Stepping-off places

John Irving '61 opens up about his new novel, his tribute to an Exonian war hero, and his last tattoo. 

Ralph Sneeden '98, '03 (Hon.); P'07, P'09, P'13
November 1, 2022

In my recent correspondence with John Irving ’61 (via email and a phone call that lasted almost two hours), it was difficult separating the author from Adam Brewster, the narrator of his latest novel, The Last Chairlift. Taming this conflation, trying to keep these voices in their own corners, was harder than I thought it would be.

I was feeling like a hypocrite, too. Though I retired from Exeter’s English Department in June, I had been bludgeoning my students for decades with Vladimir Nabokov’s mantra for good readers: “We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world ... having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know.”

Whatever you assume about skiing and ski culture, let it go when you read Chairlift. Secure your boots to your bindings and enjoy negotiating the intertwining trails of Adam’s quests. Whether he’s searching for his father’s identity, nudging into place the puzzle pieces of his skier mother’s evolving love life or his own, or brooding over the ghosts of Aspen’s Hotel Jerome, it would be a shame to project our own experience onto the narrative’s screen or try to decode the artist’s life there.

We must surrender to the story. Which is hard to do if a chunk of it is hunkered on a setting the reader knows well. Like Exeter, for instance. If you’re a devoted Irving fan and have spent time with The Cider House Rules, A Widow for One Year, The Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp, the more recent Avenue of Mysteries, or any of his 14 previous novels, you might appreciate a few echoes in The Last Chairlift (e.g., wrestling!). But Irving, who turned 80 last March, is an author who can conjure a distinct world upon what we believe are the foundations of the familiar —even if we can identify the thematic and topical watermarks of his previous fictions, especially while reading the book in the very town he’s describing.

“Fiction writers like what we call truthful exaggeration. When we write about something that really happened — oral most happened, could have happened — we just enhance what happened. Essentially, the story remains real, but we make it better than it truly was, or we make it more awful — depending on our inclination.” This is the voice of writer/narrator Adam Brewster, so you get my point about authorial ambiguity, which only intensifies in the stitched together conversation that follows.

Reading this novel, just shy of 900 pages, in two and a half weeks was a full-time job, especially when anticipating dialogue with its author. I loved every word, every minute of it. Not only the gravitational pull of my empathy for Irving’s characters and being subsumed by a tangled plot and historical commentary, but its patterns and refrains, its almost Homeric epithets. Epic is not an exaggeration for the author’s heroic management of language and scope. Like Adam says, “Unrevised, real life is just a mess.”

Ralph Sneeden: Early in our correspondence, I betrayed my dread of not being able to finish your book before our first phone conversation.

John Irving: What a blow it must be to your retirement — to be reading a novel longer than [Charles Dickens’] Bleak House. My Chairlift is still shorter than David Copperfield (barely). That said, it’s a relief to know that Chairlift really will be my last long novel. I know the approximate length of the boxcars in the train station, the novels not yet coupled to an engine. I’ve been trying to write the longest trains first — either the longest or the most difficult, for reasons other than their length. It looks like shorter trains from now on. I’ve always imagined dying at my desk, midsentence. I can accept dying in my sleep, only because it would be less of a nuisance for my wife. I’m not saying I’m going to become a novella man overnight, but that’s the direction I’m going in.

You’ve written about Exeter before, sometimes in disguise, indirectly. But this novel calls Exeter by name. Did this most recent fictional foray back to the culture of the school in the mid-20th century generate any unanticipated revelations, memories? 

Nothing unanticipated. The farther I get from being the faculty brat I was lucky to be, the more free I feel to take liberties with what happened to me. The surroundings feel autobiographical, and some of the core relationships to the school are autobiographical — like the faculty-brat connection, like the townie connection. I like to use my autobiography as a stepping-off place ... to make something sound grounded in the real, in the actual. Then, when the exaggerations commence, you’ll think it’s all real. What develops from these familiar circumstances never happened to me. ... Sometimes I change the name of Exeter, but there’s a familiar small town and a boarding school with an insider-outsider student population.

he farther I get from being the faculty brat I was lucky to be, the more free I feel to take liberties with what happened to me."

The word “normal” and its counterparts — weird, bohemian— come up later in the novel in the context of what sort of life Adam wants to live in comparison with his experience with his immediate family.

The basic circumstance of Adam’s situation is one we’ve seen before, too — a boy with a mysterious (or elusive) mother and an unknown (or absent) biological father. This is another stepping-off place; from this familiar premise, unfamiliar things develop. Adam is the lone straight guy in a queer family; even his extended family (including Nora, his cousin) is queer. Two lesbian couples and a trans-woman stepfather are the people looking after him; they’re his support group. Adam is afraid for them. “The Honeymoon on the Cliff” could have worked as a title for the novel. Yet Adam is the one who needs looking after; he’s more badly behaved than all of them, sexually. Of course, Nora is a troublemaker, a magnet to danger, and Em (her partner) is right to see the hatred coming — to be afraid for Nora. ... Adam is both the out-of-it one and the odd man out. Adam is a slow learner, the last to learn.

