Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Something that has been waiting, unwritten: Avenue of Mysteries with John Irving

It was fitting, in a way, to gather in a church and talk about miracles—even if only the literary sortand on Monday night, Southminster United was at capacity with nearly 600 attendees for our illustrious novelist’s appearance.


John Irving, without question one of the most influential living American fiction writers, would read from his 14th book, the freshly published Avenue of Mysteries. In conversation with CBC’s Adrian Harewood, Irving did not disappoint, with a professorial air and a measured response for each question; he addressed Ottawa with generosity and openness, inviting attendees to step into a world of his creation, to see what mysteries and miracles lay within.


And what a world it is! The depth characteristic of Irving’s work lends itself to serious discussion on such varied topics as magical realism, marginalized characters, and the line between comedy and horror. Harewood deftly steered the conversation, allowing Irving to “answer in an elliptical fashion,” as the author put it, while still directing their chat. One of the memorable moments came when Harewood attempted to segue into talking about Irving’s reputation for writing sex scenes. “I used to think I had a very vivid sexual imagination before I read you,” said Harewood, prompting delighted laughter from the audience and Irving alike.


Irving invited the audience to peer through a door when answering questions concerning his writing process, which he says he approaches from knowing the ending of the story, and working his way through to it. “I need to know what I am writing toward,” he said. But he acknowledged a long gestation for his books once he understands the story’s ending, a period in which “novels wait 5 to 8 years.” The reason for this waiting: something he is avoiding writing.


“There has to be something that has been waiting, unwritten,” he explained. He said he asked himself, “What is in the story that really turns my stomach?” Without that, he said there was no point in taking the time to write the novel, because it would not have the impact on the reader. “We are drawn to what frightens us…how perverse the process of writing fiction is, how masochistic.”


One of the most eye-opening moments of the evening’s discussion revolved around the issue of gender equality. Early in the conversation, Irving revealed that he credits his empathy and propensity for creating marginalized characters to his mother, whose feminist ideals were radical and pioneering.


Toward the end of the evening, Harewood delved specifically into Irving’s reasons for writing transgender characters such as Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp and Flor in Avenue of Mysteries. Harewood noted that Garp, published in 1978, was ahead of its time in its portrayal of a transgender character. “Thank you for noticing!” said Irving. A lively dialogue followed, during which Irving expressed his dissatisfaction with the sexual revolution: “You think things are different? I don’t think so!” he responded, in reaction to being questioned about a new miniseries production of Garp. The material is still timely, he said, because “there are dinosaurs among us” who still do not recognize the need for true gender equality. The audience erupted in supportive applause.


Whether the attendees came for the novel or the novelist, the evening was rich with metaphor and glimpses into the miraculous. Though Irving confesses that Avenue of Mysteries is a story of children at risk, he also knows that Juan Diego, the main character and one of those children, “is in it for the real thing” – the miracles. In describing how a childhood event can seem to eclipse the adult life, and how that phenomenon informs his writing, it becomes clear that Irving is casting the coming-of-age experience as a miracle, too. Through discussion of his writing process and peeks into what makes him tick, Irving was able to show us the real wonder.


“That’s what fiction writers do. We take something that’s true and we make it more true,” Irving explained.” So he does.