John Irving Deals a Winning Hand
: an interview by Michael Mouland
Q. The Fourth Hand is arguably your funniest book in ages. The scene where Dr. Zajac, his young son Rudy, and their dog Medea, are jogging along the Charles River together hunting for dog turds with lacrosse sticks is incredibly amusing. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
A. The Fourth Hand is my most comic novel since The Water Method Man — I would agree — but I also believe that the contrast between how comic the novel is, at the beginning, and how moving it is, at the end, is very sharp. The last two chapters, in particular, don’t have many laughs. Unlike Wallingford, Doris Clausen is a serious person; Wallingford, eventually, becomes serious, but he doesn’t start out that way.
A character like Zajac, whizzing dog turds with his lacrosse stick at rowers in the Charles, doesn’t really “come from” anyone; I don’t suffer what people call “inspiration.” I was looking to make the super surgeon human, flawed; his eccentricities are laughable to others. (Dr. Larch, in The Cider House Rules, is an ether addict; not so funny, but that is Larch’s eccentricity taken to an extreme, that is his flaw.)
At some level, most accomplished people are combative — even if the enemy is only dogshit. And Zajac provides comic relief to Mrs. Clausen, who is deadly serious, forever earnest.
Q. The Fourth Hand is a happy story, ultimately, even if there are some more serious underlying themes. I’m left with the impression that John Irving in 2001 is in a good frame of mind. Is this an accurate observation?
A. I don’t think my “frame of mind” has much of an influence on whether or not the novel I am writing is ultimately a happy story. It takes years to write a book. You’re never the same person at the end of it as you were when you began. In the case of the film of The Cider House Rules, which took 13 years to get made, I still had to be faithful to those characters and their story.
I think I was never more unhappy, in my personal life, than when I wrote The Water Method Man — my most cheerful book, and the only novel with an unqualified happy ending. I was on the upswing when I finished The 158-Pound Marriage, which is surely my bleakest, most pessimistic novel.
It’s been a good couple of years for me. A Widow for One Year was very successful. The Cider House Rules film won me and Michael Caine Oscars; and, at 58, I have this second career as a screenwriter. I’m happily married. My children are in good shape. But this has little bearing on the vision a novelist or screenwriter has on a story — the story gives you the vision. The novel I am just beginning (at this most happy time in my life) is perhaps my least happy story.
Q. Yet there is still a sad side to some of the characters here, particularly Dr. Zajac who is mocked behind his back by his colleagues, is victimized by his ex-wife, and suffers from a peculiar neurosis where birds are concerned. He ends up in a good way once Irma enters the picture, but he’s still kind of a pathetic character when we meet him. You also have Patrick “Disaster Man” Wallingford who is incredibly shallow, yet gets all the women, despite the fact he is missing a hand. He’s sort of an “anti-Zajac,” if you will, but also pathetic in his own way. Both ultimately fall in love, Zajac with Irma and Wallingford with Mrs. Clausen, and this changes their lives forever. Are you saying that “love conquers all”?
A. I try to be true to life; it’s as simple as that. Life has its ups and downs. I would never generalize (about a novel, or a body of a novelist’s work) and say either that love conquers all or that it doesn’t. These kinds of conclusions are drawn from specific characters in a detailed story. Readers draw their own conclusions; I just try to be faithful to who the characters are and tell a good story.
I would not want to lose a hand. I would not want Patrick Wallingford’s job. And if I lost a hand, I would never undergo hand-transplant surgery. I tried to think of someone who would try it, and why.
In my personal case, I met the right woman — I have a happy love story. It might not have worked out that way. I had a first marriage that failed; I’ve been in bad relationships. I think some people are luckier than others — especially in the love department.
But I try not to generalize. Storytelling is the most specific business I know; the best details are the most specific.
As a writer, I think I’m just more interested in stories about people who succeed at something, and in characters who (after many difficulties and failures) triumph, at least to some degree, than I am interested in victims or in people who make nothing of their lives. I am realistic as a writer, in terms of how human beings behave, and in terms of the details of people’s lives, but I wouldn’t say that so-called social realism matters very much to me. I wouldn’t argue with the conventional social realism that most people have disappointing lives, or that there are more stories about losers than winners; I’m just not interested in those lives, and in those people, as a writer.
Q. Speaking of Dr. Zajac, you feature doctors as characters in many of your other books. I’m thinking of Dr. Larch, of course, in The Cider House Rules, and Dr. Daruwalla, in A Son of the Circus. What is it about doctors that interests you?
