He's Wrestled With Life . . .


John Irving loves to talk. Sitting shirtless in the sun at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, the 56-year-old author takes a series of simple questions and expands on them, tossing off digressions as if conversation were a literary form in its own right.

Ask him about his experience writing screenplays, and he'll tell you what he thinks of Hollywood, and why a book is always better than a film. Mention his predilection for tragedy--his work is marked by dead children, plane crashes, bad things happening to good people--and he'll segue into a treatise on the difference between sentimentality and emotion.

Even the silver-dollar-size tattoo etched into his left shoulder, a green maple leaf bleeding to red at its edges, inspires a story about the history of tattooing, his own rotator cuff surgery and the research that went into his ninth novel, "A Widow for One Year," currently riding the bestseller charts. Listening to him, one thing becomes increasingly obvious: There's a reason why his books are so long.

These days he has a lot to talk about, beginning with the publication of "A Widow for One Year" and the Modern Library's simultaneous 20th anniversary edition of "The World According to Garp," the novel that put him on the literary map.

Then there's the six-hour-long adaptation of his novel "The Cider House Rules" (1985) that will open at the Mark Taper Forum next month; in September, a film version of the same book, with his own screenplay, is scheduled to move into production after more than a decade of false starts.

As if that weren't enough, yet another Irving novel will go before the cameras in January: "A Son of the Circus," also with an Irving script. All in all, it's a concentrated period of exposure for a writer who tends to deride such distractions of modern literary life as antithetical to the purpose he has defined for himself: working seven days a week, eight hours a day, to produce one substantial novel every four years.

"I'm certainly grateful," he says, "but I don't credit the various adaptations of my work with being that important. In fact, they've taken me away from my day job. For all the time I've put into those two screenplays, I could have written another novel. That's the line I look at, and that's the truth."

If such a statement sounds single-minded, the characterization is one Irving accepts with pride. In many ways, he says, it goes back to his years as a wrestler: A compact, muscular man, he competed until he was in his mid-30s and believes that the discipline of training was essential in enabling him to take on the long-term commitment of the literary life.

Even more influential is his history as a writer, which for more than a decade was a touch-and-go proposition at best. His second novel, "The Water-Method Man," sold fewer than 6,000 copies when it was published in 1972 and already had been remaindered by the time it was selected by the New York Times as one of the year's notable books. Until "The World According to Garp" became a bestseller, in fact, Irving supported himself and his family by coaching wrestling and teaching high school English, while squeezing in whatever writing he could.

"In those years," he recalls, "I expected that I would always teach and coach for a living. . . . I resented like hell that I could only [write] for an hour and a half or two hours a day. What kind of practice does a doctor have if he only sees patients from 8 to 9 in the morning? What kind of lawyer could you be if someone said you could only have two clients a week?"

Even 20 years later, his voice tightens when he discusses the early days of his career, his words coming out hard and sharp as little stones. Still, he admits, without the frustrations of the experience, he might never have developed the patience he feels is necessary to write.

"Garp," he explains, "was the novel in which I learned that you can never know enough about a book before you begin. 'Garp' was the fourth novel I began too soon, although I probably waited longer to begin it than I waited to begin any of the first three novels. But 'Garp' was where I learned."

Irving feels that time is the key ingredient--both the time it takes to write a novel and the passage of time within the book itself. "So much of what is emotionally felt about a novel," he says, "is felt as the effect of the passage of time. The passage of time has always been important in my novels, as it was for the novels of the 19th century."

The reference is hardly gratuitous. Since childhood, he has been inspired by the Victorian masters, whose novels merge a certain intricacy of language with a highly developed sense of plot. "The 19th century novel was the model of the form for me. A plot-driven novel, a novel that demonstrated what Lawrence called 'the interconnectedness of things.'

"I not only loved the richness of storytelling that Dickens and George Eliot and Hardy and Thackeray and Trollope represented, I loved those sentences. If you're a writer, you ought to be able to write a sentence that's got a little bit going on in it."

