PW caught up with John Irving to discover more about his forthcoming novel, In One Person (S&S). The book explores the nature of unfulfilled love through the voice of Billy, the bisexual narrator and main character, who tells the tragicomic story of his life.
Your publisher, Jonathan Karp, said that he couldn’t think of another contemporary American novelist who has written about bisexuality with such fervor. Do you agree, and if so, what accounts for that fervor?
The only part of “bisexual” that most straight men get is the gay part. Many gay men distrust bisexual men. Gay guys of my generation often believed that bisexuals didn’t really exist; they were usually presumed to be gay guys with one foot in the closet. And straight women trust bi guys even less than they trust straight guys. (A bi guy could leave you for another woman or for a guy.)
That said—and not to disagree with my editor—I wouldn’t claim that Billy is the most radical of my sexual outsiders or misfits. Dr. Larch in The Cider House Rules is an ether addict and an abortionist, but what’s strange about him is that he has sex once (with a prostitute) and stops for life; Jenny Fields, Garp’s mother, also has sex only once (with a comatose man); and Johnny Wheelwright, my “nonpracticing homosexual” narrator of Owen Meany, never has sex—not once, not with a man or a woman. For Billy to have sex with men and women doesn’t seem strange to me.
You coined the term “sexual suspects” in The World According to Garp. Has the meaning of that term shifted over time, do you think, and could it be applied to the character of Billy in In One Person?
Two transgender women are the heroes of In One Person, in the sense that they are the characters Billy most looks up to. While those transgender characters are more developed than the transsexuals in Garp and A Son of the Circus, they are not new characters for me. And don’t forget the gay brother, Frank, in The Hotel New Hampshire, or the gay twins in A Son of the Circus. I like sexual outsiders; they attract me, I find them brave, and I fear for their safety—I worry about the intolerant people who want to harm them. Our society may be a little more tolerant of sexual differences than in the ’50s and ’60s, but this doesn’t mean that the sexual outsider or misfit is “safe.”
Gender and sexuality are so fraught in our culture. Do you think there’s a lack of complex explorations of these topics, or is it more that relatively few works are targeted to non-niche audiences?
I’ve always identified and sympathized with a wide range of sexual desires. As a boy, I was confusingly attracted to just about everyone: in lieu of having much in the way of actual sex (this was the ’50s), I imagined having sex all the time—with a disturbing variety of people. I was attracted to my friends’ mothers, to girls my own age, and—at the all-boys’ school I attended, where I was on the wrestling team—to certain older boys among my teammates. Easily two-thirds of my sexual fantasies frightened me. My first girlfriend was so afraid of getting pregnant that she permitted only anal intercourse. I liked it so much that this added to my terror of being gay.
It turned out that I liked girls, but the memory of my attractions to the “wrong” people never left me. What I’m saying is that the impulse to bisexuality was very strong; my earliest sexual experiences—more important, my earliest sexual imaginings—taught me that sexual desire is mutable. In fact, in my case—at a most formative age—sexual mutability was the norm.
I don’t think about audiences—not the “non-niche” kind or any other kind. I read a writer because of how he or she writes, not because of the subject. Sophocles wasn’t an incest writer; Shakespeare’s subject wasn’t royalty. As a member of the audience, I love Sophocles and Shakespeare because of how they tell a story.