Our best gay ally, in one person

Posted on 10 May 2012 at 5:00pm

How straight, tough-guy novelist and Oscar-winning writer John Irving became the gay reader’s best friend. (Guess what? He has been all along)

‘PERSON’ OF INTEREST | New England’s most acclaimed chronicler of the modern American experience, John Irving’s newest novel (his 13th) presents a bisexual narrator and tracks the history of the AIDS epidemic in a sweeping, thoughtful saga inspired by ‘Great Expectations.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
Life+Style Editor

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JOHN IRVING
The Majestic Theatre,
1925 Elm St. May 15 at 7:30 p.m. $37.
DallasMuseumOfArt.com.

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John Irving may be the best ally the gay world has in a literary giant, but a lot of readers probably don’t even realize it.

Sure, we enjoy reading books about gay life from the usual suspects of gay authors, many of whom are pioneers who took great risks in the days before Stonewall. But Irving — the acclaimed American novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter (he adapted his own Cider House Rules to Oscar gold) — has, for more than 30 years, been one of our greatest allies.

His first big hit, 1978’s The World According to Garp, featured a comic but humane portrayal of a male-to-female transsexual; since then, he’s explored homosexuality and transgender ideas in The Hotel New Hampshire, A Son of the Circus and others, but in In One Person, his latest novel (his 13th), Irving puts the issue front-and-center, focusing on

Billy Abbott, his bisexual hero and narrator. Taking us from Billy’s upbringing through the AIDS crisis and beyond, Irving proves that despite his image as a tough-guy writer (he was a wrestler into his 30s), his compassion for sexual minorities is deep and heartfelt.

For our inaugural Literary Issue, and before his appearance in Dallas reading from In One Person (which was released this week) as part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Arts & Letters Live series, Irving agreed to an interview with Dallas Voice, in which he touches on the influence of gay writers on his voice, his gay son and even (possible) plans to adapt In One Person to the screen.

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Dallas Voice: Billy is an unusual protagonist; he’s legitimately bisexual — not merely experimenting. Does someone’s sexuality, if more complex, make him/her more interesting to you as a writer?  John Irving: Sexual outsiders or misfits interest me — they are brave. I also fear for them; narrow-minded people shun them, or seek to harm them. Garp’s mother (in The World According to Garp) has sex once — with a comatose man — and stops for life. Dr. Larch (the ether-addicted abortionist in The Cider House Rules) also has sex only once — with a prostitute. The narrator of A Prayer for Owen Meany, who is called (behind his back) a “nonpracticing homosexual,” never has sex. You have to see Billy Abbott — the main character and bisexual narrator of In One Person — in this context. Bisexual men like Billy have always been distrusted.

Billy’s heroes are two transgender women. Miss Frost and Gee are the people Billy most looks up to in the novel, perhaps because they are even more distrusted and marginalized than he is. Billy is a teenager when he discovers Miss Frost used to be a man; he tells her, accusingly, “You’re a transsexual!” Miss Frost speaks sharply to him: “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” As Billy learns — in part, from being bisexual — our genders and orientations do not define us. Yes, our sexual identities matter, but we are surely greater than our sexual identities. The sexual backwardness of this country fuels my writing; we are sexually repressive, sexually punitive. The persistent gay-bashing by the recent Republican presidential candidates — not only their opposition to gay marriage — is repugnant.

Great Expectations figures prominently in Billy’s life; your book conjured the structure of Great Expectations to me. I’m assuming that was intentional. Yes! I love Dickens, and that novel.

Is that kind of social awareness, of consciousness-raising, important to you?  Garp, Cider House, Owen Meany and In One Person —four out of 13 novels — are political, in the sense that they make a polemical argument, or they choose a side of a social issue, or they advocate a cause. These four novels are full of human suffering. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is a narrative of human suffering that is also an act of advocacy — it attempts to expand the range of our sympathy for human sexuality. I was a kid when I read Giovanni’s Room; I learned a lot about advocacy in literature from Baldwin.

TRANS GENRE | Roberta Muldoon, a MTF character in ‘The World According to Garp’ (played in a film by John Lithgow, above) was Irving’s first major foray into gay issues more than 30 years ago.

Are there any other “gay writers” (like Baldwin) whom you read or enjoy, and whose voices influenced your portrayal of LGBT characters?  Edmund White. I was writing Cider House when I first read A Boy’s Own Story. There’s that line near the end of the fourth chapter. I went back and reread that line when I was beginning In One Person — 27 years later: “Would I become a queer and never, never be like other people?”

