The World of ‘The World According to Garp’ (Interview with John Irving — 12/13/79)

“My mother would always think of me as either just writing, or working—teaching. She didn’t understand why I didn’t just stay at a university and get tenure. It took this book—and not the book, but the success of the book—for her to stop feeling that way. It bothered me for a couple of years. Around the time my second novel was published, I looked at some of the people I’d gone to school with—young doctors and lawyers—and they were so fucking proud of how they’d suffered through their fucking medical school and their law school. Now they had a great righteousness about the money they were making. You know, ‘It’s mine, I earned it, I did my apprenticeship…’ I kept thinking, you assholes. Who the fuck doesn’t do their apprenticeship? Who’s to say there’s going to be money? I never wanted money so badly as I did then, when I saw those pigs. Now I hear from them, those people. My doctor and lawyer classmates. Not before. They didn’t read me.”

John Irving, 37, remains little known; but he is no longer unread. His latest novel, The World According to Garp, has achieved all the fame a writer could hope for—maybe more. Certainly given a paperback ad campaign almost as offensive in its vulgarity as the campaign for Woody Allen’s Interiors was in its avoidance of same, if you haven’t yet cringed at the slogan, BELIEVE IN GARP you lead a sheltered life.

Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, a tale of two young Austrians who decide to let all the animals out of the Vienna zoo, was published by Random House in 1968; reviews were good, and it was very nearly made into a movie. The Water-Method Man (1972), which might have been called Fuck-Up’s Progress, and The 158-Pound Marriage (1973), the acrid story of an affair between two couples, visited and departed the bookstores like ghosts. Neither was as good as the best parts of Bears. Moving from the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa to New England colleges closer to his home in Putney, Vermont, Irving supported his family—his wife, Shyla, a photographer, and their sons, Colin, 14, and Brendan, 10—by teaching. Bears might have seemed a fluke, as if Irving had reached the high point of his career almost before he had begun it.

All three books drew deeply on the years Irving, as a student, had spent in Vienna. The Water-Method Man and, especially The 158-Pound Marriage, drew on Irving’s long involvement with wrestling. Both motifs would reappear in Garp—at once as foundations for a new central character, and as borders of the fictional territory Irving was mapping out for himself—and perhaps a good reader could have understood that as he put his imaginary house in order, Irving was getting ready to invent people who could take it over.

Beginning Garp, Irving left Random House, which he felt had written him off, settling finally on Dutton and the editorship of the late Henry Robbins, who died suddenly of a heart attack this summer. The novel—by far Irving’s longest, funniest and scariest—came out in hard cover in 1978. Dutton pushed it seriously though Irving stayed off the talk-show circuit; reviews were prominent and glowing, if somewhat obtuse, and Garp spent a long seven months on the best-seller lists. Just over 110,000 copies were printed: hardly blockbuster figures, but enough for the book to begin to reach its audience, and enough to bring Irving the money to allow him to quit teaching and get on with his vocation without looking over his shoulder.

But the figure of 110,000 copies is misleading. People talked about Garp with the wild-eyed, almost desperate enthusiasm normally reserved for youth-cult books, though the novel cut across all age groups in its impact. People read it as a promise and a threat, and then they forced it on friends—or on their parents, children, whomever seemed worth freeing it on. Irving’s story became a story people told to each other.

Pocket Books, which bought paperback rights, did not hold back. In an explosion of promotion so extensive (and, for a serious novel, so unusual)—it drew a story in Newsweek and an outraged editorial from CBS News—the mass-market edition of Garp was launched this spring with: six different covers; an avalanche of print ads; radio spots; bus and subway ads; posters; headbands and wristbands (to bring out the wrestling motif); and hats. Had Irving been willing Pocket would have no doubt had him wrestling on Celebrity Sports Challenge.

Within weeks, Garp hit number one on the paperback lists, where it remained into October; almost 3 million copies are in print. Hype was certainly a factor, but after all is said and done, the only interesting thing about the Garp hype is that the book is good enough to stand up to it. Immediately you know you’re reading a man who has not only found his voice but has found out what it is for; who is writing with an exhilaration and a reach that cannot be contrived.

Covering more than thirty years, though set mainly in the Sixties and Seventies, The World According to Garp is the story of nurse, celibate, mother and (as a result of her autobiography A Sexual Suspect) accidental feminist heroine Jenny Fields; of her son, wrestler, novelist, house-husband and father T.S. Garp (begotten, in Jenny Fields’ sole act of copulation, with the passive aid of a brain-damaged casualty of World War II, Technical Sgt. Garp, who courteously expires soon afterward); of Garp’s wife, Helen, an English professor, and of their two young sons, Duncan and Walt; of various friends and enemies (including Garp’s friend Ellen James, who at the age of eleven had her tongue cut out by two rapists; Garp’s enemies and Jenny Fields’ friends the Ellen Jamesians, a society of women who have cut out their own tongues to protest the oppression of women; and Michael Milton, Helen’s student and lover). The book is as well the story of the deaths, most of them violent and most of than premature, of all concerned. It is a long, unfaked, unsentimental novel about people who are basically good—though, because both the writer and his characters act without the comfort of fully comprehending their actions, good is not necessarily what they produce. Such a context is very highly charged: within it, even such minor figures as Tinch, Garp’s stuttering writing teacher, or John Wolf, Garp’s acerbic editor, who always defers judgment on a controversial book until his cleaning woman has read it, or Bonkers, the gruesome dog that relieves a five-year-old Garp of most of an ear, have claims to make.

Most Seventies fiction has been about disengagement; Garp is about engagement, with ordinary life, family life, public life, over the long haul, even if its characters are the sort of folk who would, were life to allow it, prefer to keep to themselves. The book is as fascinating for its account of how people make sense of each other, commit themselves to one another and face up to their loss of each other, as it is for its expansive, extravagant plot—a plot that, for its first 250 pages or so, only offhandedly suggests the disasters taking shape within it. Garp is comedy—albeit violent, abrasive comedy—but as with all books that work as a version of life as well as a version of what people might like to read, the bill comes due, and the piper must be paid.

Irving played fast and loose (Roberta Muldoon, best friend of Jenny Fields, Garp and Helen, is a transsexual but also the former Robert Muldoon, vicious tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles), and he played rough. Garp, we’re told, means to make his life “a careful, orderly adventure”; if his first brush with evil comes when, running in a park, he chances on a little girl who has been raped, soon rape and other sorts of violence seem like constants in his world. After a time, his life demands that, as a novelist, he imagine worse things than he has seen, and then confront worse things than he has imagined. Available in every supermarket in the USA., Garp may be a book to pick up casually but it is not a book one is likely to put down in the same spirit.

