Book World asked John Irving to interview himself at his home in Putney, Vermont. Irving, 36, writes on an open loft overlooking the downstairs of his house - a converted barn. His desk is a flat plank the size of a door; it is supported by two dresser drawers. On the white ceiling is a large poster of the Olympic champion Dan Gable - "the best freestyle wrestler in the world at 149.5 pounds. He's my hero," Irving says.
Q. The hero of The World According to Garp, your fourth novel, is a writer, a wrestler, a husband and a father. He sounds like you.
A. No, Garp is not me.It was natural for me to make my hero a writer, because I know about writers. But Garp's life is what this novel is about, and it is extraordinary. As a story, my life would put you to sleep before I got out of grammar school. I had a peaceful childhood; there's little peace in Garp's world. I'm always saying that I have no personal axes to grind; I'm free, therefore, to imagine the best possible ax to grind - that's a significant freedom from the tyranny and self-importance of autobiography in fiction. I think I'm lucky to have been spared the trap of thinking that something that happened to me is important simply because it happened to me. I make up all the important things.
Q. I want to ask you how aware you were of the political or timely nature of the novel as you were writing it. On one very stark level, this is a novel about a woman who comes to be recognized as a feminist and is assassinated by a man who hated women - a man who thinks that the women's movement has ruined his marriage. The victim is Jenny Fields, Garp's mother; for much of the book she really is the main character, or at least she shares top billing with Garp, who himself will be assassinated - by a radical feminist who hates men.
A. Taken out of context, of course, that sounds as if it means something. I started with a very personal vision of two characters, a mother and her son. What I saw in them was their individuality; they represented only themselves. A woman who was fiercely independent, who would go all the way at being her own woman; a man who would go all the way at being his own man. They would be different from each other, of course, because men and women are different - but they would be alike the way mothers and sons resemble each other, and they would be alike in their energy. They also make the world furious with them, of course. The world is though on individuality; that's the point. That the world identifies Jenny Fields as a "feminist," and that both Jenny and her son are "assassinated," well, that only shows me how much the world is given to misunderstand independence - in men and in women. I'm not a very "political" or "timely" person.
Q. There is a great deal of sympathy and affection for most of the characters and that kind of love stands in contrast to the terrible violence in the book, doesn't it? Alongside the violence, and the explicit sex, there is this joy for characters who are often eccentric if not far-fetched. I'm thinking about Roberta Muldoon, for example - the transsexual, the former Robert Muldoon, a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles. She's one of the novel's most likeable and - astonishingly - believeable people, and she's Garp's best friend. And there are those radical feminists who have no tongues - they've cut off their own tongues.
A. There's not so much love for them, I think.
Q. Well, no; But there's sympathy. There's sympathy for all the far-fetched and exaggerated people.
A. Yes, but my characters aren't so far-fetched to me. People do go the extremes, after all. It's in extremes that we often recognize how we truly are. Of course, there is love "in contrast" to the violence and the excesses of sex in the book. But I don't feel that these extremes - of joy, of fondness, of pain, of horror - are contradictory; they don't cancel each other out. There is even slap-stick, and the touching vulnerability of children; but there is also viscera, real terror, unmentionable grief. I tried to think of the most unhappy endings I could imagine, but those endings don't negate all the other life-affirming things.
Q. Were you afraid that the extremes would make some readers lose sight of the life-affirming things?
A. In the real world - not just in novels - some people do lose sight of the good things. That's simply true to life. If a reader has that reaction, I can sympathize. At the same time I think that a good reader can't help but feel the force, the tone - of energy, of life - behind even the most terrible things in the novel. It's possible in any big novel - about a whole life - to pick your way through the book agreeing with the happy moments and denying the unpleasant ones. Some people find it necessary to live their lives that way, too; you can't blame them. But the point is, this is a whole life; it's about how a man and his family grow up, and how they end up. There's a wonderful chapter in Tim O'Brien's new novel, Going After Cacciato ; I really admire it: "Atrocities on the Road to Paris." Well, you bet there are atrocites on the road anywhere - especially to Paris! If you fall into some of the worst atrocities, you don't get to go to Paris. You never get out of the atrocity.But who's going to say there's not fun on the road, too? And Paris is a good time, if you get there.