All of these intentions come together in "A Widow for One Year," which is, in many ways, an Irving novel in the classic mold. Unfolding over a period of 37 years, it tells the story of Ruth Cole, a lonely little girl who grows up to be a novelist, writing books that seek a framework for loss.

When we first meet Ruth, she is 4 years old and living in the shadow of her two older brothers, who died in a car crash before she was born. Not long afterward, her mother, Marion, deserts her, an act that influences nearly every subsequent moment in the book.

"It's a novel about absence," Irving says. "It's a novel about what's missing. The absence of those dead children--everything in the book happens because of them. And if their absence is the strongest presence in Part 1 of the story, then Marion's absence is the strongest presence in Parts 2 and 3. Ruth may be the main character of the novel, but Marion is the emotional force. The whole idea was how long I could keep Marion out of the story and yet have her absence be as strong a presence as the absence of her boys."

Among the more interesting aspects of "A Widow for One Year" is the way it delves into the psychology of writing; some of the book's most telling scenes deal with how Ruth transmutes her experiences into art. It's risky territory for a novelist to work, since it is commonly accepted that writers don't make interesting characters. Irving flouts that notion, creating a fictional world where not only Ruth but nearly every other major figure is a purveyor of the written word.

In that sense, "A Widow for One Year" has much in common with "The World According to Garp," which also revolves around a novelist and the interaction of his life and work. "The similarities are not frivolous," Irving admits, noting that "Garp's" success gave him the confidence to write about a writer again.

"When I was writing 'Garp,' " he remembers, "people would say, 'Are you crazy? A book about a writer? Who's interested in writers?' My editor told me that. My publisher told me, 'You think you're obscure now? You wrote a book about a film editor with a urinary tract problem, and nobody was interested in that. You wrote a book about a motorcycle mechanic who lets all the animals out of a zoo. Now you've really done it--you're writing about a writer.' ".

Still, he suggests, "in retrospect, nobody really remembers 'The World According to Garp' as a book about a writer. It's about a family. And one that's sort of rent apart. That's the principal similarity between it and this book."

Of course, it's tempting to look for parallels between Irving and his fictional writers--to read "A Widow for One Year" or "The World According to Garp" as veiled attempts at autobiography in some way. That idea is enhanced by the photograph on the cover on the new reissue of the earlier novel, in which a 20-years-younger Irving sits on the hood of a Volvo whose license plate bears the single appellation "Garp."

In the introduction to the same volume, however, Irving cautions against reading fiction for clues about an author's life: An adult, he writes, should "know that whether a novel is autobiographical or not is beside the point--unless the alleged adult is hopelessly inexperienced or totally innocent of the ways of fiction."

That's especially true, Irving suggests, when it comes to the relationship between himself and Garp. For all their surface similarities, "in the case of 'Garp,' I was picking a writer who was the antithesis of myself." Asked to elaborate, he explains: "You can see it most clearly in the sense that with Garp, like so many American writers, his first piece of writing is the best, and everything after that is a deterioration.

"That was never my experience. I felt like it took me four books to finish one."

Yet perhaps the most significant difference between author and character has to do with Garp's dissatisfactions as a writer, his complaints about missing out on real life or not having what he considers a real job. "I was sick of listening to people like that," Irving says, and obviously he still is: In "A Widow for One Year," when a reporter asks Ruth about her work history, her editor yells out, "Being a writer is a real job."

For Irving, it's a point that bears repeating, the idea that writing novels is the labor that defines his life. Already, he is thinking about his next book, although he won't say much about it other than that he's trying to decide among a few ideas.

Maintaining his focus is "not difficult," he says, tilting his face to catch a different angle of sun. "Because of those 10 years, those four books, when I desired more than anything to be a full-time writer, I don't see it as a burden. It's a privilege. It's a luxury to be able to do this."

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