Irving himself is not a casual man. Last March, even as my wife Jenny and I were about to catch a plane east to meet with him, he seemed to be half-trying to talk me out of interviewing him at all—or, at the least, to make certain I was coming to discuss his work, not to gather material for a personality profile. But when we met John and Shyla Irving the next night, he did not seem interested in being reticent. The conversation took in parents’ fears for their children (a major theme in Garp, and a major concern of Irving’s—he drives a Checker), the insularity of writers, the inclination of readers to take fiction as little more than disguised (i. e., self-serving) autobiography, rock & roll.

As regards the latter subject, I was troubled by the fact that in all of Irving’s books, there is only a single reference to rock & roll; at the same time, I was curious as to why that single reference—in a film, a hippie commune collapses, and on the soundtrack we hear Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush”—is so perfect. “Oh, Neil Young!” Irving said. “He’s one of my heroes—along with Bob Dylan. They’re not afraid to embarrass themselves, and you’ve got to be ready to do that.” I felt better.

That night and the next day Irving spoke with great intensity, hard laughter, occasional bitterness. When he talked about writing, his energy doubled and he spoke with anger as readily as with delight: he spoke throughout with emphasis, in the italics that dot the speech of his characters. Unlike a lot of people, he looks you in the eye when there is something he particularly wants you to understand, as if he’s spent enough time dealing with people who miss the point.

I was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1942. I grew up there. Through most of my adolescence I went to Exeter Academy, where my father was a Russian history teacher; he’s still the treasurer and assistant principal. I had a private-school life without having to go away to school; I had the best of both worlds.

I was a struggling, C/B student. It gave me a sense of myself, gave me confidence, to be able to get through the place, because I knew I wasn’t as bright or as quick as most of the kids I was there with. Concentrating and working hard—that’s how I got through. It took me five years to graduate.

Surely much more important to my life than it ever was to Garp’s was the wrestling. My English teachers encouraged me as a writer—and I wanted to be a writer when I was very young. My wrestling coach really got me through the place. Wrestling became more and more important—metaphorically, too. I was not a very good wrestler, but I did well: that is, I beat a lot of people who were much better than I was. On any given day I could beat somebody who was just out of my league. I could work harder than a lot of people. There were people that I knew I would never be as quick or as strong as, and simply, it would never come as naturally to me as it appeared to come to some people. But I could learn one thing, and do it over and over and over so that I could do it on anybody.

I thought I could learn to write that way, too; I was very mechanical about it. I had straightforward teachers who taught me all the basic things first. Just a sense of clarity, and the variations that are possible on the sentence—just that.

Dan Gable

Creativity was not much encouraged at Exeter. We had to write a theme a day: rigorous essay stuff. “This is not a paragraph,” “This is not what a semicolon is for,” “This is…” I thought that if I could learn those rules, then the only thing between me and a really good novel was what I could imagine. If I could render any sentence I could imagine, then the only problem was imagining it. And in that I didn’t have to feel the inferior of anyone, because I never believed that writing was a matter of intellectual capacity. It seemed to me a mechanical triumph first of all—you just had to know the skills. It was like being in shape: you have to run the miles, you have to lift the weights, or you aren’t ready to take advantage of anything; when something came along you wouldn’t know what to do with it. I took that roadwork as a matter of course.

It was an absolute, rotelike, military apprenticeship I felt I was putting myself through. I hated the rest of school—but I loved reading a novel and talking to somebody who knew more about how it was made than I did. I loved writing anything, no matter how dumb—and having people nick and pare at my sentences; after a very short time I was able to write a good essay on anything, because mechanically I could do it. People who had twice the information I had, or twice the vocabulary, didn’t have the voice. They hadn’t been using their voice. I wrote everyday the way I ran every day and used the weights every day. I was a very dull kid. But I really learned how to wrestle, and I really learned how to write. I didn’t have an idea in my head.

When I first went to college, I went to the University of Pittsburgh: it was a good place to wrestle. But I found out I wasn’t as good a wrestler as I had to be. I didn’t see anything in between. I mean, I was very good at Exeter. I only lost once—well, twice to the same guy. It wasn’t that way at Pittsburgh. I was what my coach called a halfway decent wrestler.

It was a very big thing that I pursued for a very long time, and I gave it up very slowly. I competed in my last tournament when I was thirty-four, so I didn’t stop. I was losing a lot, though. More and more.

You talk about wrestling as if it were the one thing that kept you interested through all the years you were a student.
It did. It was one of the big reasons I loved being around universities—even when I was a graduate student at Iowa, I worked out there. When I taught at Iowa, from ’72 to ’75, I worked out there when I could, although I was getting older, and their program is so tough.

I know Dan Gable; I’ve worked with him. He’s the coach at Iowa now. He was this country’s best wrestler for years, and still is, really. He won the Olympics at Munich without anyone scoring a point on him. He wrestled eight or nine people and nobody got a point, nobody got away, nobody got a takedown, nobody did anything. He just wiped them out. He’s one of my sole heroes.[1]

In New England—or in most places, most colleges, now—I could walk into the wrestling room and work out and not be embarrassed. But not at Iowa. Not anymore. But I loved seeing the wrestling at Iowa, and being around it, and there was always somebody who was slightly injured that I could work out with and feel pretty good about, somebody just getting over a knee injury—

At Pittsburgh I was just not in that first-class, national-class league, and if I’d stayed with it, I probably would have done pretty well. But pretty well wasn’t what I wanted. So I left Pittsburgh—I decided to write, full time. At Pittsburgh it seemed I was wrestling full time.

I went to Durham, to the University of New Hampshire. I coached at Exeter. I refereed. I met Thomas Williams [2]; he was my first teacher who was a real writer. But I had no business being in school. I was a jock and a writer—it was silly to go to college. I went to college because that’s what one did.

I felt I was spinning my wheels. I was back wrestling in the same wrestling room I’d gone to school in. It felt too much the same. I was writing well but nothing was happening to me, so I left—dropped out of there. I went to Vienna.

Irving went to Vienna as a student, and during his years there he married Shyla Leary whom he’d met two years before in Cambridge. They came back to New Hampshire; under Thomas Williams’ aegis, Irving finally graduated; their son Colin was born. Then they headed off to Iowa, where Irving spent two years at the Writers Workshop and wrote Setting Free the Bears.