LGBTQIA+ themes are laced into the DNA of your work from The World According to Garp to In One Person, but now it seems the reading world might be better equipped to appreciate what you’ve been doing all along. In an email, you were passionate in your recommendation of James Hannaham’s new novel, which you reviewed for New York Times, as a must read, because of its titular main character, Carlotta. You wrote, “It’s a time in the U.S. when state legislatures are passing anti-trans legislation — a good time to heroize a trans character!” I think Chairlift is a bold foray into that territory.

Elliot Barlow [a character in the novel] isn’t called “the only hero” for no reason; she’s a brave soul. My singling out the lonely bravery of the snowshoer owes a debt to my trans daughter, Eva. My third son, Everett, began the transitioning process to female less than six months before I began The Last Chairlift [in 2016]. Eva read my first draft when I’d only written half the novel. She has always been a writer — a playwright, a screen writer and an actor. We show each other our first drafts. She’s been doing an M.F.A. in film and screenwriting at York University in Toronto, where she’s also had a teaching assistantship. The name she’s chosen for herself as a writer, actor, director is Eva Everett Irving, which I like, because it’s totally accurate, but I call her Eva — she’s just Eva to me. I’m very proud of her.

You seem to be working out some of the great tensions of our time through what your characters say to each other, and how your narrator processes their ideas, their opinions. Chairlift seems poignantly current even in its evocation of the 1960s, from Adam Brewster’s childhood right up to the election of Donald Trump. The novel also enables the decades of the last 70 years to have their own conversation about the events, politicians, etc., that got us to where we are now. Though your plot broaches gun violence, religion, war, the brightest spotlight is trained on gender, Roe v. Wade, AIDS, sexual orientation and, especially, Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s moral absenteeism was most apparent in the AIDS crisis. Of the Republican justices on the U.S Supreme Court who voted to overturn Roe, only one of them isn’t Catholic, and he was raised Catholic; his mother was an anti-abortion activist who worked in the Reagan administration. Those justices seem more in step with the Vatican than with the First Amendment — the part that says, “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.“

In the time of the Puritans, abortion was allowed beyond the first trimester — up to four or five months. Our founding fathers got this right; the choice to have a child belonged to the woman who was pregnant. For more than two centuries — beginning in the 1620s in Plymouth, Massachusetts — abortion was permitted. (It was prohibited for scarcely a century.) It’s ironic that we’re a nation founded by Separatist Puritans fleeing religious persecution in England. Now we’re doing the religious persecuting! An undeveloped fetus has more rights than an adult woman?

Pope Pius XII used the right-to-life term in an “Address to Midwives on the Nature of Their Profession”— a 1951 papal encyclical. Here are the pope’s exact words: “Every human being, even the child in the womb, has the right to life directly from God and not from his parents, not from any society or human authority.” The poor midwives! This amounts to mandatory childbirth. Freedom of religion is a two-way street. Yes, we’re free to practice the religion of our choice, but we’re also protected from having someone else’s religion practiced on us. Not now — not in these United States. What Dickens wrote about the law applies to those Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. “It is better to suffer a great wrong than to have recourse to the much greater wrong of the law.“

In the midst of what is supposed to be my publicity and promotion for The Last Chairlift, all these years later they’re screening Cider House at the Toronto International Film Festival again. I’m introducing the screening, telling the novel-to-film storyline — talking about the overturning of Roe, and how abortion rights were safer in 1985 (when the novel was published) than they are now. I didn’t think Roe v. Wade was safe when I wrote the novel, or when the film was made. There’s a moment in Cider House when one of the nurses says something to Dr. Larch about the law. “The law — what has the law done for any of us here?” Larch cries. (More déjà vu.)

I want my fellow members of the class of ’60 and ’61 to see my homage to Dick Pershing in Matthew Zimmermann, who — as a little boy at Exeter — grew big enough to achieve Dick’s heroic stature."

Let’s talk a little more about the commerce between your own life and one of the novel’s most compelling characters, Zim, based on Richard “Dick” Pershing, the grandson of John “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. Dick graduated from Exeter in 1961 and his name is on the Korea/Vietnam memorial bench at the Academy. In a novel that features a lot of ghosts, Dick’s “spirit” provides a compass bearing for your exploration of the war in Vietnam and how it affects Adam and his family. With the character of Zim, the elegiac sonar pings you’re sending out to Dick Pershing are really gorgeous, subtle.

Thank you for noticing the elegiac sonar pings I am sending out to Dick Pershing — not the only friend I lost in that misbegotten war, but the one who always had a hero’s exemplary bearing. I’m a member of the class of 1960 and the class of 1961 — simply because I started with the class of ’60 but I graduated with the class of ’61. I have close friends in both classes. Dick Pershing was someone I admired at Exeter: a very entertaining guy, a three-sport athlete, he was someone I always looked up to. The school was a struggle for me. Dick did everything with seemingly effortless grace. I wished I could be more like him. My character, Matthew Zimmermann, is not Dick Pershing. Nothing comes easily to Zim. He is undersized for the lightest weight class in wrestling, but he bravely competes (and often gets mauled). Then Zim starts to grow. Yet Little Ray (the narrator’s mother) will always see him as the little boy she loved and sought to protect. In June 1965, Dick Pershing and I were ushers at a mutual friend’s wedding in Exeter — at the Exeter Inn. Our ’61 PEA classmate Don Hendrie was marrying an Exeter girl — Susan Niebling (like me, a faculty child).

