Author Interviews
3:19 am
Sat May 12, 2012

'In One Person': A Tangled Gender-Bender

Originally published on Sat May 12, 2012 6:25 am

The star of John Irving's new novel, In One Person, is Billy Abbott. Billy is a character at the mercy of his own teenage crushes, which are visited upon by a whole repertory company of gender-bending characters.

It's a repertory company in the most literal sense, too. Billy spends many days backstage at the local theater — where gender can also fluctuate and where his family members are regulars.

One of the pivotal characters, Billy's grandfather Harry Marshall, is a lumberman to most of the townspeople in First Sister, Vt., but for Billy's imagination, he plays "all kinds of women" at the theater. Another, the librarian Miss Frost, is Billy's schoolboy crush and what he describes as "a sexual suspect."

At its base, In One Person is a coming-of-age novel, and much of Billy Abbott's growing up occurs in his relationships — some with women — others with men.

Irving tells NPR's Scott Simon that, as a writer well into his adult life, he was comfortable being frank about sexuality. "I just think as an older person you can be more candid with yourself about who you were and how thoroughly intimidating and confusing and conflicted the world of adult sexuality seemed when you were on the doorstep of it but still standing outside," he says.


Interview Highlights

On being honest about the difficulties of identity

"There's a moment, I think, in most of our childhood years those pre-pubescent — boarding on puberty years — those aren't the easiest parts of ourselves for many of us to remember, but I remember that in my imagination, I was at one time or another, attracted to just about everyone — to my friend's mothers, to girls my own age, even to some older boys on the wrestling team. Well, as it turned out, I liked girls but I think a part of our tolerance for sexual differences surely comes from being honest about what we remember of ourselves. So, I just try to be in this novel faithful to what utter havoc the mutability of gender can be for many young people in their formative years."

On how theater influenced In One Person

"I got my storytelling from the theater. My mother was a prompter in a small town theater and I did grow up — much as Billy does — backstage. As a child, every play I saw I had seen in rehearsal — sometimes for months. I knew everything that happened. I knew what the actors said before they spoke their lines."

On foreshadowing and 'collision course stories'

"People have commented — sometimes with irritation, sometimes nicely — on the amount of foreshadow that there is in my novel. Well, yeah, it's not that hard to foreshadow what's coming when you know what's coming. When you are writing to — as I do — a pre-determined ending, I begin my novels knowing what happens. I write endings first. I write last sentences — sometimes last paragraphs — first. I know where I am going. I write collision course stories. There is always something coming that the reader anticipates, what you can't know is when and who the casualties will be and who the survivors will be but you see the what. You know what's coming. The collision that's coming in In One Person, I think it's pretty evident in the early going. You're hearing a story about the development and the growing self-awareness of a bisexual boy. It's the 1950s and '60s and you know you're listening to the voice of an older man who is — he tells you — almost 70. You know that many of these characters that you are meeting are going to coincide with the AIDS epidemic. You just don't know when or how or who is going to come out the other side and who isn't. That's not a surprise."

On being 70 and writing about sexuality

"You can be a little more forthright or a little more honest about it because you no longer have anything to protect. You're past that time in your life where you're imagining yourself as sexually attracted to someone."

On the similarities between wrestling and writing

"Many of my wrestling friends find it odd that I'm a writer, just as many of my writer friends in the writing world find it odd that I was — for so many years — a wrestler and wrestling coach. But they seem very similar to me. In both cases you have to be devoted to tireless repetition and small details. For many more hours than you will be in competition, you will be with a nameless workout partner — a sparring partner, drilling the same outside single-legged dive, inside collar tie — hundreds upon thousands of times. Well, how many times as a writer do you — or should you — rewrite the same sentence, the same paragraph, the same chapter? If you're good, you never tire of that."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The star of John Irving's new novel, "In One Person," his 13th book, is Billy Abbott. Billy is a character who's at the mercy of his own teenage crushes, which are visited upon a whole repertory company of gender-bending characters.

And it is a repertory company. Billy spends many a day backstage at the local theater, where his family members are regulars. For instance, his grandfather.

