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To “The Last Chairlift”: John Irving’s Ally Fiction and the Roe Half-Century

To “The Last Chairlift”: John Irving’s Ally Fiction and the Roe Half-Century

  • An interview with John Irving on his new novel, "The Last Chairlift"

John Irving has declared that his new book, an irresistible and deeply affecting family saga titled The Last Chairlift, will be the last long novel of his long career. And it is, indeed, the longest. The Last Chairlift teems with the raucous situational humor, memorable and resonant characters, righteous rage, instructive social commentary, and propulsive plotting that have made his fifteen novels some of the finest fiction of the last half-century. Longtime readers will find much that’s familiar in its pages, from the Exeter, New Hampshire, setting to the single-mother-led family to the protagonist’s tragicomic sexual mishaps and the polemical bent of its queer and feminist themes.

But as Irving says in this interview, The Last Chairlift takes off from these familiar touchpoints and transports readers to places that his other novels haven’t. Irving has described the novel as a ghost story, and the writer at the center of the book, Adam Brewster, alternates between efforts to shake off the annoying presence of his grandfather’s ghost and hot pursuit of other specters who he believes will help him piece together the unsolved mystery of his family’s past.

But The Last Chairlift is also a novel very much about Adam’s family present, and the queer family that coalesces around him in adolescence and adulthood—a family in which he is the lone straight guy and (for several reasons) the unmistakable “sexual outlier.”

I spoke with Irving about this funny, angry, and enthralling new book; his persistent political themes; the trenchant commentary that has lent an unwavering sense of mission to much of his work; and the “unmade movies” in Adam Brewster’s life and Irving’s own.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

I believe The Last Chairlift is the first ghost story you’ve ever written. I saw a clip you recorded recently in which you said you hoped your friend Stephen King wouldn’t be disappointed because it wasn’t King’s kind of ghost story. Some of the ghosts in The Last Chairlift are funny, some are comforting, some are irritating and intrusive, and some may hold the key to Adam Brewster’s past. But they aren’t scary. I was interested to read that an earlier working title of the novel was the comparatively spooky Darkness as a Bride. Was there a time when The Last Chairlift was a more conventional type of ghost story? And what drove you to write about ghosts at this point in your life and career?

John Irving

For a non-religious person such as myself, ghosts have always been the only credible part of the spiritual world. I hesitated at first to call The Last Chairlift a ghost story because, as you said, it conveys a kind of genre novel that this novel isn’t. There have been ghost appearances in earlier novels: in A Prayer for Owen Meany, there was that mysterious door to the basement; and in In One Person, Grandpa Harry does not go peacefully away. But this is the first time I’ve brought them into the fore.

As for the change of title, that is a familiar pattern for me. It’s not the first time I’ve begun with a metaphorical title like Darkness as a Bride. And as you see, I kept that epigraph from what Claudio says in Measure for Measure. The quotation still applies. But in this case, I replaced a metaphorical title with what I call an “actual” title. “The Last Chairlift” is an actual chairlift. It exists; it has a function. And I also liked how late in the story it comes. You don’t discover it until the final act, so to speak. In that respect, it reminded me a lot of what happened with The Cider House Rules. For all the years I was writing Cider House, I called it The Boy Who Belonged to St. Cloud—another metaphorical title—and I replaced it with The Cider House Rules, which are actual rules. They are stupid rules, ignored rules, but they’re actual rules. And like The Last Chairlift, they come into the novel in the final act. You don’t get to them until sort of late in the story.

I’m happy when I have more than one title choice. In the same way, I’m happy when I have more than one last sentence. Knowing a last sentence for a novelist who is as ending-driven as I am is vital. I have to know what happens at the end. If I actually have a choice of last sentences, if there are two or three that might work equally as well, then I feel even more secure that my ending is on firm ground.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

Speaking of matters “actual” and “metaphorical,” it seems that almost all of your books can be divided into two categories: books about actual or literal writers, and books about metaphorical writers. The metaphorical writers are those who aren’t novelists or screenwriters per se, but they use narrative to guide and reshape lives and change people’s stories to make them better. Dr. Larch was a metaphorical novelist, as was Dr. Daruwalla, and of course Owen Meany. And The Last Chairlift is an actual or literal novelist book because it has two novelists, Adam and Em, at the center of it. But you also have Adam’s mother, Little Ray, and his adoptive father, Elliot Barlow the snowshoer, guiding the narrative of Adam’s life and the way he writes. And Ray and Elliot also carefully craft their own endings. Do you believe that people who possess a mastery of narrative have a mission in the world that they’re uniquely equipped to fulfill?