Q. You seem to use humor when it's inappropriate to be funny - sometimes, in fact, you try to be your funniest when there's nothing funny "about" the situation at all. It doesn't seem fair to call this Black Humor, it doesn't quite remind me of other Black Humor I know. At the heart of your "inappropriate humor" you seem to be trying to make the unbearable bearable. Is that why you do it?
A. Yes, that's why - exactly. Humor is a form of condolence. I don't like the term Black Humor.I prefer the old term, Gallows Humor. That's simply the joke you tell to make someone feel better - not worse. It's the joke Mercutio makes when he has been stabbed - "Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man." He says it to make Romeo feel better - although Mercutio knows there's no feeling better that's possible.
Q. There's a very moving sequence of events in the heart of the book when Garp's young son is killed in an automobile accident; you call that chapter "Walt Catches Cold."
Q. Yes, that's what I mean: that's a bad joke about an unfunny thing. It's a helpless gesture, it's desperate laughter. It's the human thing to do; that's all. It's not very effective, of course, and it's not very funny; but it's the human spirit trying to help itself to feel better.
Q. In the chapter following the child's death, you take forever - it seems - to actually tell us that little Walt was killed; the parents don't even talk about it. We notice only that the child's name never gets mentioned; it's very frustrating - but it's also very effective when you finally release the news. Why did you do it that way?
A. Only in part because it's effective. The better reason is that it's true to life - that's all. It's a way of indicating, on the page, how long it takes us to acknowledge our grief; how slowly we accept it; how we barely come to terms - and not ever fully. While the reader is anxious for new of Walt, the parents are feeling their way through their grief - th the time when they can even say Walt's name again. I wanted the reader to experience that awful time. There's a superb new book of poems by Linda Pastan. It's called The Five Stages of Grief, and she gives the reader a sense of the time grief takes, too. Some reader called me up one night - I didn't know the reader personally, and it was a long-distance call. "Please," she said, "is there some mistake? I'm reading your book, I'm in the chapter after the accident - what the hell did you do to that little boy?" She was very angry with me. I said to her, "Please keep reading. It will be all right." She was enraged. I hope she kept reading and I hope that when she got to Walt's name, she understood. But she never call me back. Maybe she threw the book away!
Q. How aware of wanting to move a reader can you be - I mean, when you're setting it up, when you're writing it down?
A. Of course I want to move you; that's the most important thing. It's why I like to read books and why I wanted to be a writer when I was a child. Moving you is the main thing. It's only bad art that's given to saop opera a bad name. It's only because soap operas are written so poorly that we think so little of them. Look at Great Expectations, look at The Mayor of Casterbridge , look at To the Lighthouse and Jacob's Room . Give me a crude outline of those novels and what have you got? Those novels - and many other great novels - are soap operas. Well, The World According to Garp is simply an artful disguised soap opera. The difference is that I write well, that I construct a book with the art of construction in mind, that I use words intentionally and carefully. I mean to make you laugh, to make you cry; those are soap-opera intentions, all the way. My mother used to say,when she'd really loved a book, "That was a real tear-jerker." That's a wonderful expression, and a great piece of flattery to a writer: a tear-jerker. Well, I'm an artist - but I want to jerk tears. I cried when I read Great Expectations ; I laughed too, of cause. I despaired when I finished The Mayor of Casterbridge . I loved Mrs. Ramsay - as if she really had died one night and left me without her. What else should art in a novel be used for?
I had a class of graduate-student writers, once. Their favorite story - written by one of them - was a story about a three-course meal from the point of view of a fork.The fork was the main character. It was a very sophisticated piece of writing, and brilliantly funny. In the end, in an especially well-written scene, the fork got thrown out with the trash. The only problem was: I wasn't sad about what happened to the fork. The entire experience of the story was intellectual. It was the best story I ever read about a poor fork - but I am not a fork, and I don't care what a fork feels. It's fair to say that no great soap opera will ever be written about silverware. Of course there are a lot of novels written about people who seem like silverware to me; that's the point. That happens when the writer writes about human beings as if he wasn't one of them. No great soap opera will ever be written that way, either.
Q. Are you at work on another "soap opera" now?
A. I sincerely hope so.