John Irving on 'In One Person', sexual identity, and autobiography
John Irving, who turns 70 this year, will publish his latest novel on May 8. In One Person tells the story of Billy Abbott, a bisexual man who struggles with his identity and attraction to men, women, and transgendered individuals as the world changes around him. EW spoke to Irving to find out what we can expect of his highly anticipated novel, and you can find more from the interview in the current issue of the magazine, which is on stands tomorrow. In the meantime, see below for a single response from that interview about a question that gets him riled up. He sounds off about the limited imagination of today’s reading audience and his own complicated sexual history.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Given some of the recurring themes in your work, you’re frequently asked if your novels are autobiographical. Does that bother you?
JOHN IRVING: We live in an age where perhaps the capacity for imagination in the reader is less than it was. I can think of no other explanation why so many readers seem to be interested in memoirs, which are of no interest to me, and don’t seem to have imaginative capacity for fiction that is, well, more imaginative than most of the memoirs I read, try to read, or don’t read. What’s interesting is this: I can’t think of a specific date, but there came a time — not before the 90s in my experience — when you as a novelist began to hear, almost as a first question, “Is the father in this story your father? Is the sister in the story yoursister? Is this character you? Did that happen to you?” When not just the first question but the first assumption from an interviewer was that surely the most interesting or the most credible parts of this novel have to be autobiographical.
It seems to be what people are interested in. I would say that that describes less about me than about what has happened to the capacity for imagination in most readers. I’m not trying to sound snotty or superior here, but I’ll give you one other example. In the case of Until I Find You, on aspects of childhood sexuality, etc., people are always asking me, “What’s autobiographical?” Well, as concerns Jack Burn’s sexual childhood and the degree to which older women always had a hold on him — that part of this novel, just that part, actually is autobiographical. I did have a sexual initiation, a sexual experience with an older woman when I was 11 or 12. I was still playing little league, okay? I talked about that in interviews, and what I read as a consequence was that Until I Find You was entirely autobiographical. That’s all I heard, and, “Were you molested as a child?” I never put it that way, but that’s what I heard. It’s all people cared about.
Now, the other thing that’s been beaten to death, and no one has beaten it to death as much as I have, is the fact that I grew up for a long time not knowing who my biological father was. You know, I’ve written about that in various ways, no question, but I’ve also not written about it. That is to say, the subject of a missing parent and a child from whom something is kept secret is fascinating to me as a novelist, and I keep changing that story. I don’t make it the way it was for me, and I don’t make the mother my mother. I don’t make the missing father the man I discovered my father was. It is an autobiographical shred, like a crumb from toast on a kitchen counter, and people seem to just gobble it up.
I don’t think I’ve had a very interesting life, and I feel that is a great liberation. That gives me great freedom as a fiction writer. Nothing that happened holds any special tyranny over me. If I think something that happened to me is interesting enough to use as fiction, all that means is I can make it better. Or, as the case may be, worse. In the case of Jack Burns’ babysitter in Until I Find You — oh, I made her much worse. And I made him younger than I was, purposefully. That is not the story of my sexual initiation by an older woman, whom I quite liked. You try to make those distinctions — you say, “This is a little bit autobiographical, sure.” I mean, yes I wrestled for 20 years, and yes, I coached wrestling until I was 47, and yes, I know this boy by heart, fine.
You know, if we’re talking about In One Person for example, anyone in the arts, film, or writing is going to have a number of acquaintances and friends of every sexual disposition and orientation. You know, let’s say I started wrestling at a young age, at 14. Was I ever gay or bi? No, but did I ever have unwelcome and sort of gripping crushes on the older boys, like probably half of the people who went to all boy schools? Sure I did. I mean, sure there were older wrestlers on the wrestling team who I thought were kind of god-like, and typical of the time I hated myself for being attracted to males of any kind, but I knew what it felt like to be attracted to males. I knew what it felt like to be attracted to women too, including my friend’s mothers and faculty wives and all number of unlikely people.
I’ve had attractions I would never have acted upon, whether they were straight or gay. But to say I didn’t feel them. … I’ve always assumed using my own example that boys from the ages of 13 to 17 are turned on by virtually everything that moves. In my case — and maybe this is a mark of my generation or the fact that I’m an American, or both — you beat yourself up and hate yourself for half of the people you’re attracted to of whatever sex. Because you think, “How can I be attracted to her? How can I be attracted to him?” In all the interviews ahead of me for In One Person, I guarantee you that half the people will say “Well, this is an autobiographical book.” This guy wrestled for 20 years with a homoerotic attraction to other wrestlers.” Just wait — I’m already going to be teased by some of my former teammates.