By Laura Godfrey
Last Thursday at the Toronto Reference Library, more than 400 people crowded into the branch’s Bram & Bluma Appel Salon to hear best-selling author John Irving, 70, talk about his latest novel, In One Person. During his 75 minutes on stage, Irving told stories about some of his most famous novels—including The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany—and some of his lesser-known endeavours, too. Did you know the author spent 25 years competing as a wrestler, or that in 1992, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Oklahoma? I didn’t.
In One Person is Irving’s 13th novel, and it tells the story of Billy Abbott, a bisexual man who keeps “getting crushes on all the wrong people”; for one, he falls in love with an older woman whom he doesn’t know is transgender, which leads to a lot of misunderstandings. Having only recently read The Cider House Rules (about a doctor in the 1930s who performs illegal abortions for women who need them), I wasn’t aware of how prominently feminism and queer themes were featured in many of Irving’s books. Consider me a fan, because the author’s advocacy for these issues was inspiring to see—his gay son, Everett, sat in the front row, and was apparently an early and enthusiastic reader of In One Person.
Irving had some strong words for those who oppress women and people in the queer community: “The only thing that makes In One Person look timely now are the dinosaurs who continue to stand in opposition to sexual equality issues. It’s not me that makes this novel look timely, it’s the idiots in my country’s Republican party.”
According to Irving, his new book is the fourth of his “political novels”—the first three being Garp, Cider House, and Owen Meany—and because he chooses a side of a controversial issue in each of these books, he said “it’s no surprise to me that in the case of these four, they have had both my best reviews and my worst.”
“The more of a sexual minority the world makes you feel, the harder it is to come by that identity, and the more struggle and pain you’ve got to go through to get there,” he said of the queer themes in In One Person. “When you do get there, don’t tolerate the intolerant people who question what that identity is.”
Beyond these controversial issues, however, Irving is an expert at creating complex, sympathetic characters, and then breaking his readers’ hearts. This isn’t an accident, he said, and his goal is to create character who aren’t easy to love—his trick is to create a character who, despite redeeming personal qualities, might not make the most endearing newspaper headline. “Imagine Dr. Larch from The Cider House Rules—is he a sympathetic headline? ‘Doctor at orphanage, discovered to be performing illegal abortions, dies of ether overdose.’ Does that sound like someone you want to send your daughter to? Probably not,” Irving said. “But that’s what you have to do—you have to find someone who isn’t instantly winning the sympathy of everyone. That’s your job; you create some affection for that person, difficult though he or she may be. And then you think, ‘Okay, now that you love them, what’s the worst thing I can do to them?’”
After hearing that, I’m almost afraid to dive into my new copy of In One Person, but I know I will soon, and I’ll probably read the one after that, too. In fact, Irving, who always writes the last line of his novels verbatim before writing anything else, has already revealed the last line of his next novel: “Not every collision course comes as a surprise.”
Unfortunately, it could be several more years before we find out what kind of collision course that may be.