John Irving’s latest—and longest—book reflects a lifetime of thinking on love, family and sexual politics. At 80, he still has plenty left to say: about Trump, about abortion, about tattoos, about everything
Fifteen novels into a nearly six-decade career, John Irving is widely considered one of the great American novelists—a flag-waving label he could do without. A New Englander by birth and Torontonian by choice, Irving has written stories that criss-cross the globe, from an orphanage in Maine (The Cider House Rules) to a circus in Mumbai (A Son of the Circus) to a garbage dump in Oaxaca (Avenue of Mysteries). His latest, The Last Chairlift, shifts from Colorado to New England to Toronto and around again as it spans generations of the extended Brewster family, a ski-country clan with an avalanche of issues.
The book covers familiar Irving territory: absent parents, murder, war, and sexual and gender identity all make an appearance. But, first and foremost, it’s about the people we love—the ones we’re born to, the ones we find along the way, and the ones who become ghosts to us and sometimes even to themselves.
At 80 years old, Irving still works seven days a week, up to eight hours a day, and writes his drafts longhand. “Typing is too fast for my creative work,” he says. “To me, writing is like drawing or painting. I want to do it very deliberately, very slowly.” The pace of his work allows Irving time to think—and to produce opinions on pretty much everything. Here, a conversation about sexual politics, his obsession with tattoos and why he’ll never renounce his American citizenship.
You believe in starting at the end: you usually know what the final sentence of a book will be before you begin writing. Was that the case with The Last Chairlift?
I always know what the ending is, but in the case of The Last Chairlift, I had three options for the final line. I love it when that happens—you can’t lose. I always have three or four novels waiting to be written, and I usually choose the next one based on how firmly committed I am to the ending. The other factor with this one was my age. I do not, at the end of my life, want to be writing my most difficult or longest novels.
And here I thought you’d given up on long books. In 2012, you said that you wanted “seriously and consciously to be trying to write shorter novels.” Chairlift is more than 900 pages—your longest ever. What happened?
I didn’t know it would turn out to be my longest. I thought it was going to be as long as A Prayer for Owen Meany, which is a little over 650 pages. I thought it’d be about as long as Moby-Dick.1
I think of my novels waiting to be written as boxcars as yet uncoupled to an engine. I can pretty closely estimate the length of those boxcars, how long a train it is. Part of my excitement in choosing The Last Chairlift was my awareness that it was the last long train. It’s a great relief to know there’s nothing left in the station that’s as long as this one.
You divide your time between a cottage on Georgian Bay and a midtown Toronto home. Where did you write these boxcars?
Almost entirely in the city. We have what amounts to two apartments in Toronto—one that I’ve taken over as a workspace and the other where my wife, Janet, and I live. Janet would love to be at the cottage four months of the year, but half that time is about as much as I need or want. I’ve lived in a few rural places, ski towns especially. I like being in a city again.
Why this one in particular?
Everyone who lives in a city does a lot of complaining about it. I read complaints about Toronto all the time, but compared with other cities I’ve lived in,2 Toronto works very well. The more time I spend here, the more I like it. I’ve always been a walker, and I find it much more interesting to walk around Toronto than all those years I was tramping around mountains. There’s more to see—there are people and dogs3 and dining out.
You officially moved to Canada in 2014 and became a citizen in 2019, but for over 30 years, you spent several months a year here. Why finally pull the trigger?
I met Janet in the mid-’80s, when she was the Canadian publisher of The Cider House Rules. I had two sons from my first marriage,4 so when Janet and I got together, she left her home to join me in the States. She became an American citizen and my literary agent in the US, but I always knew that, when my boys5 were older and settled, I’d return the favour and move to Canada. The question was when. We ended up moving when our daughter, Eva, was living on her own in New York City. She joined us here in the summer of 2016, before that awful election.
You’ve been highly critical of Donald Trump and the rise of the right in the US. You’ve also been clear about your support of reproductive rights since the days of The Cider House Rules. What do you think lies ahead for your country?
