Last Tuesday, I went to the grand Majestic Theater in Dallas with my son, fresh from his first year of college, to see an extraordinary writer. After a short detour (to the Horchow Auditorium as noted on the Dallas Museum of Art's website then redirected to the theater—what’s up with that DMA?), we enjoyed listening with a crowd of several hundred fans while John Irving, as in his books, shared wry observation and ironic humor in his humble style.
I scribbled on notepaper in the dark to an onstage conversation between Irving and Kevin Moriarty, Artistic Director of the Dallas Theater Center, who demonstrated an encyclopedic knowledge of Irving’s novels. Irving shared insights about his creative process, his previous works, and his new novel, In One Person, “a story of unfulfilled love and a passionate celebration of our sexual differences.” DMA billed it as “Irving’s most political novel since The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. In One Person is a tender portrait of the solitariness of a bisexual man who is dedicated to making himself worthwhile.”
Irving is aware of “social contentiousness” and “takes a side” and that he’s “sardonic about politics.” It was a bad day to be a social conservative in that audience, but no one seemed to take offense; I didn’t see anyone leave at the politically charged bombs he launched. Perhaps like me, the audience was mesmerized at Irving’s gentle nature, his unfailing honesty and his willingness to share personal background to show he is indeed human.
At one time he wanted to be an actor (his delivery of Owen Meany's high-pitched, warble-y voice was proof he might have done well), but realized he liked and needed to be alone. What better way than to spend days speaking to no one but the characters on your page? A wrestler from age 14 to 34, Irving says wrestlers must also pay “minute attention to details” and run the same drills over and over, as in the process of rewriting. His tales of failed attempts to unite his wrestling and writing friends had the audience chuckling.
He won’t begin a novel until he knows the end, perhaps the exact last sentence, and is committed to hurting a character “as bad as you can.” He learned from Dickens, Hardy, Melville and Shakespeare that a writer can create an unlikeable character, make them sympathetic, then throw them into the grips of tragedy. He’s aware his writing is a bit morbid, but says he has lost several key people in his life and “writes for those who died.”
As Moriarty asked him questions, Irving stared at his folded hands, as though typing the words across his mind to elicit a careful answer. When he was given a stack of audience questions on 3X5 cards, he shuffled through them, choosing ones that brought intense responses, both laughter and shock. Much like his writing. He is indeed a distinguished writer and I feel lucky to have had the chance to hear him.