Why novelist John Irving’s latest protagonist is a fiction writer

GWEN IFILL: A poor child who sorts garbage in Mexico grows up to become a prominent American writer. How did that happen?

The new novel "Avenue of Mysteries" takes us through a life that includes a host of other vivid characters, events and places. Its author is himself a prominent American novelist, John Irving, whose books include "The World According to Garp," "Cider House Rules," "A Prayer for Owen Meany," and other bestsellers.

He joined Jeffrey Brown for our NewsHour Bookshelf conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Irving, welcome to you.

JOHN IRVING, Author, Avenue of Mysteries: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the story of a writer, he's named Juan Diego, in your head — we meet him old and new. In your head, did you see him first as an older man or as a young boy?

JOHN IRVING: I saw him first as a child and an adolescent. I saw him as a dump kid, an orphan

JEFFREY BROWN: Literally, a dump kid, we should say, right? He works…

JOHN IRVING: Yes, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JOHN IRVING: They're called nino de la basura, children of the rubbish. And it's still true today, as it was in 1970, that the children are the workers in the dump who do the sorting and separating of the stuff that's there.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so "Avenue of Mysteries" is the specific story of this man, Juan Diego, but also how — in a sense, how we become who we are.

JOHN IRVING: Yes.

It wouldn't be the first time for me that the focus of a novel begins at that threshold age in early adolescence, when an adolescent is becoming an adult, or a child is becoming an adolescent. I have always believed that, in a story, if something traumatic or calamitous enough happens to a kid at a formative age, that will make him or her the adult they become.

JEFFREY BROWN: In this case, the kid, he is the dump — he works in a dump, but he picks up books, right? And he learns to read, he teaches himself to read, he teaches himself languages.

Did that interest you, that sort of book as a way into a larger life?

JOHN IRVING: Oh, very much. It was the perfect connection to the Jesuits' interest in him. Given the high priority the Jesuits have always put on education, the fact that there was a kid who taught himself to read, the dump reader, they call him, they were more inclined to think that he could be one of their children, in their orphanage, because he was so teachable that he had already taught himself.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's also — I mean, there are many vivid characters in here; one is his sister, Lupe, right, who is clairvoyant, knows what's on people's minds. That, of course, allows you to have this mix of realism, real realism, right, in the dump, but also a sense of magic.

JOHN IRVING: Yes.

This is the third time I have been tempted to bring a character into a novel who is partially informed of what I always know.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: You're smiling as you say that, right?

JOHN IRVING: Well, because I always get endings first. I can't tell you why, but I do.

There is a sense of — that I always have as a writer that my endings are predetermined for me, and this is now the third time that I have given some part of that gift — it's a dubious gift, if you are a child, especially, and you bear the burden of it — giving the character at least the conviction that he or she knows what's going to happen.

It's a burden for those characters, especially if they're young and innocent in other ways. Well, Lupe has — she has these two ancestors in earlier novels. But when a character like that happens to me, a clear repetition of a character I have invented before, I'm not even aware of the repetition until it's too late to turn back. It's already there.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you, the author, are clairvoyant in that sense, right? And you have famously said you write backwards. You know the ending of these stories?

JOHN IRVING: I do. I'm not proselytizing my method. I don't believe that one writer should tell other writers how to write.

It's just long been my habit, when I'm thinking about a novel, when the characters begin to form, when the story begins to emerge, I always know more about the ending, even the aftermath to the ending, than I know about the beginning. And so there's a construction that works from back to front.

I don't begin a novel until I have written, not just the last sentence, but usually, as a result thereof, many of the surrounding final paragraphs, so that in addition to knowing what happens, I know what the voice is. I know how melancholic, or not. I know how I sound when I'm telling the story at the end.

JEFFREY BROWN: This story is notably about an author in older age, looking back, filling in that story.

JOHN IRVING: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the — I suppose the requisite question is about whether you are, yourself, in retrospective mode, and thinking about how one becomes an author, a novelist.

JOHN IRVING: I think, in earlier novels, the main characters who were writers were exactly as you say. They were an attempt on my part to understand my own origins.

But, in this case, I feel that because of what happens to Juan Diego as an older man, he would almost have to be a writer in order to live as much in his imagination as he does. I don't want to say so much that I give the story away, but I'm not so sure that — if this character weren't a fiction writer, if — I'm not so sure that he would get in quite as much trouble as he does.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: And that interested you?

JOHN IRVING: It did. It did.

I'm a worst-case scenario person. I'm only interested in a story because I kind of go, like a magnet, to the worst thing that can happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, hopefully, the reader will want to come along, right?

JOHN IRVING: Yes. Yes. Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: The novel is "Avenue of Mysteries."

John Irving, thanks so much.

JOHN IRVING: Thank you.