I’ve never been terribly prescient politically. I’m better at looking back, which is why my books take place in the past. However, the two primary political targets of The Last Chairlift are the Republicans and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, and in the six years I took to write the novel, I kind of got those portrayals right. When one considers the Republicans on the Supreme Court whose decision it was to overturn Roe v. Wade, they were much more in step with the Vatican than with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution—the part that says, “Make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Given all that, did you ever consider renouncing your American citizenship?
I’m still a citizen there because I intend to keep voting, and I want to do that more than ever. The United States is in danger of becoming—or already is—a theocracy, just as born-again Christians like Ronald Reagan always wanted it to be. I’ve seen my country slide backward before. I’ve seen the backlash to anything progressive many times, and this is not good. Not only have abortion rights been compromised, but there’s the targeting of LGBTQ rights in state legislations. The Cider House Rules has been banned in schools and libraries in Texas,6 along with other books on abortion and books offering any information for the LGBTQ community. It’s as if politicians want to make kids who already feel alone feel even more so—to strip them of not only necessary information but of the excitement of finding, in what they read, someone like them.
Your body of work features many gay, bisexual and trans characters. They’ll have to outlaw those books too, I guess.
When The Cider House Rules was first banned, I joked that they weren’t paying attention. Like, “What’s the matter with them, haven’t they read any of my other stuff?” But what’s happening isn’t a joke. The United States is more in need of freedom from religion than it has cause to worry about freedom of religion.
Some parents become more aware of infringements on rights when they affect their children. Was that the case for you, given that your daughter is trans?
I was already pretty aware. I had two gay aunts. I have a gay brother and a gay sister. I have a gay agent, a gay editor. There are a lot of queer people in my life whom I love. As a parent, you love all your children, but the child you love more is the one you’re most afraid for, the one who seems to be most vulnerable to being hurt. When Eva first came out as gay and then transitioned, I felt my love for her grow stronger each time. Another bond, maybe our strongest one, is that she’s also a writer.
You started wrestling as a teen and coached your sons when they were young. How does it feel to share your passions with your kids?
You can’t beat that. It’s been wonderful. Though it’s a good thing that it didn’t happen the other way around, because I would be worthless as an 80-year-old wrestling partner. I’d hate to imagine what that would look like. Not pretty.7
You have a tattoo, which I can see on the inside of your right arm, of a starting circle on a wrestling mat. You also have one of a maple leaf. Is the latter a nod to your chosen home?
I got the maple leaf when I met Janet, but the leaf is green, which is synonymous with Vermont. So it’s a little bit of both of us. I also have tattoos of her name and my kids’ names on my upper arms, and what I think is my best ending—“Princes of Maine, Kings of New England” from The Cider House Rules—is on my right forearm, my writing arm, where I can see it. My left forearm is taken up by a sperm whale with part of the last line of Moby-Dick: “only found another orphan.”
Moby-Dick plays a role in your new book. Is the ink new?
It’s my second-to-last tattoo—I got it in 2015—but it was the first one I wanted. A year after I got my driver’s licence, I drove from Exeter, New Hampshire, to a maritime tattoo shop in Portsmouth. I told the old guy there that I wanted a sperm whale and the last line of this novel that I liked so much. He was fine with the whale, but he said, “Look, my boy. That last line in that book there. You don’t know if you’re going to like that book when you get older, do you?” Now, if I had said, “Please write Alice across my chest,” or if I’d asked for a bleeding heart with a dagger through it and Celeste, he wouldn’t have hesitated. But a line from a novel struck him as trouble. He said I might end up hating the book. That was unthinkable to me, but he talked me out of it.
Little did he know that, six decades later, someone in Toronto would give you that same tattoo.
He was wrong, but he had the right instinct to have me think it over. The reason for most cover-up tattoos is failed love affairs.
Did you find that out researching your novel about tattoos and tattoo culture, Until I Find You?
