Irving has used the wrestlerís tool kit to become
among the very best known novelists in America. His
latest effort, "Avenue of Mysteries," is a
book about the strength of memory, the mystery of faith,
the weariness of age and the caprice of fate. He has
spliced together two stories: the present-day trip of
writer Juan Diego to the Philippines to carry out a
favor to a lost friend, and Juan Diegoís dreams and
memories of his childhood, living on the dumps of Oaxaca,
Mexico, with a cast of characters that includes his
sister, Lupe, who reads minds.
story is different, but Irving is using many of the
themes he has mined for more than 40 years.
what my voice as a writer is," he said. "Itís
pretty evident in most of my novels."
his 13 novels, "The World According to Garp,"
"A Prayer for Owen Meany," "The Cider
House Rules" and "A Widow for One Year"
have topped the New York Times best-seller list. Five
times, Hollywood has found his work to be worthwhile
grist for the motion picture mill. He tried
screenwriting and even won an Oscar for "Cider
House" but hated the experience, declaring that
screenplays are like carpentry ó all craft.
SCHOOL ALL THE WAY
73, sees himself as a 19th century novelist, dedicated
to plot, characters, narrative. He has griped for many
years about modern writers who consciously construct
wordplays that can be understood only by other writers.
He writes in longhand, in lined notebooks ó a practice
that lets him work during his frequent travels ("I
write well on airplanes and hotels"). Heís about
5 feet 8, so he can stretch his legs even when he flies
you are writing a novel, youíre always writing in your
head when people leave you alone in a corner."
has lived full-time in Toronto since last winter. It is
easier having only two places, he said. (He and his wife
also have a home on an Ontario island.) He did have
three locations when he lived in a small Vermont ski
town. He loved it, but the kids and grandkids couldnít
get there easily. Better to be in a travel hub. Besides,
he said, he owed it to his wife/agent, Janet Turnbull.
wife is Canadian, and sheís gone through the business
of living in the U.S. with me," he said. "I
think itís only fair that we come back to her
new novel is set south of the U.S. border in the mind of
Juan Diego and in the travel maze of the Philippines.
Irvingís protagonist is a writer who looks and feels
much older than his 54 years. He has a limp from a
childhood injury, suffered near the garbage heaps where
he and sister Lupe grew up, children of a prostitute and
no apparent father.
that life was the last time Juan Diego feels life meant
anything. It was all downhill, Juan Diego says, since he
that how Irving feels? The old wrestler has had three
knee surgeries, but he makes it plain in his soft-spoken
style that his novels are never about him ó and that
he doesnít limp.
I can use something, I use it, but I donít believe my
experience is very interesting," he said.
"Juan Diego has a much more interesting, sadder
life than me.
most autobiographical element in any of my novels is
psychological. I do not write about whatís happened to
me. I write about what Iím afraid of."
works like a wrestler during a phone interview ó not
the combative WWE loudmouth spoiling for a fight, but
the wise old-school amateur who controls a match
methodically, staying on top and piling up "riding
points" deep into the third period.
you allow him ó and he is such a good talker and
polite man that you donít want to interrupt ó he
will spin long stories and digressions that are not
quite on the nose. When you do ask him a question, he
pauses so long that you wonder if youíve offended him
or if he is thinking to himself, "How stupid are
first creative love was theater. His mother met his
stepfather during a play, and Irving spent a lot of time
in the local playhouse. Even if he did not understand
the specific language of the stage, he understood what
was being said. ("You donít need to understand
the language to understand that Lear is a fool.")
He liked acting, being someone else, and as he began to
read novels he realized that as a writer he could play
all the characters.
ĎAvenue of Mysteriesí I donít have to be only Juan
Diego," he said. "I can be the antagonist,
famously has said he knows the ending of his novels
before he starts. This gives him a certain affinity to
the clairvoyants who occasionally populate his work. In
"Avenue of Mysteries" that is Lupe. Like Owen
Meany, she senses fate and history.
itís not whether theyíre right or wrong,"
Irving said. "Itís about what a burden it is to
think you know. Itís about what a terrible gift, what
a perverse gift, to think you do see the future."
has often grappled with the unseen. He was intrigued
enough to take religion and philosophy courses in
college and has described himself as an old
Congregationalist kid, although he doesnít go to
church now. He calls the religious mysteries
"riveting stories." But he frowns on churchy
rules and prescriptions because they get in the way of
the meaning of those tales.
interference of human interpretation into the world of
the mystery," he calls it.
has frequently used the supernatural to hydrate his
novels. In "The World According to Garp,"
young Walt was told to fear the "undertoad,"
an ominous force that could not be seen. Owen Meany sees
his fate (although heís a little wrong, Irving says).
"Avenue of Mysteries," the Catholic church has
a heavy presence, particularly Our Lady of Guadalupe.
the veneration of Our Lady stems from an incident in
1531 when a native peasant named Juan Diego saw a vision
of a maiden who identified herself as the Virgin Mary
and who spoke to him in the language of the Aztec
give my heart to Rivera (a character in the story), who,
when heís seen the tears that the Virgin cries,
reminds the priests: I come here because of her, and not
you," Irving said. "I like that idea."
hopes to catch up with Irving while heís in town. Heís
been to previous readings in the Twin Cities.
was interesting to see people look at John in a
different light," he said. "I look at him as a