'Hope is an Elusive Quality': An Interview with John Irving

John Irving on trans heroes, the nature of ghosts, and a career as a worst-case scenario guy.

November 29, 2022
A photo of the editor standing outside a house

Haley Cullingham is Hazlitt's editor-in-chief, and a senior editor at Strange Light and McClelland & Stewart. Books and pieces she's edited have won...

John Irving has rules for ghosts. He almost named his new novel after them. They populate its attics and hotels, torment its characters during sex, and transmit family secrets through dreams. These ghosts are old and young, cruel and playful, loved or unknown. The ghosts, one might say, have rules all their own. But Irving’s most important rule for ghosts is simple: if you see one, call him. He’s still waiting to meet his first.

John Irving also has rules for heroes. (He’s met his: his daughter, Eva. As Irving says, "We need more trans woman heroes.") He has made a career of crafting characters who act bravely in the face of harmful convention. In The Last Chairlift (Knopf Canada), the heroes will feel familiar. But there’s reason for that familiarity. The cultural circumstances that make celebrations of trans women, abortion doctors, and anti-war activists so vital have remained as frightening as ever. And so, we have Elliott: another Irving hero, another good Irving step-parent-figure, and most importantly, another trans woman to add to the growing, and as Irving says, necessary, list of queer characters whose movement through literature’s pages can make generations of gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, and two-spirit children “feel less alone.” And that’s exactly what Elliott Barlow does for her stepson, Adam Brewster, the novel’s narrator.

Irving is no stranger to the solidarity and refuge provided by a long novel (in The Last Chairlift, characters have books they keep with them in case of emergency), and in this one, which he’s calling his last long novel ever, he pays frequent homage to the large tomes that have kept him, and his characters, company, and in doing so, have allowed them to extend us the same hand. I spoke to John in early October, just before the publication of The Last Chairlift

John Irving: As you know, from reading me, I do repeat myself. So, you know what you’re in for.

Haley Cullingham: I’m ready.  

Your characters don’t leave you. They really don’t entirely go away. You recognize how some of my characters come back as other characters. I’ve said this before: there are the things you choose to do as a writer, but then there are the things that seem to choose you. So much of what you write about over time you recognize has an obsessive quality, because they come from obsessions, which are not exactly the same as choices.

I think, sometimes, we think of manifesting those obsessions in art as trying to work them out, or purge them, and the vibe I got from this book was more about honouring that there’s a reason we keep being obsessed with these things, and those reasons are good reasons, and it’s because those things are important.

Yes. Of course, I think in the case of Adam Brewster, he could not get away from his most supportive and loving extended family if he tried. In other words, he is afforded little privacy, shall we say. And everyone in his extended family knows more about something than he does, and cumulatively they have the effect of knowing more about everything than he does. He’s the slow learner, he’s the one who’s behind. Not to mention, as the only straight guy in his extended family, he’s the slowest one of the bunch. And he’s also, in his queer family, he’s the queer one—queer in the sense of the odd duck, the odd man out. It’s the queer people in his family who are normal. And to the point that Adam is also the most badly behaved, sexually, of all the members of his family. That of course was by design. 

To me, it plays to the idea of allyship, and how straight people often commend themselves for it. Especially with Elliott being called “the only hero,” and the repetition of that phrase. It’s so clear that to be welcomed into those queer communities as a straight person, it’s the straight person who’s really getting the favour done for them.

That’s exactly what’s going on.

As you say, Adam’s very preoccupied with secrets. There are a lot of secrets in the book, but I found that every character was almost joyfully incapable of keeping them.

Quite, yes. Everything has been talked about with someone. [Laughs.] Maybe not everyone has been included in the conversation, but some people have already talked about this. This is very true. But that’s what it’s also like to be the youngest person in the family, who, for natural reasons, is the slowest to learn, or the last one to know.

Why was that something that you wanted to explore in this book?

Well, I think it’s a kind of universal truth of families, but also, in light of the repetitions I mentioned earlier, there is, in what I would call my family saga novels, not only a familiarity of place, of location—the small town of Exeter, either by its real name as it is in this novel, or by a fictional name, which I’ve given it before, but it is Exeter, whether I call it Gravesend, or the Steering Academy, whatever name I give it, it’s the same place. And there’s a familiar premise to this family that repeats itself—namely that of a somewhat mysterious, elusive, evasive mother, not always the same mother, but always a mother who is withholding something, and a missing biological father, or an absent biological father.