Set in 1967 the first and last sections of the book are told in the callow voice of an Austrian student named Hannes; they make up a coming-of-age fable too conventional to be very satisfying. The middle section is in the sardonic, scared voice of Hannes’ free-spirit friend Siggy—his journals, his version of his family history discovered after his death—and it is something altogether different

What we read are the terrible adventures of a single Viennese family, from the days just before Hitler’s takeover of Austria in 1938 to the end of the Russian occupation of Vienna in 1955, and it is fiction as compelling and original as any I have read by a contemporary. The whole tenor of the novel changes brutally; Irving’s humor takes on strength, and the triviality of the first and last sections is wiped out. Writing in a voice that goes to the edge of cynicism—but never further—Irving imposes a mood of terror so insistent, yet so prosaic, that when it takes the concrete form of violent death you’re wounded, but never surprised. As the Nazis come to power, as the war begins, or when, after the war, the Russians replace the Nazis’ terror with their own, the family struggles to stay alive; one by one, they die, or simply disappear.

With the introduction of a Croatian named Vratno Javotnik, the story moves into Yugoslavia, scene of some of the most vicious internecine killing of the war, of horrible ethnic genocides. This is Eric Ambler territory where nations are mere conceits hiding tribal and class hatreds nurtured for hundreds of years; where civilization is a way of doing business, and nothing more. When Javotnik takes to the hills with a German deserter, Irving matches Ambler’s ability to render Europe as a place that in its deepest soul is savage, that takes war as an opportunity to satisfy a hidden wish to settle all pending conflicts with final solutions. As with Hitler and the Jews, so Franco with the Spanish Republicans; the Turks with the Armenians; the Ustashi, pro-Nazi Croatian terrorists, with the Serbs.

…the Ustashi had accomplished another massa­cre of Serbs the night before; an elbow of the Drava [River] was clogged with corpses. My father would always remember a raft snagged in some deadfall along the bank. The raft was neatly piled with heads; the architect had attempted a pyramid. It was almost perfect. But one head near the peak had slipped out of place; its hair was caught between the other heads, and it swung from face to face in the river wind; some faces watched the swinging, others looked away.

With rare exceptions, American writers have fallen back before such a specter. If they have rendered it at all, it has been in the language of shock, sensationalism, or fabulist nightmare. The argument has often been made that realistic language is inadequate to such horrors, but it may be closer to the truth to say that one cannot write about such things in realistic terms until one is absolutely convinced that they are real: until the writer has been able to accept their ordinariness. In this realm, Europe is a mirror for us as, say Cambodia or Uganda can never be: and thus our writers have presented mass murder in white countries, and the indifference so many Europeans have shown it, mostly as a bizarre, fundamentally incomprehensible violation of the natural order. (In the same way novelists have treated our own atrocities in Vietnam as the product of a kind of temporary insanity—how else explain the sadism of ordinary young men?). For the American imagination, the consequences of this perspective have been destructive: the burden of making sense of some of the central facts of our time has been slipped. That burden has been taken up, instead, almost exclusively by writers from South America and, especially, Eastern Europe, where those facts have been enforced so completely as to permanently alter the perception of what it means for a writer to depict ordinary life. For an American, it is precisely the Eastern European writer’s refusal to speak in a voice of shock, of distance, that is so shocking.

The proof of how much Irving learned in Vienna is less in the oddity of a completely European context for a first novel by an American than in his ability to speak in just this voice. Irving can render a scene like the one quoted above so quietly so flatly; because, unlike most American writers, he is able to hold still before it long enough to be convinced of its reality. Out of that acceptance, that willingness to hold still, comes the ability to imagine the detail (“it swung from face to face in the river wind”) that makes the scene real in a way that more sensational literary atrocities are not—and it is the American writer’s need to protest such a scene even as he describes it, to make it clear to all (even if, as with some Vietnam literature—Philip Ca­puto’s A Rumor of War, for example—he is the perpetrator of the scene), that allows the reader no less than the writer the dispensation of distance.

Irving’s acceptance is not the acceptance of submission. It’s that very refusal of surprise—a profound suspicion of what life has in store, linked with a rejection of euphemism and an insistence on remembering all that takes place—that, in Irving’s work, makes resistance possible. As the members of Siggy’s family perish, the reader is reminded again and again of the family motto: Better a Slave than a Grave! But they wind up, every one of them, free and dead.

In Setting Free the Bears, this vision is easy to miss; save for the opening pages of 158-Pound Marriage, it finds no outlet at all in Irving’s next two novels. But it is utterly central to The World According to Garp—and by that time, Irving no longer needed the horrors of European history to validate it.

Setting Free the Bears is a very strange first novel for an American—in that there aren’t any Americans in it. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any firm sense of American place in your books. The later novels have mostly American settings, but they’re just that, settings; Vienna, in each book, is like a character itself. It’s as if Vienna has a history people are forced to inherit, and confront, and America, at least in your books, doesn’t.
Well, you see, it’s true. I don’t have a regional bone in me; I’m a New Eng­lander by default. I grew up in a place that was not quite a real place—it was like growing up in a college town. All the people I knew weren’t from the town. There’ve been very few points in my life when I haven’t lived in a college town—save now, Putney’s not like that. Exeter, Durham, Iowa City—those aren’t real places, and those are the places where I was young.

Except for Vienna, and I think that’s why Vienna was a real place for me. It was also real in the way that anything foreign takes on a certain visceral novelty, just by being so new, that we look at everything freshly. It’s an act of wonder to go about the business of buying a loaf of bread. That’s not simple. I’d never seen any place like Vienna. It was so new and strange—or so old, as it turns out, and strange—that it forced me to pay attention to every aspect of it. Nothing else had ever demanded that kind of attention from me. And it was the first place that I’d ever really felt I was alone. When you go to a city university like the University of Vienna, you’re not part of anything: you go to classes and then you go back to your apartment. That’s it. It’s just a city.

I loved that. It was my first sense of ano­nymity—which is very important. I’d been so plugged in: I’d been part of a team, part of a school, I’d been in a kind of training all that time. Vienna was the first place where I was the right age and free. I was completely free to spend three weeks without a single shred of communication with my fellow man.

The Viennese friends I have point out two things about my writing about Vienna. One is, it feels very much like Vienna to them, and it reminds them of all the things they’ve ever felt in Vienna. But then they’re quick to say that of course it isn’t Vienna at all. And indeed it isn’t. It’s not the Vienna Vienna—and that gave me great freedom. I didn’t have to be responsible to Vienna. Vienna was a place I could make up.

On another level, though, there’s a desire to connect very deeply with the history of the place, and a delight in that connection.
That’s true. The history is not made up.

