As It Happens

John Irving on his latest novel, Avenue of Mysteries

The road less travelled. John Irving speaks with Carol about his new book about the life of Juan Diego, a Mexican-American who lives his life just as much in the past, as in the present.
John Irving, author of Avenue of Mysteries. (Random House of Canada Limited/Canadian Press)

It's a story that began as a screenplay based in India, but evolved into a novel rooted in Mexico. Avenue of Mysteries is John Irving's latest and 14th book and it's been in the works for more than 25 years.

The novel tells parallel stories in the life of Juan Diego Guerrero: one of his childhood in Oaxaca, Mexico, the other of his adult life as a writer in Iowa. As a teenager, Juan Diego makes a promise to a young draft dodger in Mexico, and, at 54, he travels to the Philippines to fulfill that promise. It is with this promise that the two worlds of Juan Diego collide.

Avenue of Mysteries is published by Knopf Canada.

John Irving joined Carol Off in the As it Happens studio to discuss Avenue of Mysteries.

Carol Off: I just want to ask you, first of all, about the photograph that inspired the story.

John Irving: My old good friend, Mary Ellen Mark, the photographer, died in May. But it was Mary Ellen's photograph of these child performers in an Indian circus that first interested me in this story. Mary Ellen knew me very well and knew that the subject of some harm coming to children, or children at risk, was . . . a repeated theme in my novels. It's more of an obsession. It's a fear. So she knew I would be both drawn to and appalled by the situation facing these child acrobats both in India and in Mexico.

I'm happy to be called "a vivid writer" about anything. I mean, does someone want to be called a vague writer about sex?- John Irving

CO: Juan Diego meets a mother and daughter team, Miriam and Dorothy, who take over his travel plans as he goes to the Philippines. And there's a lot of sex. Big surprise for anyone who's read your novels that there's sex in this novel. This is something that you actually do extremely well. You do good sex scenes in your novels. But this one, a mother and daughter team, how did you approach this romantic encounter?

JI: Well, I hope people are smart enough, or familiar enough with the fiction-reading experience, to recognize that this isn't a recommendation. Things that happen in novels are not necessarily being prescribed by the novelist to the innocent reader. It's a very bad idea. It's right up there with what happens to Oedipus. Nothing very good can come of this. But this mother and daughter are characters who interested me as a writer because it's usually one's intention in developing characters to make characters more clear as you progress. But as we progress in the novel, considerable doubt is cast on how real or actual these two women are. Are they ghosts? Are they spirits? Are they Juan Diego's own accompanying angels of death? There are moments when they surpass the parameters of what is real. This was wholly my intention.

CO: How do you figure out where you can go with a scene?

JI: I don't doubt that lines are crossed, not only with sex, but with inappropriate comedy. Being funny makes you hated as a fiction writer. Being sexually explicit can also make you hated as a fiction writer. But you have to recognize that people draw different lines. The reviewer of this novel in The New York Times accused my characters of fornicating. You know, that's not a word that is ever used except in derogatory fashion. "A vivid writer of sex," he called me. Well, yes, I should hope so. I'm happy to be called "a vivid writer" about anything. I mean, does someone want to be called a vague writer about sex? Or perhaps just a writer of moderate sex? Does that sound interesting? Not to me.

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