But from that premise, I think, which is not only autobiographical to me but familiarly repetitious to readers who know me well, from that premise, I think, I tell a different story each time. And the mothers are not the same mother. They may be the same character in terms of what they withhold, but they’re not the same character. All the stepfathers in my novels are good. They’re wonderful stepfathers. I have a wonderful stepfather. But in my estimation, Elliott Barlow is not only different because he transitions to female, he’s also more the hero than all my other stepfathers. Good as they are, I would argue that Mr. Barlow, the snowshoer, is the best one. 

The mother character in this novel, Ray, has such a narrative instinct. She has this literary instinct for meddling, and she’s really writing Adam’s life, and her own life.

Oh yeah. The thing that may strike many readers as the most admirable thing about her, is her independence from other people’s rules, other people’s morality, her go-it-alone-ness, the fact that everything in this story that happened happens because of what she does and who she is. At the same time, we should, I think, as readers, also learn to not entirely trust her. As much as she may be admirable for her independence, we also know about her that she’s on record for taking that step too far.

In her eyes, there’s nothing wrong about the way she has a child with, as she would put it, no strings attached, but the age of that child’s father is more than a little problematic. The age of that child may cause, I hope, people to think, Ooh, what else will she do. However firmly based in wanting to educate Adam her kissing him is, there’s another step that I think most of us would say is too far. By the time we get to what Ray would be—is—capable of, we know that for whatever is lovable or admirable about her, there’s something scary about what she won’t hesitate to do. Setting up a reader’s instinct to fear for a character, or fear what will happen to a character, is similar to also fearing what a character is capable of, I think.

And then you have Adam’s older cousin, Nora. You say at the end of the book that something we look for from the people we love is consistency, and Nora feels to me like the most consistent supportive figure in Adam’s life.

Absolutely. But we also know that Nora is the most willfully outrageous, is the most purposely inflammatory. We know that Nora can get under someone’s skin. And even her partner, Em, recognizes that Nora will also go too far. A part of loving someone is being afraid for them, so I’m just trying to depict that relationship in a kind of myriad way. A kind of hall of mirrors.

I thought the relationship between Em, Nora, and the management of the Gallows, the bar in New York where they perform their stand-up act Two Dykes, One Who Talks, was really interesting. Can you talk about how you see that conflict between an organization that is ostensibly supporting an artist, but also censoring them, manifesting in the wider world?

I think that’s a given. Nora is willfully provocative. Clearly this is a historical novel because of how connected it is to actual moments in time, in history, of a sexually political nature. The era of Nora’s kind of out there, on-the-edge comedy, seems to be, as Elliot Barlow even says at an earlier time, in retreat. The world today is far too politically correct and self-censoring and responsive to anyone who is insulted or inflamed by anything to tolerate Two Dykes as written. I’m conscious of looking back at a time that was far more permissive and liberal than contemporary culture has become.

To me, I haven’t seen such … “uptightness” is the best word I can think of. I have not sensed such a sexually uptight cultural climate since the 1950s. Is it like the 1950s? No. But is the uptightness similar? Oh yes. Oh, very much so. 

Did you see this coming?

Well, in the novel, I very much want Em to see it coming. And not only because Em has the outward appearance of meekness, but for much of her time onstage, she doesn’t speak. It was a way of making the most silent or pantomimic character also the most prescient. She sees it coming, she sees the backlash, as it’s referred to. It’s not hard to look at the sexual politics of my birth country and recognize their backwardness and recognize the pushback that will follow everything that was or is progressive. Witness the willful legislations being passed in Republican states by Republican legislators essentially intended to inflict harm and more isolation on young women seeking abortion, or everyone in the LGBTQ community. Look at how many states have passed Republican legislation that bans books on the abortion subject, or on the LGBTQ subject in schools and libraries. To what end? Especially for the LGBTQ community, to make young trans, lesbian, and gay kids feel more isolated and alone than they already are? To take away from them the available literature that could tell them they’re not alone? The intent of that legislation is not only backward, it’s punitive. It’s repressive.

Does that make maintaining the queer archive even more essential? Or is it just always essential?

