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John Irving: Sexuality, Empathy, and Humanity

John Irving: Sexuality, Empathy, and Humanity

Author: Frederick McKindra

June 7, 2012

“There’s no question that I’ve always identified with a wide range of sexual desires.”

By now, John Irving trusts his audience to suspend its recognition of his set pieces—something like a regional stage director presenting a re-purposed backdrop. In his latest novel, In One Person (Simon & Schuster), those mainstays —an absentee father, wrestling mats, “sexual outsiders”— are transformed through a shift in point of view (third person to first) and tone (less darkly comic, more serious). Moreover, this time out, someone in Irving’s world fesses up to harboring bisexual desires.

Like his preceding New England prep school novels, Irving places In One Person’s protagonist Billy Abbott in the precarious position of faculty brat within the local social hierarchy. Also like past novels, the legacy of an absentee father and the secrecy surrounding his departure color Billy’s attitude toward his family and the stifling silence of the town. Both establish Billy as a sympathetic player in the knife-nosed community of First Sister,Vermont.

Billy finds solace in the local library. There he meets the librarian Miss Frost and begins paging his way toward embracing his mutable sexual appetites through well-timed suggested reading. Billy collects some wounds during those early years in First Sister; then escapes into a life of multiple partners, suffers the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, and attempts reconciliation with a much changed community some decades later.

Irving’s tone shift for In One Person erases most traces of the comedy found in previous works. Here instead we find the novelist treating the irreconcilable romantic prospects of his transgender characters with enough sensitivity to feel like he’s abandoned camp for something more like passing. And the same nuance vivifies his almost familiar prep school cast: the jock-god Kittredge, his faithful attendant Delacorte, the female faculty attendant and Billy’s true confidant Elaine.  Even the inevitable doom feels different from say Garp, or Owen Meany; this time the boogeyman’s a virus—one which leaves enough hollowed boy’s-school blazers in its wake to dissuade readers from smirking.

In this interview, we asked the writer what new insights he gained after donning a different set of fictional clothes.  And please be aware, if you have not read the novel, there are spoilers ahead.

In a recent interview you said “the capacity for imagination in the reader has become less than it was” in regard to author interviews, with interviewers falling prey to the biographical fallacy—wanting to connect everything to the life of the writer. So I wanted to start by asking, from a writer’s point of view, what should these interviews accomplish in terms of enlarging the scope of the book for the reading audience?

I remember, surely through the 1980s, that no one asked me an autobiographical question about any of my novels. It’s arguable that some of those earlier novels had more autobiographical content in them than some of the later ones. But no one, even in the case of Owen Meany, which was published as late as 1989, no one in this country (which is kind of surprising) asked me –in the case of that “Vietnam” novel as it was called—no one asked me what my experience in the Vietnam years was. Nor did anyone ask me, in this country, about the unexplained and repressed sexuality of that first person narrator. No one said, “Well, this guy never has sex with anyone. He’s called behind his back a ‘nonpracticing homosexual.’ Do you mean to say that he doesn’t just love Owen Meany as his best friend but that he’s in love with Owen Meany and is too much in the closet to ever…” No one ever asked me those questions.

Now when I visit high schools and they’re reading Owen Meany in AP English classes, it’s almost the first thing that kids ask me. “Oh, is he one of those closeted gay guys of your generation?” [Recently] a high school kid would ask me that. But when it was published, not a word. I find that strange.  It seems to me that it is symptomatic of a decline in our ability to relate to imaginative writing, to novels, to plays. It’s almost the first question out of people’s mouths. “Is this your father? Is this sister your sister? Is Johnny Wheelwright you? Is John Berry you? Is Garp you?” It’s almost the first thing.

You wonder—ok, Shakespeare was spared the interviews—but you wonder if someone would have gotten a hold of him and said, “Hey, your dad was a glove maker. No plays about gloves. So did you actually have any contact with Julio? Did you meet any witches? Did you know any ghosts—I mean real ones?” Or if you’re interviewing Sophocles, do you say, “Ah, must’ve been some dysfunction in your family, hunh? I mean, was everyone incestuous?” It’s hard to imagine literature through the lens of autobiography. To me it’s kind of a worthless pursuit. But we do live in age that grants more memoir than fiction, so maybe that’s it. I talk about this with people my age and we all sound like those old cranks who say, “Well, we never used to be like this.” I don’t mean to sound like that.

Well, what do you hope these interviews accomplish in terms of you being able to connect with your reading audience?

