Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Close Encounters with Famous Authors: John Irving (1978)

I was in my late twenties then and working as a technical editor at a consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One afternoon, the Vice President for Marketing stopped by my office and invited me to a party that night in honor of a new young writer, who had just published a much-anticipated novel. She couldn’t recall the writer’s name, but she remembered the book had a funny title. She knew that I was an aspiring novelist and thought I’d enjoy the occasion. She was attending the party with the Vice President of Business Development, but she was sure the party’s hostess wouldn’t mind a third. Before she left my doorway, she said, oh by the way, she and Business Development were having dinner before the party at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and they would be happy to treat me.

After work, I followed Marketing to her car, and while we waited for Business Development, she told me that Business Development’s wife traveled frequently as part of her job, and that outings such as this for Business Development were a welcome change to a night spent alone. She explained all this in a careful and complicated way, and much later, I learned that Marketing and Business Development were, in fact, having an affair, and I was really present that night as a kind of buffer of innocence.

In recent years, the Boston Ritz-Carlton has been sold and reborn on a new site across town. But in those days, the hotel was located in an elegant building on the corner of Arlington and Newbury Streets, across from the Public Garden. The place was run in a stuffy, old-world style with its own formal dress code. In Looking for Rachel Wallace, one of Robert B. Parker’s famous series of mystery novels featuring the Boston private investigator, Spenser, the narrator says, “For the Ritz Bar, I was spectacularly underdressed. I thought the bartender paled a little when I came in, but he said nothing and tended the bar just as if I were not offensive to his sight.” 

As we entered the restaurant, the Ritz maître d’ greeted us warmly. But when he saw my L.L. Bean parka, his smile turned to a look of disdain. He approached Business Development, who must have appeared more a man of the world, and quietly told him that gentlemen were required to wear suit jackets in the dining room. If I did not own a proper jacket, he sniffed, the Ritz would provide one for the evening. I was shown to a narrow closet behind the captain’s podium, where I tried on several suit jackets, each bigger than the one before. I finally settled on the smallest of the choices, a jacket six sizes larger than my frame. The bottom seam nearly reached my knees, and the sleeves continued past my wrists in search of hands. Apparently, the tailor of the Ritz closet believed that dress code violators would arrive in the form of tall, long-armed barbarians.

I had already been apprehensive about spending an hour at a candle-lit table between Marketing and Business Development, but now the jacket transformed me into a ridiculous companion. Making a serious contribution to the conversation was impossible; everything I said seemed to be coming from a vaudeville comedian. The room itself conspired to belittle me. The place settings had multiple forks, the menus were in leather tablets the size of paving stones, and each entrée, identified only in French, cost more than my weekly salary. When it came my turn to order, the waiter looked at me with an expression that said: And what will the buffoon have?

After dinner, we got back in Marketing’s car and drove a few blocks through Boston’s Back Bay to the party, which was in a beautiful old townhouse on Marlborough Street. The hostess greeted us at the door and immediately arm-locked Marketing and Business Development off to the kitchen to show them her new something or other. They left me alone in the townhouse’s foyer, but as she walked away, the hostess called brightly back to me, “John’s in the parlor. Go introduce yourself.”

The doors on either side of the foyer were closed. I tried the right-hand one, opening it slowly and peeking in, afraid of what? The possibility of surprising semi-clad women or interrupting some creepy, upper-class ritual? But the parlor turned out to be a harmless, wood-lined room with a fireplace, a few chairs around the edges, and a single occupant.

A young man stood facing me in front of the fireplace. He was short, shorter than me, but solidly built. His longish hair was combed straight back, and he wore a sports jacket and necktie. After my experience at the Ritz, my first impression was to admire how well his jacket fit.

Seeing me, he smiled broadly and came forward with his hand extended. “John Irving,” he said, as he gripped my hand. As someone who, I later learned, had attended a New England prep school, he had old-fashioned good manners and a natural affability. He asked how I knew the hostess, and we admired the townhouse and the parlor. He spoke in a confident, affirmative kind of voice.

I hadn’t read his new novel, The World According to Garp, but I had seen the reviews and knew the stir that it was starting to make. I was, at once, honored and terrified at being alone with him.

I apologized for my not reading the book, but he quickly brushed this aside. He asked what I did, and I told him about the technical editing, and my desire to write a novel. We talked about various training grounds for novelists. I mentioned that I was writing short stories and that I had recently won a fellowship for them. Some instinct warned me away from trying to exploit his contacts for purposes of getting published, and I could sense his relief for what I didn’t say.

At some point, he began to talk about nineteenth-century novels, and I said that I had written a master’s thesis a few years earlier on the theme of money in Dickens. At that, he lit up. We talked about Little Dorrit, the universe of a Dickens novel, and how Dickens made his characters. For a few minutes, Irving seemed genuinely happy to have met me, as if this chance opportunity to talk about the literature that he loved were his reward for coming into this parlor on this evening.

Then a few other guests opened the parlor door, and Irving went to meet them. After that, he was swallowed by a crowd, and I lost track of him.

That night, Irving was not yet the bestselling novelist, and this was before the string of novels, the accolades, the movies, and the rock-star status. But he was a rising novelist, and I learned an important lesson. Not always, but often, writers, even those achieving success, can be generous with other writers.

An hour or so later, Marketing found me and said we were leaving. On my way out, I happened to see Irving in conversation with another guest. Overcoming my shyness, I approached him. I thought that I might now share a kind of bond with him as the first one of the party to greet him. When he saw me, he smiled. “The other writer in the room,” he said, happy at his own memory for faces, and shook my hand again. “Good luck with those stories,” he said.

Was this what writers said to each other? I wondered. “Good luck with your new Garp book,” I said back to him.   

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful. Why haven't I heard this story before? Thanks for telling it now.