I’d signed up for ROTC my freshman year at Pitt; I kept up the ROTC at UNH. I’d been accepted to the M.F.A. creative writing program at Iowa, but I always imagined I would be in service in the U.S. Army after my M.F.A. However, I got a girl pregnant on my junior year abroad, in Vienna. I married her; we had the baby. My son Colin was born in 1965. I was thereby dismissed from military service — 3-A, married with child. It was JFK’s ruling that at-home fathers should be ineligible for combat. I knew nothing about this; a ROTC officer told me. Unintentionally, I was out of the U.S. Army. (At the time, I was naïve enough to be disappointed.) I felt sorry for myself — to be married with a child before I graduated from college. I thought I’d missed an opportunity, as a writer, to “see” a war. I both envied and admired Dick that he was headed to Fort Benning, Georgia, to complete his training. Here I was at a party following Don Hendrie’s wedding, talking to Dick, wishing I could be more like him — as I remember wishing at Exeter. Dick was killed in action in Vietnam in 1968. In The Last Chairlift, I wanted to pay respect to Pershing’s heroism and to his illustrious military family. I wanted my character Zim’s heroism to mirror Dick’s. I never met the Pershing family, but I made their fictional counterparts as wonderful as I could imagine. I want my fellow members of the class of ’60 and ’61 to see my homage to Dick Pershing in Matthew Zimmermann, who — as a little boy at Exeter — grew big enough to achieve Dick’s heroic stature. I’m not the only one who misses him.

Chairlift can be described as “self-conscious” in a few ways; it’s a hall of mirrors in which the narrator is also a screenwriter who deploys his noirish screenplays in the hunt for family origins. But he’s principally a novelist who sees the world in terms of books, especially Moby-Dick, administered by his grandmother when he is a child. His stepfather, too — a searching, endearingly protean hero— is an English teacher at Exeter who often brings a wry literary sensibility to scenes. Melville, especially, gives Adam a way to appreciate destiny. I wonder if Chairlift might be a sort of love letter to great novels, to writers who’ve had an impact on you. 

I agree. Great Expectations was the novel that made me want to be a writer, only if it was possible for me to be a writer like Charles Dickens — to move a reader, as I was moved by reading him. (To make you laugh, and to make you cry.) The intention of a Dickens novel is to move you emotionally, not persuade you intellectually. I believe in, I aim for, the emotional payoff. ... Having it both ways is a subversive intention of my writing. To be funny and serious at the same time.

Moby-Dick, which I read a couple of years later — when I was 17, almost 18 — showed me how to foreshadow an ending. I tried to pay my respect to the foreshadowing of that ending in the grandmother’s devotion to Queequeg and his life-buoy coffin. As for Melville’s bad reviews for Moby-Dick, those sloppy readers helped me put book reviewers in proper perspective. The Moby-Dick reviewers either skimmed the novel or skipped around in it. Yes, the novel can be tediously expository on the minutiae of whaling, but the intentionality of the foreshadowing couldn’t be more clear.

You mentioned in our last email exchange that Melville had inspired one of your last tattoos.

I was in my late teens or early 20s when I went to a maritime tattoo shop. I wanted the last line of Moby-Dick on my left forearm. In my imagination, I envisioned a sperm whale configured around that last line — “only found another orphan.” If I’d asked for a girlfriend’s name in a bleeding heart on my chest, the tattoo artist wouldn’t have hesitated, but he was worried about the last line of a novel. “I’ll give you the sperm whale, kid, but you should think twice about that quote from a book. You don’t know what you’ll think of that book when you get older.” (Hence no Moby-Dick tattoo — not then.) The line from Moby-Dick and the sperm whale would end up being one of the last tattoos I got — not the first. I have a maple leaf on my left shoulder, and the names of my wife and daughter on my left upper arm. I have the names of my two sons, Colin and Brendan, on my right upper arm. There’s the starting circle of a wrestling mat on the inside of my right forearm. I got all these before I got the sperm whale and “only found another orphan” on my left forearm. I found a maritime tattoo artist from St. John’s in Toronto. She told me my arm was too small for a sperm whale, but she did a good job. My last tattoo, on the outside of my right forearm, are the last lines of The Cider House Rules: Princes of Maine, Kings of New England.

Editor's Note: This interview first appeared in the fall 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

Ralph Sneeden taught English at Exeter from 1995-2022, held the B. Rodney Marriott Chair in the Humanities, and is a co-founder of the Exeter Humanities Institute. His essays and poems have appeared in many magazines, including AGNI, Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, POETRY, The New Republic, and The Surfer’s Journal. His most recent book of poems, Surface Fugue (2021), won the Poetry Society of New Hampshire’s Best Book of the Year award, and The Legible Element, his collection of water-related essays, is forthcoming from EastOver Press.