Yes. Sometimes, before I can even start a novel, there are people to meet, months needed to familiarize myself with a subject. In the case of Until I Find You, I dove into the history of maritime tattoo shops in the Baltic and North Seas. For A Widow for One Year, a book about the murder of a prostitute in Amsterdam and the witness to that murder, I had to feel comfortable in a Dutch homicide policeman’s shoes. It’s difficult to calculate how long it’s going to take you to get there.
Is it true that you tattooed someone?
Well, as the Dutch couple8 who taught me would be the first to tell you, I didn’t learn how to do it all that well. I learned well enough that one of my teachers, Louise, let me do a small cover-up of an old boyfriend’s name on her forearm. I didn’t do too bad a job, but I wouldn’t sell myself to anyone as a tattoo artist.
Your books are set all over. How do you approach the “where”?
It’s not that a foreign location fascinates me. Rather, my fictional characters and their stories compel me to find out what it’s like to be in their shoes, to learn something outside my own experience. That’s where empathy for characters in fiction—and for people unlike ourselves in real life—comes from.
So you find the people who will help you learn those things?
Yes. For The Cider House Rules, for example, my teacher was Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland at the Yale School of Medicine, who taught me historical details about obstetrical and gynecological surgeries and anesthesia. For A Son of the Circus, I spent a lot of time with the Great Royal Circus in Junagadh. Salman Rushdie9 was supposed to come and help with my research, but after India banned The Satanic Verses, it wasn’t possible for him to meet me there.
Did you have to learn anything new for The Last Chairlift?
Not really. I’m familiar with skiing, plus I have a network of close friends who could back me up on the finer details I needed—the operation of a chairlift among them. I knew this novel wouldn’t require a lot of research time, but I also knew the story would be long given the considerable amount of time that passes in the book and the interrelationships between the major and minor characters. It was also longer because I wrote the novel in the first-person voice, and you have to account for how the narrator—Adam, in this case—knows things. This is a novel about the people you love, the ones you’re going to miss when they’re gone. There’s greater emotional impact if you’re reading it in the voice of the person who’s missing someone.
To return to my earlier comment about how so many of your characters are queer, that certainly applies to this book, Adam excepted.
I like the perspective of the straight-guy storyteller. From his family’s perspective, he’s the queer one. Another reason to make Adam the first-person narrator is that he’s such a sleepyhead compared with everyone around him. He’s perfect as a storyteller because he’s the last guy in the room to figure anything out.
Herman Melville is clearly an influence, but who’s your favourite writer?
I used to say Charles Dickens without hesitation because it was reading Great Expectations when I was around 15 that made me wish I could be a writer. Not just any writer but one who could have that kind of emotional impact. Even in my early teens, I felt doomed to obscurity because the only books I liked were 19th-century novels that my school friends hated. I loathed Hemingway. I wasn’t condemning of Faulkner and Fitzgerald because they were drunks; I was condemning of them because, frankly, they wrote like drunks.10 The only models of American literature that meant much to me were Hawthorne and Melville. And I thought of them, protectively, as New Englanders.
So you see yourself as a New England writer rather than an American one?
Yeah. But I also have a Europeanness that was solidified by my reading before I ever studied and lived abroad. I read all these wonderful writers in translation: Flaubert and Thomas Mann and Zola and Balzac. My father was a Slavic studies major, and he pushed the Russians on me—Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky.
No one who wouldn’t be 200 years old if they were alive today?
Graham Greene was the first somewhat contemporary writer I ever identified with. The first Canadian to open my eyes was Robertson Davies.11 It meant so much to me when he reviewed The Hotel New Hampshire for the Washington Post.
Mordecai Richler also gave you a good review for The World According to Garp. He was only a decade or so older than you. Did you become friends?
Janet knew Mordecai and his family much more than I did. He was one of my first interviewers. I mean, nobody interviewed me for my first three novels because scarcely anyone read them.12 It wasn’t until the fourth, The World According to Garp, that I even knew publishing houses had publicists.
