Friday, March 5, 2010

Dear John

"To each other, we were as normal and nice as the smell of bread. We were just a family. In a family even exaggerations make perfect sense."
--John Irving

A few months ago, when my friends Jill and Phil went to hear John Updike speak at a bookstore in Kansas City, one of the stories he told was about his correspondence with the author John Updike. Apparently the two had a regular correspondence but barely knew each other aside from having had lunch together once. Their correspondence consisted of sending each other letters that each had received for the other! Irving said he would receive affectionate letters for John Updike about five times a year, and vice versa -- even though each one never understood how he could be mistaken for the other!

I also remember a good Irving comment that has stayed in my head for the last twenty years or so, though I can't quote it word for word, and I don't even recall where I heard or read it -- maybe on a television interview or in an airways magazine.

Irving was responding to the criticism that too many weirdos appeared in his stories to make them believable. The "critic" was asking how any one fictional family could have so many problems and so much wackiness. Irving basically said, "Show me the REAL family that doesn't have one of each" -- and then he proceeded to list:

birth defect
family feud
mental illness
mental handicap
physical handicap
unplanned pregnancy
unwanted pregnancy

and so forth . . .

Irving's observation: "I don't go out of my way to find or invent things that are bizarre. It just seems to me that I notice more and more how commonplace the bizarre is." His conclusion was that it's not an "odd" family that has a large number of these issues (okay, maybe not every single one); but, in fact, it would be the odd family that didn't have at least more than one. I've never forgotten those wise words! Made me feel a bit more normal.

Of his own family, strange but true, Irving said, "No adult in my family would ever tell me anything about who my father was. I knew from an older cousin - only four years older than I am - everything, or what little I could discover about him. . . . As a child, when something is denied you -- when there is a subject that is never spoken of -- you pretend it's for the best. But when I was denied information about someone as important as my actual father, I compensated for this loss by inventing him."

A Few More Good John Irving Quotations

"I take people very seriously. People are all I take seriously, in fact. Therefore, I have nothing but sympathy for how people behave - and nothing but laughter to console them with."

"Your memory is a monster; you forget - it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you - and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!"

"Writing a novel is actually searching for victims."

"Whatever I write, no matter how gray or dark the subject matter, it's still going to be a comic novel."

"Half my life is an act of revision."

"If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it."

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