Near the end of a long interview, writer John Irving said he was looking forward to being in the Twin Cities again. He mentioned that he has old friends here. Ah, certainly someone from the literary firmament, yes? Maybe Gary Keillor himself?
“My oldest friend in Minneapolis is J Robinson, the wrestling coach at the university there,” Irving said by phone from Toronto. “J was one of my writing students at Iowa a long time ago.”
Robinson was thrilled when apprised that Irving had mentioned him fondly. Indeed, the University of Minnesota wrestling coach and the writer used to “roll around on the mats” during downtime at Iowa, a place hallowed for both literature and wrestling.
“He’s a grinder,” Robinson said in assessing Irving’s mat skills. “He once said that one of the things wrestling taught him was the repetition of practice, doing it over and over. So he rewrites and rewrites. You have to have that focus and work ethic as a wrestler, and that defines John.”
Irving has used the wrestler’s tool kit to become among the very best known novelists in America. His latest effort, “Avenue of Mysteries,” brings him to the university’s Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis on Nov. 6 for the Talking Volumes author series, produced by the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio in collaboration with the Loft Literary Center. (The event is sold out.)
It is a book about the strength of memory, the mystery of faith, the weariness of age and the caprice of fate. He has spliced together two stories: the present-day trip of writer Juan Diego to the Philippines to carry out a favor to a lost friend, and Juan Diego’s dreams and memories of his childhood, living on the dumps of Oaxaca, Mexico, with a cast of characters that includes his sister, Lupe, who reads minds.
The story is different, but Irving is using many of the themes he has mined for more than 40 years.
“It’s what my voice as a writer is,” he said. “It’s pretty evident in most of my novels.”
Of his 13 novels, “The World According to Garp,” “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” “The Cider House Rules” and “A Widow for One Year” have topped the New York Times bestseller list. Five times, Hollywood has found his work to be worthwhile grist for the motion picture mill. He tried screenwriting and even won an Oscar for “Cider House” but hated the experience, declaring that screenplays are like carpentry — all craft.
Old school all the way
Irving, 73, sees himself as a 19th-century novelist, dedicated to plot, characters, narrative. He has griped for many years about modern writers who consciously construct wordplays that can be understood only by other writers. He writes in longhand, in lined notebooks — a practice that lets him work during his frequent travels (“I write well on airplanes and hotels”). He’s about 5 feet 8, so he can stretch his legs even when he flies economy.
“If you are writing a novel, you’re always writing in your head when people leave you alone in a corner.”
Irving has lived full-time in Toronto since last winter. It is easier having only two places, he said. (He and his wife also have a home on an Ontario island.) He did have three locations when he lived in a small Vermont ski town. He loved it, but the kids and grandkids couldn’t get there easily. Better to be in a travel hub. Besides, he said, he owed it to his wife/agent, Janet Turnbull.
“My wife is Canadian, and she’s gone through the business of living in the U.S. with me. I think it’s only fair that we come back to her home.”
His new novel is set south of the U.S. border in the mind of Juan Diego and in the travel maze of the Philippines. Irving’s protagonist is a writer who looks and feels much older than his 54 years. He has a limp from a childhood injury, suffered near the garbage heaps where he and sister Lupe grew up, children of a prostitute and no apparent father.
But that life was the last time Juan Diego feels life meant anything. It was all downhill, Juan Diego says, since he was 14.
Is that how Irving feels? The old wrestler has had three knee surgeries, but he makes it plain in his soft-spoken style that his novels are never about him — and that he doesn’t limp.
“If I can use something, I use it, but I don’t believe my experience is very interesting,” he said. “Juan Diego has a much more interesting, sadder life than me.
“The most autobiographical element in any of my novels is psychological. I do not write about what’s happened to me. I write about what I’m afraid of.”
Rooted in theater
Irving works like a wrestler during a phone interview — not the combative WWE loudmouth spoiling for a fight, but the wise old-school amateur who controls a match methodically, staying on top and piling up “riding points” deep into the third period.
If you allow him — and he is such a good talker and polite man that you don’t want to interrupt — he will spin long stories and digressions that are not quite on the nose. When you do ask him a question, he pauses so long that you wonder if you’ve offended him or if he is thinking to himself, “How stupid are you?”
His first creative love was theater. His mother met his stepfather during a play, and Irving spent a lot of time in the local playhouse. Even if he did not understand the specific language of the stage, he understood what was being said. (“You don’t need to understand the language to understand that Lear is a fool.”) He liked acting, being someone else, and as he began to read novels he realized that as a writer he could play all the characters.
“In ‘Avenue of Mysteries’ I don’t have to be only Juan Diego,” he said. “I can be the antagonist, too.”
Irving famously has said he knows the ending of his novels before he starts. This gives him a certain affinity to the clairvoyants who occasionally populate his work. In “Avenue of Mysteries” that is Lupe. Like Owen Meany, she senses fate and history.
“But it’s not whether they’re right or wrong,” Irving said. “It’s about what a burden it is to think you know. It’s about what a terrible gift, what a perverse gift, to think you do see the future.”
Wrestling with ghosts
Irving has often grappled with the unseen. He was intrigued enough to take religion and philosophy courses in college and has described himself as an old Congregationalist kid, although he doesn’t go to church now.
He calls the religious mysteries “riveting stories.” But he frowns on churchy rules and prescriptions because they get in the way of the meaning of those tales — “the interference
of human interpretation into the world of the mystery,” he calls it.
He has frequently used the supernatural to hydrate his novels. In “The World According to Garp,” young Walt was told to fear the “undertoad,” an ominous force that could not be seen. Owen Meany sees his fate (although he’s a little wrong, Irving says).
In “Avenue of Mysteries,” the Catholic church has a heavy presence, particularly Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Interestingly, the veneration of Our Lady stems from an incident in 1531 when a native peasant named Juan Diego saw a vision of a maiden who identified herself as the Virgin Mary and who spoke to him in the language of the Aztec empire.
“I give my heart to Rivera [a character in the story], who, when he’s seen the tears that the Virgin cries, reminds the priests: I come here because of her, and not you,” Irving said. “I like that idea.”
Robinson hopes to catch up with Irving while he’s in town. He’s been to previous readings in the Twin Cities.
“It was interesting to see people look at John in a different light,” he said. “I look at him as a fellow wrestler.”