John Irving and the architecture of character
"I hold a novel accountable for a good story," says John Irving during a conversation about A Widow for One Year, his ninth and most intricately crafted novel yet. "And by a good story, I mean one that's a little too complicated and twisted and circumlocuitous to be easily encapsulated in a newspaper or television story."
It's no surprise, then, that A Widow for One Year defeats easy summary. In fact, so lush and energetic is the branching and leafing of plot and subplots (which take us from Long Island in 1958, to Amsterdam's red light district in 1990, to Vermont in 1995), and so tightly woven are the stories and stories-within- stories, that Irving and I can actually differ on what the book is really about -- and both be right.
"I wanted to write about a woman's sexual past and the choices in her sexual past that make her uncomfortable," Irving says, recalling the development of the novel's central character, Ruth Cole. "I wanted to deliberately choose things that, were she a male, would discomfort her hardly at all. I wanted, in other words, to work on that double standard that Ruth herself is so aware of. I wanted to keep positioning Ruth vulnerably -- sexually vulnerably -- while giving her considerable esteem for her toughness, her work ethic, her success in her career. I wanted her to be a thinking woman and a self-critical one."
Irving also wanted to return to telling a chronological story for the first time in 15 years. "The Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp were linear narratives, and I felt very strongly that I wanted to write a linear narrative again." This time, he decided to "structure the story in the manner of a play, with three distinct and separate moments of time: We see Ruth as a four-year-old girl, we see her as a 36-year-old unmarried woman -- successful in her career but struggling in her relationships -- and we see her five years later when she is a 41-year-old widow with a child who, not coincidentally, is the exact age Ruth was when we first met her and when her mother abandoned her."
But, Irving says, he did not hit upon the novel's comic masterstroke -- making Ruth Cole a writer -- until quite late in his work on the book, until he had populated A Widow for One Year with almost everyone in it. Then, with one of those typical inventive exaggerations that endow his books with so much of their energy, Irving made almost everyone else in the book a writer, too. Ruth's father, Ted, writes and illustrates haunting little children's books and seduces the lonely mothers of his young models. Ruth's mother, Marion, abandons her husband and four-year-old daughter and eventually writes well-received mystery novels in which she mourns the deaths of her two teenage sons. Marion's 16-year-old lover, Eddie, grows up to be a good man who writes bad novels about the love between younger men and older women. Ruth's best friend, Hannah, is a journalist who writes celebrity profiles and is lonely and sexually self-absorbed. Ruth marries an editor but falls in love with a reader.
"I wrote Garp when I was a decidedly unfamous writer and a writer who always expected to support myself by teaching and coaching," Irving says. "I've often found it puzzling that I wrote that book about not just one famous writer, but two -- Garp and his mother -- when I didn't give being a famous writer a second thought. Once I decided to make Ruth a writer, I had a lot of fun with areas of being a writer that I didn't know anything about when I wrote Garp. I didn't know publishers had publicists until my fourth novel was published. I didn't have book tours. Nobody interviewed me. The public life as a writer, which Ruth is so uncomfortable with, is something I wasn't able to give attention to before because I hadn't had the experience. That and Ruth's obdurate denial that there is any truth to Hannah's accusation that Ruth is an autobiographical writer. It is enduringly fascinating to me how simplistically that subject is treated, both by writers themselves and by people writing about writers. When the writer is any good, it's complicated. It's a subject I think can be fascinating -- and very funny."
Of course, this barely scratches the surface of a novel whose sorrows and delights depend heavily on time and the anticipation of its passing. "From the very beginning," Irving says, "I was aware that I was writing a love story, and that it was a dual love story. It was Marion and Eddie's love story, and it was Harry and Ruth's love story. But I wanted that love story to feel so distant and take so long to get there, that you don't know what it is until it's almost over. . . . You want the reader to guess what's going to happen next -- and guess it right. But not always. You want things to happen that they don't see coming. The balance between the two is very delicate. It has to do with the interconnectedness of people's lives, and that has to do with plot and with carefully making a character stay true to himself or herself."
"Composing a novel," Irving concludes, "is like constructing the interior architecture of the house you live in. Other people will pass through and say, 'Oh, it's a nice house but what a hideous window over the kitchen table.' Only a writer really lives in a novel. So much of what works best about it are things that people who come to dinner never know about or see."
It's a fitting analogy. A Widow for One Year is wonderfully constructed, and its characters and their interrelationships are, indeed, even more interesting on return visits.
Alden Mudge is a writer in Oakland, California, and a frequent contributor to BookPage.