STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The writer John Irving does not believe in miracles. But he is fascinated by them, and much is miraculous in his new book, "Avenue Of Mysteries." It's one of Irving's 14 novels, which include "A Prayer For Owen Meany" and "The World According To Garp." He won an Oscar for his screenplay of "The Cider House Rules," the story of a man who goes into medicine with no formal training.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM TRAILER, "THE CIDER HOUSE RULES")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As narrator) Homer Wells has spent his entire life helping others.
MICHAEL CAINE: (As Dr. Larch) You are a skilled and gifted surgeon.
TOBY MAGUIRE: (As Wells) I'm not a doctor. I haven't been to medical school. I haven't even been to high school.
INSKEEP: John Irving's memorable characters often live at the margins of society. And NPR's Lynn Neary visited the place where he creates them.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: John Irving has downsized. After years of living in rural Vermont, he's back in the city.
JOHN IRVING: Hi, Luis.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How are you?
IRVING: How are you?
NEARY: About a year ago, Irving moved permanently to his wife's hometown of Toronto, and urban living agrees with him. Toward the end of his workday, Irving grabs a sturdy metal cart and heads out to shop. This former wrestler is still in good shape at the age of 73 and walks at a brisk pace from one neighborhood store to the next.
IRVING: Maybe one of the plumpest of those chicken breasts - just one.
NEARY: In the elevator, as we head back up to his office, Irving says he'd be happy if he never had to drive a car again.
IRVING: I like being able to walk everywhere or take the subway. I love the subway.
NEARY: Irving's office, which is in the same building as the condo he shares with his wife, is a beautiful open space overlooking a park. His L-shaped desk wraps around two walls. Irving keeps his reading and research material in neat stacks on top of it, along with notepads, which he uses to write his books by hand.
IRVING: I have lots of notebooks around because one great advantage of writing by hand, in addition to how much it slows you down, is that it makes me write at the speed that I feel I should be composing rather than faster than I can think, which is what happens to me on any keyboard.
NEARY: Irving has several projects in the works now, including a teleplay for his Pulitzer prize-winning novel, "The World According To Garb," which has already been made into a movie. Irving didn't write the screenplay for that film, but he did adapt "The Cider House Rules" for the big screen. That effort won him an Oscar, which is prominently displayed in his office. Irving's new novel, "Avenue Of Mysteries," was first conceived as a screenplay but then morphed into a book. Irving says he always thinks about a novel for a long time before he starts to write. And he never begins writing until he knows the ending.
IRVING: I always know where it's going. I'm writing toward a sentence, usually to much more than a sentence, to many paragraphs, close to a last chapter. It's like a piece of music that you're writing toward. This is how it sounds when I get to the end - because I wouldn't know how I'm supposed to sound at the beginning unless I knew how I was going to sound when I got there.
NEARY: Irving says the "Avenue Of Mysteries" took longer than usual to become a book. It all started when he went to India for a photo shoot with his friend, the late photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and her filmmaker husband, Martin Bell.
IRVING: That's Martin, and that's Mary Ellen.
NEARY: Irving flips through a collection of photographs from the pile of books on his table. He shows me pictures of young children who worked as circus performers in India and Mexico.
IRVING: This little girl was called Pinky.
NEARY: These are photographs that inspired the book?
IRVING: Yeah, in many ways these are what got me started. These are what made me want to tell the story to begin with.
NEARY: Irving was with the acclaimed photographer when she took many of these pictures.
IRVING: Mary Ellen thought I'd be interested in these photographs of these child performers because she knew me. And she knew that the very idea of kids in harm's way, especially kids in a situation where the harm they put themselves in at the circus was arguably a better place for them to be than where they were coming from, like they were supposed to be lucky to be there - she thought that would interest me, which it did.
NEARY: Irving says he and Martin Bell hoped to make a movie about these young circus performers. But then, Irving started imagining what might happen to kids like this when they grow up. That was the seed of the main character in "Avenue Of Mysteries," Juan Diego. We meet him as a grown man. He's a well-known writer traveling to the Philippines. But in his memories and dreams, he keeps returning to his childhood in Oaxaca, Mexico.
IRVING: (Reading) Cathay Pacific 841 was still hurtling toward Hong Kong. On one side of the plane, the Taiwan Strait, on the other, the South China Sea. But in Juan Diego's dream, he was only 14, a passenger in pain, in Rivera's truck, and all the boy could do was repeat after his clairvoyant sister, we're the miraculous ones.
NEARY: Juan Diego and his sister, Lupe, who can read minds, live on the huge garbage dump on the outskirts of Oaxaca. After an accident leaves him disabled, they are taken in by Jesuit-run orphanage and eventually end up living and working in a circus. Lupe thinks she can see her brother's future and wants to shape it. Irving says this is not the first time he has given a character the power of clairvoyance because he's intrigued by the possibility such a gift creates.
IRVING: What trouble could they get into if they thought they saw what was coming down and then, and then - and here's always the and then - what might they do if they thought they could change it?
NEARY: Ultimately, Juan Diego is saved from the circus life by a young missionary who drops out of the Jesuits when he falls in love with a transgender prostitute. Irving was ahead of his time with his interest in transgender characters, like Roberta Muldoon in "The World According To Garp." Though attitudes toward transgenders have changed radically since then, Irving says he still feels the need to write about intolerance toward people who do not fit society's idea of the sexual norm.
IRVING: I had to get over the feeling that, oh, God, it's this again; I'm going back again. But then I did do it again. I did feel that, OK, it may be better. It may be different, but it still hasn't gone away. It's still there. It still exists. So you still have to go after that demon to some degree.
NEARY: Irving uses aspects of his own life in his work. But his fiction is far from a thinly-disguised memoir. Quite the opposite, he says.
IRVING: I've always written about what I fear. Maybe the most autobiographical element in my novels is that they're not at all about what's happened to me. They're much more about what I'm afraid of, much more about what I hope never happens to me or to anyone I love.
NEARY: It's the stuff that keeps him awake at night that becomes the fodder for his books, John Irving says. And, he adds, you don't get to choose your demons; they choose you. Lynn Neary, NPR News.
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