Were you familiar with Richler’s writing?
No. I had been to Montreal because it was the easiest and most fun city to get to from New Hampshire and Vermont, but I didn’t know anybody there. I knew more people in Toronto, although I only came here for the first time when I was doing research on the Vietnam War and draft dodgers for A Prayer for Owen Meany. I ended up making multiple trips to Toronto for that book. Some of my former friends who had come here to avoid the draft weren’t happy to see me or to talk about it.
Because they didn’t want to be outed?
I kept saying, “I’m not writing a memoir here—it’s a novel. Your anonymity is safe.” But they were reticent, with good reason.
You narrowly avoided being drafted to fight in Vietnam. Is that why you wanted to write about it?
I felt guilty because of my own trajectory out of the war. I was in my third year of officer training when I got a girl pregnant, and I married her because that was the only correct thing to do. I had no idea that the birth of that child would make me ineligible for combat.13 And I was naive enough to be disappointed that I wasn’t going to get to see a war. I thought it would be a wonderful experience for a writer to have. As it turned out, the close friends I made the first year of officer training would be killed in Vietnam. Part of my interest and motivation in writing Owen Meany was the feeling that I got surprisingly lucky. It wasn’t intentional—it was just a dumb
A Prayer for Owen Meany was turned into a 1998 movie called Simon Birch, but it was The Cider House Rules, two years later, that snagged you an Academy Award.14 Which do you cherish most: your induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame,15 becoming a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters or winning an Oscar?
That’s easy. Winning the Oscar, because it took almost 14 years to get that movie made. Also Janet and I had a wonderful time that night. Although, looking back, it’s a little funny that I was sitting next to the film’s executive producer, Harvey Weinstein—or rather that Harvey had inserted himself into the seat beside me. Then Janet said, “No, I am sitting beside John, Harvey. You sit beside me.” When I won, I remember Harvey lurched across Janet and grabbed my wrist in his big hand before I could get out into the aisle. Kevin Spacey was the one who handed me my award. So my Oscar was in the company of people who have since been condemned, but I didn’t really have a choice in that. It was still a great moment.
You’ve said that you consider yourself a storyteller and a craftsman. Why are those labels important?
The sentences, the authenticity of the dialogue, the architecture of the storytelling all have more to do with the craft of the novel than they do with the ideas. I’m not big on ideas. I envision outcomes and characters. What happens to them? I’m looking at the emotional impact. What’s fun about it? And what hurts?
So writing isn’t an intellectual exercise to you?
Not to me. I wouldn’t know how. And I don’t just say that because I was a poor student in school, except in English or when reading novels. I was okay with history too, because it’s a narrative—I could follow it and relate to it. Everything else was of less interest to me. It did, however, always trouble me that I couldn’t get a grasp on foreign languages, as many times as I tried.
Your books have been translated into more than 35 languages. How many do you speak?
I can read Spanish a little. I studied it in high school and college, but it’s nowhere near good enough to say I speak it. My German is better—I moved to Vienna in my third year of university to improve it.
You’re Canadian now, so how’s your French?
Oh, please. It’s non-existent. I had half a year of French in university and found it very difficult.
In the spirit of knowing when to quit, you once said that grown-ups shouldn’t finish books they’re not enjoying. What’s the last book you didn’t finish?
The problem is, if I didn’t finish it, I probably can’t remember what it was called. There are a lot of them. I don’t give books much of a chance.
You may not be a fan of many contemporary writers, but you studied under Kurt Vonnegut 16 and became good friends. He gave you an old golf cap that had first belonged to Sunset Boulevard director Billy Wilder and then to New Yorker artist Saul Steinberg before coming to Vonnegut himself. What happened to the hat?
There was also a painting.
Of course there was.