I feel good about this novel.

Billy, my bisexual narrator in In One Person, he’s a much easier character to [embody] because he is so out about his attractions, and he’s not the usual first person narrator. The first person narrator in many American novels is not the main character. He is admiring of someone else, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. But this narrator of In One Person, he is the main character, and it’s a lot easier to be in the voice of someone who isn’t repressed than it is to carry off that voice of someone who is so repressed he doesn’t even know it.

I’ve had interviews with people who say, “Well [Billy] is really out there, this narrator.” And frankly…I look at others of my “sexual outsiders” among my characters, I look at Dr. Larch in The Cider House Rules who is an ether addict, he has sex once with a prostitute and stops for life, Garp’s mother has sex once with a comatose man and never has sex again, and then there’s Johnny Wheelwright who never has sex at all—they struck me as far more radical choices than having sex with men and women.

So Billy, when people ask me that question about Billy being extreme or Billy being a radical case of a sexual outsider or misfit, I would argue to the contrary a little bit.

Well, to that point, can we say that, at least at one point, John Irving was “questioning”? You’ve talked about the mutability of sexuality in interviews recently, you’ve talked about how widespread your own desires were and what fear arose because of them.

There’s no question that I’ve always identified with a wide range of sexual desires.

[…]growing up in the 50s and 60s where it was so unusual to have sex as a young teenager that there was nothing you could do but imagine it. There were never the constraints on what you imagined [being] as intimidating as [the] constraints on who you actually had sex with. It was nonetheless disturbing, and my gay friends of my generation, certainly a writer like Edmund White, has written very poignantly about the guilt and the shame and the self-hatred that was attached to having the, at the time, “abnormal sexual desire.”

I told that story for years about my first girlfriend who was so afraid of getting pregnant that she permitted only anal intercourse, which I liked so much that it only added to my terror that I really must be gay. “Oh my God, I really like this.” And then, what was I to do with the fact that I was often much more attracted to the mothers of my girlfriends than I was to the girlfriends. And there were those unmentionable older boys who attracted me in a more than hero worship way when I was 13, 14, 15 and they were 17, 18, 19. This simply taught me that sexual desire itself is terribly mutable if you’re honest, and that I don’t know why someone like Shakespeare could write so easily about the mutability of sexual attraction and the sexes and we seem to struggle with it so. We in America in particular.

Your narrator Billy says a lot about not gaining access to traditional gay or straight circles because he is a practicing bisexual. The mutability of sexuality would be a very charged issue for a lot readers, especially for those readers who, for political reasons, would very much like to believe that their sexuality is a fixed same sex desire.

Well, how old are you, Fred?

I’m 27.

What I notice is, I’m always saying how nothing has changed, how people are still intolerant of sexual differences. I remember thinking, naively I guess, when I finished The World According to Garp, that I would never write about that subject again, that the subject of intolerance of sexual differences would never, surely it would go away. And this isn’t as radical a novel on the subject of sexual intolerance as Garp, where you have twin assassinations of a man who’s killed by a woman who hates men, and his mother who’s murdered by a man who hates women. It’s nothing that symbolically extreme or politically extreme in In One Person. But then, the level of anger Billy feels for being distrusted, the fact that he feels very keenly that the gays of his generation don’t trust him, don’t even believe in his bisexuality. They see him as someone who’s hedging his bets. Someone with one foot in the closet, which was what everyone said about bisexual men at least in my generation. Edmund White and I have talked about this—he’s only two years older than I am—and he’s written about it too. It was a great figure of distrust, the bisexual guy. And straight women, of course, were double suspicious because here was a guy who could not only leave you for another woman, he might leave you for a guy.

I think that for your generation, I think bisexuality, just as transgender men and women,  have become more acceptable. You have to remember that every novel of mine, when you read it, is not when I wrote it. I didn’t begin this novel until June of 2009.

So, when I was thinking about this novel, my choice of a bisexual guy and those two transgender women who are bookends to the story—the older persecuted Miss Frost, and the younger transgender girl in progress which Gee is and thinks of herself as—those two characters are kind of, well they’re Billy’s heroes really, and they’re people who are likely to be as distrusted by the straight and gay community alike as he is. And that’s why I chose them, that’s why I also felt the passage of time in this novel, as it is in so many in of my books, was essential. The reader also knows, to a certain degree, in my books the reader always knows what’s coming. There’s a collision coming and you–the-reader know that.

