Why John Irving Wrote a Novel About Skiing
‘The Last Chairlift,’ the iconic author’s most recent major novel, is a sweeping family saga about sexual identity, risk, and the storied history of Aspen, Colorado
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John Irving says he thinks about his books like boxcars at the station, waiting to be hooked up to an engine. “Some of them waited 20 years, I’ve never chosen one that hasn’t been waiting in notes for at least five years,” he says.
His process clearly works. The 80-year-old writer has won Oscars and National Book Awards, and is the author of bestselling novels like The Word According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany. But it’s hard to believe that his forthcoming book, The Last Chairlift—which he says will be his last major novel—could have been waiting to be written for 20 years. It’s an interwoven family story covering more than half a decade that feels incredibly pertinent to today’s issues of identity politics and bodily autonomy.
For readers of Irving’s previous work—or folks who have watched the movies based on his books, like The Cider House Rules, which won an Academy Award—there are elements that might be familiar: New England prep schools, strong mothers and absent fathers, wrestling, the politics of sexual freedom. But The Last Chairlift, on shelves October 18, has a new addition: skiing. Irving, who has been a skier and lived in ski towns his whole life, uses the sport to show how single-minded obsessiveness can shape your choices and have implications far beyond the slopes.
Irving says that at its core it’s a book about sexual and physical freedom. The story starts with Little Ray, a rebellious teenage ski racer, who gets pregnant after a one night affair at Aspen’s Hotel Jerome, a place where Irving has spent a lot of time. Her son, Adam, a writer who has some similarities to Irving himself, spends most of the 900-page novel trying to understand his mother’s relationship to the sport, and trying to untangle the ways her choices impact their complicated family, including his trans stepfather and his activist cousin. Eventually Adam goes back to the Jerome to track down the ghosts, both literal and figurative, that have been haunting their family.
I spoke to Irving about why The Last Chairlift was the book he chose to be his last novel, how his family of skiers (including his grandkids, U.S. Freeski team members Birk and Svea Irving) helped him write the book, and what he thinks about the ghosts at the Hotel Jerome.
Outside: What’s your relationship with skiing like?
Irving: My mother was a skier along with all my cousins and family members. I’ve lived in or near ski towns for a lot of my life, so real skiers were always a constant in my life. But when I was younger, wrestling took over my winters, and I only skied in the spring, so all the people in my extended family are much better skiers than I am. I have a son who is a ski patrol director and a couple of grandkids who are on the U.S. team. I would still classify myself as an intermediate skier. Adam is a worse skier than me.
A large part of this book’s story and backstory happens in Aspen. You’ve spent time in ski towns all over the world, why Aspen?
I wasn’t so much interested in Aspen—there were lots of places I preferred skiing at than Aspen—but it has an advantage in that it had a whole other era of history. There was an era of boom and bust before it was ever a ski town. I like being able to attach fiction to something real. The more fantastical the fiction, the more I think it’s best to ground it in something historical. I spent a lot of time at the Aspen Historical Society, and I got sidetracked so many times! I couldn’t stay on topic because I’d get distracted by the ups and downs of Aspen in another life, like the Hollywood era, and a lot of that made it into the book. The Hotel Jerome, for instance, was completely suited to this novel.
Adam, the main character, seems like he has some similarities to you and some resonance with character in your past work.
I don’t think a writer can be penalized for plagiarizing himself. I think you can see some playfulness about the main character as a writer, there’s some comedy in deliberately giving Adam references to previous books of his that echo previous books of mine.
I think there’s a standard situation in a lot of my family-based novels: a mother who is evasive about the past, an unknown father. I used it as a way of saying to my readers, “You know where you are, you can feel at home here.”
The most obvious difference is Adam’s extended family is all queer. I wanted to turn the tables so to speak, and put the straight guy in the position of being the odd duck in the room. And also make it perfectly clear that he couldn’t really have had a more loving family.
What’s the hardest part of figuring out a big story like this?
Another thing common to my novels is that they are all political. As a writer, that means you’re restricted by real events, complex boxes of finite time, and actual places. You have to make your characters’ lives conform to those historical moments. It always slows a writer down to make those moments credibly intersect with the lives of your fictional characters. I would say that’s the hardest part.
What’s the easiest part?
Plotting. I’m good at plotting, I love plotting.
A lot of the plot in this book turns on Little Ray, and her risky choices, from skiing, to having Adam in the first place, to her relationships. Why was that important?
My intention has always been more to move you emotionally than to persuade you intellectually. I want the story to be funny until it isn’t, and that can’t happen if you don’t have characters that your readers have both affection for and are worried about. As a writer you want to drop those threads early so that there is something to worry about. You’re saying, “Something about this character will never be safe.”
Little Ray is the character that makes everything happen. There’s no story without her, and we learn from the beginning that Ray will always push the envelope and take a step too far. Ray is never out of the woods. It frightens Adam, but he still loves her.
Parts of this book can be read as a ghost story. What’s the deal with the ghosts?
The broadest answer is that for a non-religious person, maybe ghosts are the farthest step I can take with some credibility into the spiritual world. Having spent as much time as I have in the Hotel Jerome, which has its own stable of ghosts, I thought I could make use of that piece of history and expand on it. I thought I could make some ghosts of my own that were much scarier and more developed than the ghosts that have been most commonly recorded by visitors and who have stayed in and worked in the Jerome.
Have you seen any ghosts in the Jerome?
I chose to go with my assistant in mud season a few years ago. We were the only people there, so I asked for the suite that Jerome B. Wheeler used when he stayed there. I thought, C’mon if I’m going to see anything it will be there. I slept like a baby. But my assistant called me very early in the morning, and she was rattled. She told me that she’d laid awake half the night because she had to pee, but she couldn’t because the ghost of a maid was in the bathroom. I was so angry that she hadn’t called me.
You’ve said that this will be your last big novel, how did you decide this was the one?
For years, the factor that made me choose my next book has been how much I knew about the ending. Not just words, or the last sentence, but the tone. Is it lamentation, sorrow, relief? What’s the voice like? For this one, I had that, and a couple of options for last lines, which I like to have.
Another facet that has come into the picture has to do with how old I am. I’m trying to take on the books that look the hardest. It’s not going to get easier as I get old. I knew this novel would be lengthy in the writing, because of how many major characters’ lives intersect over a period of time, but there wasn’t a formidable obstacle in the research. Most of the territory was personally familiar to me.