A. I like doctors. My grandfather was a doctor. I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t have the kind of grades in the science courses that would have got me into a good medical school. I read a lot about medicine, and the history of medicine; it’s an active interest. But, more germane to my fiction, people who are in trouble need to see doctors. The circumstances of people in trouble are generally a good place for any story to begin. Dr. Larch is an interesting character in his own right, certainly, but look at all the other interesting people with interesting problems who have come to him and put themselves in his care. Similar to Dr. Daruwalla — he gets to meet some people who have interesting problems because he’s a doctor.
Q. There are returning character types in your novels. And there are recurring places too. I’ve noticed India on several occasions, in The Fourth Hand, where the book begins, and in A Son of the Circus, where most of the book takes place. India is a distant place for most of us, yet somehow you seem to know it well. Is India an imaginary place for you where the weird and fantastic occurs, where you can paint an exotic picture for your readers?
A. People are vulnerable in foreign countries; they are unsure of themselves, and their eyes are open a little wider. I used Vienna and India to provoke that kind of noticing of details in my characters — less than to discover or reveal anything necessarily true about Vienna and India. I wouldn’t mind if I never went to either place again.
But a setting has to be real, graphic, vivid. Any place where the details are vivid is a good place for fiction.
Q. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but there’s often a sport that’s featured in your books. In The World According to Garp and elsewhere it’s wrestling. In The Fourth Hand it’s football. What do the games people play — the contests — mean for you?
A. Games … sports … well, wrestling was a huge part of my life. I was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992; it was an important honor in my life, because of how much of my life revolved around wrestling. I competed until I was 34 and coached the sport until I was 47. But as a subject to write about … well, I keep my distance.
The football in The Fourth Hand is Mrs. Clausen’s thing. It represents a part of her life that Wallingford is unfamiliar with. That’s a common difference among people — some people are sports fans (they can’t help it); others couldn’t care less (who can blame them?) It’s just an obstacle in the way of Wallingford’s relationship with Mrs. Clausen. I don’t think that The Fourth Hand is about football — not even the chapter that takes place (largely) at a Green Bay Packers game. I don’t think Garp was about wrestling.
My little memoir, The Imaginary Girlfriend, is about wrestling — about the coincidence of writing and wrestling in my life. But that’s really all it is: a coincidence.
When I won an Oscar for The Cider House Rules, certainly other writers called to congratulate me — mostly close friends, not many other writers. But I think every wrestler I ever knew, and some I never knew, called or wrote me. That was weird.
Q. Would you like to see The Fourth Hand made into a movie? In My Movie Business you expressed some of the frustrations of getting your books made into movies, but can you see the new book as a movie anyway? It seems very suited to the silver screen.
A. It seems inevitable that The Fourth Hand will be a movie. As the shortest of my novels, for that reason alone it is the easiest to adapt — and for other reasons, too. There is little passage of time (always difficult in films); there are fewer main or major–minor characters than in other of my novels; and it’s a love story.
My collaboration with the Swedish director Lasse Hallström and the producer Richard Gladstein made my working in The Cider House Rules a pleasure. And the most gratifying outcome for that film — how well it did at the box office and at the Academy Awards — was largely after my writing My Movie Business.
That memoir was a lot more positive about my experience with Cider House than I read in most reviews, which confused my other experiences with film adaptations of my work with what happened to Cider House; or, in the case of other reviews, the reviewers were simply unwilling to listen to how generally pleased with the Cider House experience I was. Some reviewers had a preconceived attitude about how I should feel about the movies.
For someone whose principal creative enterprise is solitary (writing novels), I love the occasional sea change of a collaboration — provided I get along with my collaborators. In the case of Cider House, I got along so well with Lasse Hallström and Richard Gladstein that I know we will work together again.
Do I want to work with a different director, someone other than Lasse? Not right now. A collaboration is also about timing, however. Lasse is shooting a film this winter, then editing it for much of the remainder of the year. I am trying to start a new novel and trying to finish an original screenplay. But if the opportunity is there for Lasse and Richard and me to make a film of The Fourth Hand, we’ll do it.
There is also a film of A Widow For One Year in the works, but not yet in production. A young writer-director came to me with a fabulous idea for a script. I told him to try it. It’s a very good script, and I am supporting it and him every way I can. I won’t be the screenwriter for that one — it’s already in good hands without me.