Even if the history you’ve given your characters in, say, Setting Free the Bears, isn’t the exact history any Viennese would carry around.
That’s the point. That’s where it diverges. It’s not the history any Viennese, or any Yugoslav, or any Serbo-Croatian carries around, but it’s a plausible history for anyone to carry around. It is a wholly imagined set of characters, and yet they all come out of a certain scrutiny given to other stories. I did know that the guy I bought a motorcycle from in Vienna was a deserter during the war; he loved to tell me stories about the war that may or may not have been true—it didn’t interest me particularly whether they were true or not true. The landlady of my apartment in Vienna had not remodeled a wall of her bedroom against which her husband was shot, and the machine-gun holes were still there in the wall. Any writer uses what little experience he or she has and translates it. It’s the translating, though, that makes the difference.

I can remember to the day when I stopped teaching Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I loved that little part called “Time Passes”; the middle section of Set­ting Free the Bears owes something to the sense she gives of the whole passage of time. It’s the difference between a novel of manners and a novel of weight, a novel of some kind of history, where it says, “Hey, look, ‘time changes’.”

I became so angry when I had to teach that book after Quentin Bell’s biography came out. Not because the biography is lousy. It isn’t. But because the students were so willing to use that biography as an explanation for everything they read—and so many people read fiction that way it nauseates me.

It’s difficult to tell people what the reason for that is without insulting them—because the real reason is that people with limited imaginations find it hard to imagine that anyone else has an imagination. Therefore, they must think that everything they read in some way happened. For years, I’ve sat with students, knowing full well that the worst, most dreck-ridden piece of their story is in the story because “That’s just the way it happened.” And I say, “Why is this dreadful scene, why is this stupid person here?” And the student says, “Oh, that’s not a stupid person, that’s my mother, and that’s exactly what she said.”

I had no idea who the people in Setting Free the Bears were, or how they were going to get from A to Z. One thing happened after another, and it just came out. I thought, God, if I can finish something not knowing where I’m going when I started, what could I do if I knew what I was going to do when I started?

Things broke well for me—I was very lucky. Lucky that someone like Tom Williams took care of me when I was a kid, lucky that when I went to Iowa Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut were real fathers to me. They allowed me to have a life with a young family, write my book, and not have anything to do with classes. I relaxed a little after Setting Free the Bears. It got me some money, it got me some good reviews. I bought a house, we could afford to have a second child. I worked for a year doing a screenplay of Bears, which didn’t work out, but it got me back to Austria: we lived in Vienna in ’69, ’70, ’71. I loved working with Irvin Kershner, who was going to direct—the film was all fun.

We had two years of expense-account living; at the end of that time we came back to Vermont, and I had a Rockefeller Foundation grant. Things were all fine and I’ve not been unlucky ever.

When I went back to work on The Water-Method Man I felt much more sophisticated—and I wanted to do everything. I wanted to write a book, if I could, with a happy ending, because I didn’t feel I had a happy ending in me, and I wanted to get one. I wanted to write a book that was absolutely comic: I wanted it to be intricate and funny and clever and I wanted it to go on and on and on. I just blew it out.

It was a lark, that book. But I was bitter about the financial zero of it, that it had just not had the house support. They could have made a mint on The Water-Method Man. Coming off Setting Free the Bears, Random House should have really given it a ride, and they didn’t. I was angry about it.

Times were hard then. All of a sudden I was thick into teaching again. I went back to Iowa, and I had the same feeling I’d had in Durham: here I am again.

I felt I’d been to Iowa. I’d gotten a lot out of it, I’d liked it fine. But now I wasn’t wrestling so well anymore. I was getting beaten up. I was feeling old, physically. I was sick of teaching. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I was restless, aimless. We lived in four houses over a three-year period in the same dull city, Iowa City. I thought I was gonna die a death of boredom.

Iowa students were very good, but they were all writing a kind of graduate-student Kafka: stuff you really had to slave over to get through. I was having a hard time reading twenty-five pages of stuff that was hard to read. Hating it, and yet recognizing it as completely honorable, worked on hard by a young man or a young woman—people who took themselves seriously and wanted to write. They had come to me because they’d admired something of mine, and I hated what they brought me. But I think the main thing was that the wrestling was gone.

And I was reading too much. I was around too many literary people. I got this idea for a literary novel: given the company I was keeping—and I mean the books I was reading, too—that was understandable. 158-Pound Marriage is about two couples—a sexual foursome—and it grew very specifically out of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and John Hawkes’ The Blood Oranges. If I’d not read those two books, I would not have written 158-Pound Marriage. That’s the kind of period I was in at the time: everything I read was a labor and it made me angry. It was like I lost my sense of humor.

There were other sorts of bitterness. The lives of so many of my friends seemed to have been just wiped out. I knew people who were living in appalling situations and not moving out, and I knew people who seemed to me to move out of situations too soon—into appalling situations. It seemed a rampant kind of time. There’s a wonderful line in one of the Cheever stories I read this summer, where he says, “We are all suspended by a thread above carnal anarchy” I’m probably misquoting him, but something like that. And at that time, I thought, boy, everybody I knew was either at the thread, or reaching up for it with a scissors—or chewing on it with their teeth.

The book is about lust and rationalization and restlessness: I decided I wanted to write a really dark tale of sexual in­trigue; in the end nobody would know anything about each other. It’s not a warm book; the people are harsh and they bring out harsh feelings. I think I was just not in a state of mind to like anybody very much.

I knew, when 158-Pound Mar­riage came out and was over with in a few short months, that that was it with Random House. They were holding a track record on me: the word was, John Irving’s a writer’s writer, he’s gonna get patted on the head by the literati, and he’s gonna sell six or 7000 copies. I had to leave.

So I started to work on Garp. I told my agent to leak the word that I was looking for a new publisher. There were [two editors besides] Henry Robbins who were most interested, sight unseen. I sent them that first chapter. It was much longer then, ragged and tattered.

All three editors liked it, and they all made me an offer. The difference was, [the other editors] were saying, we really like the first chapter. This is your big book, we think the book’s gonna be great. But Henry said, I like the first chapter, but it’s the first draft, and by the time you finish the book, it may not even be the first chapter. You don’t know what the book’s going to be like, and I don’t know what the book’s going to be like. There are a lot of great first chapters.

In other words, the other editors could have lost interest in you very quickly if this book didn’t deliver commercially?
That’s it. And I had a feeling Henry’s interest in me had been personal: he was being much more cautious. So it was very clear that Henry was the one—and a few months after I went to Dutton, he was made editor in chief. The signs were right; the signs were all good.

The very first person who read Garp was my son Colin. Shyla is a very slow reader; she read it in a day. I had good feelings about that. But Henry had it for a long time.