Oh gee, how about both? It does seem more essential right now, if not here in Canada, certainly in the US. But I think it’s always essential, isn’t it? The anti-everything, whatever it is, doesn’t go away. Reagan spent more of his presidency, as I point out in the novel, lamenting the existence of Roe v. Wade than he did addressing the AIDS epidemic, which began when his presidency also began. Fact. Moral absenteeism from a Republican president did not begin or end with Donald Trump. 

Where does it come from? It is religion? Is it that simple?

[Laughs] That’s a good question, especially as it refers to The Last Chairlift. There was a time when I was in the middle of [writing] it, and I thought, I’m going to take a lot of crap here for demonizing the Republicans and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Well, maybe not so much as I thought, when one considers what those Republican justices on the Supreme Court have done. All but one of them who voted to overturn Roe is Catholic, and the one who isn’t Catholic, who describes himself as Episcopalian, was raised Catholic and his mother was a staunch anti-abortion activist who worked in the Reagan administration. What those Republican justices did is more in step with the Vatican than it is with the First Amendment of the US constitution, the part that is quoted ad nauseam in The Last Chairlift: “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” That is what those justices did. They have endorsed a papal definition of “right to life.” From conception. That’s what they’ve done. It makes the US look like a theocracy to me.

I wanted to talk about the way death moves through the book and Adam’s response to it. It’s interesting, the funerals we get to see, but more interesting the ones we don’t.

The problem when you write intentionally plotted and ending-driven novels, as I do, is it’s hard to talk about them without blowing the story, without letting death out of the bag, so to speak. I could not imagine a funeral for [certain characters] that would stand for as much or mean as much as how they lived their lives and how they died. When it comes to talking about Bernard Nathanson, or Cardinal O’Connor, or Cardinal Law, they couldn’t in my estimation have died soon enough! [Laughs] I tried to have as much fun with those funerals as possible.

But it also would seem a little misplaced to me, speaking as a non-religious person, who has written a ghost story—I would say that ghosts, for me, for a non-religious person, represent as far as I can credibly venture into the spiritual world. That’s a credibility I’m ready to accept. I’m terribly disappointed that in my own life I’ve never had what I could describe as a verifiable ghost sighting. I’ve tried! But it didn’t work! It didn’t happen to me! But I know, because I know and believe in the rationality and reasonableness of many friends who have had actual ghost sighting experiences, that’s a part of the spiritual world that is credible to me. As [Adam’s parental figure] Molly says, “One way or another, you’re going to see the people you love. One way or another.” She’s the same one who says, “There’s more than one way to love someone, kid.” She’s right on both counts. But that’s not good enough for Adam. He’s seen ghosts he doesn’t care about. And seeing [ones he does] means everything. That’s the way they’re still alive, as Molly would say, in the heart. I would have to say that there’s a predisposition in this novel to offer the ghost in lieu of the religious service. Think how purposely disappointing, for example, [one of the early funerals in the book] is to both Elliott Barlow and to Adam. They hate it. They loved [the person] and they hate the funeral. Well, that’s part of making the same point, right?

Let’s stick with the death thing for a second. You do have a thing for characters who know how they’re going to die or take it into their own hands. I know you’ve spent a lot of your work and your life reckoning with that idea of believing in something but not being able to be religious. I’m curious, does that idea of predetermination or prescience, did that grow out of your thinking about faith?

I think in my case it’s more of a literary commitment than it is a so-to-speak real-life thing. In my personal life, nothing could upset me more than the loss of someone I love. Nothing in my life has upset me as much as the loss of someone I loved. I live in fear, as many people in a family do, of anything bad happening to the people who are the best things in your life.

Perversely, as a part of my devotion to the plot-driven, ending-driven, developed-character, nineteenth-century novel, well, I am a worst-case-scenario guy. And so, I think of, in a novel, what’s the worst thing that can happen to this character I love and I hope the reader will love too, or feel, at least, an emotional investment in? The writer who made me want to be a writer was Charles Dickens, and the intentions of a novel by Charles Dickens were to move a reader emotionally, to laughter and to tears, more than to persuade a reader intellectually. I feel the same way. It was Great Expectations, which I read at fifteen, that made me want to be a novelist, if I could be a novelist like that. It’s also my intention not to persuade you intellectually but to affect you emotionally. And in an ending-driven story, that ending is most of all, first and foremost, it should be, must be, an emotional pay off. It’s an emotional delivery. Now that’s a theatrical concept. We’re more familiar, I think, in the modern, in the contemporary age, we’re more familiar with recognizing that on the stage than we are with seeing it in the novel. Still, death is a part of that payoff.

