Tuesday, November 1, 2011

John Irving on Hashing Out the Demons in "Until I Find You"

(This interview ran in the Westchester Journal News in July 2005)

By Dylan Foley

In his 12th novel “Until I Find You”(Random House, $28), John Irving writes the story of Jack Burns, a big-time movie star who has made a career out of playing transvestites in B-movies. In his sprawling 819-page epic, Irving has created a bittersweet novel covering the international tattoo subculture, the shallow waters of Hollywood, the sexual abuse of children and fatherless boys.

Irving, the bestselling author of “The World According to Garp” and “The Hotel New Hampshire” released two bombshells early this month right before his new novel was published. First, Irving revealed that he was sexually molested by an older woman when he was 11. Second, in 2001 while halfway through the novel, he finally found out what happened to his own missing father, whom he had never met.

“Because of certain emotional and psychological ties I felt to Jack Burns, I felt autobiographically closer to him than any other character I’ve written about,” says the 63-year-old Irving in a telephone interview from his mountaintop home in Dorset, Vermont. “I was close to Jack’s experience, not just because of the missing father subject, but the loss of innocence as a 10-year old through his attraction-repulsion to older women. I couldn’t imagine writing this novel in anything but the first-person voice.”

When Jack Burns is four-years old, his tattoo artist mother Daughter Alice takes him from Toronto to the major cities of Northern Europe, from Helsinki to Oslo, to Copenhagen to Amsterdam, looking for William, Jack’s deadbeat father, a church organist addicted to getting religious sheet music tattooed on his body. In a formative trip crammed with hazy memories, Jack is saved from drowning by a midget soldier, Daughter Alice works as a prostitute for just one night in Amsterdam’s red-light district, and the pair fails to track down the elusive William.

When they return to Toronto, Jack is put under the tutelage of the older Emma, who begins his inappropriately early sexual education. He is later sexually abused by a middle-aged woman who is his wrestling partner. After Jack climbs a twisted ladder of success in Hollywood, he goes into therapy with the stern Dr. Garcia, who finally pushes him to return to the North Sea cities to find out what happened to his father. Jack will find his father and also that much of his childhood memory has been a fabrication.

Like his previous novels, Irving started “Until I Find You” from the end. “I begin every novel from the back to the front,” says Irving. “I not only need to know what happens at the end of the novel. I need to know what they last paragraphs are, as well as the tone of voice in which the last scene is written. I try to write the actual sentences.”

In 1998 when he started the book, he knew where William was going to be found. “I always knew that William Burns was waiting at the Sanatorium Kilchberg [...THIS WAS HOW IT WAS SPELLED IN THE TEXT] in Zurich, institutionalized as an obsessive compulsive, waiting for his son to find him,” says Irving in a booming voice, not unlike the hero of his earlier novel “A Prayer for Own Meany,” who speaks in all capitals.

The intricate tattoo subplot developed as a reason to explain the physical marks of William’s madness, his full-body tattoos. “I had created William’s psychological collapse also from the back to front,” says Irving. “The tattoos were the last thing I came to. There was his behavior, his euphoria and crashes, his compulsive or near-bipolar tendencies. I needed to find an outward manifestation of that. His addiction to being tattooed is just part of his passion for music. Then, of course, I made Alice a tattoo artist and the daughter of a tattoo artist.

After he turned in his completed manuscript for the novel, Irving realized the first-person narration by Jack Burns was too close to home, and digging into his memories was too painful. In April 2004, he took the book back from his publisher.

“When I took the manuscript back from my publisher and rewrote it in the third person, a couple of miraculous things happened,” says Irving. “I finally separated myself from Jack Burns. I no longer felt that I was writing about me and the novel took on an air of detachment.”

Rewriting the book also allowed Irving to deceive his readers and play with the meaning of Jack’s memory. “The third-person (voice) not only significantly improved the book, but it better concealed some of the central deceptions and Alice’s deceits,” he says. “When you read Part I, ‘The North Sea,’ you believe that this is Jack’s childhood. You not only believe that these things are happening to him and Alice, but you like Alice. My feeling was that I could completely take the reader in, as Jack was taken in when he was 4-years old.”

The sexual abuse scenes in the novel are disturbing. “What is important to understand, and not every reader will, is that I was 11 when I had an initiating experience with an older woman, a woman in her twenties,” says Irving. “Like Jack, I would never say that I was abused or molested. From my teens to my late thirties, I was repeatedly attracted to older women. It was if they could see a birthmark on my skin, that I was vulnerable to them.”

For Jack, the childhood sexual abuse keeps him from growing up. “Jack’s childhood is incrementally stolen from him because his innocence is taken from his in various ways by more than one person,’ says Irving. “He’s a guy who loses his childhood, and as a consequence, he never becomes an adult. He feels frozen.”

Jack’s success as an actor and the physical culture of Los Angeles helps protect him. “Jack’s life in Los Angeles is a kind of model of dysfunction, a model of shallowness that’s kind of mirrored by the vanity of not drinking, the vanity of going to the gym, the kind of shallow superiority he feels,” says Irving.

“Until I Find You” is full of minute details, from the meaning of sailor tattoos and stories of the North Sea’s great tattoo artists to the complex workings of the great church organs of Europe. For Irving, research is all part of the writing game. “I sure as hell needed help and advice,” says Irving. “I spoke with lots of doctors, lots of tattoo artists, lots of musicians in their respective cities throughout Europe. Easily half of the organists mentioned by name are real people. As many as a third of the tattoo artists are real people, among them Tattoo Ole, Tattoo Peter and Henk Schiffmacher in Amsterdam.”

Irving felt that he needed to get tattooed. “I got a couple of tattoos to feel what it was like,” says Irving. “I felt it was necessary, to an amateur extent, to learn how to do tattoos. Under Schiffmacher’s guidance, I tattooed his wife. She later had the tattoo covered over.”

When Irving was contacted by his half brother for the first time in 2001, he found that the fictional father William was eerily close to his biological father.

“I already knew William was crazy and institutionalized. The hardest thing to learn from (my half brother) Chris was that my father had died five years before Chris found me. The other difficult thing to accept was that my father was severely bipolar, subject to depression and a Christian Scientist who refused all medication. He essentially died insane.

“It was not the easiest thing to accept that the father that I imagined was uncomfortably close to my real father,” says Irving. Finding out about his real father, though, allowed Irving to put aside some lifelong anger at him. “My mother never talked about my father, so I demonized him,” he says. “The most positive thing I found out was that my biological father was adored by his other children. That put to rest a certain ghost of my own.”

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