John Irving

Maybe that’s a function of age, but I seem to be drawn again and again to the character who is also a writer or a metaphorical writer, as you say, a character who is driven by a mission of guiding other people. The World According to Garp was always more, in truth, the world according to Jenny. It’s Garp’s mother who is driving everything that happens in the story. Everything that happens in Garp happens because of her, and we could well say the same thing about this other “writer” novel. In The Last Chairlift, everything that happens in Adam’s life is driven by his mother, Little Ray. She has sort of led him to it. You’re right to recognize that as a repeated theme or a conscious repetition.

But here’s another one: The Last Chairlift is another one of my family saga novels. And the premise is very autobiographical, but only the premise. There’s a small New England town. There’s a school, which in actuality is Exeter. I’ve given that school many different names, but in The Last Chairlift, it is Exeter by name. And there is a similarly familiar family situation, a premise that has been repeated again and again. There’s an elusive mother who’s purposely evasive about the past. There is a missing or absent biological father. There is this unknown in a family which is provoking the child of that mysterious union. But after that premise, nothing stays the same. That’s when each novel in these family equation stories is different.

What’s really different in this novel’s case is that Adam—the only straight guy in the family—is the queer one: queer in the sense of the odd duck, queer in the sense of the odd man out. Everyone else in his extended family is queer. The people who love him and take such good care of him are all queer, and they’re all much quicker and much smarter than he is. He’s the last to learn. And in terms of well behaved or not-so-well behaved, it’s unquestionable that Adam is, sexually, the most badly behaved character in his family. The straight guy is the worst guy, which is no surprise to anyone in his queer family. But I tried in this case to make the queer family the norm and Adam the outlier. I like turning that coin the other way. 

Steve Nathans-Kelly

In addition to being a writer and eventually a father, and trying to solve the mystery of who his ghosts are, it seems that the project of Adam Brewster’s life is understanding, protecting, and being an ally to the people in his queer family. In In One Person—another novel in which queer and transgender themes predominate—James Baldwin and Giovanni’s Room are kind of the guiding light of that book in the way that Moby-Dick is, to a certain extent, in The Last Chairlift. If I may, your relationship to this subject is different from Baldwin’s. I think of your exceptional work on queer and feminist subjects as ally fiction. Is being an effective ally something you’ve had to wrestle with in your work as Adam does in his life? 

John Irving

That’s a good way to put it, and I very much like the term “ally fiction.” I hope that in those novels of mine that do have a social conscience, in those novels of mine that could fairly be described as political or polemical—and by my count, that would be slightly more than half of them out of the fifteen books . . . I’m remembering something that my mother said when I was a young, as yet unknown writer with two small children of my own. And I had a younger brother and sister—boy-girl twins—who were both gay. My mom was a nurse’s aide who was working in a New Hampshire County family counseling service. And as you might imagine, in the days prior to Roe v. Wade, family counseling entailed a lot of counseling of very young, even underage women who were pregnant and faced either mandatory childbirth or an unsafe or illegal abortion. And one time, speaking of the politics of the time, largely driven by men in power who treated women as if they were sexual minorities, my mother said, “If they can treat us as if we’re sexual minorities, imagine how much worse they’re going to treat gay men and lesbian women.” That was a long time ago. That was when I was still writing The World According to Garp. And boy, how right she was. In The Last Chairlift, I’ve given that line to Little Ray. But I can’t remember how many mothers in my novels have said that, or something very similar to it. 

Steve Nathans-Kelly

When I was reading The Last Chairlift, I was thinking about the transgender central character in the book, Elliot Barlow, in contrast to Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp. I first encountered Roberta Muldoon on the big screen when I was thirteen years old. And I’m sorry to say that Roberta, as she appears in the movie, did nothing to dislodge my unfortunate adolescent image of trans women as comedic figures. But that image changed permanently a few months later when I read the book, because Roberta is not a comedic figure in the book. She’s Garp’s best friend. She’s Jenny’s protector. She’s the hero. And Elliot Barlow, the little transgender snowshoer, is described repeatedly as “the only hero” in The Last Chairlift. As a small-town English teacher, Elliot Barlow has a risky, but arguably quieter transition than Roberta does as a former NFL linebacker, from the far reaches of the alpha-male world. Obviously, in our time, the battle for trans citizenship and dignity is far from won, but is it different writing a trans hero in 2022 than it was in 1978? 