Adding to the death subject is an element that made this novel my longest novel ever but also contributed very much to the almost-as-long nature of A Prayer for Owen Meany. Both A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Last Chairlift are stories told by first-person narrators. I hate writing in the first person. Which is to say, my first choice is always third-person omniscient. Why? Because every story you tell in the first-person voice is going to be longer. If it's already long, it’s going to be a lot longer. Because you have to explain to the reader how that narrator knows what he or she knows. There’s much more exposition in it. If you’re in the third person, you can skip ten or fifteen years. There’s a chapter in The Cider House Rules that is called “Ten or Fifteen Years,” and it begins, “For fifteen years they were a couple.” Period. Which is a way of saying, you don’t need to know what happened for the next fifteen years, it’s okay to step into the story now. It’s a way of saying, fifteen years later, comma. You can’t do that in the first-person voice! Your reader says, what? It’s not authentic. So why choose it then? Well, here’s why: If the overriding purpose of the novel is to move you by the death of loved ones or a loved one, it doesn’t matter how many, one or three or four, it doesn’t matter how many, if the overriding motivation is the emotional impact of what’s going to happen to characters you love, it hurts more if you’re in the point of view of the character who feels it the most. Hence, you’re hearing about Owen Meany from his best friend Johnny Wheelwright, ’cause whatever happens to Owen hurts Johnny more than it hurts you. And we’re hearing about what happens to [characters in The Last Chairlift] from Adam, because it hurts Adam the most. So, you get a bigger emotional bang from that ending you’re setting up. But the cost is, it’s a lot slower getting there. [Laughs.] That’s all. But it is a part of the emotional or theatrical design of an emotional ending.

So, it’s there from the beginning for you? You know it’s going to be first person from the beginning?

Oh yeah, oh yeah. It’s a given.

Was there something in particular that inspired the deep physicality of the novel?

I think it’s certainly Adam who notices the physicality of the characters in his life. At the comic or pathetic end of the spectrum, his unfortunate girlfriends, but more importantly, the physicality conveyed by Nora and Em, and the physicality of the Snowshoer herself, both as is repeated as a man and as a woman. That’s something you can also illuminate more personally in that first-person voice. The physicality of Owen Meany as a character is also over and over again demonstrated, not just his diminutive size but his suddenness, the quickness with which he moves. That adds to the visual aspect that a first-person narrator can bring to the story, perhaps more noticeably so in this novel because Adam is a screenwriter, and certainly the Loge Peak chapter, the more-than-feature-length film which is the Loge Peak chapter, is extremely visual; and it’s written in screenplay format not only to demonstrate that Adam knows whereof he speaks, but if that Loge Peak chapter were in prose fiction, it would be three times as long. [Laughs] It would have been three times longer if it hadn’t been in screenplay format, so there’s another reason.

It feels like, if you’re a person who sees ghosts, you’re going to be obsessed with how people move, and the space they take up.

Absolutely, or where they appear. There’s a certain physicality that’s involved by putting Adam, as I do, in an attic, so that even the access to that attic bedroom is itself a physical ordeal. Unless you’re a ghost. [Laughs.]

You mentioned Dickens, and the book contains a number of literary references, film references. There’s this idea in the book of revisiting beloved works. These days, are you revisiting more often, or discovering more often?

I don’t rewatch a lot of old movies. The older movies that were formative for me, when I was first learning to write a screenplay—it’s interesting to me, it’s curious to me, that I don’t revisit those films I’ve already seen. I think I’ve gotten what I’m going to get from Bergman. I saw more Bergman films more times than I saw anything of anything, and there was a period of time when I obsessively watched, which included rewatching, westerns. It’s been years since I’ve gone back to any of that, and sometimes when a film is on television, and it’s usually because of my wife or daughter that I even know about it, and they say, “Oh, this is one of your favourite films, don’t you want to see Jules et Jim again?” I think, well, I love it, but no. [Laughs] No, I don’t want to see it again.

