PODCAST: John Irving at the Coolidge [MP3]

Last Night in Twisted River promo video feat. John Irving interview

John Irving writes overwrought, Dickensian novels, and he’s damned proud of it. The New England-born author spent much of his reading at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Tuesday night defending himself against imaginary criticisms of his work — criticisms that were remarkably similar to the New York Times’ review of Irving’s new book, Last Night in Twisted River. In the write-up, reviewer Michiko Kakutani mentioned Irving’s love for “grotesque deaths and grisly accidents.” Coincidentally, perhaps, Irving stated at the reading that while unnamed book reviewers might call his work grotesque, macabre, and violent, they fail to understand that he purposely includes these violent elements in his books.

Kakutani also accused Irving of designing a “tricked-up, gimmicky plot” and of employing “19th-century novelistic devices.” But Irving declared that he doesn’t care that "plot" is now a derogatory term — 19-century-style plots are what attracted him to writing in the first place. After giving a dizzying synopsis of his perennial favorite Great Expectations, he said that “a modern critic would call that a convoluted story, or would complain about the devices of his plot.” That’s right — those modern critics might sniff at Irving’s expositions and scoff at his denouements, but they’d say the same thing about Charles Dickens. So there.

Besides this eyebrow-raising defensiveness, other highlights included:

• A scant five minutes of reading. Irving doesn’t like to read from books after they’ve been published, so he read us a short logging accident scene from Twisted River, a book that spans 50 years in the lives of cook Dominic Baciagalupo and his son Danny, who are on the run from an obsessive policeman.

• A peek into Irving’s writing process. Irving doesn’t start a book until he knows the last sentence, which is why Twisted River percolated in his brain for 20 years before he wrote it. The elusive last sentence of Irving’s 12th novel: “He felt that the great adventure of his life was just beginning-- as his father must have felt in the throes and dire circumstances of his last night in Twisted River.”

• A terse smackdown of the Modernists. “I always felt that Hemingway wrote as though he were writing advertising copy,” Irving grumped.

• Musings on the importance about writing about his fears and phobias. Irving said that his novels aren’t about his experiences — they're about what he hopes he never experiences.

• Irving's admission that he keeps his characters at arm's length — because he doesn't want to get too close to them when he’s planning to mutilate or murder them. Two characters that he does feel special affection for are ether-addicted abortionist Dr. Larch from The Cider House Rules and Indian-turned-Canadian orthopedic surgeon Dr. Daruwalla from A Son of the Circus. Would Kakutani classify these two doctors as the “usual Irving-esque assortment of oddball characters”? Perhaps, but we bet that Irving would stubbornly take it as a compliment.

--Emily Cataneo

DOWNLOAD: John Irving reads from Last Night in Twisted River [MP3]

Recorded live at the Coolidge Corner Theatre (reading organized by the Brookline Booksmith). To subscribe to this podcast, paste this RSS feed into your feed-reader of choice, or bookmark the Boston Phoenix podcast blog.

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