Dear John: Benedict Wells in Conversation with John Irving

It is rare that we get to meet our literary heroes, but in 2010, a young German-Swiss writer, Benedict Wells, approached John Irving at a reading in Zurich. More than a decade prior the 15-year-old Wells, feeling adrift at boarding school, picked up a copy of Irving’s enchanting coming-of-age novel The Hotel New Hampshire. Swept up in the great wit and charm of Irving’s writing, and deeply drawn to characters he couldn’t help but relate to, Wells found a direction for his own life and, after graduation, moved to Berlin to write. He landed at Irving’s same publisher and, eleven years and two published books later, took the night train to Zurich to hear Irving read. When the two met for the first time, Wells could barely speak with excitement, and as the years have passed, the writers have kept in contact.

On the eve of the U.S. publication of Wells’s internationally bestselling The End of Loneliness, he and Irving connected again, on the page, to discuss the merits of longhand versus typing, how fear plays into fiction, and why authors have to be outsiders.

John Irving: Lieber Benedict, I remember when we first met—it was at a reading in Zurich. You had just published your second novel. You told me how much you liked reading American novels. I see there is a suitably melancholic epigraph from Fitzgerald at the beginning of The End of Loneliness. Now your fourth novel is the first to come out in English. Tell me what this means to you. Is a little bit of the melancholy in The End of Loneliness coming from your reading of American novels?

Benedict Wells: Dear John, F. Scott Fitzgerald was indeed very important for me while writing The End of Loneliness. However, I would almost say it the other way around: the melancholy, that you find in the book, does not come from the American novels I have read. But rather I read and searched for such American novels because I carried this melancholia inside myself. And I found it in works by Fitzgerald and McCullers, but also in books like The Cider House Rules. English-speaking literature has influenced my writing from the very beginning, and I felt drawn to it, unlike for instance to German literature. That is why it has been a dream of mine that one day one of my books would be translated into English. And it is even more surreal and amazing that this story has now found its way to America.

JI: Halfway through the book, Jules—the main character and narrator—thinks: “A difficult childhood is like an invisible enemy: you never know when it will come for you.” The plight of children—in particular, of orphaned children—has often been my subject as a novelist. The importance of a formative childhood friendship—especially, for such children—has often been my subject, too. Where do these themes come from, in your case?

BW: They come from my own childhood and youth. When I was six, I was moved to a home and spent the next 13 years in boarding schools, not least because one of my parents was ill and the other one was self-employed and because of financial hardships had to work around the clock. This childhood far from home, in dorms and later on in single rooms, this loneliness, surrounded by other people, but also the solidarity among one another, has shaped me. From the very beginning it made me look for a language for all of it—a first step towards writing. And I never regretted anything because, besides all the problems, there were always moments of love and feelings of security. So, in my youth I found everything I needed to tell stories. Even today everything I write comes from the feeling I learned back then, that it is important to see other people and put yourself in their shoes.

JI: In my case, these themes are more in the nature of obsessions than themes—maybe in your case, too?

BW: That changes from book to book. However, after five books I cannot deny that loneliness is my major topic, that melancholic melody accompanies every story…Where did these themes come from for you? What would have happened with your writing if you had grown up differently or hadn’t had wrestling for instance?

J.I: I’m not sure that loneliness is a theme—a theme sounds like a subject you choose, intellectually. I think loneliness is a perception, an awareness—the loneliness might be someone else’s or your own. With writers, we’re observing as much as we’re experiencing. You ask, “if you had grown up differently or hadn’t had wrestling…” Well, there would still have been my mother, a nurse’s aide. I got my sexual politics, my social conscience, from her. She taught me to see and sympathize with sexual minorities, beginning with the understanding that women were treated as if they were sexual minorities. From seeing—through my mom’s eyes—how women were treated, I could see for myself that more vulnerable groups—gay men, lesbian women, transgender men and women—were treated worse. And if it hadn’t been wrestling, it would have been another combat sport. I was small, I got picked on, I fought back. My mom knew the wrestling coach; she introduced me to him.

