March 2, 1942– John Irving:
“Keep passing the open windows.” –The Hotel New Hampshire
A favorite writer of everyone at my house, John Irving has provided good reads for 40 years. With bears as a central theme in many of his works, and characters that are trying to be writers, he remains a special treasure to me.
Irving writes in an office at his mountainside home in Vermont, using an electric typewriter. He writes the last sentence of each novel first. Not just an idea of the last sentence, but the actual sentence, complete with characters named and conflicts resolved. He sends the sentence on postcards to selected friends. Years later, when the book comes out, he will check to discover that the ending has not altered by so much as a semicolon.
His novels have certain phrases that have become part of the lexicon of my own life: “Watch out for the undertoad”, “Sorrow floats”, “Good night, you princes of Maine—you kings of New England”.
Irving is the best ally the gay community has in a literary giant. The acclaimed novelist and Academy Award winning screenwriter, adapting his own The Cider House Rules (1999) for the screen, is the very definition of “straight, but not narrow”.
His first big hit, 1978’s The World According To Garp, features a comic but heartfelt and humane portrait of a transgendered person, probably the first I had ever encountered in literature. Since then, he’s explored gay and transgender themes in The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) with a gay brother, A Son Of The Circus (1994) with gay twins, and several other his novels touch on the subject.
In the summer of 2013, I read his terrific novel, In One Person. Irving puts gayness as the center theme in the novel. Bisexual Billy Abbott, is the book’s hero, the story takes him from his upbringing through the AIDS crisis in NYC and beyond. Irving proves that despite his tough-guy writer image, his compassion for sexual minorities is real and deep.
Irving has been open about the influence of gay authors on his writing. He lists Edmund White among his inspirations. He also has a gay son.
“I can’t accept that Gay Rights, or the rights for people who are bi, or the rights for transgender people, are as ‘hotly debated’ as they say. I think those people who can’t accept sexual identity as a civil rights issue, are moral and political dinosaurs. Their resistance to sexual tolerance is dying; those people who are sexually intolerant are dying out, they just don’t know it yet.”
“The bisexual men I have known were not shy, nor were they “conflicted. I would say, too, that both my oldest and youngest bisexual male friends are among the most confident men I have ever known. Yet bisexual men of my generation were generally distrusted. Their gay male friends thought of them as gay guys who were hedging their bets, or holding back or keeping a part of themselves in the closet. To most straight men, the only part of a bisexual man that registers is the gay part; to many straight women, a bi guy is doubly untrustworthy—he could leave you for another woman or for a guy! I can’t speculate on why other writers may choose to eschew the bisexual as a potential main character especially as a point-of-view character. I just know that sexual misfits have always appealed to me; writers are outsiders, at least we’re supposed to be ‘detached’. Well, I find sexual outsiders especially engaging. I like these people; they attract me, and I fear for their safety. I worry about who might hate them and wish them harm.”
Most of Irving’s books have been made into good films, sometimes with screenplays by the author. I have read and own 10 of Irving’s 14 novels, so I have some catching up to do. The Hotel New Hampshire has a special place in my heart. Nearly broke, I purchased it in hardback when the man that would become my husband and I first arrived in Seattle in 1981. The novel got me through a frightening time, starting a new life. The story’s catch phrase: “Keep Passing The Open Window” became my motto for the early 1980s.
Sometime in the late 1970s, after I finished reading The World According to Garp, I thought it was an angry novel, and the subject of intolerance toward sexual differences upset me, although I found it thrilling. Garp is a radical novel, in a political and violent sense. A man is killed by a woman who hates men; his mother is murdered by a man who hates women. Irving:
“Sexual assassination was a harsh view of the so-called sexual liberation of the sixties; I was saying, ‘So why do people of different sexual persuasions still hate one another?’ Well, I thought I would never revisit that subject. In One Person isn’t as radical a novel as Garp; it is a more personal experience. I made Billy a first-person narrator to make the story more personal. But Billy is a solitary man. ‘We are formed by what we desire’, he says in the first chapter, first paragraph. Later, over 300 pages into Billy’s story, he says: ‘I knew that no one person could rescue me from wanting to have sex with men and women.’ He’s not complaining; he’s just stating a fact. I can’t accept that Gay Rights, or the rights for people who are bi, or the rights for transgender people are ‘hotly debated’. I think those people who can’t accept sexual identity as a civil rights issue, are moral and political dinosaurs. Their resistance to sexual tolerance is dying; those people who are sexually intolerant are dying out—they just don’t know it yet.”
As a youth, it took Irving five years to get through Phillips Exeter Academy, where he’d been accepted in the first place, he says, only because his father was on the faculty. Now, Irving understands that he is dyslexic. Back then, he just thought he wasn’t good enough. Irving struggled with schoolwork and he was intimated by his classmates that seemed to have it so easy with their prep school privilege. Irving was also dealing with something else:
“I always identified with and sympathized with a wide range of sexual desires. When I was young, I was confusingly attracted to just about everyone; in lieu of having much in the way of actual sex — this was the 1950s — I imagined having sex all the time, with a disturbing variety of people.”
“I was attracted to my friends’ mothers, to girls my own age, and — at the Exeter, where I was on the wrestling team — to certain older boys among my teammates. Easily two-thirds of my sexual fantasies frightened me.”
“I was terrified of being gay. It turned out that I liked girls, but the memory of my attractions to the ‘wrong’ people never left me. The impulse to bisexuality was very strong; my earliest sexual experiences — more important, my earliest sexual imaginings — taught me that sexual desire is mutable. I think our sympathy for others comes, in part, from our ability to remember our feelings. Certainly, sexual tolerance comes from being honest with ourselves about what we have imagined sexually.”
Wrestling was his salvation, and Irving’s lifetime relationship with the sport began at Exeter. He found his identity as a competitor: “A tough guy if not a very smart one”. After graduation, he enrolled at the University Of Pittsburgh, which had one of the top wrestling programs in the country. He went from the kid who hardly ever lost a match to the guy who hardly ever won. He quit college after his freshman year and returned to his parents’ home at Exeter.
I am profoundly dyslexic, and my story is similar, substituting Theatre and Music for Wresting. Irving forced himself to read slowly, and fell in love with language and literature. He doubted he could learn how to do most professions, so he focused on writing. Irving thought he wasn’t talented at either wrestling or writing, but he believed what his wrestling coach had told him: “Talent is overrated”. He compensated by working harder than anyone else.
He continued his education at the University of New Hampshire and kept at the wrestling, helping to coach his old team at Exeter. When he was 26-years old, his first novel, Setting Free The Bears (1968) was published. It received solid reviews, but sold poorly. He then studied with Kurt Vonnegut at the famed University Of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His second and third novels also received good reviews and they sold a bit better. His fourth, The World According To Garp, became an international bestseller and cultural phenomenon, and Irving became one of our best and most prolific writers:
Setting Free the Bears (1968)
The Water-Method Man (1972)
The 158-Pound Marriage (1974)
The World According To Garp (1978)
The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)
The Cider House Rules (1985)
A Prayer For Owen Meany (1989)
A Son Of The Circus (1994)
The Imaginary Girlfriend (1995)
Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (1996)
A Widow For One Year (1998)
My Movie Business (1999)
The Fourth Hand (2001)
A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make A Sound (2004)
Until I Find You (2005)
Last Night in Twisted River (2009)
In One Person (2012)
Avenue of Mysteries (2015)