Book review: Avenue of Mysteries

American writer John Irving may have spent a career juxtaposing novels with original screenplays, but now he has turned a film script into a novel, says Sue Leonard.

Book review: Avenue of Mysteries

John Irving

Doubleday, €19.26;

Kindle, €12.13

IN 1988 John Irving began to work on a screenplay about children in an Indian circus.

And in the winter of 1990, he lived in Madras trying to get the film made; but it didn’t happen, so, he relocated to Mexico.

And there, he found all the elements that had interested him about India, and a lot more besides.

“We found the dumps, or basurero, where the children could live; there was a much more established Catholic church, with an abundance of Catholic orphanages to use as the basis of the whole thing I had imagined but, essentially, the children didn’t change,” Irving tells me, on a visit to Dublin.

An imposing presence, with a piercing gaze, Irving talks slowly, as if weighing each word before he utters it.

“The boy Juan Diego was always crippled, and he was always a year older than his sister. His sister Lupe was gifted and could read the minds of people and animals and she has visions of the future.”

A bright boy, Juan Diego had taught himself to read; in English as well as Spanish. This piques the interest of the Catholic priests.

But Lupe, Irving says, was for him, the most vivid character. She was the trigger for the story combining mystery and miracles, which remained in Irwin’s minds as a film script for 20 years.

Others, amongst a large cast, were Rivera, the boss of the dump, who might have been Juan Diego’s father; the children’s mother, a prostitute employed as a cleaner by the priests, and a young draft dodger whom the young Lupe adores.

Move on to the Christmas of 2008, and Irving was returning to Mexico City with the British born film maker, Martin Bell. They had been to a circus an hour or so outside the city, and were discussing the film script, when Irving had an idea.

“I remember saying to Martin, ‘If the Avenue of Mysteries was a novel, I would begin it 40 years later, when Juan Diego was finally keeping his promise to the draft dodger and was on his way to the Philippines.’

“By the time we reached Mexico City I not only knew I would write it as a novel, but I saw the architecture and the end. I knew Juan Diego would be a writer.

"He would be 54, but would look 64 and sometimes act 74, or even 84, and every time he drifts off to sleep or daydreams, he is 14 again, and life is more vivid and colourful and present to him than the real present is.”

Irving always takes time over his books. Juxtaposing his novels with original screenplays, it surprises him that he had never before turned a film script into a novel. But he has enjoyed the experience. Especially once he had worked out how best to write it.

“I realised I should write the novel in a linear fashion, not constantly interrupting myself, but writing each story separately, before cutting it, as I would a film.

“That works because everything about the early story in Mexico is fast paced, colourful, vivid and clear, and everything about the trip to the Philippines is more drugged up, spacey and ethereal.”

A successful writer, Juan Diego is often recognised by his most fervent readers. Two of them, the sex obsessed mother and daughter, Miriam and Dorothy, add a welcome air of exuberance to the sections set in the present.

“They are more real when you meet them and become less concrete and substantial as they progress,” says Irving, explaining this was always his intention in order to arrive at the mysterious ending.

The characters discuss the fact that, were it not for women readers, the novel would not exist.

Is this lack of male novel readers something Irving feels strongly about?

“I think it’s true,” he says. “Up to and including the university years about the same number of men as women read good novels, but something happens to men in their thirties.

“When I do, rarely, see an older man reading a good book on a plane or the subway, I have to refrain myself from giving them a big hug, congratulating them, and saying ‘Thank you Sir!’ Something in women,” he says, “keeps the imaginative pulse in them longer.”

He feels this may have something to do with their closer contact to children, who need little encouragement to live in their imaginations.

Grateful that his job as a writer has allowed him tremendous access to his now grown children, Irving is hugely grateful to be able to earn his living from writing alone.

“For the most part I am at home and I am the main cook; I always have been,” he says.

Avenue of Mysteries is Irving’s sixteenth novel. His career has spanned almost 50 years, yet he enjoys writing now more than he ever has before.

“I feel grateful, every day, that I got to be self-supporting and was allowed to work full time at something I enjoy.” It wasn’t always so.

“It came late,” he says.

“During the writing of my first four novels I was teaching creative writing in universities, and coaching wrestling. I thought I would always be doing that. I didn’t dislike those things, but I resented them, particularly as those early novels were longer.

"I resented being able to give only two hours a day and not more than four or five days a week to the thing I loved.

“But the moment it happened for me, with my fifth novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, I was down on myself. I was disappointed, because I had got what I had always wanted, but after four or five hours of writing I seemed to lose concentration. I could not write a seven or eight hour day for seven days.” Luckily, things then improved.

“For my sixth book, The Cider House Rules, I found it easy to write full-time and I have ever since. And for that reason, all those books have been more patiently, deliberately, and slowly constructed. I write by hand, because that slows you down even more.

"I have not felt the need to finish any of the novels straight away. I put them aside and work on something else. I think that gives you a better constructed result.”

Out of all his many successes, Irving is perhaps best known for The Cider House Rules; both the novel and the movie for which he wrote the screenplay, winning an Oscar.

Does that feel like the pinnacle of success? He says not; that it was more like good luck.

“With movies,” he says, “you are lucky to have a good film made. Nobody notices how good the screenplay is if it is not a good movie. I vote in the Academy now.

"I am part of the nominating and voting process, and I do read or begin to read all the screenplays. I don’t see all the films, because there is no such thing as a good movie made from a bad screenplay.

“On the other hand, there are lots of good screenplays that don’t translate into good movies. So if someone notices the screenplay is good, that is because all the other components that made it into a film made you look good. Because they can also make you look bad.”

He is surprised, he says, that only one other author has won an Oscar for an adapted screenplay; that being Mario Puzo for The Godfather.

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