BW: I often have to think of a quote by Erich Kästner: “Someone without fear has no fantasy.” It rings true to me. Fear can paralyze me, but it also fires up my imagination, opens doors, and creates images I have at my disposal when I tell stories. At the same time writing is the opposite of fear, because unlike reality I can control everything … Do you feel the same? I remember at the reading in Zurich you said that as a father you mainly wrote about your fears.

JI: There’s an element of fear in all my fiction. I’m always imagining a situation that I wouldn’t want to be in; I’m trying to create circumstances that I wouldn’t want anyone I loved to be in, certainly not my child. I’m a worst-case scenario writer. I’m not always writing a political novel—maybe only half the time. But even when the subject isn’t political or social, something will go terribly wrong. I didn’t make up this idea. I read it. Greek drama, Shakespeare, the 19th-century novel—not many happy endings.
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JI: These so-called formative childhood friendships have a way of compensating fictional characters for the loss or absence of parents—at least, in my case. Perhaps this is another related theme (or obsession) we seem to have in common?

BW: Yes, definitely. As an author and as a reader I love that kind of lifelong friendship that can run deeper than many family ties. In the book you find that especially with Alva. For Jules she fills the gap that his parents and at times also his siblings have left behind more and more. Similar to how important Melony became to Homer Wells. Or Owen Meany to John Wheelwright after the death of his mother…

Speaking of them: You have created a multitude of great literary characters, many of whom as a reader you care about more than some acquaintances. Has the opposite ever happened to you? That you had a character that you secretly didn’t like but couldn’t change anymore and now had to “work with” reluctantly until you handed in the novel?

JI: I like creating characters I don’t like. But if you simply hate a character, you can’t expect your readers to care. The Steerforth character in David Copperfield taught me a lot. He’s such a cruel guy; you think you hate him. He torments young Copperfield; he seduces and abandons Copperfield’s dear friend, Emily. When Steerforth’s body washes ashore, you would think we wouldn’t care. But the way Dickens describes the body—it’s a first-person novel, in Copperfield’s voice—makes us realize that Copperfield also loved Steerforth or might even have been in love with him. Which makes Steerforth’s cruelty crueler, but it adds a dimension to Steerforth—one this reader never saw coming. Dickens writes, “I saw him lying with his head upon on his arm, as I had seen him lie at school.” You have to love your villains, at least a little.
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JI: I grew up as a faculty child on the campus of a boarding school. Before I attended the school, I lived in dormitories with all these older boys who’d been sent away to school. I felt like a foreigner among them; they must have felt like foreigners among themselves. But maybe writers grow up feeling that we are foreigners, wherever we are?

BW: I like that image very much. I always had the feeling that constant observing—which is essential for writing—relegates you to the fringes. You don’t participate completely and are always creating a second level, that already reflects and categorizes events. But the true dilemma for me with writing is that I escape to parallel worlds that are invisible to other people until publication. And while friends and family finally see where you have spent the last few years when a book is published, you are already living in the next lonely parallel world, your next novel … Do you know that feeling? Do you sometimes fear that by writing for decades you are missing out on real life, or do you think that it has in fact helped you understand life?

JI: I absolutely feel that we writers are outsiders—we are detached. Loneliness is what we do. I’m speaking to you as an American who lives in Canada. More than three years ago, I went through the immigration process in Toronto. In various waiting rooms, I was occasionally the only adult applicant for Permanent Residence who spoke English. I helped other applicants fill out their immigration forms. Just a few times, I saw families who’d been granted Protected Persons Status by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. I worked with the children; they understood English better than their parents. I remember a girl—she was 12. She was worried about my immigration story. “What about you, Mister?” she asked me. “What are you running away from?” Only last fall, as the number of refugees from war (and other human rights violations) continued to rise, the Trump Administration capped refugee admissions in the U.S. at the lowest level since 1980—not to mention, President Trump’s idea of a wall. And this girl—I’m guessing she and her family had been running for their lives—was worried about me. Well, this is our job as fiction writers—not attending to our real lives, but imagining the lives of characters who’ve had a harder time than we’ve had. Good fiction is imagining (truthfully) what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.

