Photo by Everett Irving
  • Photo by Everett Irving

I talked with writer John Irving this morning in the back of Powell's on Hawthorne. (The conversation was planned; his publisher had arranged it.) As he autographed copy after copy of his latest novel, Last Night in Twisted River, in preparation for his reading at the Bagdad Theater tonight, he spoke to me about the new book and about the significance—or lack thereof—of the autobiographical details in his work. But like most of the conversations I’ve had with important literary figures, we ended up talking about Ultimate Fighting.

(A very big thanks to Dave Bow and Ali Reingold for their help in speedily transcribing this interview. Again, Irving reads at the Bagdad Theater (3702 SE Hawthorne) tonight at 7 pm. Doors open at 6 pm, and $28 will get you in the door plus your own copy of Last Night in Twisted River, which is Irving’s best novel in over a decade. Read the Mercury’s review here.)

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MERCURY: At the beginning of Last Night in Twisted River, there’s a quote from Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue," which in a video interview you said was the flash of inspiration for the book. What is your relationship to music—has it been a source of inspiration to you in the past?

JOHN IRVING: Nowadays you make these video interviews that are put on various websites, for Borders or whatnot. What happened in the case of that Dylan quote is that somebody edited my interview.

MERCURY: Yes, that particular interview was on the New York Times website…

IRVING: I have to tell you what the truth of that situation is: I am not inspired by music. I love Dylan and I like that song; “Tangled Up in Blue” is one of my favorites, but that song contributed nothing to the so-called inspiration of this novel. It was just that I knew that song so well, and as long as 20 years ago I knew that there was a novel I was thinking of about a cook and his son that began in a kind of frontier town right under the Canadian border somewhere in northern New England. And I knew that song. I said, if I ever write this book or if I ever begin this book, I’m certainly going to use that song, or that stanza: “I had a job in the Great North Woods working as a cook for a spell.” I just knew it was a suitable epigraph for a novel that has been in my mind for 20 years. I must’ve heard that song a hundred times. It is one of my favorite Dylan songs. Or let’s just say it’s from a period of his songwriting that I especially like.

But the song itself, or that stanza itself, was no trigger. And, from the number of questions I’ve had, I can almost see in my mind’s eye how the video interview must’ve been edited in some way that made it appear that way. That’s all. The only connection is that my process is such that I never begin a book until I have a last sentence. For 12 novels now, that last sentence has never changed. Not even a comma, not even the punctuation. And, although this book has been in the back of my mind longer than any other novel I’ve written—20 years… My wife argues that it’s actually been there longer, but I can’t remember past 20 years in most things, you know. So, well, I happened to be listening to that very song in my car on a CD player—and I just play it obsessively; I like that piece—and I just happened to be listening to that very song when I did get the last sentence to this book. Not until January 2005. But the simultaneity of that song on my car CD player and getting this last sentence was pure coincidence.

I love Dylan, I love the Beatles, but I’m not someone who plays music when I write, not even in the case of the previous book [Until I Find You] which was so much about church organ music. I listened to a lot of it, I visited a lot of those cathedrals in Northern Europe. I don’t like music as a background. I like listening to opera when I’m having dinner or something. It’s a pleasant kind of background music and I associate it with being a student in Vienna, where I did go to the opera a lot. The opera always reminded me more of the kind of novels I was interested in writing than most modern novels around me at any given time, because it’s a very 19th century form of storytelling, opera. It’s so flamboyant, it’s so lavish, so elaborate and full of detail, right? An opera is more like a 19th century novel than most contemporary novels are, like the kind of novels that interest me. So my music interests are pretty basic. Dylan is a singer/songwriter of my generation. It’s obvious from what the Beatles did that they were greatly influenced by him, too. But I’m not much of a music person.

A recurring element in the book is the writer character’s frustration with being compared to his characters, and I’m sure you’ve experienced that same kind of frustration. Do you invite it, and is it something that you dread?

