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John Irving's A Widow for One Year

Interview with the author of The World According to Garp

John Irving: “I don’t know that one’s writing comes out of an experience so much as of an age."
John Irving: “I don’t know that one’s writing comes out of an experience so much as of an age."

Author: John Irving was born in 1942 in Exeter, New Hampshire. He graduated from Philips Exeter Academy, where his stepfather taught history. It was at Exeter that Irving, an undiagnosed dyslexic and therefore a less than stellar student, began writing. He went on to the University of Pittsburgh and then to the University of New Hampshire, where he graduated cum laude. He received an MFA from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1967. Author of Setting Free the Bears (1969), The Water Method Man (1972), and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), Irving became a best-selling author with his fourth novel, The World According to Garp (1978). Irving is author of five other novels, including his most recent. He currently lives in southern Vermont and Toronto, Canada.

A Widow for One Year; Random House, 1998; 537 pages; $27.95 Type: fiction

Place: Long Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Amsterdam, Manhattan Time: 1958-present

The woman who will be a widow for one year is Ruth Cole. Ruth’s philandering father Ted writes and illustrates perverse and scary children’s stories. Ruth’s mother Marion, like many Irving women, is a spectacular beauty. Ted and Marion have two sons. After the boys, as teenagers, are killed in an auto accident, Ted and Marion try to bind up their misery by having another child, Ruth. Enter 16-year-old Eddie O’Hare, who in the summer of 1958 when Ruth is four, finds himself engaged in a passionate affair with Marion. At summer’s end Marion vanishes, leaving behind Ruth and Ted and Eddie. Ruth grows up and becomes a famous writer. Eddie, too, becomes a writer, but never rises above minor status. Ruth’s best female friend is a journalist. Even Marion, hidden out in Canada, eventually becomes a writer. Those characters in the novel who don’t write are either editors or prodigious readers. A Widow for One Year is both a thoroughly readable, engrossing novel and a terrific textbook for a creative writing class.

When we talked recently Mr. Irving was at home in Vermont. We chatted first about Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany {1989), which, like The Hotel New Hampshire and Irving’s newest, has some of its action in an Exeter-like setting. I asked Irving about Exeter’s recurrence in his fiction.

“I don’t know that one’s writing comes out of an experience so much as of an age. I think that the age one is when one is in boarding school is kind of pivotal, a very sort of a crucial time in one’s life. I think that wherever you are at that time in your life that becomes a repeated influence on the perspective you take in future books.

“In other words, I’m saying whatever my experience might have been between the ages of 14 and 18, I would guess that it would be a place I would revisit often, at least emotionally. In my case, Exeter may have been formative but I wouldn’t necessarily lay that at the feet of the school so much as I would say, ‘Where most of us are when we’re 16, it’s pretty formative.’ Also, in my case, you’ve got to remember that I felt like 1 went to Exeter long before I was old enough to go there because my dad taught there.”

Frederick Buechner, author of many wonderful novels, was chaplain at Exeter and also taught while Irving was a student there. Buechner’s Vermont home is only a few miles from Irving’s. The two men see each other often. I asked what Buechner had been like, as a teacher.

“Oh, he was wonderful. I think that my interest in religion really began with him. I’m not myself religious but the history of religion and the literature and religion courses that he taught did a great deal to inform me. There was a whole generation of people who went to Exeter when Freddie was the school chaplain there, and we didn’t all flock to his classes because we were religious. We flocked to his classes because he was one of the best teachers in the school. His classes weren’t religious courses, they were religion courses. You studied Islam, you studied Judaism, you studied early Christianity. But it was because he was such an enlightened teacher that made the whole thing attractive.”

About Buechner as a writer, Irving said. “He’s a very passionate writer. I’ve always read everything written with a lot of enthusiasm. He’s also a very youthful writer. He continues to write with the kind of exuberance that is usually associated with younger writers.”

Irving said that part of the fun for him of A Widow for One Year was to make so many of the characters writers. “As one of the characters says to Ruth, near the end of the book, ‘God, everybody you know is a writer.’ But this is true of so many writers I know. The only people we know are writers. I have a lot of friends who seem at times surprised to find their opinions at odds with the opinions that rule the world. Largely because they spend all their time around other writers who to some degree all feel members of the same oppressed minority.

“For almost a year when I was taking notes for this book, I wasn’t consciously thinking that this was going to be another book about a writer. In the beginning that wasn’t what concerned me. I knew that Ruth’s father was going to be a writer of children’s stories. I knew that Eddie would be a writer, but I wasn’t sure about Ruth. That was open for a while, while I was forming the story. But principally, the motivating part of the novel, the thing that really got me started was the idea of the main character — whatever she was, whether she was a writer or something else, I knew that she was a woman. I knew she had to be a woman. I knew that the kind of guilt and self-judgment that she brings to the subject of her sexual life, and principally her sexual past, is the kind of anxiety that doesn’t deflect most men. Men are permitted to have a sexual past. It’s even enhancing to their image, provided they put it behind them. Provided they don’t keep repeating it. But if a woman has a sexual past she’d better keep quiet about it.