Artwork and drawings that Kurt made around the monument of Billy Wilder’s terrible hat. I mean, it’s okay to love Billy Wilder, but who wants his hat? Adoration has its limitations.
Maybe that’s why Vonnegut passed it on to you.
When he first sent it to me, I thought, Oh my god, something’s wrong, he’s at death’s door. But, no, he just wanted to give me that hat. He told me to pass it on to someone else when the time came. When I moved from my big house in Vermont to a smaller space in Toronto, I gifted the hat to one of my former writing students.
Here’s another bit of literary lore involving you that has taken on a life of its own. Years ago, on the CBC show Hot Type, you said that Tom Wolfe’s writing is like reading a bad piece in a magazine and that it makes you wince and gag. Wolfe later responded by comparing you, Norman Mailer and John Updike to the Three Stooges.17
I’m hesitating. It’s been a long time since anyone has asked me about the scrap with Tom Wolfe. Every time I’ve told the true story, no one reports it, so I’ve stopped talking about the subject.
I’m curious to hear more.
You have to understand that, before this happened, I had a cordial, social, “Hi, how are you?” relationship with Tom. Perhaps the longest friendly conversation we ever had was at a party of Vonnegut’s in the Hamptons one summer. There was no acrimony. I didn’t care for reading him, but there was no hostility. He was pleasant to me, and I was pleasant to him. So I can understand why he was as angry as he was. He had every right. But here’s how it happened. The journalist on that show was Evan Solomon, correct?
It was not a very agreeable interview—I didn’t find Evan Solomon likable or forthcoming. At the end of the interview, he turned to the camera and gave a goodbye statement. It included a capsule review—a put-down of My Movie Business.18 And I’m sitting there beside him. So afterward I said something to the effect of, “If you didn’t like this, what do you like?” And he mentioned Tom Wolfe. The anger in my voice when I made my comment about Tom was directed at Evan Solomon, whom I thought was a dick. He later repeated it to Tom.
You wouldn’t have said it if you had known you were still on the air?
I’ve never written a bad review of someone who is still alive; I go public only about writers I like. In any case, it was Evan Solomon who started the fight by bringing up to Tom what I had said off the record. I don’t believe Tom ever knew it was off the record before he died.19
In the end, it wasn’t much of a feud. More like an unfortunate incident that gained momentum. Is it the only time that kind of thing has happened to you?
Yeah, it is. Now, whenever I’m on TV, I make a point of taking the mic off my lapel and saying, “Are we off? Are we off?” I just keep holding it out, looking for a sound tech, until somebody takes it from me.
How do you handle reviews of your work?
There are times when I read reviews or descriptions of my own writing that betray to me their writer’s inattention to my detail. It’s fair to call my novels long, but they ain’t “rambling.”20 That word has become almost a euphemism for “I was bored” or “I couldn’t really get into this.”
They could just take your advice and not finish it.
Except they’re working on assignment. When I see words that suggest a random, helter skelter quality to the storytelling, I know that this writer is describing their own reading habits, which are random and helter skelter. If you read my books closely, then it’s fair game to say, “Irving told me more than I ever needed to know about this minor character.” That would likely be true.
Like, “I do not need to know this much about tattooing, ever.”
Mea culpa, I’ll accept blame for that.
In your work, you’re committed to mapping everything out. Can you handle ambiguity in your personal life?
People my age can’t escape thinking of endings, but I’m fortunate. Many of my friends have retired. I sense how lost retirement can make them feel, even if they’re happy in their own families or comfortable in their own circumstances. They were used to being busy people. It’s good fortune for me that I don’t plan to retire.
Adam says the same thing in the final chapter of The Last Chairlift: “Writers can’t stop writing.”
The end I have always imagined for myself is to die at my desk in the middle of a sentence—one that will make people wonder how to finish it. I would trust my daughter, Eva, to finish that sentence, or to end with the one before it. How great would it be to die doing the thing you’d wanted to do since you were 15 and you were lucky enough to get to do?
This interview has been edited and condensed.