Henry Robbins has a wonderful sense of humor, but it doesn’t come out very often. I got a call from his secretary—a very cold voice that said, “Mr. Irving, Henry would like you to know that he’ll be getting in touch with you about your novel shortly. He’s read it, and he’s just waiting for the cleaning woman to finish it.”

I was completely taken in. I said, “He’s waiting for WHAT?”

I wanted to know what he thought of it. I mean, I thought it was raw as hell. I thought, boy, if people said I was excessively this or that before, what the fuck are they gonna say with this? It’s just so big and long and rough—who’s gonna read it? Henry said not only did he love it, he said, “John, this is a best seller.” I said, “You’re crazy. That book is gonna get tarred and feathered.”

There’s a classic ambivalence in the ambitions of the best American artists, and John Irving is hardly the first to worry, or hope, that his strongest work might cause trouble. It’s the idea of reaching or changing the great audience that, along with a lot of other motives, impels the artist in the first place: one wants to reach everybody. At the same time, though, the artist feels isolated, embattled; one sees things differently from others, which is a motive for shaping and rendering vision no less vital than the desire to reach out.

One wants the response of the great audience—receiving that response, the artist may join the audience and begin a conversation that can last a lifetime—but one is suspicious of the crowd, and who can tell if it’s the crowd or the great audience that’s speaking? One need only look around to see that for the most part, the work that is accepted most readily celebrated most noisily is the worst. Public rejection or, worse, indifference can bleed a writer of the conviction that what he or she has to say has meaning beyond his or her small world; it can also convince the writer that what he or she has to say has real power—because others have shown they can’t stand up to it. The quandary sustains some artists; it destroys others.

Garp is not a book for the fainthearted, not because it contains so much violence—outrage and perversity are common coin in contemporary fiction—but because its violence cuts. The characters who suffer it are neither types nor walking metaphors; they’re unique, and we’re caught up with their adventures and follies. But on a less obvious level, the violence cuts because in Garp Irving has taken that European sense of dread, that refusal of surprise in the face of disaster and crime, and brought it home.

When, as a result of Helen’s affair with Michael Milton—and as a result of Garp’s response to it—an accident takes place in which Milton is castrated and Garp’s family almost destroyed, the effect is shattering, but it is also a confirmation, very subtly prepared, of a certain view of how the world works. This is even more true of The World According to Bensenhaver, the novel Garp writes after—out of—the accident: “an X-rated soap opera” that brings him notoriety. The first chapter, which appears in Garp, describes the kidnap-rape of a young housewife, and her killing of the rapist in terrible, incessant detail. To the housewife, the appearance of the rapist is like an invasion from another planet and it is presented as such to the reader. That isn’t how it appears to Ben­senhaver, the cop called to the scene. In his view—which quickly reshapes the chapter—this is ordinary life. Innocence is priceless in American fiction; it is valueless in Garp. That is to say Irving’s view of the world contradicts much in the American ethos—but it’s not only Irving’s translation of the ethos of the European characters in Setting Free the Bears into the lives of the American characters in Garp that is a contradiction, slowly played out, of American expectations. More important is that Irving takes that ethos out of the context of war of special circumstances of any kind.

Garp is, after all, a family story; as much as anything, Irving meant to write about how a family comes to be and about what holds it together. Jenny Fields becomes a political person, but we know her most deeply as a mother who teaches her son independence; Garp is a novelist, but we understand him best as a husband and as a father—for that matter, he’s a more interesting husband and father than he is a novelist. Garp is filled with violence, but it’s humor, not set-piece tragedy that leads a reader to take the book’s people seriously.

People have read Garp as a promise and a threat because Irving was able to combine horror with domesticity without compromising the reality of either. He did not imply, as is the American way, that because domesticity (or whatever) can contain horror, domesticity itself is horrible—or horror a germ that can be stamped out with the right moral vaccine. He was able to take something of the aesthetics of literary “black comedy” out of their arty, comic-book world and interweave them with the mundane and the recognizable; he brought together the dread and carnage that attend a war and the small, mostly private struggles that make up the dynamic of what we think of as ordinary life.

The theme of most novels that deal with such small, private struggles is unhappiness; most end with escape or resignation. The acceptance inherent in Irving’s view of things has nothing to do with resignation; no one escapes; and the last theme anyone could pull out of Garp is unhappiness. What Garp is is a hard book, because Irving caught the absurdity what it has felt like to live in America during the past decades and made it seem anything but absurd.

Virginia Woolf

I was very depressed when I finished 158-Pound Marriage, and I thought—this sounds very simple-minded, but I said—I want to write about people I feel good about. The next book I write is going to be a life-affirming novel, even though everybody dies.

The book began, at one time, “We are all terminal cases.” That was the first sentence instead of the last. I wanted to take the best people, and make the worst things happen to them—take the best people, then just blow ’em away.

I knew I was writing about a woman who would go to such an extreme of being a certain kind of woman that a man who hated women would kill her; and about a man, her son, who would go to such an extreme of being a certain kind of man that a stupid woman who hated men would kill him. I didn’t know there were children and a wife, but I knew there was a mother and a son, and that was the route. That’s roughly how Garp began.

But at the time I wrote 158-Pound Marriage, I needed to write about those people I didn’t feel good about. I had to write about those people, and I’m trying very hard not to write about people like that again. With every book I finish, I hope that I come to the end of something—and one thing I wanted to come to the end of with Garp was so much explicitness. I don’t think I want to write that explicitly about sex and violence again.

It’s not new in Garp.
Oh, it’s not new in Garp. Not in my writing it isn’t. God, after Jonestown, an editor called up and wanted me to go down to Guyana and cover it. He thought it was very “Garpian.”

But—I feel I have to smile and say, oh, that’s nice, when people tell me how zany and bizarre and far-out they think my writing is. I get a little embarrassed when I hear that, because it didn’t come that way to me. It was very logical. It was never zany. It was, “Of course.”

When a reader first encounters the Ellen Jamesians, bizarre is the only word for them; after a while, a reader deals with them as part of the world.
I played a game with myself—an example of exactly that kind of thing—in the case of Roberta. For a while I thought Roberta would he the spokesperson for the whole novel. I wanted Roberta to be the straight man for the book, which she is. She’s the one who mitigates much between Garp and Helen and Garp and Jenny. She had to be there. She’s the sexual link, you see—there had to be a transsexual, there just had to be: someone who really was a man and really was a woman. But I never thought I would leave it in, that “she was formerly… tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles.” That was the first sentence I wrote about Roberta: “Roberta Muldoon, formerly Robert Muldoon, tight end for the…”

I wrote that, and I remember laughing to myself and thinking, well, try to get away with that. I thought, all right, I’d start with that premise, and hope that if I could begin at the most bizarre point imaginable, I could work back to normal. From that outwardly bizarre beginning, I wanted to move to a figure of just ordinary charm. And finally, I was so pleased with how she turned out that—I never thought I would—I decided to leave it in: “…formerly tight end…” I just thought, shit, I can’t get rid of that. Now that I’ve said it, I have to live with it.

