I had the good fortune of meeting John Irving one quiet afternoon, in the office of my boss, soon after I began working at Simon & Schuster. I’ve always wanted to meet writers I admire. Certainly there must be something unusual about the way they take their coffee. Do they wear three pairs of underwear simultaneously, and what, if anything, do they think when they read the morning paper? When you read a brilliant work, the architecture behind the polished façade becomes a source of anxiety. How could someone possibly have created such a world, with such casual strength and subtlety, having used language and emotion in a way that felt realer than your own parents?
Of course, I was thinking none of these things when we met. I was thinking, instead, of whether my phone presence was destroying my manager’s chances of future success. Of whether I had sent the right forms to the right department and if, when sending emails, I had remembered to direct them to the right person. So when I was invited to meet John Irving, I at first took it as a benefit of the job. I had chosen correctly after all! But no, something more innate took hold. As I began to hear the editor and Mr. Irving converse, I remembered as a child the first time I had read The World According to Garp. I had forgotten how powerfully that book had moved me. How, not being much of a reader early on, I devoured it under my blanket. I remembered how much I loved reading and how much the books I had read as a child shaped who I was to become.
John Irving showed up in slightly oversized slacks and a tan jacket, his white hair sleeked back, his complexion slightly olive as if he had just come from a long day’s work in the sun. He was calm and jovial, exceptionally polite, but his eyes were dark and brooding. He spoke about the current book he was working on and the lengths to which he had gone to remain authentic to his plot and characters. Garp, he told us, was a word he saw spray-painted on a Parisian subway car. It was, in fact, a political slogan used to draw attention to the 1968 invasion of Prague, but otherwise, it was monosyllabic and meaningless—as he imagined his character’s name to be.
That night, I started In One Person. A story of sexual awakening, where Shakespeare is as much a presence as homosexual and transsexual desire, and where everyone, regardless of their profession or station in life, is as brilliant as the poets they reference. It’s no wonder that the book is endorsed by Edmund White, who famously said in his Paris Review interview that he sees no problem when every character in a novel is a genius. What is literature but that? And while I could continue on with the merits of the book, I was reminded of why I loved to read great writers. They write in a way that turns language and ideas on their heads. They, more than the reader, become the work, for their entire body is transferred in the work. And I had forgotten how much I wanted that. How much I was willing to forfeit everything—my time, my responsibilities, my friends—just to live in a world in which a writer does nothing short of the spectacular. I had forgotten the pleasure of that, and John Irving, as he had done during my childhood, reminded me of what I was missing.