“With Ruth it seems to me that there are several categories of her anxiety that interested me in her as a character only because she’s a woman. In other words, if she were a man most of the things that trouble her would trouble her less or not at all. Every man has had the bad-girlfriend equivalent of Scott [a man who behaves violently toward Ruth]. But on the other hand, I don’t know anybody’s father who committed suicide because his son had a bad girlfriend. Doesn’t work that way. There’s an interesting sort of double standard there that sexual experiences for one’s daughter are so staggering, but one’s sons are supposed to have sexual experiences. Ruth’s whole obsession shows when she’s thinking of the Amsterdam novel [a very sexual novel that Ruth considers writing]. She’s thinking that the territory of the unseemly, the territory of the sordid, is not one that women are invited to explore or they do so at their own peril or at their own risk of ridicule.

“So it was that whole shadowy area of what women aren’t permitted that was a provoking initiation to this story. You can’t simplify it so much to say, ‘Oh well, women feel things more deeply than men.’ I mean, I’m not going to say that. But on the other hand, there’s every evidence that they do. Ruth’s mother Marion, for example, will never recover from the death of her sons. Whereas Ruth’s father Ted, after the boys’ deaths, just goes on and on and on. That whole area of who recovers or who survives has always been interesting to me. It’s been interesting to me in other novels.”

Ruth plans a novel that involves her narrator with Amsterdam prostitutes. She wants for the novel’s narrator to pay a prostitute to allow her and her lover to watch the prostitute in action with a customer. Something bad happens during this research, which I won’t disclose. The “bad” event has as part of its action a pair of shoes. I said to Mr. Irving that the business with the shoes was quite extraordinary.

He agreed, and went on to say, “Well, I’m very proud of myself for the shoe thing, because as much research as I did in Amsterdam, and as much help as I had with the police business and the prostitute business and the city, I can truthfully say that the shoe idea was mine. When I proposed it to several of the prostitutes I talked to, they thought it was a wonderful idea. They’d never thought of it before, and they were very angry at themselves that they’d never thought of it before, because many of them, most of them, had concealed people in their rooms before, but they never thought of doing it that way. Every time I asked a prostitute if that would not be an acceptable way to do it, she would say, ‘Oh, wow, what a good idea that is!’ So, yes, I am very pleased with that idea.”

Readers who would like to try out the first chapter of A Widow for One Year can find it at this Web site: www.randomhouse.com/features/johnirving/

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John Irving: “I don’t know that one’s writing comes out of an experience so much as of an age."
John Irving: “I don’t know that one’s writing comes out of an experience so much as of an age."

Author: John Irving was born in 1942 in Exeter, New Hampshire. He graduated from Philips Exeter Academy, where his stepfather taught history. It was at Exeter that Irving, an undiagnosed dyslexic and therefore a less than stellar student, began writing. He went on to the University of Pittsburgh and then to the University of New Hampshire, where he graduated cum laude. He received an MFA from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1967. Author of Setting Free the Bears (1969), The Water Method Man (1972), and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), Irving became a best-selling author with his fourth novel, The World According to Garp (1978). Irving is author of five other novels, including his most recent. He currently lives in southern Vermont and Toronto, Canada.

A Widow for One Year; Random House, 1998; 537 pages; $27.95 Type: fiction

Place: Long Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Amsterdam, Manhattan Time: 1958-present

The woman who will be a widow for one year is Ruth Cole. Ruth’s philandering father Ted writes and illustrates perverse and scary children’s stories. Ruth’s mother Marion, like many Irving women, is a spectacular beauty. Ted and Marion have two sons. After the boys, as teenagers, are killed in an auto accident, Ted and Marion try to bind up their misery by having another child, Ruth. Enter 16-year-old Eddie O’Hare, who in the summer of 1958 when Ruth is four, finds himself engaged in a passionate affair with Marion. At summer’s end Marion vanishes, leaving behind Ruth and Ted and Eddie. Ruth grows up and becomes a famous writer. Eddie, too, becomes a writer, but never rises above minor status. Ruth’s best female friend is a journalist. Even Marion, hidden out in Canada, eventually becomes a writer. Those characters in the novel who don’t write are either editors or prodigious readers. A Widow for One Year is both a thoroughly readable, engrossing novel and a terrific textbook for a creative writing class.

When we talked recently Mr. Irving was at home in Vermont. We chatted first about Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany {1989), which, like The Hotel New Hampshire and Irving’s newest, has some of its action in an Exeter-like setting. I asked Irving about Exeter’s recurrence in his fiction.

“I don’t know that one’s writing comes out of an experience so much as of an age. I think that the age one is when one is in boarding school is kind of pivotal, a very sort of a crucial time in one’s life. I think that wherever you are at that time in your life that becomes a repeated influence on the perspective you take in future books.