It was not until the middle of Garp that I decided to make Garp a writer. His mother was a writer; Garp was a wrestler. But it didn’t work, and I shifted and turned and said, no, it’s the world according to, and it can’t be according to unless he has a voice through which he speaks, and he’s got to speak.

Though clearly, in your novel, he’s not a great writer by any means. Why not?
Because he doesn’t live long enough. He doesn’t do enough. He had all the moves, but he hadn’t gotten there yet. The hard part was that I’d already created a character who was enough unlike myself that when I started to make Garp a writer, he was a very different kind of writer than I ever was.

Even though you play with the self-referential concept, making, say, his first novel so similar to yours: about an earlier attempt to let the animals out of the Vienna zoo.
Oh, there are little things in there for readers… when I wrote Garp, I constantly put in little pats on the head for people who had managed to find and read my books before. There are lines like “second wind of the cuckold,” that line out of 158-Pound Marriage [and the title of Garp’s second novel].

One touch that’s quite hilarious is your quoting the Time review of Setting Free the Bears—it’s right there on the cover of the new edition—as a review of Garp’s first novel; what’s funnier is a review you put into Garp of The World According to Bensenhaver, which turned out to be, almost word for word, a review that Garp itself got. When I read that review I thought, someone didn’t get the joke—or didn’t read far enough.
Absolutely. She didn’t. And there was another review that said, “Irving seems to have written a book about his own success, wishing [that what happens to Garp] would happen to him.”

If that were so—if you are Garp—then the ending of the book, Garp’s murder and posthumous fame, becomes an act, on your part, of terrible self-pity and martyrdom.
Martyrdom, sure… Shameful.

Someone also accused me, in New York, shortly after the book was published—she said, “Well, the whole thing is obviously Christlike, and you’re so terribly arrogant that you think of yourself as Christ.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “Garp dies, and he’s thirty-three, and every fool knows that Christ died when he was thirty-three, and you’re just like Garp, and therefore—” This was the same woman who came up to me at a party and lifted my hair up, to see if I was missing an ear, right? To see if I was missing an ear! That was about the fifth time that had happened to me, and I almost decked her. I said, “I have both of my ears.”

The funny thing was, I told her the true story of how it was that Garp ended up being thirty-three when he died. And she of course wouldn’t believe it. It once again points up the absolute val­uelessness of true stories.

When I finished the book, I was completely lost. I got all the dates fucked up. Everybody was born at the wrong time, and there are a lot of people. In the epilogue [where the deaths of those characters who have made it that far are detailed] they were all messed up, and I had terrible fights with Henry—he just went out of his mind. Finally, he put a very bright young woman on the task of sorting out the ages of the characters—and it almost killed her. She started out young and vital and by the end of a week she was a wreck. She’d call up and her voice would tremble on the phone—one time she broke down. I finally had to come to New York.

We went over the thing page by page. She used a calculator. I mean, it was excit­ing. We were right on the brink. It was a mystery and we were gonna get to the bottom of it.

I had made Garp thirty-six when he died, because at the time I was thirty-six. I thought, I know what it would be like to die at thirty-six. Well, we got to the end of it, and the woman at Dutton says—crying—“He can’t be thirty-six. He can’t be thirty-six, we’ll have to change this, and change that—” And she just threw her arms up. Everyone was so upset they were all trembling, because everyone at Dutton thought there was some terrible significance to the fact that Garp was thirty-six, as I was—as if the whole book turned on that—and I was involved, I was right there. So I said, “How old does he have to be, to make it all work?” “Thirty-three,” they said. I said, “Okay, make him thirty-three.” Everyone was so amazed—and one person was even angry. He said to me, “You mean, JUST LIKE THAT? MAKE HIM THIRTY-THREE? Don’t you want to think about it?” I said, “No, I don’t have to think about it! I’ve thought about everything else!”

I told that story to the woman at the party, and she said, “You’re lying. Even now, you’re lying.” God!

Someone also said to me, in a really pissy tone, “What do you think is the most unbelievable thing in The World According to Garp?” As if it were all unbelievable. They were just spoiling for a fight. I knew I had to give evidence that Garp was a writer—and that was the hardest part of the book for me. “The Pension Grillparzer” [a short story, printed in Garp, that Garp writes in Vienna, and his first important piece of work] was probably two out of the four years I spent on Garp. I said, “The most unbelievable thing in The World According to Garp is that a nineteen-year-old wrote The Pen­sion Grillparzer.”

I don’t agree; I think there’s a great leap from that to The World According to Bensen­haver, which is written years later. It’s convincing that this represents the development of a writer from the much safer, more controlled writing of “Grillparzer.”
But most people don’t read the writing for writing. They read the story and say, “Was I charmed?” That’s where the breakdown occurs; people are charmed by “The Pension Grillparzer.” It’s a story you can read to infants, and they like it. Nobody is charmed by The World According to Ben­senhaver.

Except… a curious alliance has grown up. People send me things like a manu­al for rape prevention. People who are serious sisters of women’s self-defense groups, feminist self-defense groups, took such a fond liking for the book through Bensenhaver.

Reviewers have made much of the fact that the women in Garp are strong self-defining, independent characters; not many have wondered why rapists play such a huge role in the book
It’s a huge crime. It’s a central crime. It’s probably the most violent assault on the body and the head that can happen simultaneously—that doesn’t kill you—together with the loss of your own child.

You see, I was looking for extremes: I wanted to take from the father his son, and rape was what you took from the woman. It is visiting the worst you can imagine—you take the best people, and you imagine the worst things. It sounds awfully formulaic, but—that’s how those things came.

Rape, in Garp, also seems to define limits that the main characters don’t transgress. It seems to represent a whole area of anarchy, chaos, viciousness and amorality they struggle to stay away from.
That’s true. One of the parts of the book that most convinced me I was going in the right direction is the conclusion Garp makes, when he’s thinking about having a second child, that he does not want to have a girl. That chapter [“More Lust”) ends where Garp has had a meaningless association with the baby sitter, whose posture in the act of love reminds him of the youth of the young girl he saw molested in the park [thus leading Garp to identify himself with the child molest­er]. He remembers his own sexual initiation through prostitutes in Vienna, and his mother’s Old Testament denial of lust. The whole first part of The World According to Garp is about lust. It’s that carryover from 158-Pound Marriage, I think—like you didn’t use up all the red. I don’t often hear writers talk about this; I hear painters say all the time, oh yeah, that was the year I was doing red, I was really into red. I’ve always felt that way. You start on a new set of canvases, and there’s still a little red left.

