On a drizzly Tuesday afternoon in a grey government office in Scarborough, the American writer John Irving became a Canadian citizen.
He held his red and white Maple Leaf flag along with 83 other people from 35 countries who also swore allegiance to the Queen and this country. On the other side of the room sat his wife, Janet Turnbull, daughter Eva and assistant Khalida.
After the ceremony, they came over to give hugs; his eyes welled up with a few tears that didn’t fall. You might say they were misty. The smiles on all their faces were huge.
“I was moved because Janet was there and Eva was there, and my being here is because of her,” Irving, 77, says in an interview the next day in his capacious personal office in downtown Toronto. “At my age, ending up here is a love story.”
His walls speak to the importance of family, covered with photos of his wife, daughter, sons, parents — family history and his own mementoes; himself on the cover of Time magazine, among them. This, he says “is not a political story.”
Neither is it a straightforward story, one with a few quick questions about what it means to be a good citizen and how he’ll take up that mantle here. As in his art, Irving’s answers meander; he talks about politics and the U.S., and even about going to boarding school in Austria. All the moments in his life that have led to this one. He begins an anecdote, then circles back and picks up the thread again, a technique that propels the main narrative of his life forward.
Or gives him time to think about what he’s really going to say.
So let’s start with the love. Janet Turnbull. He met her here, about 30 years ago, in the Brigantine Room at Harbourfront where he was appearing as an author. She was the editor at Seal Books and Doubleday Canada, which was the publisher of the paperback edition of “The Cider House Rules.” “We were kind of smitten pretty instantly,” he says with a smile.
She lived here; her work and life were here. But he lived in the U.S. and had custody of his two sons, at the time 16 and 20.
“I couldn’t leave them or expect them to uproot their lives and come to Canada,” Irving says. “I felt that being the parent with custody was a responsibility and that the disruption of my divorce from their mother was as much disruption as a couple of young boys should have.”
He tells how he and Janet married in 1987; she moved to Vermont, changed her business (ultimately becoming a literary agent with him her only client), became an American citizen and even started a school.
“It was a big change to her life, not just being married but being married to a guy with a 16-year-old and a 20-year-old,” Irving says. He was the coach of the 16-year-old’s wrestling team. “Janet, who had always been a city girl, was on the team bus every weekend, going god knows where with a bunch of unruly teenage wrestlers. This was not the life that she had imagined for herself.”
And so, life unfolded, kids grew up, books were published. They often came back to Toronto — it was like a second home anyway. Janet had never given up her place, they cottaged here in the summer. But when it came to the point where the kids weren’t coming home as much and the house in Vermont was too isolated, they equivocated about where to move.
“I asked Janet a simple question: If I died right now, where would she go?” he says. The answer: Toronto.
And so here they are. This is not a political story. As a writer, Irving says, he can write anywhere. But, sometimes, it’s hard to figure out where John Irving the writer ends and John Irving the individual begins. He is still, in many ways, a political writer. And a person deeply interested in politics.
“At least half of my novels are political,” he says. “By which I mean there is a point of view taken that is on one side of an issue, clearly.”
“A Prayer for Owen Meany” took on the Vietnam war; “The World According to Garp” took on women’s rights; he’s written about AIDS, LGBTQ rights. And, he says, after this latest, his 15th, more than half of his books will have been political.
Get more books in your inbox
Get the latest book news and reviews with our Books email newsletter.
He is working on a new book, so far “1,000 pages and 40 chapters long” that will be rewritten down to size, as he usually does. He won’t say outright that the book features Canada, “I don’t want to give too much away”; he will say it begins in the U.S. and comes back to Canada.
It’s a state of existence that’s been familiar both in his fiction and in his personal life, this moving back and forth between the two countries. It allows him to observe, he says. Like any writer “my job is to observe and learn.”
He reserves the right to continue to be outspoken about the United States. He reserves the right to criticize. “I very much intend to keep my American citizenship. Because I don’t want anyone in my birth country to be able to say, ‘Well, he’s moved to Canada. He’s not one of us.’ Oh, yes, I am.”
Whether he can feel comfortable enough to criticize Canada in the same way remains to be seen. “I want to feel that I have a right to participate in the life here and that certainly includes making political decisions and voting. And being an observer. I don’t know that at my age I’ll ever live here long enough to feel comfortable to be a critic of Canada politically.”
Irving talks about the 2016 U.S. election, saying that he held responsible the “six and a half million Democrats … who voted for Obama in 2012 and did not show up for Mrs. Clinton in 2016” for helping Trump into office.
Trump, he said “needed the help of indifferent or disgruntled or, for whatever reason, absent Democrats.”
He is vocal, very vocal, about his dislike of Trump (“his vulgarity, his narcissism … his xenophobia”). From what he’s observed, does Irving think a similar type of person could be elected here?
“I’m still learning about your …”
“Our,” I venture.
“I say respectfully as a new citizen ‘your’ because I feel I’m still a student of the game,” he says. “I talk to Janet all the time about your Liberal Party and your NDP Party — what I sometimes call your Liberal Party A and your Liberal Party B. Sometimes I have a hard time not seeing how the existence of those two parties make things easier for the Conservatives.”
“You are all looking far too serious,” the judge says as he sits down in the grey Scarborough room, ready to welcome 84 new citizens.
While it was a joyous occasion to be sure, it was also one not to be taken lightly. Irving says he is lucky enough to be able to choose to come here. Not everyone can.
Because he is 77, he didn’t have to take the history test — “Not fair!” he says a young boy who had been sitting next to him responded. Irving recognized a few people that he’d run into in various bureaucratic offices over the four years it took him to move from permanent resident to citizen. Just a meeting of eyes, a recognition.
He sang “O Canada” — “it’s a beautiful song and I was very moved to hear it” — and pledged allegiance to the Queen. “I had to, at least inwardly, ask my grandmother’s forgiveness as an old New Englander. I grew up hearing all about Paul Revere’s ride and the Boston Tea Party, and seeing my ancestors as revolutionaries.
“Certainly my grandmother would not have approved.”