You know in The Cider House Rules that Homer Wells, just because he doesn’t want to have anything to do with abortion, you know he’s going to have something to do with it because he knows how to do it. He knows how to perform it. And it’s only a matter of time until the right patient presents herself. You know that’s coming. Otherwise why did he learn how to do it? It’s the old Chekovian principle, he’s got a gun, he knows how to shoot it, it’s going to go off. Well, you’d have to be a fool about contemporary history to be reading this novel about Billy and who his lovers are, beginning in the 50s and 60s, and not see the 80s coming. You know what’s coming. And you know that many of these characters whose lives Billy is intersecting with are going to be victims of that epidemic. You just don’t know who, you just don’t know when. There’s always something like that that I think the readers anticipate.

This novel was kind of a boxcar in the station with three or four other novels that were going to be written, as long as 11 or 12 years ago. I say that just because what may appear either timely or weirdly out of date, is not something the writer can plan. But it was always about, even 12 years ago… it was always about a young bisexual man who falls in love with an older transgender woman.

Billy obviously ran into some troubles with the nomenclature of the community later in his life after he’d moved to Vermont and begun to have access to a generation with a lot of freedoms, but with that freedom came the necessity to delineate new identities. Do you think Billy would’ve faired any better had his coming of age happened four decades after it did?

Well, don’t you think the character of Gee at the end of the novel has the more promising or optimistic road ahead of her, than Billy has when we meet him in the 1950s? It was kind of my intention to introduce her as late as I do in the novel at a contemporary or current time as a way of saying, “Well, not only is this a vision for Billy of what Miss Frost might’ve been like before he knew her, or not only is this a vision to him of who a future Miss Frost might be—a more happily assimilated or accepted Miss Frost, maybe.” Isn’t that why he becomes a little less, as Larry accuses him of being, so not involved, of being such a bystander. Isn’t that why he looks more hopefully at the future? Although he’s still, I think, I tried to make him true to his generation in that he’s pissed off that he’s supposed to say “transgender” now, because Miss Frost when he knew her was a transsexual. The “transgender” word itself did not becomes a part of our usage, not to mention a politically correct part of our usage, until the 80s. I feel I have to give him certain generational tics and characteristics.

I’m curious whether we can even comfortably call Billy  a bisexual, or if he’s just a man who’s attracted to transgendered women.

I would say that his bisexuality is of a sexually solitary kind. I do not think, or I do not see Billy as being content with either a man or a woman.  And there’s no suggestion in the novel that beyond the younger man’s attraction to the older woman he presumes is Miss Frost, and loves her no less when he discovers that she is transgender, there’s no presumption that other transsexuals or transgenders are going to make him happy beyond his devotion to help in the transition of young Gee, whom he meets at the end of the story when he is a much, much older man, playing the mentor role in a non-sexual way. A couple of bisexual friends who read this manuscript asked me, well, you seem to be saying that the bisexual will never be happy. Will never be in a relationship. And I said, you know, this isn’t The Kinsey Report. This isn’t The Joys of Bi-Sex. This is not a work of non-fiction. This is a character.  Am I saying in The Cider House Rules that every abortionist is addicted to ether and never has sex? No. But Dr. Larch is. So, I’m not generalizing, but among the bisexual guys I’ve known in my generation and men who were older than me, and among the younger bi guys I know, I’m seeing in most cases, a guy who does not have a permanent partner. That’s what I’m seeing. But I’m not saying that’s the way it is, or has to be, or will always be. Again, I would go back to The World According to Garp. Am I saying that Garp’s mother—the feminist Jenny Fields—that in order to be a feminist you have to stop having sex with men or women? No, I’m not. But she does. Am I saying that if you fall in love with a boy and never say that you’re in love with him—as Johnny Wheelwright does with Owen Meany, and tragically you lose him when you’re still, both of you, young men—will you never be with any one man or woman again for the rest of your life? No, I’m not…I’m saying quite credibly, I think, this is what happens to this character.

In the book, that’s all you wanted to present, succinctly?

That and the fact that I wanted Billy to be verifiably realistic, and I believe he is. That is to say is he somebody who is ever going to be, make his fellow human beings comfortable, are people ever going to be able to relax around Billy, or not judge him.

I know you and Edmund White are friends. How did you respond to White’s book Jack Holmes & His Friend?