In June 2009, Ed and I began writing our most recent novels —Jack Holmes and His Friend and In One Person. We emailed each other progress reports; we read each other’s manuscripts. Ed’s character Palmer in Jack Holmes is based on my youngest son — my gay son, Everett. Both Edmund and I have called Everett “the ideal reader” for In One Person, but I didn’t write this novel because I have a gay son.

How did having a gay son inform this novel?  In One Person has been in my life, fully formed, for 12 years — long before I knew Everett was gay. Billy’s experiences aren’t “based on” Everett’s experiences or mine — Everett is no more bi than I am. But when I started writing In One Person in June 2009, I was aware of writing this story for Everett. I wanted him to read it when he was still in his teens or his early twenties. (He’s 20 now; he was 19 the summer he read In One Person—his favorite of my novels.)

Everett’s privacy should be respected; he’s proud of who he is, and he knows how proud I am of him. He loves In One Person, and he loves me. I know what Miss Frost would say about Everett: “Don’t put a label on him — don’t make Everett a category before you get to know him!”

I told Everett I was worried that some journalists will seize upon the story of my having a gay son as the only story, that they will make it a cause-and-effect tale — part of a laziness in those journalists who believe everything in fiction is autobiographical. You know what Everett said? “Think about a kid like Billy, or like Gee. That kid should read this novel. In One Person would help that kid.” I like Everett’s point. If this is a novel I wrote for Everett, which it is, it is also a novel for kids like Billy and Gee — the young reader who’s a bisexual boy in-progress, and the young transgender girl in-the-making.

Speaking of Ed White, your open letter to him in support of same-sex marriage was, for those of us who read it, one of the most moving, plainly-worded and rational defenses of gay relationship we’d ever seen a straight person — and a famous one — put forth. If you don’t mind me saying, your background makes your support of gay rights unexpected — a kind of tough-guy straight man who wrestled into his 30s. Is it a frustration that some people don’t expect you to be supportive of gay rights?  I did a fundraiser with Edmund in New York for the gay-rights governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin. But I also did a fundraising event for Gov. Shumlin in Boston with my friend Stephen King; you shouldn’t assume that straight guys can’t be for gay marriage!

Garp was your first international hit. It also featured one of the first humane portrayals of a trans character in popular American literature. Would you write Roberta Muldoon differently today?  No. Roberta is a comic, satiric character — a positive force but (like Garp’s mother, like the Ellen Jamesians) broadly drawn. In In One Person, the transgender women (Miss Frost, Donna, young Gee) are more real; they’re serious characters, and more serious things happen to them. There is some comedy in In One Person, but, unlike Garp, is not a comic novel.

Personally, The Cider House Rules is my favorite film adaptation of your work, and its Oscars well-deserved. Describe your “Hollywood” experience.  I love Lasse Hallström, my Cider House director. I’ve told Lasse that I don’t want to write screenplays anymore, but Lasse knows I would make an exception if I could work with him again. We may be making In One

Person together. I hope so. It’s a difficult novel to adapt as a film; movies struggle with the passage of time.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 11, 2012.

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Online extra interview

The lead character of In One Person, Billy, is an unusual protagonist, not just in the facts/details of his life, but in that he’s legitimately bisexual — not merely experimenting. Was that detail important to you? Does someone’s sexuality, if more complex, make him/her more interesting to you as a writer?  Irving: The bisexual men I have known were not shy, nor were they “conflicted.” (This is also true of the bisexual men I know now.) I would say, too, that both my oldest and youngest bisexual male friends are among the most confident men I have ever known. Yet bisexual men — of my generation, especially — were generally distrusted. Their gay male friends thought of them as gay guys who were hedging their bets, or holding back — or keeping a part of themselves in the closet. To most straight men, the only part of a bisexual man that registers is the gay part; to many straight women, a bi guy is doubly untrustworthy — he could leave you for another woman or for a guy! The bisexual occupies what Edmund White calls “the interstitial — whatever lies between two familiar opposites.” I can’t speculate on why other writers may choose to eschew the bisexual as a potential main character — especially as a point-of-view character (Billy Abbott is an outspoken first-person narrator). I just know that sexual misfits have always appealed to me; writers are outsiders—at least we’re supposed to be “detached.” Well, I find sexual outsiders especially engaging. There is the gay brother in The Hotel New Hampshire; there are the gay twins (separated at birth) in A Son of the Circus; there are transsexual characters in The World According to Garp and in A Son of the Circus, and now again (this time, much more developed as characters) in In One Person. I like these people; they attract me, and I fear for their safety—I worry about who might hate them and wish them harm.

