John Irving '61

Photo of John Irving

One reason I predetermine what happens in a story before I start a novel is because, once I start writing, I only want to be thinking of the language.

Inside the Writing Life

Where Past and Future Meet: A Conversation with John Irving '61

A picaresque tale that begins at a Mexican dump just before Juan Diego and his sister, the mind-reading Lupe, find refuge with a circus, Avenue of Mysteries also follows the adult Juan Diego on a peripatetic visit to the Philippines, where he’s gone to fulfill a childhood pledge. Peppered with John Irving’s trademark quirky characters — including the wiliest mother-daughter team since the Sigourney Weaver-Jennifer Love Hewitt dynamic duo of 2001’s Heartbreakers — his 14th novel cannily covers such topics as books, reading and imagination. ”I don’t know what I think of fiction,” Lupe says, in one of her sardonic asides. ”Not all storytelling is what it’s cracked up to be.”

Except, of course, when it comes to Irving, a masterful storyteller who has mesmerized readers since 1968’s Setting Free the Bears.

Q: Why is this novel dedicated to photographer Mary Ellen Mark and director Martin Bell?

Photo of Avenue of Mysteries by John IrvingIrving: They’re old, old friends of mine.They showed me Mary Ellen’s photographs of child performers in Indian circuses and said, ”What about it? You’re always interested in children, you’re always interested in….” Well, the way Martin put it was, ”You’re always interested in the shit that happens to children, or children in peril, or something happening to a child.” They knew that because they knew me, they knew my books and they knew me as a father — they’d seen my kids grow up. They thought that a story about children at high risk in an Indian circus would appall me, which it did, and therefore attract me, which it did. So I started working on a screenplay, which Martin was going to direct, called Escaping Maharashtra, and we spent all of January 1990 with the Great Royal Circus in the north of India. We found out a lot about the circumstances of children who were performing aerial acts — like the one in Avenue of Mysteries — that could not have been performed by an adult because adults are too heavy.

Then, because of India’s Central Board of Film Certification regulations, we shifted the story. Mary Ellen, who died last May, was always two steps ahead of Martin and me. She’d seen circuses in Mexico. They were more rudimentary, more basic, more amateurish than the ones in India, but the bottom line was the same: What circumstances did the children come from, and was there a safety net to be found? God, in some cases, there wasn’t even a ring! In some cases the lions came into the ring without bars — they just fed them before they came out.

Also, I wanted a draft dodger in the story, and it was hard to make believable a young American draft dodger from the war in Vietnam getting all the way to India. That was the real jewel that we gained by relocating. And that was how I saw that this could become a novel — not instead of, but before Martin and I continued to make it a film.”

Q: When did that happen?

Irving: Martin and I first went to Mexico in 1997, again in 2002-2003 and between Christmas and New Year’s of 2008-2009. We started this project in ’88 or ’89, we were in India in ’90 — now it’s 20 years later and we still haven’t made the movie. I’ve written I can’t even tell you how many drafts of the screenplay, which kept changing and changing and changing, but also staying the same: The boy was always crippled, the sister was always preternaturally clairvoyant, there was always a good-hearted missionary who discovers he’s gay, and there’s our gringo, the draft dodger — all these characters were virtually the same. One night on that Christmas-New Year’s visit, I said to Martin, ”If this were a novel, I would begin it 40 years later and Juan Diego would be on his way to the Philippines to keep his promise to the gringo, the promise he absurdly makes which no one in his right mind would keep. You’d have to be a real dreamer, as Juan Diego is, a real romantic. But it says a lot about Juan Diego that he is the kind of guy who would keep such a promise that he made as a 14-year-old.

Q: I was delighted to stumble across Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Passion in Juan Diego’s carry-on.

Irving: Well, you can see why he would like it: There are some wonderful mysteries at its core. I’ve always loved Winterson and that novel in particular, and I also knew it would provoke a ridiculous response from Juan Diego’s former student Clark French. I was always looking for ways to enhance the comedic appeal of Clark, who’s not a bad guy but a real nerd. Unquestionably, the Winterson would rile him up and pique his curiosity in an absurd way, so ...

Q: You take years to write your novels and this one was no different. How does that process work?

Irving: It’s not unusual for me to wait as long as 10 or 15 years before I begin to write a novel that has been gathering notes, details, characters and story lines; it takes me anywhere from three to seven years to write a novel once I say, ”OK, I’m now writing this novel from start to finish.” I never start writing until I know everything about a novel, until I’ve already written not just the last sentence, but eight or nine pages that are pretty concretely much as they will be at the end of the book. Last sentences themselves have never changed — not a word, not a comma. It’s not a religion: If in the course of writing a book I thought of a better last sentence, I wouldn’t hesitate to use it, but it just hasn’t happened. It’s common for a book to sit around for years, virtually fully formed, but there’s something that compels me to write another one first; maybe I know more about the ending of that one. There are always these novels waiting, and I just feel I can’t know enough about something before I start it.

Q: Like all your novels, this one runs on canny, entertaining, evocative language: ”Juan Diego didn’t resemble a risk-taker, except when it came to his imagination”; a Virgin Mary statue at a restaurant, described as ”a menacing Mary — a Mary with a bouncer’s attitude…”; and my personal favorite, ”Nobody knows the rules for ghosts.”

Irving: That ”rules for ghosts” phrase that you like, that was mine for a long time before I gave it to Dorothy in this novel. I’ve been working on an original screenplay, a ghost story set in Colorado — called Rules for Ghosts — which I’m very much inclined now to write as a novel. So that’s a phrase that has been in my head and was kind of on my tongue while I was writing. One reason I predetermine what happens in a story before I start a novel is because, once I start writing, I only want to be thinking of the language. The language gets as much attention as it does because I already know where I’m going.

Q: You’ve incorporated Exeter into several novels. What sticks with you from that time?

Irving: The most indelible part of the school for me is the old Thompson Cage, really. When I started wrestling, our room was in the basement of the old Thompson gymnasium and it moved from the basement to the second floor of the Cage, off the wooden running track. Because I was a townie, because I was a faculty brat, I also have a very strong memory of the school when the students weren’t there, when it was emptied out. I liked running in the Cage in the summer because it was cool and there wasn’t anybody else in it.

— Daneet Steffens ’82

This article first appeared in the summer 2016 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.