an evening with john irving.

I have unbelievable news.

I’m pretty sure John Irving has read my writing.

That’s because I wrote a question on an index card for him to consider answering at a recent at the J.F.K. Presidential Library in Boston. That has to count for something. Right?

My parents did not regulate my reading when I was a child, nor do I think that they coached me well on appropriate reactions to the things that I was reading. I wildly and uncontrollably sobbed in their bed after reading Cheaper By the Dozen (fair warning: the book is not the Steve Martin movie). They explained that bad things happen. I then read Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia and held all of my feelings inside, subsequently developing a lifetime of insomnia.

Consider where you’re at in your career, or you passions, even. How did you get there? What drew you to what you do (or to what you like)? Forum moderator Tom Perrotta commented that “Garp was the first writer I ever really knew.” I had a similar experience when I read A Widow for One Year at age 12. (Like I said: not so much parental supervision when it came to reading.) This book is tied with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as the two most important pieces of literature I’ve ever read, because they are what compelled me to become a writer. I felt like I knew the characters on a personal level. The gardener who was afraid of small women because of their disproportionate anger; the poor, bumbling Eddie, the sassy, yet sad and promiscuous Hannah… and even the “sound like someone trying not to make a sound” that becomes a character in and of itself. I learned that, like Ruth, child characters in adult novels can only have a partial understanding of the world, and that they’re about to learn more; they will not learn this in a good way.

A friend of a friend actually works at this library, and was able to seat me in the “reserved” section, next to friends and journalists. I landed two seats over from Tom Perrotta’s wife, Mary Granfield. I know this because I am insane, and I Googled every name around me. (I was 90 minutes early – and thus, I was front row, dead center.)

I can’t quite describe my starstruck behavior when it comes to John Irving. I once walked, head-on collision style, into Stephen Tyler at a local Apple store. I apologized to him like he was a regular person. NKOTB superstar Jordan Knight sat next to me at a bar a couple of weeks ago. Nada.

The only other comparison I can make to my John Irving excitement is as follows: While on our honeymoon, my husband and I saw Elton John eating at La Petite Maison in Nice. I was so distressed that I broke my no-media rule and, roaming charges aside, internationally texted my family and close friends immediately. I also took pictures of him that I did not publish via social media so as to not “betray” Elton John.

I was so discombobulated that I missed the fact that Madonna was there, too. In fact, my husband and I directly witnessed this moment . (Madonna has fabulous in-person arms, which is what I noticed about her before I noticed that she was Madonna.) She brushed by our table when she left and sort of “twinkled” her fingers at us.

This is what we looked like immediately after Madonna waved at us.

The wave was not as exciting as John Irving’s forum, especially when we made eye contact.

Here is what I learned about John Irving:

  • He always has 3-4 novel ideas in his head at a time.
  • He keeps an idea in his head for an average of 8-9 years.
  • Writer’s block doesn’t exist, in his mind. That’s because he never stops writing.
  • In his mind, A Prayer for Owen Meany’s beloved narrator Johnny Wheelwright is “probably a non-practicing homosexual,” with his love for Owen Meany evident on the page. (I believe this to be akin to the moment when J. K. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore is gay : unsurprising but unsaid.)

Irving knows the first and last sentence of all of his novels. His next novel focuses on a Mexican-American character, who intends to take one particular journey, messes up his medications on the way, and winds up taking a very different trip than he ever thought he might (which, because it’s a John Irving novel, was the intention the whole time).

He quoted the last line to this next novel, which is currently:

“Not every collision course comes as a surprise.”

“I like obsessions, and characters who are obsessed,” says John Irving. Me too.