John Irving is undoubtedly one of America's pre-eminent living novelists. He has made a career out of creating sympathetic characters whose identities, and proclivities, lie outside the mainstream of society. Now, in his latest novel In One Person, the man who brought us such iconoclastic characters as T.S. Garp, Owen Meany and Homer Wells, brings us the story of Billy Abbott, a bisexual man who comes of age surrounded by the social prejudices of postwar America -- and faces down the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Readers first meet Billy when he is a naïve 15-year-old growing up in a small town in 1950s America. He is beginning to recognize his sexuality and sucumbs to "inappropriate crushes." In One Person is told from Billy's point of view -- Irving doesn't often use first-person narrative, but when he does, he finds the words to be "quickly forthcoming," and he attributes that ease to being fully inside the head of the character he is creating. "As a first-person narrator, a player, you are one of the actors," he explained to As It Happens host Carol Off in a recent interview. "So you never question how you sound. You know your character, you know how he or she talks."
Irving enjoys the intimacy and immediacy that first-person narration offers readers. In the case of Billy Abbott, readers infer many things about him that Billy does not yet know himself, such as the fact he is bisexual. So, in some ways, Irving feels "there will be more exposition, there will be more explaining," but that is counteracted by the confessional tone first-person books take. "It is someone grabbing you by the lapels and saying 'Look, this is what happened to me.'"
As in many of his other books, Irving tackles an extremely difficult subject in In One Person. He feels that dealing with topics like abortion (in Cider House Rules) and sexuality (such as in The World According to Garp) is the best way to connect with and challenge readers. With every book, Irving asks himself, "What is the part of this story that you don't want to write? What is the part of this story that really hurts and you wish wasn't there? What is the part of this story that you're not looking forward to?" If he has answers to those questions, he has a story. If he doesn't, he asks himself, "What are you doing? How can I write this book? What can I hope to effectively move, touch, emotionally, psychologically, affect you, the reader, if there isn't something in this story that I hope never happens to me or to anyone I love?"
Irving attributes his experiences living in New York City in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDs epidemic, as the inspiration for the emotional, gut-wrenching story in In One Person. Like many artists and writers in New York at that time, Irving was friends with many gay men who contracted HIV or succumbed to AIDS. "It was horrible. It was an education, It made me feel guilty," he revealed. He may have been straight, but he was just as curious and sexually promiscuous and carefree as his friends. "I can't say in any way that my behaviour has been better or superior to theirs. It's just different. Why should they be dying?"
In One Person is a very personal novel for Irving for other reasons as well. His 20-year-old son is gay, and when Irving decided to move to a new publisher, he learned that his new editor, Jonathan Karp, was bisexual, like his character Billy. But Irving is quick to point out that his son isn't the reason he wrote the book and Karp's sexuality wasn't why he moved to Simon & Schuster. However, Irving pointed out that "there's a difference between because [of] and for," and he was keen to put something out in the world that could be for his son, for his editor and for any potential reader who finds their sexuality deviates from expected societal norms. In these difficult political times, where the rights for gays and lesbians to marry and the rights for women to have an abortion are constantly questioned by prominent conservative politicians in the United States, stories like In One Person are more important than ever.
"When you are swimming against the grain and when you see yourself or hear yourself becoming a sexual outsider, a potential sexual misfit, that is never easy," Irving said. "You need all the help and support you get."