“In other words, I’m saying whatever my experience might have been between the ages of 14 and 18, I would guess that it would be a place I would revisit often, at least emotionally. In my case, Exeter may have been formative but I wouldn’t necessarily lay that at the feet of the school so much as I would say, ‘Where most of us are when we’re 16, it’s pretty formative.’ Also, in my case, you’ve got to remember that I felt like 1 went to Exeter long before I was old enough to go there because my dad taught there.”

Frederick Buechner, author of many wonderful novels, was chaplain at Exeter and also taught while Irving was a student there. Buechner’s Vermont home is only a few miles from Irving’s. The two men see each other often. I asked what Buechner had been like, as a teacher.

“Oh, he was wonderful. I think that my interest in religion really began with him. I’m not myself religious but the history of religion and the literature and religion courses that he taught did a great deal to inform me. There was a whole generation of people who went to Exeter when Freddie was the school chaplain there, and we didn’t all flock to his classes because we were religious. We flocked to his classes because he was one of the best teachers in the school. His classes weren’t religious courses, they were religion courses. You studied Islam, you studied Judaism, you studied early Christianity. But it was because he was such an enlightened teacher that made the whole thing attractive.”

About Buechner as a writer, Irving said. “He’s a very passionate writer. I’ve always read everything written with a lot of enthusiasm. He’s also a very youthful writer. He continues to write with the kind of exuberance that is usually associated with younger writers.”

Irving said that part of the fun for him of A Widow for One Year was to make so many of the characters writers. “As one of the characters says to Ruth, near the end of the book, ‘God, everybody you know is a writer.’ But this is true of so many writers I know. The only people we know are writers. I have a lot of friends who seem at times surprised to find their opinions at odds with the opinions that rule the world. Largely because they spend all their time around other writers who to some degree all feel members of the same oppressed minority.

“For almost a year when I was taking notes for this book, I wasn’t consciously thinking that this was going to be another book about a writer. In the beginning that wasn’t what concerned me. I knew that Ruth’s father was going to be a writer of children’s stories. I knew that Eddie would be a writer, but I wasn’t sure about Ruth. That was open for a while, while I was forming the story. But principally, the motivating part of the novel, the thing that really got me started was the idea of the main character — whatever she was, whether she was a writer or something else, I knew that she was a woman. I knew she had to be a woman. I knew that the kind of guilt and self-judgment that she brings to the subject of her sexual life, and principally her sexual past, is the kind of anxiety that doesn’t deflect most men. Men are permitted to have a sexual past. It’s even enhancing to their image, provided they put it behind them. Provided they don’t keep repeating it. But if a woman has a sexual past she’d better keep quiet about it.

“With Ruth it seems to me that there are several categories of her anxiety that interested me in her as a character only because she’s a woman. In other words, if she were a man most of the things that trouble her would trouble her less or not at all. Every man has had the bad-girlfriend equivalent of Scott [a man who behaves violently toward Ruth]. But on the other hand, I don’t know anybody’s father who committed suicide because his son had a bad girlfriend. Doesn’t work that way. There’s an interesting sort of double standard there that sexual experiences for one’s daughter are so staggering, but one’s sons are supposed to have sexual experiences. Ruth’s whole obsession shows when she’s thinking of the Amsterdam novel [a very sexual novel that Ruth considers writing]. She’s thinking that the territory of the unseemly, the territory of the sordid, is not one that women are invited to explore or they do so at their own peril or at their own risk of ridicule.

“So it was that whole shadowy area of what women aren’t permitted that was a provoking initiation to this story. You can’t simplify it so much to say, ‘Oh well, women feel things more deeply than men.’ I mean, I’m not going to say that. But on the other hand, there’s every evidence that they do. Ruth’s mother Marion, for example, will never recover from the death of her sons. Whereas Ruth’s father Ted, after the boys’ deaths, just goes on and on and on. That whole area of who recovers or who survives has always been interesting to me. It’s been interesting to me in other novels.”

Ruth plans a novel that involves her narrator with Amsterdam prostitutes. She wants for the novel’s narrator to pay a prostitute to allow her and her lover to watch the prostitute in action with a customer. Something bad happens during this research, which I won’t disclose. The “bad” event has as part of its action a pair of shoes. I said to Mr. Irving that the business with the shoes was quite extraordinary.

He agreed, and went on to say, “Well, I’m very proud of myself for the shoe thing, because as much research as I did in Amsterdam, and as much help as I had with the police business and the prostitute business and the city, I can truthfully say that the shoe idea was mine. When I proposed it to several of the prostitutes I talked to, they thought it was a wonderful idea. They’d never thought of it before, and they were very angry at themselves that they’d never thought of it before, because many of them, most of them, had concealed people in their rooms before, but they never thought of doing it that way. Every time I asked a prostitute if that would not be an acceptable way to do it, she would say, ‘Oh, wow, what a good idea that is!’ So, yes, I am very pleased with that idea.”

Readers who would like to try out the first chapter of A Widow for One Year can find it at this Web site: www.randomhouse.com/features/johnirving/

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