Every time I go back to Dickens, looking for a specific passage in a specific novel, I know it’s there, I know that my copy will have marked it or highlighted it in some way, I know it’s going to be easy to find. Well, I go back, I find it, I read it, I then read everything in the chapter that precedes it, or follows it, and the next thing I know, I read the whole damn book again. It happens over and over again. And the same thing happens, not with all of Melville, I won’t say with all of Dickens, but it happens with more of Dickens than it does with Melville—the obsession with me is not exclusive to Moby-Dick, but I don’t do a lot of re-reading of the other Melville. But the same thing happens to me with Moby-Dick. I go looking for a particular passage, a particular scene, I find it, I read the beginning of that same chapter, and what happens after, and then I’m hooked again, I’m back to the beginning, I’m starting all over again. So, that does occupy me, or pre-occupy me.

It’s not a surprise that in my contemporary reading, in the novels I read that are current or somewhat current, I’m drawn to a combination of some old favourites, like Edmund White. I read everything by Edmund White. And his two most recent novels, A Saint from Texas and A Previous Life, I love his work. I always learn something from Edmund, as long as I’ve known him, and as much as I’ve read everything from him, I look forward to what the next one is. I’m very fond of an Irish writer, John Boyne. Although he makes me envious in the same way that Stephen King makes me envious, because of how prolific he is [laughs]. And he doesn’t always write short novels, either. I mean, The Absolutist is wonderful and short, that’s his historical World War One novel, but two of my favourite novels of his, The Heart’s Invisible Furies and A History of Loneliness, are very long. He’s just very prolific, as is Steve. I’m very fond of Randy Boyagoda, and especially that trilogy of his—I’m dying to see the third book of the trilogy that follows Original Prin and Dante’s Indiana. In Randy’s case, it’s a comic/serious thing. It’s that back and forth that so appeals to me. 

I haven’t done a lot of reviewing lately, but I did just recently review the new James Hannaham novel, which is absolutely wonderful, I reviewed that for the New York Times Book Review. In the same way I look at the Snowshoer as my trans woman hero, I gave a hats off congratulation to James Hannaham for having a trans woman hero at this time when a trans woman hero is necessary to have. I loved his new novel. I don’t think it would have been very many years ago that the New York Times might not have reviewed this novel, because of its, for the New York Times, controversial language. Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta is the title of the novel, although so typically of the Times, they did say that, in the writing of the review, I was allowed to repeat the title only twice, and at no other time in the review was I allowed to use the “shit” word. [Laughs] So that kind of was business as usual. There was the “all the news that’s fit to print stuff” right in your face again. I thought, oh man, some things just never change. Please! So I naturally found that to be a terrible burden as I was writing the review, because I wanted to say “shit” every other paragraph. [Laughs] But I subscribed to the rules because I thought it was valuable to give Mr. Hannaham a good review.

Politics, sexual liberation, sexual freedom, freedom from shame are such a big part of so many of your books. We’ve talked a lot about a lot of things that don’t feel good right now, and that feel very scary right now, and I’m wondering if there’s anything you see around you that gives you hope?

I see myself as an ally of women’s rights, which are certainly in my birth country being challenged, and I certainly write ally fiction in support of the LGBTQ community. I think the advocacy for equality, the advocacy for zero intolerance for sexual differences, it’s crucial. It’s a condemnation of humanity, this ongoing cruelty. I use the world cruelty, or the punishing, which is so driven if not by religion by another kind of misplaced moral righteousness, which, as we know too well, historically, can be very immoral. I don’t think it would surprise you, knowing my novels as you do, that I don’t rely a lot on hope. [Laughs] We all have infinite reserves of hope for the people we love, especially when they’re going through a hard time. Alexander Pope, oh god, now almost three centuries ago, Pope was writing in the 1730s. Alexander Pope was quite right to say, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Well, even in me, I suppose. [Laughs] But I can’t find a concrete place to locate it right now. I do, not in my life as a member of a family but seven days a week for eight hours a day when I’m writing, I am in the make-believe business. I make up characters and their stories for more of my waking hours than I interact or spend in the real world. The fictional world comes with its own liabilities. You know best at any given moment in time, you are most intimate with those characters and often endings you are imagining, but living with, for five or six or more years, and not counting the number of years they existed before you took out their story and began to write it. Well, hope is an elusive quality for a worst-case-scenario writer. [Laughs] It’s not something I dwell on, you know?

A photo of the editor standing outside a house

Haley Cullingham is Hazlitt's editor-in-chief, and a senior editor at Strange Light and McClelland & Stewart. Books and pieces she's edited have won the Governor General's Literary Award, the Kobo Emerging Writer Award, and several National Magazine Awards. She is from Toronto.