But it matters to me that I knew more about where Garp was going when I began than I knew about the other books. I knew there would be the death of a child before I knew it would be Garp’s child. I knew there would be rape before I knew who would be raped. I knew there were Ellen Jamesians before I knew I would actually bring on Ellen James. I knew a lot, but never enough, and now, with the book I’ve just started, The Hotel New Hampshire [3] I know maybe twice again as much as I knew when I started Garp.

I spend more and more time thinking about what I’m going to do before I do it, and less actual time writing. When I was writing Setting Free the Bears, I spent hours typing, all day long. I did very little thinking. I wrote Garp very slowly. I seldom worked on it for more than an hour or an hour and a half at a time. Pit, pit, pit—what Henry Robbins calls Irving’s Enema Theory of Fiction: the longer you wait the better it gets. As soon as something begins to start, as soon as a scene begins to go, you say, no, stop that. What else could happen?

I’ve become systematic about this, in a strange kind of way. if I go to work in the morning now, and something really starts going, and it’s only 10:15—at other times I would have said, God, I’ve got four hours. I can run this mother all the way to the end of the chapter. Suddenly, I see the whole chapter. But I know now that if I get up and take a run, do some weights, go downtown and buy some food, or write a letter, just put it away, that I can’t stop thinking about it, even if I try, even if I fill my head with other things. I can’t stop thinking about it—and the next morning I might get all the way to the end of the next chapter. It’s a game I play.

I waited almost a year before I even wrote a word after I finished Garp. I didn’t even try. I taught, I lectured a lot, I read a lot—public readings. Worked out a lot. But I thought. I wrote a lot of little one-page scenes. Gradually, by the time I started to work on The Hotel New Hampshire, I had it more in hand. I’ve got 175 pages now; when I had 175 pages of Garp, I had nothing. When I had 275 pages of everything else I’ve written, I had nothing; 175 pages of Garp, I didn’t even have the right voice. I had to go back and rewrite all of it. But I have 175 pages of the new novel that sound like Garp did when it was on page 300. I know the way it’ll be. And yet I’ve been working very slowly. I work three or four days, get a big section of work out, and then I play with it. Try it this way, try it like that.

It’s drill, it’s drill. You write these sentences so many different times in so many different ways that by the time you’re done with it, it should sound like you made it all up in one day. That’s what you want it to sound like: if you did make it all up in one day, it would sound terrible.

You see, it was after Setting Free the Bears, when I got into The Water-Method Man, that I worked out of that old feeling of knowing the craft: anything I can imagine, I can render. If I can think up what’s going to happen next, I’m confident that I can write it in a good way, that the voice will be right, that the words will be right. The scene will be comic if it’s supposed to be comic, it’ll move you if it’s supposed to move you. Well, I felt very confident about that all the way through two-thirds of Garp, and then I thought: that is a dangerous toy. What I felt was this: because you can render anything you can imagine, you have to be very careful what you imagine. In other words, once I get something down on paper, I can make it look good. That wasn’t true books ago, but now, once I commit the idea to the page, I’m probably going to write it well enough that it’ll be very hard for me to scrap it. But it may be a bad idea.

You’re saying the book can completely get away from you.
Yes. And I noticed that two-thirds of the way through Garp. I said, watch out. Because I knew that Garp was at a point where it could suddenly be a thousand pages or more. Everything was possible. But once I knew that it was Walt who would die, and how, I knew everything. I saw everything—and I just had to say to myself, three pages, four pages a day.

How did you feel when you finished the chapter, “Walt Catches Cold”—the chapter that ends just a split-second before the accident that kills him?
That wasn’t the tough one. Because that’s not the one that acknowledges Walt is dead. That’s the one where they go up the driveway.

Garp finds out about Helen’s affair with Michael Milton; after a terrible scene, she prepares to break off with her lover—with a phone call, as Garp demands. Garp takes his two sons out to a movie, promising to kill Milton if Helen allows him to come to the house, but Milton won’t play by Garp’s, and Helen’s, rules. He hangs up on Helen and drives to her house.

Sitting in the theater, Garp rages. “It was a stupid movie. Typical of the children’s taste in films, Garp thought; typical of the taste in a university town. Typical of the entire country. Typical of the world!” Garp goes out into the lobby to call Helen; there’s no answer and no busy signal. Helen is outside, parked in Milton’s three-ton Buick, trying to get rid of him. “Suck him off, she thought bluntly, putting him into her mouth, and then he’ll leave.” Garp drags his children out of the theater.

“But the movie isn’t half over,” Duncan protested. “There’s going to be a duel.”
“I want to see the duel,” Walt said. “What’s a duel?”
“We’re leaving,” Garp told them.
“No!” Duncan hissed.
“Walt’s sick,” Garp mumbled. “He shouldn’t be here.”
“I’m not sick,” Walt said.
“He’s not that sick,” Duncan said.
“Get out of those seats,” Garp told them: he had to grab the front of Duncan’s shirt, which made Walt get up and stumble into the aisle first. Duncan, grumbling, scuffed after him.
“What’s a duel?” Walt asked Duncan.
“It’s real neat,” Duncan said. “Now you won’t ever see it.”
“Cut it out, Duncan,” Garp said. “Don’t be mean.”

For a man so obsessed with protecting his children—Garp can’t sleep when Duncan spends the night with a friend, and runs after cars that speed in his neighborhood—Garp has developed a strange trick to amuse his sons. The road to his house goes downhill; his driveway curves up. Building speed on the downslope, Garp likes to enter his garage in a dead-engine drift, with the lights out: the trick is based on a perfect feel for the road, and on knowledge that things are always as they should be. Parked in the driveway in a blinding rain, Michael Milton is just about to shoot off into Helen’s mouth.

Garp hit the bottom of his driveway at about forty miles per hour. He came off the downhill road in third gear and accelerated just as he exited; he glimpsed how the driveway was glazed with frozen slush, and he worried momentarily that the Volvo might slip in the short uphill curve. He held the car in gear until he felt what grip he had of the road; it was good enough, and he popped the sharp stick into neutral—a second before he killed the engine and flicked out the headlights.

