John Irving returns to Pioneer Valley

By Jeff Mitchell

Courtesy of MCT
The Chapin Auditorium of Mount Holyoke College was filled with mobs of middle-aged housewives, clamoring to sneak a peek at the critically-acclaimed author John Irving. Irving is the author of twelve novels, including “The World According to Garp” and “The Cider House Rules,” and recipient of the National Book Award. The Oct. 20 event was co-sponsored by The Odyssey Bookshop and the Mount Holyoke College English Department.

While waiting for the author to take the stage there was a buzz, comparable to that of a crowd waiting for a popular musician. People were discussing what he would look like and who would be lucky enough to possibly obtain his autograph.

Joan Grenier, of The Odyssey Bookshop, started the event. She explained the collaborative efforts of their business with Mount Holyoke College to bring John Irving back to the Pioneer Valley. She also mentioned that he would be the first in a multitude of authors that would be visiting in the coming months.

As the former MHC Assistant Professor of English took the stage, he was greeted with a flood of applause. His appearance at first seemed very typical and filled the criteria of what you would expect from a prestigious author. He had white combed-back hair, and a blue collared shirt tucked inside of his blazer.

The event got off to a somewhat disappointing start when Irving announced he would only be answering pre-selected questions. These questions ranged from his plethora of novels to his views on writing, his process, and opinion of MFA programs.

As Irving spoke of his books, he started off with a somewhat slow, docile speech. Surprisingly the author was humorous, but in a very dry sense.

A book which many questions were centered around was “The World According to Garp.” Irving explained, “I was very angry when I wrote that novel. There was still a lack of sexual differences and it made me angry.”

The audience was filled with mothers and daughters, old and young individuals, all of whom were fans that had read multiple novels by him. They all felt connected to the works, as Irving spoke on an analytical level about aspects of many of his novels and compared them to his life at the time of writing.

A question that Irving addressed with detail was his process of starting with the last sentence in the novel first and working from it. “I see endings first, I don’t need to know what happens, I need to know how it sounds. I can just focus on language when I work, and not second guess myself.”

Irving also read an excerpt from his unreleased 13th novel which detailed the psychological struggle of a bisexual youth in America. The narrator is an older man looking back on his adventures as a boy. The story focuses on his confusion and indecision between men and women and how these feelings shape his view of love, sex and relationships.

Irving’s reading was powerful, to say the least. His old haggard voice picked up in an effective manner that emanated the confusion
of both the narrator and other characters. The way he spoke captured a true understanding and connection to the story, one which only an author would have. His tone bled with the feeling of constant detail and humor.

In response a question on the political nature of his works, Irving answered, “I’m not a political person. I never set out to write a political novel.” Another interesting point he brought up was “I’ve never begun a novel that didn’t make me feel afraid in some way.”

When describing authors that inspired him, Irving mentioned Dickens, Melville, Thomas Hard, and Nathaniel Hawthorne; but he concluded with an especially humorous comment on Hemingway: “I hate Hemingway. If you want to write in sentences that short, be a copy editor.”

The crowd found Irving truly hilarious, laughing at every joke that he made as if he were a stand-up comedian. It was obvious that they were true fans of not only the novels, but the man himself.

Due to an injury, Irving was only able to sign 200 copies of his most recent book, “Last Night in Twisted River.” In order to be ordered in the drawing, you had to have purchased his book at the event.

Cindy Pyle was an individual present in the audience who had read all of Irving’s novels. In response to his reading from the unreleased novel, Pyle said, “In a way it was slightly different, and franker than all the others. Maybe he chose [the chapter] because it was provocative or representative. I’ll certainly buy the book.”

Jeff Mitchell can be reached at [email protected]