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John Irving on the semi-autobiographical tome he calls his 'last long novel'

TORONTO — While "The Last Chairlift" may not be the end of John Irving's novel-writing career at large, he says it will close out his career writing very large novels.
John Irving arrives on the red carpet for the 2019 Giller Prize before the gala ceremony in Toronto, on Monday November 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — While "The Last Chairlift" may not be the end of John Irving's novel-writing career at large, he says it will close out his career writing very large novels. 

The now 80-year-old Canadian-American author, who is famous for starting his books by coming up with their endings, said he purposefully chose this semi-autobiographical tale as his final doorstopper. 

"Anyone who is as ending-driven or plot-oriented as I clearly am as a novelist is pretty deliberate with the over-planning, shall we say," Irving said in a phone interview from Toronto ahead of the 912-pager's publication on Tuesday.

"This not only was a conscious decision, it's been a long time coming and very meticulously worked out." 

With "The Last Chairlift," Irving retreads familiar ground — in part because the story's protagonist shares many biographical details with his author. 

The book, which spans seven decades, follows successful novelist and screenwriter Adam from his childhood in mid-century Exeter, N.H., to nearly the present day, when he becomes a Canadian citizen after moving to Toronto. 

Irving, sometimes hailed as a great American novelist, swore his oath of Canadian citizenship in 2019.

He said the similarities between his experience and Adam's were part of why he wanted to make this story his last epic. 

"I knew it would be long, but I also knew it had very little research involved. I've grown up around skiing," he said. "I knew all the particularities. There was nothing outside my own life experience that I had to research." 

That's in stark contrast to previous novels, which regularly sent him on international trips to learn from the experts. 

His 1998 book "A Widow for One Year" brought him to Amsterdam to trail a homicide detective and get to know sex workers. For "Avenue of Mysteries," his most recent novel before "The Last Chairlift," he travelled to both Mexico and the Philippines. 

For this book, Irving said he made only one trip: to Aspen and the Hotel Jerome, the setting for key parts of the novel, so he could access the local archives — and hopefully get a glimpse at a ghost. 

Spectres are a central part of "The Last Chairlift," which publisher Knopf Canada is billing as "a ghost story and a love story." The ghosts Adam sees hint at a personal history even he doesn't fully understand. 

But the famous ghosts at the real-life Hotel Jerome didn't make their presence known to Irving, despite his best efforts. 

"I personally requested the very suite that Jerome B. Wheeler himself stayed in, when he was still the owner and manager of the hotel he founded, thinking if it's ever going to happen, it'll surely happen in Jerome's old room," he said. "Nothing happened. Nothing."

Instead, he said, his assistant reported being awoken by one of the establishment's storied ghosts.

"And she didn't call me!" he said. "All the way to Aspen and she got to see the ghosts and I didn't."

Instead, Irving's ghostly encounters have been of a different sort.

"I've felt the presence in my mind and heart of people who are close to me who are gone, and who suddenly feel very present," he said. 

"There are so many times, particularly in this political landscape, when I can hear what my mother would say — loudly." 

Irving's relatives also haunt what he terms his "family sagas," though his other books in the genre don't map his life quite so closely as "The Last Chairlift."

"There's a persistent repetition of a familiar premise. An elusive, evasive mother who's not entirely coming clean about her past, a missing or absent biological father, a boy in search thereof," he said. "That's familiar, and it also has — as most people know — its autobiographical roots in my own story." 

But he said it's the specifics that set those stories apart. 

"The mother is not the same mother," he said. "The missing father is never the same father, nor are the reasons he's missing the same."

Whether Irving will pen another novel about an unconventional family remains to be seen, but he said he has a few more books he's raring to write.

However, he said, none of those books will be as hefty as "The Last Chairlift."

"I'm not saying that my next novel is going to look like a novella like some novels I could mention being published today," he said. "But it's going to look a whole lot shorter than the novels I usually write."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 17, 2022.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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