They coasted up, into the black rain. It was like that moment when you feel an airplane lift off the runway, the children both cried out in excitement. Garp could feel the children at his elbow: crowding each other for the one favored position in the gap between the bucket seats.
“How can you see now?” Duncan asked.
“He doesn’t have to see,” Walt said. There was a high thrill in Walt’s voice, which suggested to Garp that Walt wished to reassure himself.
“I know this by heart,” Garp assured them.
“It’s like being underwater!” cried Duncan; he held his breath.
“It’s like a dream!” Walt said; he reached for his brother’s hand.

It was not that chapter that made me feel bad, but the chapter after it, “The World According to Marcus Aurelius,” when the family is recovering at [Jenny Fields’] estate. That was the hardest chapter in the book for me, and I think it’s the best chapter in the book, and it was the last one I wrote. That is, I simply skipped it. I knew everything that was going to be in it—I knew that I wanted to have twenty or thirty pages go by with the reader saying, “Where’s Walt?” And people turn the pages back, thinking, he didn’t say anything about Walt.

I wanted you to miss him; and sense his absence; and suspect that absence—because my only experience with that kind of thing is that when you lose something that meaningful to you, it’s a long time before you can even call it by name. It’s a long time before you can even say his name.

Very early on, I’d written the little scene of Garp [with his jaw broken and wired closed after the accident] with his old lover, Alith, who can’t talk—I didn’t know where in the novel it came. I wanted something to happen to Garp so that he sounded like Alice—and I wanted Garp to have to live in a world where he would have to communicate with notes, like the Ellen Jamesians, so he would know what that was like, too—and I wanted the first mention of Walt to be, “I mish him.” Just those words: “I mish him.” I wrote that down one day 200 pages before I got to that chapter. It had to be something so awful Garp couldn’t start talking about it with Helen. Harrison [Helen’s old lover, and Alice’s husband] and Alice had to come there, to be there with [Garp and Helen], because it seemed to me that was the way that happens, too.

That chapter was the one I liked. And I liked the line when Helen and Garp make love again. Helen imagines, as she’s finally back together with Garp, that she’s Roberta Muldoon, trying out a new vagina.

Last night, you mentioned letters you’ve gotten from people whose children have died; people who write, “I lost a child, too,” believing that with Walt’s death, you had to be writing autobiography—that something so intensely rendered had to be “true.” How do you respond to those letters? Do you have any answer to those letters?
I always answer those letters. Those are the serious ones; those are the ones that matter. I have had two or three friends who went through that, and their reactions were very matterful to me and I guess the letters that I really felt drawn to respond to were those from people who, in that old way, again, would write me one letter, assuming that this had to be my experience, too. And when I would write back—sort of a condolence and a thank-you for responding to the book—I felt I had to say, no, this is not my misfortune. Then I developed a number of ways of saying, well, it’s enough to have had children to imagine what it would be like to lose them. But this, of course, assumes an imagination of immense paranoia on the part of everyone, which everyone may not have.

I found people writing back to me, then, a second time, some of them unable to conceal their resentment: they felt tricked. They felt they had been taken in by the book. They came to the book with open arms, saying, this is genuine, this is true, that hurt in all the real ways—and then to find out it was only imagined—

I live by my imagination, and yet even I can be influenced by how the imagination is mistrusted by the rest of the world, by the way fiction is discredited in the face of nonfiction. I’ve been on airplanes and people say, “Hi, Ken, Kansas City, what do you do?” I say, “Oh, I write.” “Oh, what do you write?” “Novels.” “Oh, ah, fiction…” Immediately: you know what I mean! It’s just this shitting on from the word go. But then you hear—

Not long ago, shortly before I got my number unlisted, I had the worst phone call I’ve had from anyone—not one that frightened me, not the most threatening or nasty, not one of that kind. I got a phone call from a woman in California. She said, “I’m calling from such and such place in California.” All that took about five minutes to say. I mean, she just could not—talk. The phone would go down, and her daughter would pick up the phone. Her daughter would say, “My mother’s trying very hard to talk to you, and she’s written out some things she wants to say to you, but it’s very hard, and she gets exhausted, and she’s working up to something to tell you, but she can’t get this sentence, and she wants to tell you that we both like your book, but especially the part… ” And then the mother would be so enraged that she couldn’t say this herself, she’d take the phone back.

It went on for forty-five minutes. Almost an hour. Most of the information I got from the daughter, because the mother would struggle for ten minutes to get out two sentences—and then she would become so frustrated. It took her five minutes to tell me that the phone was the most difficult for her, that if I were there she could talk to me much more easily. She kept saying, “D-D-D-Damnit, I d-d­d-don’t d-d-do it this b-b-b-badly.” Unbelievable.

It was harrowing. It went on and on and on. And yet she was so moved and so touched by the book—and finally she said, “Why why does everyone have so much trouble talking?” That was her question. She said, “It’s true, but why is it that happens? Why is this important? In your book, why is it that when something’s wrong somebody can’t talk?”

I went on about that metaphor, but—I hadn’t realized it. And as I was listening to her spit out these sentences, I thought, my God, there’s a tongue missing here, there’s a stutterer there. Tinch stutters. Ellen James doesn’t have a tongue. Alice can’t talk. Garp’s jaw is broken and wired shut. I thought, “My God—”

“Nobody,” Irving had said earlier, “is so clever he knows what he’s doing, what he’s setting up, all the time.” When a writer reaches an audience, that audience may tell the writer as much about a book as the book tells the audience about itself.

When a writer knows he or she has an audience—when the writer knows there are people who will, for as long as the writer can justify their interest, pay close attention to what the writer has to say—the writer takes that into account. That fact may make it harder to take chances—may weaken a writer’s nerve—or it may show a writer, for the first time, what chances truly exist to be taken. With Garp, readers got more than they bargained for; with his conversation with the woman from California, so did Irving. That lifelong conversation between a writer and an audience begins to take shape; how long it lasts, and how much it will he worth, remains a matter for both sides to settle.

[1] Dan Gable, a lightweight, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records (sixteenth edition) as the most successful wrestler of all time, with a record of 299 wins and six losses from 1963 through 1973.

[2] Best known for The Hair of Harold Roux, which shared the National Book Award for fiction in 1975.

[3] “If Grillparzer were an American story,” Irving said, “that is, vulgar—the novel I’m writing now is much in the mode of that. The narrator is not part of the tale he’s telling; he’s a Nick Carraway, the straight man. It’s a very simple first-person narrative about a family in the hotel business, and it’s a love story. What my mother would call a tear-jerker, right? That’s it. I’m out for a tear-jerker. Of course, it already has a rape and a homosexual beating and the death of a dog and a few other terrible things, and that’s just in the first five or six chapters.”

Rolling Stone, December 13, 1979

{cf. Greil’s original review of
The World According to Garp,
from Rolling Stone,
part 1 and 2.}


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