I never feel that a good novel is somehow incomplete if someone doesn’t make a good film of it, nor do I feel — in each case — possessive of my novels being turned into films. I just think it’s possible, even likely, that Lasse Hallström and Richard Gladstein and I will collaborate on a film of The Fourth Hand, but if we don’t, someone else will do it. It’s okay with me, either way. I have enough to do.
Q. In The Fourth Hand you comment on the state of television, and to some extent the popular media. It’s almost pro forma for literary types to bash the state of TV today, especially since what the book represents is the antithesis of TV. But you have fun with the absurdity of the Disaster Channel without going too deeply into criticizing it. What do you think of TV in general? Are you worried that the vacuous nature of television — if you see it that way — is supplanting the importance of books and reading in North America?
A. I don’t think that The Fourth Hand is a “bash” of television in any serious sense. Wallingford is disappointed in his job. Lots of people are, not all of them TV journalists. I personally don’t turn to television for any serious information, nor do I feel that TV threatens my readers or my movie audience. People who watch a lot of TV like TV: let them. People who like to read novels like novels. And then there are moviegoers.
I don’t feel that film and television (which are hugely different from each other) are “supplanting the importance of books and reading in North America,” as you say. These audiences are distinct from one another. (There’s more overlapping between novels and films than there is between television and anything else.) It’s parents who have to be careful. Because of the ease with which children absorb what’s on TV and movies and video (or now, DVD), parents have to be more vigorous in encouraging good reading habits in their children — and it’s parents who have to put some limitation on how much (and what kind of) TV and videos their kids see. If kids learn to read and are encouraged to read, they will want to read when there’s something good to read.
But I would stand by my portrait of the network Wallingford works for. We’ve all seen that kind of television; and before we die, we’ll all see much more of it.
Patrick Wallingford is a likeable character, despite his being a television journalist. In fact, to most readers, he is a more sympathetic character than either Garp or Ruth Cole, who were both novelists.
Q. I have to ask about all the sex. Let’s face it, this is a pretty sexy book. Some of us get to live vicariously through Wallingford and his various conquests. There’s fornication everywhere, women trying to get pregnant, voluptuous housekeepers, babies being born. Your books have entertained this theme, and The Fourth Hand doesn’t disappoint in this regard. The Washington Post said about The 158-Pound Marriage that “Irving looks cunningly beyond the eye-catching gyrations of the mating dance to the morning-after implications.” Would that be one of the messages in the new book?
A. People who don’t think about sex are dead — or else they’re old enough to be largely indifferent to it, personally; even then, thinking about sex is natural even if only in memory. I became a teenager in the 1950s, when sex was largely forbidden (among teenagers) but no less all-consuming in one’s imagination. Sex frequently changes people’s lives; or else the disappointment of it changes people’s lives in other ways.
Generally, in my stories, people seem to pay disproportionately for what sexual pleasure they manage to have. I don’t know why that is — it’s just an observation. I think it’s a pretty truthful one.
I think about sex all the time. Why not? But I don’t believe it’s a very reliable subject for a conversation — people rarely tell the truth about sex.
Q. The Fourth Hand is shorter than your recent novels. Was that intentional?
A. Intentional, yes — everything is intentional. I knew when I first thought of the novel that it would be shorter (by half) than most of the others, but I didn’t design its length — it was just a story with more focus and fewer complications than most I have imagined; and the passage of time is less, as I already mentioned; and there are fewer characters of importance to the story (more focused in that way, too).
I would like to write shorter novels than I have a habit of doing, more like The Fourth Hand or even shorter. Imagination is a function of what you can remember. When you get older, your memory gets weaker. You have to remember more (of what you’ve imagined) when you write a long novel. It would therefore be smart of me to write shorter novels, at my advanced age, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t imagine another long one. The one I am trying to begin feels long to me – longer than The Fourth Hand, anyway. I hope I’m wrong.
I will say without qualification that it is easier to write a shorter book than a longer one. People who tell you different probably haven’t written a longer one. Maybe writing screenplays has helped me to envision shorter novels, but I don’t think there’s anything preventing me from imagining a longer one; I don’t know if I can help it.
You can revise or make a long book shorter — I always do that. But you can’t unimagine something you’ve imagined. If you envision something, it’s there — you’ll never stop seeing it.
From READ Magazine, Volume III
From the Hardcover edition.