No. Dread is far too serious a word for something so, I think, essentially superficial. I’ve written about writers before, in The World According to Garp and A Widow for One Year. But both in the case of T.S. Garp and Ruth Cole, I was not writing about myself. In this case, I as faithfully as I could gave Daniel Baciagalupo my process as a writer, right down to the last sentence first, make a street map of the story, and come back to the first sentence last; right down to that. I also gave him much of my factual biography as a writer: where I went to school, when I went to school. So those are what I’d call the trivial and superficial factual landmarks that this author’s life [gesturing to himself] bears to the life of Daniel Baciagalupo as a writer. As a writer, right? I would never dispute that those things are autobiographical. What I would say is, “So what?” What big deal is it that I studied with Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa from 1965 until 1967 and so does Danny? I mean, is that important? Is that in the category of obsession? No. It’s a factual detail. Or that Danny is born in March of 1942, when I was? These are factual details. I don’t find them very interesting. Or, I guess the word is, I don’t find them very meaningful.

I think they’re the kind of details that are singled out and called, with dubious importance, autobiographical. I’ll tell you what’s more autobiographical—and it’s not literal—and that is that Daniel Baciagalupo’s life has nothing to do with mine. What happens to him in his life is nothing that’s ever happened to me, but I am afraid of it happening. And I repeatedly write about things I’m afraid of happening: the death of a child, the almost neurotic need to protect the people you love.

Think about it. Everything that Daniel is afraid of happening happens, right? [Spoilers ahead-Ed.] He doesn’t get to marry the woman he loves, his only son predeceases him, and his father who has been hunted for 50 years will be killed. [End of spoilers-Ed.] I have not had that kind of life, but I have obsessively and repeatedly written more about the things I hope never happen to me. Any worthwhile psychiatrist will tell you that’s what is really autobiographical, right? The stuff that gives you nightmares, the stuff that repeats itself from book to book, incontrovertibly and uncontrollably. We don’t get to choose our obsessions. They choose us. And those things that come back again and again, in novel after novel, those things that have never happened to me, but which obviously on some psychological level or emotional level consume me—if you want to talk about autobiography, consider that. See what I mean? To me, that’s really autobiographical.

Or let’s think about a character like Lady Sky in this novel, the naked skydiver. She’s not a new character. In the previous book, Until I Find You, she’s Emma. In the book before that, long before that, A Prayer for Owen Meany, she’s Hester. In The Cider House Rules, she’s Melony. Who is she? She’s this physically imposing, sexually aggressive, much-more-sure-of-herself character than the younger, less-sure-of-himself male character in every case. And in every case when we meet her she seems to be some kind of menace, or at least a sexual threat, to this smaller, less experienced male character. But, in truth, every time she ends up being that character’s best—or sometimes, as in Jack Burns’ case, only—friend. She ends up being a kind of a rescuer or protector to this far less substantial male character, right? Well, it would be human to assume that she is autobiographical. That I must’ve known some older, bigger, more experienced girl like this when I was a kid or something. What I’m saying is: No, I didn’t. But isn’t she also, in a more serious way, autobiographical? Isn’t it obvious that I wished I had known someone like that?

So my irritation with this autobiography-in-fiction business is how utterly superficial it’s written about. People say, “Oh, he writes about wrestling.” Okay. “He writes about prep school.” Yeah. Is it traumatic? No. Is losing a child traumatic? You bet it is. Is the fear of losing one a permanent and never-ending neurosis? Of course it is.

I think that if we were interviewing Shakespeare, what would we say? “Will, what’s the problem you got with royalty, pal? Do all kings and queens have dysfunctional families? Is every two out of three daughters a bad one?” Or we can look back to 400 BC and find the original dysfunctional family. Poor Oedipus. What was Sophocles thinking? Well, all we know is if you kill your father and sleep with your mother, that story probably isn’t going to have a happy ending. That probably isn’t going to turn out well, right? But is the Oedipus cycle repetitive? Yes, it is. It’s a good plot, right? It’s a good one. You think, “Oh boy, are you screwed now. Even your children are going to suffer for this.” And they do.

