John Irving’s latest novel, In One Person is narrated by a bisexual writer, Billy Abbot, who recalls his high school days from the 1950s, in the small New-England town of First Sister — where the majority of the cross-dressing residents are more likely to celebrate polymorphous perversity than puritanical punishment.
Billy takes a fancy to various people, including: his stepfather; his friend’s mother; the captain of the school wrestling team; and the local librarian, Miss Frost — who reveals to Billy a secret regarding her own identity. The mood of the latter half of the book darkens when Billy moves to New York in the 1980s, witnessing the AIDS epidemic.
Irving published his debut novel Setting Free the Bears in 1968. But it was The World According to Garp, his fourth book, which established him as an internationally-renowned-bestselling-author. To date, four of his books have been adapted for film. In 2000, Irving won Best Adapted Screen Play, for The Cider House Rules at the Academy Awards.
Here Irving spoke to the Spectator about discovering his own sexual identity as a teenager, how Ronald Regan ignored the AIDS epidemic, and why he always champions the outsider in his novels.
What interested you in giving a voice to a bisexual-male in this novel?
I think there is often a ‘what if’ proposition that gets me thinking about all my novels. I find my way into a lot of characters by thinking, what would that be like? The character of the sexual misfit — someone out of step with what society’s expectations of sexual relationships are — is very familiar to me.
Did you ever think you might be bi-sexual?
Growing up in the 50s, and 60s, I spent more time imagining sex than actually having it. There was a period in that time where I was frightened of half of my sexual fantasises. I was attracted to my friend’s mothers, and I did have an occasional crush on a boy in the wrestling team. As it turned out, none of these things happened. I liked girls in my life, and it proceeded in a normal, unchallenged course.
Why do you keep returning to the politics of sexual identity in your work?
When I finished ‘The World According to Garp’ in 1978, I was naïve enough to think that I will never write about this subject again, that our intolerance of our own sexual differences will surely go away, and that Garp will be seen someday as a relic of the-post-sexual-liberation-days, when men and women still literally were killing one another. In that book, a man is killed by a woman who hates men. His mother is murdered by a man who hates women. It’s a kind of dual sexual assassination story, a cynical way of saying: well you think there was a sexual revolution, how come men and women hate each other?
But there isn’t anything that extreme in your latest novel.
True, but it’s still the same damn subject. It’s still about our obstinate intolerance to sexual differences. It explores our lingering suspicion, distrust, dislike, and non-acceptance of our sexual identities.
Do you represent outsiders and social misfits because mainstream culture fails to? Or do they simply have more nuances as characters?
I think both of those things obtain. It’s not very interesting to establish sympathy for people who — on the surface — are instantly sympathetic. I guess I’m always attracted to people, who, if their lives were headlines in a newspaper, you might not be very sympathetic about them.
Did having an absent father growing up, help you to fictionalise him in your novels?
That’s a great way to put it. I use to tease my mother when I decided that I wanted to be a writer, and say: well if you don’t tell me things about who my Dad was, I’m going to just make things up. But I wouldn’t say, because I didn’t know who my father was, ‘this made me a writer’. But it was constructive as a teenager to be left to my imagination about who this guy was.
What influence did Dickens have on you?
‘Great Expectations’ was an important novel in my adolescence. It was very much one of those emblematic novels that made me wish I could write like that.
Is the form of the nineteenth century novel the template you follow?
Well it helped that my models as a writer were dead over a hundred years before I began to write. They were safe people to imitate. There was no way I could sound like Dickens or Hardy if I tried.
What writers from New England influenced your work?
Melville made a huge impact on me. Reading him encouraged me to write about what I most feared, or what I hope never happens to me or anyone I love. I think in every novel of mine, there is cloud, which you the reader, knows is coming. Well that comes from Melville.
‘In One Person’ describes the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. What’s your opinion of how the Regan Administration responded to the crises?
For seven out of eight years of his presidency, Regan did not utter the name of the disease. What is even more incriminating is that it’s hard to imagine that we ever had a president — or will ever have again — who personally knew as many gay guys as he did. He was in the movie business for Christ sake. The attitude was: it’s only drug addicts and gay guys who are getting this disease. That wasn’t just said among heartless homophobes, it was actually said by people who were in Regan’s Administration, while Regan maintained a silence.
Did you have many friends who died of AIDS?
Yes. I was living in New York in the 80s, and as a straight guy, I had many gay friends, but I also had friends that I subsequently found out were gay, because they were dying. Similarly, parents found out about their children being gay, because they were dying from AIDS.
When you finished writing ‘The Cider House Rules’ in 1985, were you hopeful that attitudes to abortion rights in the United States would change?
No. I thought this is going to get worse. That minority of people who hate abortion rights, they will always hate it. It’s no surprise that most people in the United States, who oppose abortion rights, also oppose gay rights too. It’s coming from an element of sexual disapproval. Their attitude is, I don’t like this, therefore it shouldn’t be allowed. It’s what I call in America, the old prohibition instinct — you don’t like drinking, nobody should do it, you don’t like abortion, no one should have one.
What do you rate as the most technically important aspect to your novels?
I think my approach with writing toward a pre-existing ending, knowing what a story is before I begin the first chapter.
Are you referring to your method of writing the last line of the novel first?
Sometimes it can be the last line, maybe the last few paragraphs, or even the last couple of pages. I write the last line, and then I write the line before that. I
find myself writing backwards for a while, until I have a solid sense of how that ending sounds and feels. You have to know what your voice sounds like at the end of the story, because it tells you how to sound when you begin.