BW: For me the key to telling a story is empathy. It is even more important in these worrying times when right-wing parties are winning elections around the globe. Good literature is the opposite of building walls, rather it tears them down by showing individual humans, in whom we recognize ourselves. If you read the story of the 12-year-old girl that had to flee to Canada with her family, you would automatically put yourself in her shoes. You would understand the girl and feel with her. Also strong, touching films like Roma can achieve this; they give me hope.

JI: Perhaps, in my case, the atmosphere of the boarding school—all these boys away from home—gave me that feeling (of being a foreigner) before I was one of them. I was 20 when I went to Vienna. I’d been writing since I was 15, but it was in Vienna where I began to feel that I actually was a writer. And of course I was an actual foreigner there—a genuine Ausländer. Was going away a kind of trigger for you to start writing?

BW: What you recount about Vienna, I felt about Berlin, where I moved after school to become a “real writer.” I had written before that, but only then did it really count for me as I consciously decided not to study and instead put all my energy and attention into books. I was 19 at the time, the rents in Berlin in 2003 were ridiculously low and the city was like the wide-open entryway to a slightly run-down flat. Here everyone who wanted to get something of the ground and had an idea was welcome. Back then I lived in a one-room flat that had no heating and electricity only on occasion. The shower was in the kitchen and in winter my breath would turn into clouds. But for the first time I felt freedom. In the daytime, I would do odd jobs and at night I would write. Of course, things didn’t work out for years and I received one rejection after another. But I never became desperate, because at least I was failing with something I loved.

JI: You weren’t only away in boarding schools; for several years, you lived in Barcelona, where you were also a foreigner.

BW: That time abroad was something I didn’t look for as an author but as a person. Because I only worked and wrote in the years after school there was something crucial I was missing: A kind of student life and living with others. But there was another reason I thought that living abroad was great, it meant that in my mid-20s I could start from scratch once again. I didn’t speak Spanish, nobody there knew me and for the first time I was a dark horse to everyone else. An exciting feeling, I enjoyed being a real foreigner. The years in Barcelona, living in a shared flat with a lot of people from around the world, was maybe the best decision I ever made.

What brought you to Vienna back then? You said that you lived in Canada for three years. Where did the wish come from to live abroad again, and why Toronto?

JI: I felt right at home, as a foreigner in Vienna. There was a gloominess there; the city was so much older than I was. And the suspicious looks you got as an Ausländer—perfect! My wife is Canadian. She was the Canadian publisher of The Cider House Rules when we met. I’ve lived as many as four or five months of the year in Canada, since the 1980s. But, in 2015, I became a full-time resident of Toronto. Sometime this year, in 2019, I’ll become a Canadian citizen—a dual citizen, actually, because I intend to keep my U.S. citizenship. (I pay U.S. taxes, I vote.) But I love living in Canada. I love Canada, but I’m also at home with the foreignness I feel living here.

BW: You have always had strong female characters in your novels and you have always been a very liberal, political, and progressive author. In In One Person an important figure is transsexual, but already in 1978 in The World According to Garp with Roberta you have a man who becomes a woman. In A Prayer for Owen Meany you write about the Vietnam War and in The Cider House Rules about abortion. Do you have the feeling that the American society has become more tolerant and open over time or do you think it has regressed again, at least partially?

JI: The World According to Garp is a feminist novel. It’s about sexual hatred, and sexual violence. A woman will be killed by a man who hates women; her son will be murdered by a woman who hates men. The novel begins with a sexual assault. Garp’s mother is assaulted in a movie theater. No one believes she was sexually assaulted. The Trump Administration recently put a judge on the U.S. Supreme Court, someone who’s been accused of more than one sexual assault. And Trump has publicly mocked and ridiculed the women who’ve accused this judge. In the U.S., abortion rights are in danger; LGBTQ rights are being compromised, even scorned. Trump’s narcissism may be somewhat new, but his xenophobia, his homophobia, his fascism are familiar. My mother taught me: If you’re going to be intolerant of something, try being intolerant of intolerance. My old teacher and mentor, Kurt Vonnegut, always said that the U.S. should give socialism a try. The U.S. is looking more and more like a plutocracy—government by and for the wealthy. Right now, it looks like the plutocrats are in charge.