But you’ve never ended a book with a really tragic ending. There’s always a little bit of hope, I think.

Maybe I scare myself away from it, I don’t know. It’s funny. In this book’s case… I’ll tell you a good example of what you just said. As much as I knew about this novel 20 years ago—there was a cook; he had a kid; they were somewhere near the Canadian border; it was a frontier kind of town; one law, a bad cop; something violent happens; they have to run away; they’re running for 50 years—I even knew as long as 20 years ago why the cook had a pre-teenage son. Because I wanted that boy to become a writer and I wanted everything about his life to almost compel him to feel more comfortable, more at home, in his imagination than he will ever be comfortable in his own skin or with his so-called personal life. I wanted him to have a miserable personal life, but to essentially be someone who has fled to his imagination, in part, because of the life he’s had.

That part isn’t my biography. Or at least, not that I’m aware of. But it seems like a lot to know about a book that I didn’t begin for so long. But the very thing you’re talking about is something that confused me. Before I get that last sentence, I usually get some kind of feeling about what the tone of voice of that sentence is. Is it melancholic? Is it lyrical? Is it somehow more uplifted than the basic tone of voice for the rest of the story, or is it a little darker than the rest of the story? Is it a refrain? Often dialogue we’ve heard before earlier in the novel, but in another context, like The Cider House Rules, like A Widow for One Year—those are refrain endings. I hear the voice before I get the actual sentence. And I think what kept me from starting this novel, from actually getting that last sentence for so long, is, just as you say, what I heard in the case of the last sentence was something almost elated. It was a happy last sentence. And I thought, I know what happens; I know that the only character left standing is Danny, that Danny is the only point of view I can be in, and I know what happened to him. For the longest time I thought, Danny doesn’t have anything to be happy about. What could possibly make him feel elated, right? So I thought I was mistaken.

With the sentence?

With the sentence. I thought, I’m going the wrong place somewhere. I’m hearing the wrong thing, it must not be that sentence that I’m almost getting. And as much as I knew about the writing part of the book, it didn’t occur to me that the last sentence itself was his elation at beginning, again, another novel. Even though I knew it would turn out that he is writing the very novel we’ve been reading. But I didn’t know that the last sentence was about starting it. See what I mean? What the hell is he so excited about? And there is often something—this is a longwinded way of agreeing with you—that there is often something that’s almost forgiving after a harsh story about the last moment in it. I don’t know where that comes from. But I think it’s a very fair observation on your part.

What about some of the nonfiction writing you’ve done in the past? Is that something you approach differently?

I’m not much of a memoirist. Everything I’ve written in the category of memoir or nonfiction is pretty small, pretty focused. I’m just not as interested in it. I think if there’s anything from my personal story, if there’s anything in my personal life that I feel is really worth writing about, then I would rather sit with it a long time and write it as fiction than write a memoir. There are some exceptions to that. The simultaneity in my life of starting to keep a journal at the same time I started wrestling at the age of 14, that was worth one very thin memoir: The Imaginary Girlfriend.

Was any of that written back when you were a teenager?

No, no, no. I was so embarrassed by everything I wrote as a teenager that it did not survive. Unless one of my devious siblings has somehow saved it and is waiting for me to die and then will publish it. I hope not. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it?

Last time you were here, you read a true story about a wrestling mat and a swimming pool, which could well have been fiction for how funny it was.

Is that what I did the last time I was here? God, I have no memory at all. My memory is completely a sieve. It’s completely abandoned me.

You mention Portland in Twisted River. One of the Kennedy Fathers is from Portland.

Yes, it’s true. In fact, the only Kennedy Father that we actually hear from—I mean we, the reader—is a guy from Portland, that’s quite correct.

Have you spent much time here?

