Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Conversation with John Irving

By R.B. Moreno

American novelist John Irving sat down tonight with Oregon’s Willamette University (where I studied nonfiction as an undergraduate). Born in New Hampshire and schooled at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Irving is perhaps best known for The World According to Garp (1978), for which he won the National Book Award in 1980, and The Ciderhouse Rules. Both works later became films. Irving’s 12th and latest novel is Last Night in Twisted River (2009), a story whose plot he's been contemplating for two decades -- longer than any other.

Professor Gretchen Flesher Moon, head of Willamette’s English Department, posed questions to silver-haired Irving before an audience of several hundred. He began by explaining his process, which centers on first composing each novel’s last sentence -- “a kind of backwards roadmap.”

On the drafting process:

“You can’t do much as a writer, in the way of foreshadow, unless you know how it ends.”

On language:

“I love punctuation.”

On an obsession with tragic characters:

“If you want to write something about someone who’s been very lucky, make it a short story.”

On a theme driving many of his stories:

“Something violent ensues, and from that everything unfolds.”

On phobias:

“All writers are afraid of unconsciously plagiarizing something.”

On imitating nineteenth century writers in modern prose:

“A fairly safe thing to do.”

On the perils of having an encyclopedic memory:

“I read a lot of medical things.”

On Hemingway’s influence on American literature:

“Dragged to the depths of boredom.”

On what literature does best:

“Take a character behaving badly and make him or her human, sympathetic.”

On copy editing:

“There are so few editors who edit anymore. And so few authors who care.”

On whether his characters always conform to his plot:

“Was Ahab asking for trouble?”

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The View from Lewis River

By R.B. Moreno

Along with hatchery fish and hydroelectricity, rivers drawn to the Pacific carry a rare quality of discovery, the kind that draws me back to Steinbeck's The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Kevin Patterson's The Water in Between, the works of Nathaniel Philbrick, and Moby-Dick. (I find this less true of mid-Atlantic waterways.)

I learned to swim under a train bridge at the Lewis River, a tributary of the Columbia that runs from a cold volcano. I can still taste the fright of losing touch with the sandy bottom. The knifing paws of an anxious dog. The kernels of fresh corn that would fall through the railroad ties.

I also learned to paddle a kayak here. It's a craft that can take a person into places unseen from Interstate 5, which too often defines geography in this part of the Northwest. That first kayak arrived in a duffel bag from Guatemala. A decade earlier, my father's Folbot had carried him along the verdant shores of Lake Atitlan, beneath volcanoes more prone to spitting fire. The old blue behemoth only lasted a few years on the Lewis; it's been replaced by a slim yellow thing of hard plastic, with a steel rudder.

Today's paddle offered all the intrigue of those early ventures into the unknown. Launching in a cold, Valentine's Day rain. A freight train barreling across the bridge overhead. Muffled shotgun blasts, then snow geese rising from thickets of red maple. A lone man on a bicycle atop the dike. Rounding the bend, the prow of a barn at sunset and the sharp stench of manure.

I find tracks on a little beach left alongside mine, I imagine, by fat, dancing raccoons. A rainbow disappears into the dusk. My paddle upsets a beaver looking for dinner. A silent eagle is glowering from on high. From some hidden, riverine world.

Monday, February 01, 2010