerous, seems like a threat to the younger, smaller, less-sure-of-himself male character. But ends up being the best friend he has. Or the only friend.
"It would be natural to assume that I must have known such a person. But I didn't. And yet I would argue that in a much more important way than any fact, this character is also autobiographical. Because I must be wishing I had known such a person. There's a part of me, emotionally or psychologically, that must keep wanting to invent such a character."
A Prayer for Owen Meany was a writing-out of the personal losses that the Vietnam War caused. He had to wait 20 years before tackling the story to have sufficient distance from it and treat it as a narrative rather than an exorcism.
"If I'd written Owen Meany in the Seventies, either just before the war ended or just after it ended, I would have been angry about everything," he says. "I would have vividly had in mind every friend of mine who died either in Vietnam or because of it -- and I still would have felt guilty for my own accidental experience, which got me out of having to go. Because I had had a child when I was still in university -- even though I'd had four years of officer training -- I wasn't eligible to go."
The same applies to Until I Find You, a novel that he admits was "so autobiographical in ways that were uncomfortable to me, about my childhood, my mother, my first, or earliest sexual experiences". Irving excavated what has arguably been the most traumatic experience of his own life -- his sexual debut at a very young age, with a much older woman.
"I said in the case of the last book that if I had written Until I Find You in my 20s, or even in my 30s, that it would have been too close to my own memory, and the character of Alice would have been inseparable from my mother. But by waiting all those years, I could make Alice a much more terrifying and much worse character than my mother -- who's still alive and we get along -- than my mother ever was."
Ultimately, it was not through writing about this that he aimed to put it to rest. That process of reconciliation had come about years before, through a very different creative process. The privilege of taking narrative authority is to also provide the balm of resolution, even if only imaginary. In Irving's case, life has, in some ways, provided its own resolution.
"The day I got over my too-early, too-young sexual experience at age 11 with a woman in her 20s -- which did affect the way I thought about sex and thought about myself through all my teenager years and into my 20s -- was the day my first son was born," he explains.
"I suddenly thought, everything that happens to him is more important than anything that ever happened to me. So, suddenly, the purpose of my life was to see that anything bad or disturbing that had happened to me, never happens to him. And then, the next day you realise that whatever the experience you've had that has been affecting you is just lifted. It just went away, because you have another priority.
"And, again, you don't know that right away. You know it later. And by waiting before I wrote Until I Find You, I realised how to make this experience permanently damaging to Jack Byrnes. He never gets married, he never has a child. So, in a sense he remains a child. Sexually. He's always an adolescent or a pre-adolescent. Because he never has an experience that allows him to stop thinking about himself. He is the self-obsessed actor boy. And he'll stay that way.
"Would I have known that if I had begun that book when I was such a young father that I hadn't yet realised what an impact having children was going to have on me? I don't think so."
Gosh. He makes quite a case, I tell him, for parenthood as the nub of personal development. Irving first became a parent in his early 20s. His marriage to his first wife Shyla Leary, mother of his two eldest sons, collapsed in the Eighties. Several years later, he married his publisher, Janet Turnbull, with whom he has another son.
"It was very crucial to me," he says of parenthood. "Or has been very crucial to me as a writer. I'll give you a huge example of it. Not only did I become a father while I was still in university -- I was 22 -- but from the age of 22 until now, when I'm 67, one or more of my children has lived with me all this time. Only next year will my youngest, who is 18, go away from home to university.
"Now I didn't plan it that way. You can't plan to have three children ages 44 to 18. These things are accidents. That's the way these things play out. But it has been a huge advantage to me as a writer.
"When you think of how much childhood is a part of my novels... well, that's because I've always had a child around to observe."
'Last Night in Twisted River' is published by Bloomsbury, €26