BW: Do current political events influence what you write?

JI: There’s a chapter I’m writing now. If the chapter title stays the same, it’ll be: “Sexual Politics, a Fire, Jealousy.” That sounds familiar. Near the beginning of the chapter, there’s this passage. “In America, we don’t appear to notice when or where the politics start—we just wake up one morning, and everything is political. In America, we’re not paying attention when those things that will divide us are just beginning.” That sounds familiar, too, unfortunately.
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JI: I believe writing is rewriting. I think you know what I mean. I’ve heard that you worked on this novel for seven years; that you first wrote it in the first-person voice; then you changed it to the third person, and back again to the first person; and that, during this process, you also cut the novel by half. How much of your writing is rewriting?

BW: In my case it is also a lot. The finished book is just the visible tip of the iceberg, and the giant invisible rest is revision. But it is also what I enjoy the most, while writing itself—filling hundreds of white pages with half-finished thoughts and scenes—often causes me a lot of anguish. Improving an existing text however, rewriting scenes, tweaking dialogue and the language, putting yourself in the characters shoes and get closer to them over the years—that I love. With The End of Loneliness it was important to me to narrate as densely and as thrillingly as possible. I often thought about where I should make cuts in a 35-year-long story. What should I specify for the reader and where can I leave gaps, often many years long, that they can fill themselves? Ideally, I wanted there to be a book beside the book that only existed in the readers mind.

JI: Does the rewriting necessarily (or always) make the novels lighter? (In my case, the rewriting usually shortens an earlier draft, but occasionally I discover that I’ve made more inserts than cuts.) To many people, seven years seems like a long time to spend on a novel—especially on rewriting a novel—but I also take a long time. My novels are all about what happens in the rewriting.

BW: Usually my first two drafts are particularly long. I try to write like a child, boundless and intuitively. Quasi with the “id.” Later on, the intellect, the “I” revises it. During revision a lot of new scenes get added because often it takes years for me to understand what is missing and as I get to know the characters better. At the same time, I try to get rid of scenes that might no longer be needed or I condense what I’ve already written. Then again, I would also love to write a long novel of a thousand pages that you can get lost in for weeks.
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BW: I’ve heard that you write your first draft by hand. That has always fascinated me. I only write on the computer and I like that I can type about as fast as my subconscious can formulate something. This can lead to me finding sentences in the manuscript after hours of working that surprise me at first. They sometimes seem foreign or too hard. And then I realize that while I’ve never consciously thought like that, I must have always felt like that inside. A kind of dialogue with an invisible self. Do you have moments like that? And what is the reason for you consciously writing the first draft by hand?

JI: I used to write only first drafts in longhand. Now I write every draft in longhand. My mom taught me to type when I was 13 or 14. I’m too fast on a keyboard. Writing by hand makes me slow down. I go at the right pace if I’m writing by hand. Of course I write emails to my friends and family, but I write novels, screenplays, and teleplays in longhand.
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JI: Do you know the end of the novel—I mean, when you start writing? I need to hear the final tone, the sound of the voice in the last sentence, in order to write toward it. What about you? What matters, of course, is not if you know the ending before you begin, but that your readers are given this impression when they get to the end. (You give me that impression.)

BW: Thank you! Funnily enough with every book I write I have to think about what you once said, that you need to write the ending first in order to know what kind of tone your story needs. I can understand that completely and I could never start writing a book without knowing how it ends. For me everything is about the ending, the last, final tone and my whole story is determined by it.

JI: The passage of time, as I’ve said—“the trajectory of a long life, from childhood, through the adult disappointments, through parenthood: this is what novels do best.” Do you agree?