John Irving

Yes, it’s different, but as to how different, I don’t know that I can speak with authority to that. But what’s different for me is that when I was writing about Roberta, the only trans women I knew were women who came from, to use your words, an alpha-male background. Don’t forget that there wouldn’t have been a Stonewall Riot—there wouldn’t have been a fight-back—if it hadn’t been for those drag queens. They were the ones who beat the crap out of the police. They were the ones who made it a riot. That was also the alpha-male edge of the trans community. My trans daughter, Eva, wasn’t born when I wrote The World According to Garp, when I created Roberta Muldoon.

The principal reason I declined director George Roy Hill’s request for me to be the screenwriter of Garp was that we did not see eye to eye about Roberta. You used the word “comedic.” That’s exactly how George Roy Hill thought of Roberta. George was a wonderful guy and a good storyteller, but he was of that World War II generation of guys who could not imagine a trans woman character beyond her comedic properties.

The snowshoer in The Last Chairlift is called “the only hero” for actual reasons, but the snowshoer is my hero too. And I was very conscious, in the case of Elliot Barlow, of creating a trans character hero for my trans daughter, Eva. 

Steve Nathans-Kelly

The Last Chairlift spans several decades, from the 1940s almost up to the present day, although I don’t believe it quite reaches the time of COVID. But in the chapters set in the gay community in New York City in the 1980s, there’s much discussion of the AIDS epidemic, and the way that President Reagan looked the other way and let it happen. And there’s a moment where Adam’s cousin Nora says, “Could there ever be a plague president as bad as Reagan?” It’s hard to read that as anything but a knowing nod to Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Was that a way of saying, “We’ve been here before; don’t romanticize the past?”

John Irving

Of course. It seemed to me an important time, while my fellow liberals were demonizing Trump—as Trump unquestionably deserves to be demonized—to remind them where the Moral Majority, where the Christian Right in the Republican Party, came from. It was Reagan who welcomed them into what he called “the big tent” of that party. It might have seemed to readers of the first draft of The Last Chairlift that I was conceivably being harsh or overstating the political targets in this novel: namely the Republicans and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Well, witness what the Republican justices on the Supreme Court have done. All but one of them who voted to overturn Roe are Catholic, and the one who is now Episcopalian was raised Catholic, and his mother was a staunch anti-abortion activist who worked in the Reagan administration. What those Republican justices on the court have done is more in step with the Vatican than it is with the First Amendment of the US Constitution. That part—which is repeated ad nauseam in The Last Chairlift—is “Make no laws respecting an establishment of religion.” That’s what these justices have done. So, I don’t think my targeting the Republican Party and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is entirely wrong.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

I was born in 1969, and I don’t remember a world before Roe, but now we’re living in a world after Roe. When I read The Cider House Rules in the ’80s, I thought, “Is this a reminder of darker earlier days? Or is this a premonition of what could come back?” 

John Irving

There were good friends of mine—feminist friends, fellow Planned Parenthood activists—who thought it was kind of quaint that I’d written “an historical novel,” as they called it, about those days when abortion was unsafe and illegal. I remember saying to some of them, “If you think Roe v. Wade is safe, you’re part of the reason it isn’t. Be careful. These anti-abortion people don’t go away.”

Steve Nathans-Kelly

I read an interview you did around the time of Until I Find You where you described it as an angry novel, and said that you wanted to write that book at that time in your life, because you might not be able to write another angry novel as you got older. The Last Chairlift is clearly a funnier book than Until I Find You, but there’s a lot of pointed anger in it, particularly against people who hate others for their sexuality. Would you say you were wrong about not having another angry novel in you?

John Irving

I tried to keep it funny. I had fun with making Adam a kind of stumblebum, a clueless fellow who is a slow learner to put it simply. I’m holding fast to a lesson my old teacher and mentor Kurt Vonnegut so ably demonstrated for me as a writer, but also as a person, that the harsher it’s gonna get, the funnier you better be, because you’ve gotta make people think they’re having a good time until they aren’t. 

See Also

Steve Nathans-Kelly

You’ve said that The Last Chairlift will be your last long novel.

John Irving

Of my unwritten novels, the ones that have gathered notes over how many years waiting to be the next one or the one after that—I think of those novels as boxcars in a train station, not yet coupled to an engine. And years ago, I used to choose one, not because of its length or for how many years it had sat there, waiting to be the next one, but solely on the basis of how much I knew about the ending. Last sentence is fine. Three last sentences is better. But lately, for the last three or four novels, I’ve been conscious of taking what looked like the hardest ones or the longest ones first, knowing that as I get older, it’s not going to get easier. So if I see what looks like a short train, I say, “Leave that one for when you’re tired. Take the one with the most cars. Take the one with the largest passage of time and the largest number of interconnected characters over a passage of time. That’s gonna be long.”

