Not many things will distract the more diligent Middlebury students from their midterm exams, but thankfully an internationally famous author is one of them.
When John Irving stepped up to meet the crowd in Mead Chapel this past Wednesday evening, his good humor, casual plaid-shirted presence and magnetic narrative style made all else slip away for a good part of the following hour. A core audience of students, as well as other campus and community members, enjoyed a mix of personal musings, historical perspective and even a little political rallying along with the highly engaging reading from the author’s current book in progress.
Though he didn’t realize it, Irving was pleased to be reminded during the welcoming comments by Chellis House director Karin Hanta that this is National Coming Out Month, a notable celebration given the recent media focus on bullying and homophobia among young people. The reading, co-sponsored by the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, the Creative Writing Program, the Department of English and American Literatures, Wonnacott Commons, and the Office of the Dean of the College, dovetailed meaningfully with some of the current issues on people’s minds. Irving often interlaces themes of sexuality and prejudice throughout his novels, and spoke passionately about the fundamental right for people to be accepted, tolerated and welcomed for who they are, no matter what the differences among us may be.
Irving’s writing—he has published 12 novels with his 13th underway—has always embraced the normality of difference. As example, he recalled for the Mead audience characters such a Frank Berry from Hotel New Hampshire and John Wheelwright from A Prayer for Owen Meany, among many others who have questioned or confronted their sexuality. His latest narrator is a bisexual man looking back on his formative childhood and sexual awakening via a local librarian, Miss Frost, who is later revealed to be transgender. The unfinished novel’s working title, In One Person is a reference to Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” when in Act V, Scene V, the protagonist says, “Thus play I in one person many people/And none contented.”
With a voice both breathy and expressive yet clipped and direct, Irving brought these new characters to life—the unguarded boyishness of young Billy, the crisp aloofness of the aptly named woman. The issues at hand were deeply serious; the writing—and Irving’s delivery—was unabashedly humorous. When asked later in the Q&A about his habit of blending humor and tragedy, Irving said, “You can’t choose to be funny or not—you either are or you’re not. But the downside is that you also can’t control when it comes out. When you know something really bad is going to happen—and I always do because I am a methodical planner of my plots—sometimes you just can’t help but make a little joke of it.”
Speaking of his methodical plotting, Irving was straightforward and clear about his writing style as a process, almost to the point of being a science. “I always write the ending first,” he explained. “I need to know where I’m going, which probably hearkens back to my early and ongoing influence by such character- and plot-driven writers as Dickens and Hardy. Now that’s not to say that the ending I write can’t change,” he added with a telltale grin. “But it hasn’t yet in 12 novels, so don’t hold your breath.” In fact, he even began his excerpt from In One Person by reading the last line of the chapter first—“So you’ll know when it’s over,” he deadpanned. But in doing so, in all seriousness, he clearly wanted the audience to know—and feel the process of knowing—exactly where we were going.
Irving was first published in 1968, with Setting Free the Bears. Though his career began slowly, he received immediate worldwide attention in 1980 with The World According to Garp. He has won the National Book Award, an O. Henry Award and an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules. He’s no stranger to success, and yet he presented himself that evening in Mead as just another writer diligently—and daily—honing his craft.
After his reading, he took questions from the audience. Though he was fond of beginning with a deceivingly short answer—“yes,” “no,” “both”—there was no stopping the author on a roll of elaboration. When a question arose regarding his experience with control issues on the movie adaptations of his books, Irving took a wide tangential turn to politics and in the process expressed his support for Vermont Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Shumlin, adding that “if you care about people who care about respecting sexual differences, then don’t vote for Brian Dubie.” Not minding at all that he seemed to have wavered off topic, the crowd responded with a healthy round of applause. And, to his credit, Irving adroitly managed to bring the whole thing back around and satisfy the questioner by saying, “Basically, it’s a two-way street: I respect you, you respect me, and together we can collaborate on something really great.”
Following questions, and nearly 90 minutes after his introduction, Irving enthusiastically moved toward the front of Mead to sign books for a growing line of fans. Seated with pen in hand for nearly 30 minutes, John Irving carefully took each offering, whether a crisp new book just purchased or a tattered paperback from years ago, and signed them all with characteristic style and aplomb.