plotted, usually long novels of the 19th century that had developed characters – even the minor ones – usually with the passing of time as an important component of the story. Dickens, Hardy, Melville, Hawthorne – those guys.’ Like his literary heroes, Irving isn’t afraid to kill off key characters – as all owners of tear- stained copies of The Hotel New Hampshire, A Prayer for Owen Meany et al will testify. Inevitably, over the course of 554 pages, Twisted River has its fair share of tragedy and untimely death. But while it’s fair to say that Disney will never make a film out of an Irving novel, his fondness for devastation makes for compelling reading.
‘My choice is to move or affect a reader not emotionally and psychologically, intellectually,’ says Irving. ‘So the design for many of these novels is brutally straightforward. Namely, here are some characters you care about, and fear that the worst thing imaginable is going to happen to – and in some cases it does.’
When you’ve spent days, or sometimes weeks, growing attached to the characters in a novel, it can be hard to let go. Whether it’s through death, or simply the story coming to an end, the eventual sense of loss is palpable for readers of any good novel. Does Irving miss his characters once he sends off that final draft? ‘Well actually I miss them before I’ve written about them,’ he says. ‘Because I know what’s going to happen to them – I know the fates of all my characters, even before I start writing the story. So with this novel, I knew what was going to happen to Ketchum, I knew when the cowboy was going to catch up with Dominic. So even though I hadn’t written those scenes, it was as if they’d already happened. And in some cases, they were scenes I was dreading the writing of.’
Along with copious praise for his 12 novels to date, Irving has also received a fair amount of criticism, chiefly for writing about similar subject matters, many of which pertain to his own life – the area he grew up, the schools he attended. For Irving, however, what matters more is the stuff which hasn’t happened to him, at least not outside of his imagination. ‘There is a lot of what I fear in my novels, of what I hope never happens to me but that I feel obsessed by and compelled to write about again and again,’ says Irving. ‘I wouldn’t say the things that have happened to me, the people I’ve known, the schools I went to are as important autobiographically as those things which are recurrent book-to-book, which never happened to me. In other words the death of a child – I have not, thank God, lost one – but I think about
‘I FEEL OBSESSED AND COMPELLED TO WRITE ABOUT WHAT I FEAR AGAIN AND AGAIN’
it all the time. So that’s also autobiographical, not because it happened but because I fear it.’ It’s easy to see aspects of Irving in the character of Daniel, the young boy in Twisted River who grows up to be a best-selling novelist and screenwriter. At one point, during one of his many references to the way novelists think and feel, Daniel says, ‘all writers are outsiders’. Given the clear-eyed objectivity with which Irving writes about his native America, it seems safe to assume he too feels that way? ‘Yes, very much so,’ he answers. ‘I don’t think most writers are as attached to their birth countries, or the countries they live in, in the same way that regular citizens are. A part of being a writer is one of necessary detachment; you have to be able to see yourself standing outside the society you live in, looking in. You don’t feel as if you’re a member of the tribe you’re observing.’
Last Night in Twisted River is out now, published by Bloomsbury.
ALSO PUBLISHED Brian Donaldson rounds up the best of the books reaching us from the US this autumn
DAVE EGGERS The Wild Things The cult kids classic by Maurice Sendak is given a thorough revision at the hands of Mr McSweeney’s as we follow the journey of Max who escapes a tricky home life only to wander into a very different
world. Hamish Hamilton, 29 Oct.
ERIC SCHLOSSER Command and Control Robert Redford’s son-in-law follows up his investigative journalistic scribblings, which have dissected the fast food and dope industries, with a tract discussing the need to get shot of nuclear weapons. Allen Lane, 29 Oct.
JAMES ELLROY Blood’s A Rover A fevered, nightmarish political noir completes the Underworld USA trilogy which kicked off in 1995 with American Tabloid. Spanning the epoch-making years of 68–72, the likes of Howard Hughes and Richard Nixon are thrust into all-new sticky situations. Century, 5 Nov.
GIN PHILLIPS The Well and the Mine Featuring an introduction by Fannie Flagg, this Depression-set debut focuses on a tight-knit Alabama miner’s family struggling against poverty and racism. Virago, 5 Nov. PAUL AUSTER Invisible Everyone’s favourite populist postmodernist scripts his 15th novel with four interlocking tales stretching across the decades (1967 to 2007) and nations (from a Caribbean island to Paris’ Left Bank). Faber, 5 Nov.
RYAN DAVID JAHN Acts of Violence The story of a murder victim whose death is just around the corner and the tale of those who did nothing to stop it. Shocking, angry and a bit cinematic. See First Word, page 2. Macmillan, 6 Nov.
ATTICA LOCKE Black Water Rising A debut thriller about ethics, race and personal conviction as we trace the path of lawyer Jay Porter whose dark past forces him to make a brand new start in early 80s Texas. But when he saves a
woman from drowning, he unwittingly opens up some fresh wounds. Serpent's Tail, 12 Nov. 22 Oct–5 Nov 2009 THE LIST 29