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John Irving on his new novel 'The Last Chairlift'


John Irving has written huge bestsellers, beginning with "The World According To Garp." And now at the age of 80, he's written his longest novel, putting pen to paper like a Dickensian scrivener on a slanted writing board.

JOHN IRVING: I used to just write on clipboards. But both at my age and because I had a spinal fracture in July of 2020, I was told to get one of these - posture right, they're called. Whoever thinks those things up should be shot. But I hated it at first, of course. But I love it now. I can't....

SIMON: John Irving's office is a floor above his home in a Toronto condo tower. Family photos fill the walls there, and any fan of John Irving's novels will find similarities between his characters and the stories in those photos - a little boy who didn't know his father, New England prep schools, wrestling tournaments and the families we assemble.

IRVING: That is my daughter Eva, who I'm sure we'll talk about. And that is my graduation from Exeter. I guess I was 19.

SIMON: And the one above it, people in the - it looks like Air Force.

IRVING: That would be U.S. Army Air Force. Front row, center is my biological father, who I have no memory of meeting. I met him when he was a soldier and I was an infant.

SIMON: We sat at a large round table piled high with copies of John Irving's new book, "The Last Chairlift." The story takes Adam Brewster, who's a novelist and screenwriter, from infancy to old age - his father, unknown for most of the book, his mother, a ski instructor who's away most of the time, his stepfather, an English teacher who transitions to female and whom Adam adores and worries about. The books seem as big as concrete blocks.

We are living in an age, a digital age, short attention span, things that are evanescent and then disappear. Why do you write an 889-page novel?

IRVING: (Laughter) Yeah. That's a good place to start.

SIMON: (Laughter).

IRVING: Right you are. For some years now, I think of the novels of mine that are waiting to be written as boxcars in a train station, not yet coupled to an engine. A lot of consideration went into the order of the trains I've chosen, and I knew this would be long. I did not know it would be the longest, longer than "Bleak House." If someone told me when I read "Bleak House" that I was going to write a longer novel than "Bleak House"...

SIMON: (Laughter).

IRVING: ...I would have laughed at them. It's still shorter than "David Copperfield," barely.

SIMON: OK. All right. Well, then. I think Roberta Muldoon in "Garp" is the first really flesh-and-blood trans character I can recall reading about.

This is an area that you have explored, you have written about.


SIMON: Tell us what brought you to this theme, I think, years before a lot of people were paying attention to it.

IRVING: Correct. It's ironic to think of Roberta now because I created her with utmost affection, not only long before I had a trans daughter, but before she was born.

SIMON: Yeah.

IRVING: When I was beginning "Garp," before Roe v. Wade, my mother reacted to something of a antiabortion nature that was said on television. She said if they could treat women like we're sexual minority, how much worse will they treat gay men and lesbian women? The trans character idea hadn't yet even occurred to my mom. But that really hit home. So I think I've always had an inclination to the outsider.

In many of my family saga novels, there is a familiar premise that is revisited again and again. There's this elusive, evasive, somewhat mysterious mother. There is an absent or missing biological father. There's a child who's an outsider within his own family who's looking for answers. From that formula, which is autobiographical, I think I always construct each time a very different outcome and a very different cast of characters.

SIMON: Forgive me, but in your works over the years, have you learned from your daughter that you got something wrong? Has your personal experience with your daughter changed your writing of different characters?

IRVING: I don't think change is the operative word. It's given me even more interest and devotion to those characters who are sexual minorities and who are treated with intolerance. I think the subject of sexual tolerance, and that would include women's rights - having a trans daughter has only confirmed for me that my instinct to support those characters in my fiction was not ill-founded. It's encouraged me to do it more.

SIMON: I set out to make a short list of the way some people die in this novel, some of your characters, and it turned out to be not short at all.

IRVING: I'm not surprised to hear that.

SIMON: Of course - lightning, murder on a stage, sudden avalanche sets off an accident, cancer, murder in a hotel.

IRVING: Well, I'm decidedly a worst-case-scenario writer. I think the way to write a novel with the most effective, and by that I mean emotionally moving, ending is to create characters the reader cares about, if not outright loves, and make terrible things happen to them. I'm a worst-case-scenario writer because I have children. I have grandchildren. I have people I love. And your imagination, unfortunately, is not something you can shut off at the end of the day when you stop writing. If you have an inclination to fear the worst, you will worry when somebody is late. I've often said that I never had a subject until my first child was born because I was never afraid. And from the moment he was born, and I thought, oh, my God, you have to look after this person.

SIMON: Yeah.

IRVING: And how are you going to do that when they're old enough to no longer be at home?

SIMON: John Irving still has a trim wrestler's build and puts in a full day writing in longhand. He discloses that he writes the end of his novels first, then figures out how to get there. At the age of 80, he's clear-eyed about his own future, which he sees in now writing shorter novels.

IRVING: You know, this is the first book on a three-book contract. Part of me thinks my publishers must be crazy. They think I'm at least good for two more. Well, I better be.

SIMON: I mean, I'll stipulate, you look great. You could get me in a full nelson without exerting much effort.

IRVING: I feel...

SIMON: Full nelson's a wrestling move, we should explain. Yeah.

IRVING: I feel pretty good. But I see the daily exercise, the daily workouts have kind of come down. But I see no evidence, even in this long novel, that I lose the thread of what I meant to hint and what I meant to take away and what I meant to hide and what I meant to let out. I know I'm fortunate to have the only job I ever wanted to have and to imagine myself, as I always do, dying at my desk, head down. It'll be a little uncomfortable on that damn thing.

SIMON: On that slanted board you write on, yeah.

IRVING: The slanted board is not, somehow, as appealing as the flat surface, but so be it, you know?

SIMON: They'll change it for the screenplay.

IRVING: Yeah. I still like the idea of dying when I'm writing and leaving an unfinished sentence for somebody to figure out or finish for me or make the decision. That makes me feel good.

SIMON: John Irving, whose latest book is "The Last Chairlift." I mean this in all ways. Thank you for everything.

IRVING: No, thank you. Thank you for being a close reader. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAY SUE ME'S "THE MEMORY OF THE TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.