Oh, I loved Jack Holmes but I love all his stuff. And I’m envious of the fact that he is much more versatile as a writer than I am. I’m never comfortable doing anything but novels. And the occasional screenplay. But Ed has distinguished himself writing biographies, he’s written memoirs that are much more interesting than most memoirs I read, or I should say, most memoirs I don’t read. But I read his. Because he’s had an interesting life. I don’t think anyone would read one of my memoirs because I haven’t had a very interesting life.

However, you did get into the pages of Vanity Fair. Wearing a wrestling singlet. That’s pretty heady stuff. You were a rockstar, or you still are rockstar. What are you talking about?

Eh…let’s just say I don’t traipse around in wrestling singlets anymore. It would be unseemly, I think. Well, no, my weight’s pretty good. I haven’t put on any weight really, but…it’s not something I’d prance around my house in anymore. [Laughing]

But I like Ed’s work a lot. We both like to write about writers. I love his Hotel de Dream for that, among others. I like how Ed’s having fun with that in Jack Holmes &  His Friend, because the character Will, who is a writer, the straight friend is really not at all like Edmund as a writer. Ed is quite consciously putting him down, as a writer. And the character who is more like Edmund in Jack Holmes & His Friend is Jack. But there’s a lot of things about Jack that aren’t like Edmund too. There’s nothing at all ambitious in a literary way about Jack, Jack doesn’t become a novelist. So then, we all borrow pieces of ourselves and other people so that the characters we write about aren’t so much ourselves or our friends as they are amalgams, though interesting amalgams, of people we’ve known and people we’ve imagined ….You could say that Billy is…a character who…“What-if.” That’s a question every novelist faces. OK, you say, well I knew a guy like this but nothing very interesting happened to him. He was terribly interesting as a 12-year-old, but that was kind of the end of it. But, you ask yourself, yeah, but what if what was really cool about him as a 12-year-old, what if he continued to be that. What then? What would have happened or might have happened then? Well, I suppose you could look at Billy in my book and say, well, suppose I had really grown up and acted upon everything I ever desired. But I didn’t. What might have happened to me, what might my life have been like had all the things I fantasized about sexually actually happened? What would that have turned out like?

Here’s this friendship in Jack Holmes, a creative writer and a guy who isn’t a writer…and OK, well Edmund’s a writer and he’s gay and he’s a lot more like the gay guy who isn’t a writer than he is like the writer who’s a straight guy. But in no way is Jack Holmes & His Friend an autobiographical novel, as I’ve heard Edmund say in interviews and otherwise. He never had a crush on a straight guy for as long as Jack does.

[Laughter] Talk about crushes on the wrong kinds of people. [Laughter]

About the AIDS material, how cruel was the contrast while constructing the novel, in that you give us the entire trajectory of Billy’s life, and yet we see friends of his dropping off—even people like Delacorte, for whom there was little foreshadowing about his sexualityEven given his unusual and mysterious seeming relationship with Kittredge?

…it did not seem so mysterious to me. He just seemed like a hanger-on.

Well you have to remember, you’re 27. I wouldn’t presume to guess how old you were when you came out. But, for my generation, a lot of people who I knew in high school, in that very jock-ish, all boy school world in which I grew up…

…yes, the Irving world.

… it was years after I’d gone to school with people I was close to when the friends I’d known when we were 15, 16, 17, when I saw them later, and they were gay; and in some cases, when somebody said, “Well, I’m gay.” You wanted to say, well, of course you are. Of course you were, but in those days we could not say, speak, acknowledge this. And in many cases as I say, I was living in New York in the 80s, and some of the people I visited who were sick and dying, in some cases, the first I knew that they were gay was because they were sick and dying. And that’s a very hard thing. That also I think contributes to some of the guilt I tried to lay on Billy and Elaine. I remember feeling in some cases, well, you know so-and-so, he’s sick you know, and you should go see him, and he asked about you, and a part of what I remember feeling was, Oh, shit, I should’ve known. I should’ve said something, I should’ve reached out.

I had one experience as a kid, an actual experience which I don’t think is very relevant to this book, there’s nothing in the book about it, but there was one experience when I was in that all boys world and there was a kid on a wrestling team that I was captain of, and you know you’re supposed to feel responsible for how the other kids are doing, [especially] if something’s wrong. In wrestling, frankly, it was usually because they were having trouble making weight. And that had all kinds of effects on everything about them. But you were supposed to have your antennae tuned to people who were struggling in some way. And I sensed what I thought was a boy who I guessed might be gay and he might be getting picked on by other guys on the team. I had no evidence. I had a feeling, that’s all. I had a feeling that this was difficult for him, that being on the team itself was difficult for him, and that maybe there were guys on the team who were giving him trouble. And I said, “What’s going on? You can talk to me about this…if there’s somebody who’s bothering you, I’ll get on their case. I’ll help you. You don’t look very happy. You don’t like you’re having a good time.” And, it pretty much backfired on me.

