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An Evening with John Irving

by Bebek McGhee At a public appearance February 26, 2005, novelist and "Cider House Rules" Oscar-winning screenwriter John Irving read from his new novel "The Fourth Hand" about an unlucky maritime tatoo artist. He also brought the audience up to date on what he has been doing for the last four years: showing Amsterdam hookers how to arrange the shoes in their closet in order to better serve their customers! It's an amusing side-line to research he has been conducting for "The Fourth Hand." Seriously.

The movie-star handsome writer, who has written 10 best-selling novels and won both the National Book Award and the Academy Award, is living the kind of exaulted life one can only dream of. He certainly seemed pleased with himself here in California as he helped us welcome in the Chinese New Year of the Rooster crowing about all the fun he had in Amsterdam hanging around with Dutch narcotics' policemen and prostitutes doing "research" for his current novel. It's lonely at the top, I hear, and who can blame Mr. Irving for wanting to cut loose from slaving away eight hours a day seven days a week in Vermont, Toronto and Los Angeles for large amounts of dollars? Can't a guy have a little fun too?

Sharing writing tips with the reverential audience, after reading for forty-five minutes from "The Fourth Hand," John Irving revealed the deep secret behind his blinding literary success - write the ending first! He always starts a novel AND a screenplay by writing THE LAST LINE FIRST. The whole story will then "take aim at that sentence." Before he can write a word, he must know every detail, plot twist and turn. He obsessively and carefully maps out the entire tale and gets to know every character. "I know these characters better than any real people in my life," Irving confessed gloomily.

Before he began writing "The Fourth Hand," Irving spent a year searching for purveyors of the dying ancient art of tatooing sailors. He traveled to Nova Scotia, Hamburg and Oslo, ( and don't forget Amsterdam!) harbor cities since ancient times. Irving wanted to capture the "tone and flavor" of the story before he began his missive. Irving then launched into the storytelling "concentrating totally on the language, because the road map is already in place. All I care about from then on is 'How good is this sentence?'" One by one, the sentences lead Irving to the the last sentence in the book, which he composed before he began the book. In the case of his new book, "she was waiting for me in the form of a woman," the unfortunate unwed mother and maritime tatoo artist.

This was all very interesting to me because I always wondered why I could never finish my second or third John Irving books "A Prayer for Owen Meany" or "Hotel New Hampshire." I wanted to read them because "The World According to Garp" was one of the greatest novels I have ever read in the English language. His Academy Award for "Cider House Rules" I felt was well-deserved. "Cider House Rules" is storytelling at it's finest. But both the other books felt so claustrophobic, lifeless and contrived that I could never warm up to the frigid characters. That's why I never rushed to buy any of Irving's other novels.

Like a New England winter, John Irving, too, comes across as cold. Cold, condescending and on the verge of an almost William Goldman-like invective against the Hollywood Golden Goose that has kept him. Really guys, you actually think you are going to get sympathy from people like me for all the money and glory you've earned because you've had to deal with "assholes" in Hollywood? I guess everybody likes to complain. Now that I think about it, I never hear Clint Eastwood complaining.

The main reason I had paid $50 to hear John Irving and support the arts in my rural community was to question him about his screenwriting career. It's incredible to get a chance to query a man who has won both the Academy Award and the National Book Award. I asked him "What is the difference in preparing yourself to write a novel or a screenplay and could you describe your process?"

"Figuring out a way to lose five-eighths of the story," Irving responded acerbicly. The tone of his answer revealed a contempt for Hollywood and his perception of the screenplay as a degraded literary art form. It seemed like writing novels represents real art to Irving and that his gigs in Hollywood ( read: his guilt at making lots of money writing screenplays because he can) are something he is a wee bit embarrassed about. Think of Tom Cruise doing car commercials in Japan, or imagine Hillary Clinton endorsing hair care products for women.

"With my first screenplay, I was very irritated at having to put aside my novel to work on a movie screenplay. I felt that it was a big disruption of the solitude I need to write my novels. I also had the misfortune to work with some REAL ASSHOLES in Hollywood. Now that I've found the right people to work with, it's a completely different experience. I look forward to being around other people and all the colaboration that's involved in the filmmaking. And I find that when I return to writing the novel, it has been improved by a new perspective."