The other factor that makes the writing of a novel long is how much research you have to do, because there’s something in the novel that is completely outside your life experience and you’re gonna have to go learn something. There was no element of that kind in The Last Chairlift. I’ve grown up around skiing. I’ve lived in ski towns. One of my children is the director of a ski patrol in Colorado. I have two grandchildren on the US ski team. I knew this would not present to me any research difficulties. There was nothing outside my own experience I had to learn, and I had plenty of first readers I could turn to. It wasn’t like Until I Find You or A Widow for One Year, where I was gonna have to go and live in Amsterdam for months, or familiarize myself with those tattoo shops in the Baltic and all around the North Sea. There was nothing of that kind of obstacle. Or in the case of Cider House, how much time I had to spend at the Yale Medical Historical Library, or how much time I had to spend observing obstetrical and gynecological procedures to try and get a grasp of the OB/GYN world as it used to be. That was tough. 

Steve Nathans-Kelly

There are a few times in The Last Chairlift where you talk about unfinished or unpublished work as “unmade movies” that, as a writer, stay with you forever. Do you still have unmade movies in your life?

John Irving

Well, I think this is a truth of every screenwriter’s life. No matter how successful you are, you’re gonna write more screenplays than are going to be made. You can’t be a screenwriter—even an Oscar-winning screenwriter—and not live with the fact of the movies that don’t get made. They add up over time, and as long as they’re not made, there’s an instinct to keep returning to them, to keep fiddling with them as if anything could be or should be done. I’m lucky that my day job is writing novels, because in my case, I’ve actually put to use several screenplays that weren’t made. I’ve turned them into novels. A Son of the Circus was an unmade movie. Martin Bell, the director, and I could not get that film made in India. Then we went to Mexico and tried to get it made in Mexico. That became the novel Avenue of Mysteries. So I’ve had an outlet for my unmade movies. Not every screenwriter has that option.

Here’s a part of what I mean. I went to work for two years in Vienna to try to make a movie [of my first novel, Setting Free the Bears] with director Irvin Kershner, who is probably best known for The Empire Strikes Back. He was a great guy. He taught me how to write a screenplay. We worked on that screenplay together for Columbia Pictures in the UK, and they pulled the plug after two years. I was devastated, but I’d had a lot of fun learning how to do something new. Kershner said, “Don’t worry kid. You’ll learn something you can use.” 

Years later, after declining to write the movies of The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, the collaboration with Lasse Halström on Cider House was really good. We took it to four film festivals, and at the fourth, the Toronto International Film Festival, I was up in one of the upper balconies at Roy Thomson Hall, and suddenly there was this older man with white hair and white beard, who looked a little bit like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future. He said, “I told you you’d learn something, kid.” It was Kershner.

I think a lot of the made and unmade feelings about movies go back to that, because the great irony in my life as a screenwriter is that Kershner is the man I credit one hundred percent with teaching me the form and how to do it, and the two years we spent working on nothing but Setting Free the Bears came to naught. But they did not come to naught, because something you learn can always be put to other use. 

And with that in mind, I started The Last Chairlift in 2016. In the previous year I’d written five scripts for the teleplay of the Warner Bros. TV adaptation of The World According to Garp, and handed them off to the head writer. But I knew when I started Chairlift that I was done writing scripts for television or for film. In the time remaining to me, I only want to write novels.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

And now you’ve written a novel about a screenwriter.

John Irving

Yes, and an important part of The Last Chairlift near the end was a big, feature-length film [written as a screenplay]. If the “Loge Peak” chapter had been written as prose fiction, it would’ve been three times as long, but I knew I had to demonstrate that Adam knows how to do it. Furthermore, there’s a twist, as you know. Not only did I need to create what I was talking about—an unmade movie that doesn’t go away—but I also had to create all the very good reasons why it never should have been made. Why it never could be made. So I was conscious of not only writing an unmade movie, but of creating the circumstances for a hundred good reasons why. And that was fun. 

But a part of the fun—and I think you can hear it in my voice—a part of the fun was the kind of goodbye. I put a lot into that “Loge Peak” chapter because I thought, “Well, do it right, ’cause this is the last time you’re gonna do this. This is the last time you’re gonna play this trick.”  

FICTION
The Last Chairlift
By John Irving
Simon & Schuster
Published October 18, 2022

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