I went from being what I thought was a befriender to being someone that this guy…he became afraid of me, he shunned me. I never knew whether I was right, or rather I was completely wrong and I had embarrassed him, or whether I was right and I had embarrassed him. It wasn’t my intention to out him. We didn’t even have that word as a verb. This was the 60s. I never knew what happened. I just knew that I thought I was making myself accessible or available, and that whatever I said was the wrong thing, or he took it the wrong way. Maybe he thought I was prying, or it wasn’t safe to talk to me, of maybe he was just appalled that I thought such a thing. I’ll never know. It isn’t something I’d ever write about because nothing came of it. I’m just saying that as an example of how, for my generation you might’ve gone to school with ten Carlton Delacortes and not known who they were. How many Delacortes did I go to school with? Probably more than I know. Surely, that’s a difference between when you went to school and when I did.

Were there instances where you did find out that people had gotten sick and had to presume because they would send veiled messages in an alumni newsletter, as happens in the book?

Sure. You remember how Billy and Elaine react to the news that Kittredge has died of “natural causes”? Well what do you die of “of natural causes” when you’re in your 50s, or 40s, or 30s? But such things were what they were. One of the people this book is dedicated to, Tony Richardson, I always thought he was a great reader. And long after our involvement in an adaptation Tony made of The Hotel New Hampshire as a film, which didn’t work out the way he had envisioned it, our friendship long endured—and it was all about reading, we used to tell each other what to read; for a theatre and film director he was a great reader—Tony dies of AIDS in the early 90s, in that other St. Vincent’s, the one in LA, and you know, I’ve always thought, well, he always used to say to me, “Well, I don’t have anything to read until whatever it is you write next.” And it’s with no small regret that I think, well, maybe this is the book of mine that he might’ve liked best. But he’s been dead since the early 90s.

The duck under sequence between Billy and Miss Frost was uniquely erotic to me. It was different from the other wrestling stuff I’ve read from you. What does all that physical intimacy feel like for a wrestler? Are they aware of the erotics of that at all—because it seemed like you were able to do something with the players in this scene that you haven’t done previously with wrestling, which was engage the erotic potential of athletics in a way that I felt was both true to the athletics and true to the sexual potential of Billy and Miss Frost’s relationship.

Of course. I think that Billy obviously looks at wrestling different than Kittredge does, or Miss Frost does, but at the same time, its…you know those older boys that I had crushes on when I was 14 or 15, not surprisingly most of them were wrestlers because I started wrestling at that age. I looked up to those older boys who were better wrestlers. Part of it was admiring of a platonic king, but I was certainly aware of the homoerotic interest. I felt ashamed of feeling for other boys, which in my case passed beyond a certain age when I was more comfortable with what my actual sexual relations were in comparison to all the ones I imagined. But Billy does see wrestling erotically. It wasn’t hard to imagine that.

What did you discover this time in dealing with your transgendered characters that you may not have discovered earlier when dealing with character like Roberta in Garp?

Well everything about The World According to Garp  is much more broadly satiric, radical is the word I used earlier. Jenny herself, Ellen James, the rape victim, and the crazy cult of people who cut their tongues out in sympathy for Ellen James. Roberta herself.  All of these characters are more exaggerated and extreme than the much more realistic characters in In One Person. I tried to be less broad, less politically satirical, more strictly realistic with all the characters in In One Person  because I think it’s a more dedicated to realism kind of novel. Not to say that there aren’t characters who are on a familiar extreme such as Dr. Larch is an extreme character in Cider House Rules or Jenny is an extreme character in The World According to Garp.  Certainly Mrs. Delacorte is an extreme character. But there’s nothing comparable in those earlier novels to, I think, the degree of what I hope is both the realism and sympathy that is invested in In One Person.

Photo by Jane Sobel Klonsky
Frederick McKindra photo

About: Frederick McKindra

Frederick McKindra was born and raised in Little Rock, AR. He graduated with a M.F.A. in Fiction from the New School in NYC.

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