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Some writers are so inextricably linked with place. Think Mark Twain and the Mississippi. Tony Hillerman and the desert Southwest. James Joyce and Dublin.
John Irving writes books set in Iowa, Vienna, and New England (often, all three). He's lived in all three places and has a strong sense of each. But for me, John Irving is inseparable from New England, particularly Vermont and New Hampshire.
So when I was setting off to Vermont last month, I checked out one of the only Irving books I hadn't yet read: Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. I hoped to immerse myself in a bit of Irvingian landscape. In part, I wanted to compare it to the real place; in part, I wanted to imagine Vermont one last time, unaided by reality.
Only when I scrunched up in my airplane window seat with a plastic cup of ginger ale did I realize this book isn't a novel. It's a collection of memoirs, short fiction (the dude hasn't written much of that; why would he, when his novels are often so epic?), and literary appreciation.
This conglomeration turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to my journeys. Novels are often a glimpse into the novelist -- perhaps more than usually so in Irving's case -- so what better way to experience the place than through the man, and to examine the writer than through his home state? If the two really are so strongly linked, then really I was seeing two things at once and getting a greater sense of their whole. Depth perception!
The whole Vermont experience, for me as a writer, was unmatchable. I took more inspiration from the VCFA Summer 2013 graduation ceremony (and the remarkable writers in that crowd -- cheers to all of you!) than I did from my own year's worth of graduate school classes. I returned home more jazzed to create (and capable of creation) than I'd ever felt.
Part of the mindset I cultivated in Vermont, I attribute to feeling so close to Mr. Irving. I had stepped into every one of his novels, which is not to say that I felt I might bump into Garp or Owen Meany around any corner. No, I felt I had come in contact with what makes Irving's books true. True, not in fact, but in emotion. (Irving writes on the first page of Piggy Sneed that "(to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false." I love that idea.)
Sometimes, readers and fans and literary critics get too caught up in what is factual about an author's existence. We get tangled up in which Dublin building is "'The Dead' house," or whether Hillerman's mysteries are based in real cases. The source of a good author's stories is not the facts of his life, but rather, the truth on which he can work his magic of falseness -- his fiction.