Yet it seemed from his tone of voice that the hundreds of thousands of dollars the reluctant screenwriter is paid upset Irving's high opinion of his own literary integrity. I had the impression that screenwriting was something he'd rather not discuss. Screenwriting seemed to be his sordid little secret, as if he was moonlighting in Toronto and Los Angeles from his public job as a Vermont novelist. He acted like I was asking him a question about his personal finances or a secret mistress. In other words: Screenwriting = Filthy Lucre. Or a guilty pleasure.

Irving seemed much more comfortable with the audience's questions about his novels. Maybe Irving is a Puritan and feels guilty about all the money he makes and all the fun he has with Lasse Holstrum when they film movies together, like "Cider House Rules" with Charleze Theron. He did not specify on his creative process with the director by name, but stated, without elaborating, "it's nice to do something with a committee for a change!" Irving suddenly brightened up, and it was the only time I saw him smile all evening (he takes his literary eminence verrrry seriously.) " I know the people I want to work with in Hollywood now," he almost bubbled. "I appreciate what it does for my novels. I know who I want to work with!" he repeated excitedly.

The difference between screenplay and novel writing is, according to Irving, "Screenplays are truncated. It's not a very happy process," he sighed. "There's more practicality involved. In the process you have to lose 5/8th of your novel. It's much easier for me to write an original screenplay. I can bang those out in two months. That versus the four to six years it takes me to write a novel. Even if noone made movies of my screenplays I would still write them."( My own thoughts as Irving said this: well, duh! ) "I enjoy the collaborative process with the filmmakers and a chance to step out of the process of writing my novels. It's so solitary. For five years noone knows where I've gone; it's not like writing by committee," he lamented bravely. Solitude aside, Irving does have young assisstants to transcribe his novels, which he writes by hand. His wife is the only other one who he allows to reads early drafts of his novels.

I wonder how Mrs. Irving feels about the last four years of "research" the novelist has been conducting in Amsterdam for his new novel "The Fourth Hand?" Mr. Irving smugly recounted the warm friendships he formed with a group of prostitutes in Amsterdam while "capturing the esssence of my character," the son of a female maritime tatoo artist. Irving hosted a little gathering with a group of hookers in order to interview them. The prostitutes told him about a problem they have with customers who want to pay them for letting them watch others "do it." But hiding the voyeurish customers in the prostitutes' closets with their feet pointed outwards was difficult. Irving brought his considerable brain power to the hookers' plight. Eager to help the women, Irving suggested they turn all the shoes in their closets outwards, to make it easier for the voyeurs to hide. Puffed up with pride, Irving regealed us with the sensational news that when he returned to Amsterdam a year later, "My friend, the leader of the group of protitutes, told me that ALL the hookers in Amsterdam were placing the shoes in their closts pointing outwards now!" Way to go, John!

On a roll, Irving, a former wrestler, took the opportunity to throw a fellow legend on the mat. "I'm lucky I read Dickens when I was young. If I had read Hemingway, I'd be writing ad copy right now." Plunging ahead with his dis of one of the greatest authors of the English language, Irving continued, "Hemingway was a journalist, he didn't have a great deal of imagination. Chalk on a blackboard to me. I don't see the appeal in it," he sniffed. Irving seemed to sense he might have said something a little out of line with the audiences' feelings about Poppa Hemingway. "I liked 'The Sun Also Rises' OK," he damned Mr. Hemingway with faint praise. "But I don't like the characters; I don't really feel sorry for them. Do you?" Irving generously including us, the audience, in his elite literary opinion.

Irving then resorted to a different tactic in his quest to win our affirmation of his sensitive, genius wonderfulness. "The Writer has a sense of not belonging anywhere. I'm drawn to characters who feel they don't belong. Most writers feel they don't belong where they live." With exquisite self-pity, John Irving paused and surveyed the audience, "The only place I feel at home these days is in an airplane lavatory," he groaned catharticly.

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