No, not much time. But I’ve been here a bunch of times. That said, it’s always kind of briefly. I had a number of friends from Vermont who moved here. There is some kind of kindred corridor between northern New England and the Pacific Northwest. A lot of people from New England, if they move west all the way, they’re not going to LA. They’re gonna go to Portland or Seattle. That’s where they’re gonna go.

Is reading in front of large crowds something that you took to naturally, when the time came? Is it a requirement for being a writer on your level—to be good at public speaking and almost have actorly qualities?

No, I don’t think it’s a requirement at all. But in my case, I was an actor before I was a writer. My mother was a prompter in an amateur theatrical society, a small-town amateur theater. So I spent a lot of time as a kid backstage at this playhouse, long before I was sophisticated to read those 19th century novels… In school and college I did some acting. Some people are comfortable reading or speaking. I’m not going to read much tonight, actually. Once a book is published I feel that the best readers, my biggest fans in the audience, most of them will have already started this book and some of them will have finished it. If this were a work-in-progress, I might read for half an hour or 45 minutes or something, because it’s all brand new to the audience. But I’m going to talk about some of the very things I’ve said to you. I’m going to talk about the origins of this book in particular, about my process—the whole last sentence/first sentence thing—I’m going to read just a little bit from this book. I’m going to read about that very specific act of violence that sets this story in motion: Danny, at age 12, mistaking Injun Jane for a bear. I’m just going to read that moment. But it’s like five minutes, right? Then I’m going to do Q and A.

You were in Seattle last night; were you following the elections results?

No, I was signing books with Hulk Hogan last night. What fun. He’s such a sweet guy, he’s a very nice man. His hand is bigger than three of mine. God, he has huge hands. He is huge, and he’s not getting any smaller! I don’t know how he ties his shoes, you know? I don’t know how he gets down there. He’s a sweetheart of a guy.

Do you follow pro wrestling?

No, no, not really. Although some of my old friends, some people who have a background in real wrestling, occasionally there’s a real wrestler in the crowd, in that bunch of people... I don’t dislike it, I mean it’s just nothing that I feel any association to, really, it’s a kind of choreography. It’s not real, but you can get really hurt if you don’t know how to fall. Like a lot of people who do things for too long, there’s a... there’s no easier thing to become addicted to than painkillers. If you have chronic injuries, joint injuries, there’s no easier thing.

Did you ever see the film that was made about Ultimate Fighting? It was called The Smashing Machine. It won the first Tribeca Film Festival Award in the Documentary Film category. It was made by a former wrestler—a kid I coached, actually—who wrested at Syracuse and then went to film school at NYU. And it’s a documentary that follows a couple of ex-collegiate wrestlers into the Ultimate Fighting business. It’s a very well-made documentary, but with any documentary like that—where you move into the lives in progress of a couple of people and follow them—you have to be lucky in the sense that something interesting has to happen. And if it doesn’t, well, what have you done?

This guy got really lucky. Because the star, the reigning king of Ultimate Fighting in those days was a guy named Mark Kerr, a former NCAA champion at Syracuse, and he was kind of the golden boy, and his nickname was "the Smashing Machine." And, disparagingly, there was an Oklahoma wrestler named Mark Coleman, he’d been an All-American a couple times but he’d never won an NCAA title—he simply wasn’t as good. His name in the sport was "Family Man." Not so terrifying. (’Cause he got the shit beaten out of him all the time.) Coleman was in it because he had a wife and kids, and he never graduated from college, and he just needed something to do, right?

The way it turns out is that Kerr gets addicted to painkillers. He’s got a bad girlfriend that does just about everything, and he gets completely hooked on the painkillers and goes down. All these guys are taking so many painkillers that Mark Coleman’s only international Ultimate Fighting championship was won in Rio de Janiero because the entire competition was addicted to painkillers. They were all just freaking stoned all the time. And Coleman wins! It’s the only time he ever won.

It’s the saddest movie, The Smashing Machine. You gotta see it.