Great Expectations has an enormous influence on Billy in more than one respect. What are some of the books that helped to define and influence you at a young age?   Like Billy, I spent some of my childhood backstage in a small-town theatre; my mother, who—in many respects—was not like Billy’s mother, was a prompter in a small-town theatre. My earliest interest in storytelling came from the theatre, and I imagined myself as an actor (onstage, never in the movies) before I imagined being a novelist. But Great Expectations, and other novels by Dickens, inspired me to want to write those plotted, character-driven novels of the 19th century—also Hardy, Melville, Hawthorne; also Flaubert and Mann and the Russian writers. But before I was old enough to appreciate those novels, I saw Shakespeare and Sophocles onstage; those plays have plots. There were plots in the theatre—centuries before the earliest novels were written.

You do a magnificent job portraying the AIDS crisis in New York in this novel. Was it difficult for you to encapsulate this moment in history?  If you mean “difficult” in terms of research, no. Other novels have been much harder, in terms of research—in terms of having to teach myself about something foreign to me—than In One Person. But, yes, it was difficult—personally. I lived in New York City from ‘81 till ‘86; I was there at the start of the AIDS crisis, I lost friends (young and old) to that disease. I had no desire to revisit some of those memories. But I have two good friends (and fellow writers) who I knew would be reading this manuscript—over my shoulder, so to speak. I doubt I would have begun writing In One Person if I didn’t know I could count on these two friends as essential readers: Edmund White and Abraham Verghese. I knew if I made a mistake, they would catch it; I have complete faith in their authority. They gave me confidence; they allowed me to write freely—they were my safety nets.

In One Person features some of the classic signatures that your readers have come to expect to find in your books: wrestling, living abroad in Vienna, the loss of childhood innocence, an absent parent, New England boarding schools, sexual deviants, etc. What is it that attracts you to these themes and settings again and again?  Ah, well—there are the subjects for fiction or the “themes” you choose, and then there are the obsessions that choose you. Wrestling is something I know: I competed as a wrestler for twenty years; I coached the sport till I was forty-seven. The life in a New England boarding school, and living as a student abroad in Vienna—these are simply things I know very well. I choose them because I have no end of detail in my memory bank, regarding those oh-so-familiar things. But “the loss of childhood innocence,” or “the absent parent,” and those sexual outsiders and/or misfits I am repeatedly attracted to in my fiction—well, I do not choose to write about those things. Those things obsess me; those things choose me. You don’t get to pick the nightmare that wakes you up at 4 A.M., do you? That nightmare comes looking for you, again and again.

This book focuses on the topic of tolerance, especially of the LGBT community, over a time span ranging from the late 1950s to the present day. What made you want to write about such a hotly debated topic?  I think that “want” isn’t the right word; maybe the feeling that I “have to,” or that I “should,” write a certain story is what drove me in this case. When I finished The World According to Garp, in the late seventies, I was relieved; that was an angry novel, and the subject of intolerance toward sexual differences upset me. Garp is a radical novel—in a political and violent sense. A man is killed by a woman who hates men; his mother is murdered by a man who hates women. Sexual assassination was a harsh view of the so-called sexual liberation of the sixties; I was saying, “So why do people of different sexual persuasions still hate one another?” Well, I thought I would never revisit that subject. In One Person isn’t as radical a novel as Garp; it is a more personal experience—I made Billy a first-person narrator to make the story more personal. But Billy is a solitary man. “We are formed by what we desire,” he says—first chapter, first paragraph. Later—over 300 pages into Billy’s story—he says, “I knew that no one person could rescue me from wanting to have sex with men and women.” He’s not complaining; he’s just stating a fact. I can’t accept that gay rights, or the rights for people who are bi—or the rights for transgender people—are as “hotly debated” as you say. I think the “other side,” those people who can’t accept sexual identity as a civil rights issue, are moral and political dinosaurs. Their resistance to sexual tolerance is dying; those people who are sexually intolerant are dying out—they just don’t know

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