Hi Tom, which book are we talking about?
John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.
There are big themes in this book – which resonated with you the most?
Religion? Or fate? I guess religion, but that’s not what resonated with me most. It was the humor.
The novel starts with Owen Meany hitting a foul ball and killing the narrator’s mother. That does make me laugh (I haven’t read the book) – does that scene represent the book’s style of humour?
Yeah, the absurd kick-start is typical of John Irving. But the thing that struck me most is the way he had the diminutive Meany’s lines all in caps. It was a simple gag, but never failed to give the character’s voice a unique and hilarious tone.
Owen Meany is barely five feet tall, so what is Irving doing with those capitals when he talks? Does he have a big booming voice to contrast with his physical appearance?
Exactly, and I believe he’s even tinier than that. But it’s more than that, The Voice gives him an innocent, childlike quality that forms his pure view of the world. He’s unsullied. The other portion of the book, the narrator’s present tense, deals with the narrator’s struggle with religion. That’s why I think, in a way, Owen is treated as a tiny little Messiah.
Is that because of how he killed the narrator’s mother – I can see the baseball as some kind of lightning strike?
It’s pretty complex, the plot of balls, and it has a lot to do with free will, destiny, the big questions. But that’s not why I truly love the novel. I love it because I read it in a time of my life when I absolutely required escape. It was part of my own experience with serendipity and destination.
Where were you in life when you read it?
I was squatting in an abandoned jewelry store on Mission Street during the night, and wandering the streets during the day. I was down and out as I have ever been. I literally found the book in the gutter. I was able to escape out of my world and into John Irving’s. I loved it so much I didn’t want to leave – I read it twice in a row. I read it by candlelight in the squat at night.
It feels too pat to suggest the book pulled you out of that phase by itself. Did it give you a roadmap?
It was certainly instrumental in easing my pain. It was part of the series of strange and seemingly unrelated events that led me to finally get off junk and get off the street. But I absolutely remember eating the donuts that I’d taken from the AA meeting that day while I read that book by candlelight at night, the wax dripping over everything in the pitch-black darkness of that awful cement squat. Owen Meany’s world in the 60s was so warm, so interesting, so polar-opposite from my life at that moment, I was completely enveloped in it while I had my nose in that book.
I’m imagining you laughing in that dark cement squat while reading. When you put the book down and came back to the moment of your circumstances it must have been tough. Did you read until sleep took you, or stare at the darkness to imagine living in Owen Meany’s world?
Both. It’s hard to describe my life then. It was so dark inside that squat that you could not see your hand in front of your face in the middle of the day. You walk around flicking the spark on a Bic lighter because you didn’t want to use up the butane. It was basically me, a bloody sleeping bag, a pile of dirty needles, and a bunch of wax candles I’d stolen from Walgreens. And the book. I read it in the night and when I brought it out into the day it was covered in wax drippings. Sad times, but they were very vivid. Being instantly able to step into Owen’s world was magical. It’s funny too, the other book I remember having found was a paperback version of the Catholic catechism, a strange parallel to the narrator’s religious crisis in the novel.
Did you believe in God before this period in your life? Did you believe during, after, and now?
Yes to all three, but my concept is certainly not a normal one. Never been a religious guy, although I still perform weddings in California! I mean, I certainly believe in a power greater than myself. And I certainly believe in science. I don’t just believe that God and science can coexist, I think they are actually the same thing. Talk about unpopular opinions.
You perform weddings? As a priest?
As a minister, yeah. The Church of Universal Life. Remember, they used to advertise in the back of Rolling Stone magazine? It’s where Johnny Carson was ordained.
That’s brilliant. I didn’t grow up in the States, so I had no idea such institutions advertised anywhere. In Britain what we understood of American religious life came from movies or the occasional scandal from televangelists. In what ways does the narrator’s religious crisis chime with your experience?
Universal life, you could join for a dallar. I don’t think you pay anything now, just go online.
As for the parallel, it was just the appearance of religious type items. It was an odd thing to stumble upon. You start grabbing at straws. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I was spending my days eating pastries in an old church. That’s where the soup kitchen was. The universe conspired to allow me just enough time to tread water so I could get clean.
What’s the book’s funniest passage?
Hell, I don’t know. It’s been years since I’ve read it. Almost any of the passages where Owen is speaking certainly bring a smile to my face. But what it comes down to, the reason this whole subject came up in the first place, is do I wish I’d written it. Yes, and I think I know why. Irving created this funny, warm, wonderful place, and he did it without the kind of bloodshed that comes out so naturally in my own work. To create a novel so engaging without relying on violence in action – it’s somewhat of an enigma to me.
What draws you to write violence?
Honestly, I don’t know. It seems like everytime I start a new novel, I want to write something more character-driven, less brutal. But when I start writing, it just steers itself back to a crime tale. The story just kind of takes over.
You ran The Flash Fiction Offensive with Joe Clifford, so you read a ton of crime-related fiction. Do you still read a lot of the genre, or do you wander into different, maybe even other John Irving-like reading directions?
Not often enough. Every time I read outside my genre, I’m reminded what a pleasure it can be. This year I’ve covered some historical stuff, some Hollywood trash, and that’s about it. It’s true, reading all those submissions grew a little weary after a while, but I still read a fair amount of crime fiction. Right now I’m reading November Road by Lou Berney.
Have you seen Simon Birch, the 1998 film based on A Prayer for Owen Meany? Does it do it justice?
You know what? I’ve never seen it. I figure it’s just the universe stepping in the way to save me. I hear it’s terrible. In a related case of serendipity, I never saw No Country for Old Men, or The Road till I had actually read the novels. Not intentional, just divine intervention.
Your books are gaining great reviews. What’s next, and are you feeling pressure to maintain such a highly regarded streak?
In a word, yes. My next one is actually solid and I’m confident about it, it’s part of the same quartet as the first three novels. But the one I’m writing now? Of course I’m tortured with self-doubt, that’s an occupational hazard, right? But after all my talk about simplicity, chose a path so convoluted and complex, I may not be able to bring it to fruition. In fact, if I come up with a simpler more straightforward idea, I’ll probably abandon my work-in-progress and just run with that.
The best of luck with that, Tom. You’ve been a great guest. Any final words?
Thank you for having me. This is been one of my favorite interviews ever. And if any of your readers rush out to read A Prayer for Owen Meany, don’t blame me if you don’t like it. It may have been one of those time-and-place situations. I can’t go back and read Kerouac or Bukowski or a lot of those authors who I loved in my youth. I tried a couple other novels of John Irving’s–I loved Cider House Rules–but for the most part they seemed a little canned and pretentious. But they’ll always be a warm spot in my heart for Owen Meany.
Tom Pitts is the highly rated author of Piggyback, American Static, 101, and others. He used to publish a host of short fiction at The Flash Fiction Offensive along with Joe Clifford.
Check Tom out at his website HERE where you can also buy his books.
Buy A Prayer for Owen Meany HERE.
- Spark Notes
- Thoughts on John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany
- 13 Facts about A Prayer for Owen Meany
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