Even John Irving’s mother has come to expect the lurid elements of her son’s work. “Christ! Another dildo?” she exclaimed when presented with an excerpt from the writer’s novel-in-progress, A Widow for One Year. “I tried to explain to her that there were differences among dildos, and that a dildo from a previous novel and a current novel are not the same,” Irving said on the West Coast leg of a recent tour introducing his book (as yet without a publisher) and the upcoming film productions of The Cider House Rules and A Son of the Circus.
Irving eschews Ernest Hemingway’s approach: Write what you know. This conviction has left him free to explore life beyond the pale: In The World According to Garp, a group of women cut out their tongues in empathy for a rape victim; in The Hotel New Hampshire, a brother and sister enjoy an incestuous relationship; and the pint-sized Christ figure in A Prayer for Owen Meany saws off his best friend’s trigger finger to make him ineligible to fight in Vietnam.
The 55-year-old New England native is opinionated and passionate about his métiers — writing and wrestling — and he uses each to explore the world of rules, manners, and civility, and the consequences of breaking social codes.
Q: You view censorship as an oppressive, puritanical practice. Considering the violence in your books, you clearly have a stake in this issue.
A: You can’t say you’re going to ban something in the name of good taste, because then you have directed someone to play the role of good-taste police. We permit bad taste in this country. In fact, we even encourage it — and reward it in all manner of ways.
Moreover, it’s magical thinking to imagine that the reason unspeakable things are being perpetrated by younger and younger people is that they’ve fallen under the influence of seductive, lascivious, prurient, and violent material in books, films, television.
It seems to me that a great deal of this type of censorship has to do with absolving parents of responsibility — parents who just plop their kids in front of the television and leave them there hour upon hour.
If you feel so strongly about what’s on television, don’t have one. If you feel strongly about people having abortions, don’t have one. But we are a country that likes to be punitive. We want to restrict. It is a kind of religious fervor run amuck.
Q: Are you yourself religious?
A: You know, if you asked me one day, I might say, “Well, sometimes I feel a little bit religious.” If you asked me another day, I’d just say flat out, “No.”
Q: But you had a fairly religious upbringing, didn’t you?
A: I grew up in a family where, through my teenage years, I was expected to go to church on Sunday. It wasn’t terribly painful. I thought some of the stories were neat; I liked some of the liturgy and some of the songs. If you’re a writer you have some inclination to pay attention. I didn’t just tune it out and think about baseball. So, it had an effect on me. I still believe in getting married in churches and baptizing children. I go through those motions. What was even more germane was my study of the history of religion. It was one of the few things in school I was fascinated by.
Q: In your memoir “The Imaginary Girlfriend” you write of wrestling: “I’ve always admired the rule that holds you responsible, if you lift your opponent off the mat, for your opponent’s safe return.” Does this reflect your desire for a civilized world where there are rules and values?
A: Yeah. I’m a very old-fashioned novelist. I write 19th-century novels, where a lot of rules apply. I believe in plot, in development of character, in the effect of the passage of time, in a good story — better than something you might find in the newspaper. And I believe a novel should be as complicated and involved as you’re capable of making it.
Q: Do you think rules of behavior should apply in the wider world as well?
A: I’m not at all contemporary, not even modern, and the fact that I would be so quaintly attracted to that wrestling rule makes me, I suppose, seem all the more old-fashioned. But I was brought up in a community, in a family that valued such things as good manners, and I still do. I believe in rules of behavior, and I’m quite interested in stories about the consequences of breaking those rules.
Q: The National Women’s Political Caucus gave you a Good Guy award for furthering the advancement of women with The Cider House Rules. Did you write it intending to make a statement about abortion?
A: You don’t want to be ungenerous toward people who give you prizes, but it is never the social or political message that interests me in a novel. I begin with an interest in a relationship, a situation, a character. Before I began The Cider House Rules, I thought I wanted to write about a father-son relationship that was closer, more conflicted, and ultimately more loving, than most. Then I began to think of a relationship between an old orphanage director and an unadoptable orphan — a kid who goes out into the world and fails and keeps coming back, so that the old guy ends up with someone he’s got to keep.
In my research I suddenly saw that the doctors in those orphanage hospitals were far more likely to perform abortions than other legitimate doctors, because they knew firsthand what happened to the kids who were left behind. Who else would be sympathetic? Who else would risk his profession to perform this illegal procedure? Not some moron like Newt Gingrich asking for the return of orphanages, but someone who really knew what orphanages were like and how sad the stories involving the kids were.
Q: What are your views on abortion?
A: I have no respect for the right-to-life position, though I have every respect for an individual who says, “I could never have that procedure, I could never see a film or read a book about that procedure.” It doesn’t bother me if people feel that way. But when you legislate personal belief, you’re in violation of freedom of religion. The Catholic Church may espouse its opinion on abortion to the members of its congregation. But they are in violation of separation of church and state when they try to proselytize their abortion politics on people who are not Catholics.
Q: You consider yourself old-fashioned. Yet you support people’s right to live their lives without imposition, and you explore social taboos in your books. Where did this multifaceted worldview come from?
A: Ted Seabrooke, my wrestling coach, had a kind of Nietzschean effect on me in terms of not just his estimation of my limited abilities, but his decidedly philosophical stance about how to conduct your life, what you should do to compensate for your limitations. This was essential to me, both as a student — and not a good one — and as a wrestler who was not a natural athlete but who had found something he loved.