JOHN IRVING: (Reading) Harry Marshall played all kinds of women. My grandfather loved the theater and I loved watching him perform. But, perhaps, there were folks in First Sister, Vermont, who had rather limited imaginations. They knew Harry Marshall was a lumberman. They couldn't accept him as a woman. I told Grandpa Harry about watching some of our fellow townspeople who were caught in the act of watching him. You know what I say, Bill, Grandpa Harry asked me. I say you can make believe what you want. There were tears in my eyes then because I was afraid for myself, not unlike the way as a child I had been afraid backstage for Grandpa Harry. I stole Elaine Hadley's bra because I wanted to wear it, I blurted out. Ah, well, that's a good fellow's failing, Bill. I wouldn't worry about that, Grandpa Harry said. It was strange what a relief it was to see that I couldn't shock him. Harry Marshall was only worried about my safety, as I'd once been afraid for his.

SIMON: "In One Person" is a coming-of-age novel in which that person, Billy Abbott, rose up relationship by relationship - some with women, some with men, some with people who may be a bit of both. We asked John Irving, who recently turned 70, about the affect desire could have at a young age.

IRVING: There's a moment, I think, in most of our childhood years, those prepubescent, bordering on puberty years. Those aren't the easiest parts of ourselves for many of us to remember. But I remember that in my imagination I was at one time or another attracted to just about everyone - to my friends' mothers, to girls my own age, even to some older boys on the wrestling team. Well, as it turned out, I liked girls. But I think a part of our tolerance for sexual differences surely comes from being honest about what we remember of ourselves. So, I just try to be in this novel faithful to what other havoc the mutability of gender can be for many young people in their formative years.

SIMON: This novel takes place against a backdrop of a lot of references to great works of theater, including Shakespeare and Ibsen. What was it about these works that appealed to you when telling the story of identity?

IRVING: I got my storytelling from the theater. My mother was a prompter in a small-town theater and I did grow up, much as Billy does, backstage. As a child, every play I saw I had seen in rehearsal sometimes for months. I knew everything that happened. I knew what the actors said before they spoke their lines. People have commented, sometimes with irritation, sometimes nicely, on the amount of foreshadow that there is in my novels. Well, yeah. It's not so hard to foreshadow what's coming when you know what's coming, when you are writing to, as I do, a predetermined ending. I begin my novels knowing what happens. I write endings first. I write last sentences, sometimes last paragraphs, first. I write collision course stories. There is always something coming that the reader anticipates. What you can't know is when and who the casualties will be and who the survivors will be. But you see the what, you know what's coming. The collision is coming in one person. I think it's pretty evident in the early going. You're hearing a story about the development and the growing self-awareness of a bisexual boy. It's the 1950s and '60s and you know you are listening to the voice of an older man who is, he tells you, almost 70. You know that many of these characters you're meeting are going to coincide with the AIDS epidemic. You just don't know when or how or who's going to come out the other side and who isn't. That's not a surprise.

SIMON: Is it different to write about sexuality when you're in your 70s than, say, when you're in your 30s?

IRVING: Well, maybe you can be a little more forthright or a little more honest about it because you no longer have anything to protect. You're past that time in your life where you're imagining yourself as sexually attractive to someone. I just think as an older person you can be more candid with yourself about who you were and how thoroughly intimidating and confusing and conflicted the world of adult sexuality seemed when you were on the doorstep of it but still standing outside.

SIMON: Mr. Irving, you're perhaps the only novelist I know who's in the Wrestling Hall of Fame. What do you find so continually fascinating about wrestling?

IRVING: Many of my wrestling friends find it odd that I'm a writer, just as many of my friends in the writing world find it odd that I was for so many years a wrestler and a wrestling coach. But they seemed very similar to me. In both cases, you have to be devoted to tireless repetition and small details for many more hours than you'll ever be in competition. You will be with a nameless workout partner, a sparring partner, drilling the same outside single-leg dive, inside collar tie hundreds upon thousands of times. Well, how many times as a writer do you, or should you, rewrite the same sentence, the same paragraph, the same chapter? If you good, you'd never tire of that.

SIMON: There's one difference that occurs to me: wrestling is now - it's a spectator sport for you. You're still a major participant in writing. What's your next match?

IRVING: Well, I began a new novel on Christmas Eve. My youngest son of three was home for Christmas and he came into my office and said, you know, he said it's Christmas Eve. What are you doing? Writing a new novel? And I said, yes, I think I am actually. I think I just have. So, I don't intend to stop. Dropping dead at my desk sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

SIMON: John Irving. His 13th novel is "In One Person." Mr. Irving, thanks so much.

IRVING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.