BW: Yes, that is also something I love, whether it is in Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Stoner by John Williams or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon—or of course again and again in your novels. To span a whole life in your head and tell it has always fascinated me. In the same way I appreciate the opposite, for instance just a summer in Summer Crossing by Steve Tesich or a year in Looking for Alaska by John Green.

JI: I know you’ve had some experience as a screenwriter for movies based on your novels, as I have had. (I’ve also written some original screenplays, which have turned into novels.) I love what films can do, but I believe that novels do the passage of time best. What are your thoughts about the passage of time in storytelling, in novels, and in movies?

BW: There are some great cinematic exceptions like Moonlight and Citizen Kane, but the possibilities of a novel are of course different and it is almost the privilege of the novel to be able to master this genre so well. East of Eden by John Steinbeck tells the fortunes of several people over hundreds of pages and at the same time the history of California. However, in the film with James Dean they focus only on the last third of the book, the last generation, because there is just no room for everything else. Something similar was done with the wonderful movie version of The Cider House Rules, which you adapted yourself and shortened by around 15 years…What I find fascinating in this regard is the TV-series boom. I’ve heard that you are working on an adaptation of The World According to Garp. Would you say that this is the perfect format that was missing for a long time? While reading your book My Movie Business one often secretly wishes that some of the projects had been made into a series instead.

JI: The screen work is a good companion to the fiction. I often start a story as a screenplay, which will become a novel. Surely a miniseries is a better format for a novel than a feature-length film. You lose less, overall, and you get to compose a miniseries in episodes—not unlike chapters, or acts in a play. Both the overall length of a teleplay and the episodic structure of a TV series are better suited to an adaptation from a novel than a feature-length film.

BW: With Trying to Find Piggy Sneed you released a book of short stories. Besides screenplays, have you had ideas for short novels? Are you perhaps working on one now?

JI: I am trying to write shorter novels—not short ones, but they are getting a shorter. The one I’m writing now—a ghost story, called Darkness as a Bride—is one of the shorter ones. And the next couple of novels I’m thinking of will be significantly shorter than this one—an influence, perhaps, of writing screenplays and teleplays. (I still like writing fiction better, but I like what I’ve learned from the screen work.) Yes, my novels will get shorter—after this one.

BW: As much as I love films, I found writing screenplays rather difficult in the beginning. Compared to the more intuitive writing of a novel you are bound by a lot more rules. Sometimes I found the limitations of a screen play, the implacable 100 pages, to be a mathematical riddle. But I have to admit, that I learned a lot from writing them as well.

JI: I don’t know if I accept fate, or a sense of predetermination, as entirely realistic—that is, if I see fate or predetermination at work in what we call “real life” or the “actual world.” But I know that I believe in Fate or Destiny as a fictional truth—as more than a literary device. What happens to the characters in my novels feels fated or predetermined, I hope! I sense the hand of Fate at work in The End of Loneliness, too. (As a reader, I think I was first aware of fate—and influenced by fate in literature—from reading Hardy and Melville.) In your case, the cards that you deal to Jules seem to work as a challenge to him—Jules’s fate seems to motivate him to find his place in the world.

BW: As a human being I don’t believe in fate, more in being responsible for your life. But as a writer I of course employ fate greatly, while the characters, which are at its mercy, think like humans and wrestle with their fate. Through sometimes-dramatic events they have lost their place or their home and will be looking for a new one all their life. And yet they do not accept their fate. In The End of Loneliness for instance Jules says at one point: Life is not a zero-sum game. It owes us nothing, and things just happen the way they do. Sometimes they’re fair and everything makes sense; sometimes they’re so unfair we question everything. I pulled the mask off the face of Fate, and all I found beneath it was chance.

So I guess: as a human being I sympathize with the characters and feel for them, if something happens to them—something I deliberately do to them as an author. A rather schizophrenic matter … Dear John, would you agree?

Copyright (c) by John Irving and Benedict Wells