John Irving is a talking contradiction.
He is cocky enough to say that signing copies of his books for fans is a waste of his time. He is humble enough to say that he would not expect his books to change the world. But, his books are changing the literary world. Some John Irving classics such as A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules are bound to be mandatory high school reading on par with Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens.
Irving is currently on an international tour promoting In One Person published by Knopf Canada. The tour included two Canadian stops in Toronto and North Vancouver. He spoke on the long weekend as part of Capilano University's Cap Speaker Series.
Program director, Fiona Black, said, "I think we really hit it out of the ball park with this one. John Irving has been part of my life from when I was a teenager and I discovered The World According to Garp."
Irving's 13th novel In One Person is about the complicated life of a bisexual man. It is also a political book about gay rights in the United States. This could not be more timely. In One Person was released the same day that President Obama openly supported same sex-marriage. However, Irving lamented that all the Republican candidates for the presidency are guilty of gay bashing: "Gay rights issues are still being met with resistance among the social troglodytes in my country."
He said that he has always thought of In One Person as a sister or brother to The Cider House Rules which tackles the abortion issue: "There is a whiff of sexual superiority or disapproval about both people opposed to abortion and those opposed to gay rights. I don't know why heterosexual couples are so paranoid."
Irving has had the idea for In One Person for many years: "I talk about these novels that wait around to be written like boxcars in a train station waiting to be unattached and which is going to be the next . . . is always generated by how certain I am of the ending."
It is fitting that John Irving has been called the Charles Dickens of our time as Irving has long been influenced by Dickens. He recalls being impressed when reading Dickens' attention to minutia: "I could smell the rat infested streets of London as a kid growing up in New Hampshire."
This is a landmark year for Irving. He celebrates his 25th wedding anniversary. He is married to a Canadian, Janet Turnbull Irving, who is his agent. This is also the year the author turned 70. With his enduring good looks and wrestler's physique Irving has a commanding presence. Irving competed and coached wrestling for decades. He has broken his fingers so many times while wrestling that he talks of his hand surgeon as one would talk of one's next door neighbour. Irving writes his books long hand and his surgeon told him if he wanted to save his hands for writing then he cannot be signing books.
"Well, we would not want to jeopardize that," said the CBC's Sheryl MacKay, who was hosting the talk with Irving at Capilano University.
Irving has no idea when his next book will be finished but he knows exactly what the last line is: "Not every collision course comes as a surprise."