I would never have guessed that the hottest ticket of 2009 would be a 67-year-old author of 700-page books, but while tickets to most sold-out events can be found—albeit at a premium—on Craigslist, booklovers who missed scooping up passes to John Irving’s Monday night appearance in Minneapolis found themselves unable to gain admission at any price. Callers to event sponsor Magers and Quinn reported exasperated replies to the question staffers had heard too many times: “No, we don’t have any more tickets. We’ll be broadcasting his remarks in the store so you can listen.”
The mood in the incongruous but convenient venue ComedySportz (“with a z,” pointed out a Magers and Quinn employee introducing Irving) was rapturous as Irving took the podium looking and acting every inch…well, himself. With Norman Mailer gone, the hale Irving, his silver hair brushed back in a near-pompadour, has become the reigning he-man of letters: a veteran wrestling coach who can also pin the Muse in a mere seven months.
That’s how long, explained the author best known for The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules, it took him to work out the plot for his new novel Last Night in Twisted River, of which pre-signed copies went to precisely 200 souls on Monday night. That’s a relatively short span of time for him, said Irving, a speed he was able to attain because he’d been thinking for 20 years about writing the novel.
Why did Irving wait so long to get started? Because, he said, he doesn’t begin a novel until he knows precisely what the last sentence will be; Twisted River‘s final sentence simply took that long to occur to him, and he remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing on that day in 2005 when the sentence presented itself. “He felt that the great adventure of his life was just beginning,” Irving realized the last sentence had to begin; after a while, the remainder of the sentence came along. “…as his father must have felt, in the throes and dire circumstances of his last night in Twisted River.”
Exactly what those throes and dire circumstances were was something revealed by Irving in a couple of brief excerpts he read aloud. The tragedy that sets the plot in motion is the result of a fearful young boy acting rashly when he’s surprised by a discovery his father failed to prepare him for. “Those of you who have read my books,” noted Irving, “know that it’s never good when somebody fails to tell a kid something.”
Irving is a famously meticulous writer, a fact that he addressed in his remarks. His first literary loves, Irving explained, were 19th-century writers such as Dickens, Hardy, Melville, and Hawthorne; it’s from them, he said, that he learned his “obsession with plot.” On Monday night, the calculated deliberateness of Irving’s process made itself plain in the number of times he quantified aspects of his oeuvre. Two of 12 books, he noted, feature the books’ titles in their final sentences. Ten of 12 include significant portions devoted to the protagonists’ childhoods. Four of 12 were written before he was able to devote himself full-time to writing. Last Night runs 576 pages: relatively short for Irving, but “by today’s rather minimalist standards,” he said, provoking laughter from the audience, “it’s a long novel.” (“Minimalism,” he later argued, “may be good for cooking, but not for writing.”)
He also addressed the preponderance of dark, tragic events in his novels, saying that he puts his own deepest fears into his writing. “If your nightmares aren’t autobiographical,” Irving asked rhetorically, “what is?” As with the matter of his books’ final sentences, he said that his material comes to him rather than vice-versa. “You don’t get to pick your obsessions,” he said.
Turning to questions submitted in writing by the audience, Irving mentioned that at a recent literary conference he’d perplexingly received four questions directed at Margaret Atwood. “Though we’re about the same age,” he observed, “we really don’t look all that similar.” That led to a story about how Irving and John Updike, in the last decade of Updike’s life, would trade packages of letters written by fans who mistook one author for the other.
Some of the questions were slight: in response to a question regarding how he feels about certain phrases from his writing “encompassing the modern therapy movement,” Irving said that “I don’t know what that is, but I’m probably a good candidate for it.” Other questions, though, elicited extended responses. In particular, a question about childhood in Irving’s novels led the author to explain why he hesitates to adapt his work for the screen: most of his novels take place over a long span of time, and he believes that the resulting necessity of switching actors undercuts the audience’s sympathy with the characters. Capturing the passage of long periods of time, he said, “is something that books do very well, and movies do very poorly.”
Irving closed by responding to a question from an audience member who had heard a recent interview with the author. “Did you really,” went the question, “club a porcupine to death?” In fact, Irving explained, he had: in the dark of the New Hampshire night, he took a baseball bat (“the bat was completely ruined”) and, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts, fatally battered a porcupine that was causing “a fracas” with his dog. His wife and son, who slept through the incident (it was only out of consideration to them that Irving refrained from shouldering his shotgun in battle with the pest), the next morning discovered a bloody scene “like something from Macbeth.”
Or, one might add, like something from a John Irving novel.