Interview with John Irving

November, 2009
John Irving New England settings, violent tragedies, wrestling, and even the occasional bear attack are thematic elements in many of John Irving's novels. The ingredients may be unorthodox, but the books are iconic: A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp, and The Cider House Rules (for which Irving won an Academy Award). Irving's new novel, Last Night in Twisted River, synthesizes the Irving canon with a new but familiar character, Danny Baciagalupo, a fictional version of the author himself. When a fugitive father flees a New Hampshire logging camp and goes on the lam to protect his son, he sets events in motion for young Danny to become a writer. Irving tells Goodreads why he likes to write about writers and picks his favorite last sentences from his books.

Goodreads: Readers are calling this new book quintessential Irving. Coincidentally, the main character's career trajectory echoes your own. Are you poking fun at your life?

JI: I'm not poking fun at my own image but at how insistently book reviewers overemphasize autobiography in fiction—or trivialize it, as the case may be. For a serious novelist, there are recurring obsessions; repetition is the natural concomitant of having something worthwhile to say, and repeatedly needing to say it. Bears, wrestling, New England boarding schools, violent accidents—these are the mere landscape details in much of my fiction. But loss, and the fear of losing someone dear to you—these are obsessions. Anxiety, grief, the passage of time, the perils facing children (and other loved ones)—these are huge, and lingering, obsessions, and they are oft-repeated in my novels.

GR: Why are there so many characters who are writers in your work?

JI: After 12 novels, most of them complex, I know a lot about not only the process of writing but about its origins—about the need to do it. I know a lot about writers, too—not just doing the work but how writers see, internalize, and detach themselves. Why wouldn't many of my characters be writers? I've been publishing novels for 40 years! Garp [from The World According to Garp] is a writer, Ruth Cole [from A Widow for One Year] is a writer (and her father, her mother, her mother's lover)—even Dr. Daruwalla [from A Son of the Circus] and Dr. Larch [from The Cider House Rules] are occasional writers. (A hack screenwriter in Daruwalla's case; a diarist in the case of Dr. Larch.) I would be surprised if Last Night in Twisted River is the last time I have a main character in a novel be a writer—very surprised!

GR: When structuring a new novel do you use any brainstorming techniques for the story or character? What inspired you to begin work on the father/son story of Last Night in Twisted River?

JI: For 20 years I have been thinking of a father-son novel about a father and his son who become fugitives, who have to flee. It always began in a rough place—a fishing village, a logging camp, a hard-working town—and the cook was way above average in what was usually a rudimentary kitchen. The boy makes a mistake, and the father has to get them both out of town.

It was the third character, Ketchum, who developed more slowly—but I always knew there was a third character who held a number of secrets, things the son doesn't know about his dad, things the dad doesn't know about his old friend.

The relationship between Danny and his father, the cook, isn't exactly brand-new to me. The relationship between Dr. Larch and Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules is very much a father-son relationship, although Homer is an orphan and Dr. Larch is childless.

GR: Is it true that you always begin writing a new book with the last sentence and then build the story toward that fixed point? What is your favorite last sentence that you have written? Any favorites from other writers?

JI: For 12 novels the last sentence has come first, and not even the punctuation has changed. From that last sentence I make my way in reverse through the plot, because there always is a plot—I love plot—to where I think the story should begin. The process from last sentence to first sentence sometimes takes a year or 18 months; in the case of Last Night in Twisted River, only seven months. And once I get that first sentence, I can begin writing the novel. By then I know the whole story and all the important characters; how and where they meet, when their paths cross again.

The two last sentences I like best contain the titles of those novels—they would be the last sentence to this new novel and to The World According to Garp. But I also love the echo of what Dr. Larch and Homer Wells say as a sweet-dreams benediction to the orphans, that "Princes of Maine, Kings of New England" refrain in The Cider House Rules. I like refrains or deliberate repetitions, like the line of dialogue Marian says to her daughter at the end of A Widow for One Year. It's one we've heard before. ("Don't cry, honey. It's just Eddie and me.")

I don't pay special attention to the last sentences in other novels, but I remember the good ones. The ending of Great Expectations, that final paragraph, which became so controversial because Dickens changed it from what the original ending was...modern critics, many of them, have disparaged the change, but Dickens made the right call. And those last two sentences of Baldwin's Giovanni's Room haunt me every time I read them.

GR: The Cider House Rules placed you on the map as a writer addressing women's issues, and yet some readers have polarized reactions to your female characters. What is your response to these mixed reactions?

JI: Abortion rights is a human issue, not solely a women's issue. Gay rights is a human issue, not only of importance to gays. Civil rights, of course, was important for blacks, but civil rights was also important for the humanity of everyone who supported it. Choice, in the case of abortion, is both a sexual-reproduction issue and a right-to-sexual-privacy issue. I don't care how the debate falls as to whether or not I am (or am not) a feminist. I was a supporter of the feminist movement; I was a supporter of the civil rights movement; I have always been pro-choice, and I am a gay-rights advocate (always have been), though I'm straight. I don't know why these basic liberties and equalities should be so divisive. Remember the so-called Pledge of Allegiance? That bit about "liberty and justice for all"...it doesn't say "for some," does it? It doesn't say for men, for whites, for straights—does it?

If people really are debating whether or not I'm a feminist—well, they should try to broaden their perspectives a little.

GR: Do you have strong memories of reading as a child? When did you discover literature, and how did you decide to be a writer?

JI: I loved the theater before I loved novels. I loved the stage, and acting. Dickens was the first novelist I read who made me want to be a novelist. Dickens and Hardy—and, in America, Melville and Hawthorne. The older writers, those 19th-century models of form. Most modern and contemporary literature disappoints me. (Most modern and contemporary theater disappoints me more.)

GR: Your first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1968. Has your approach to writing changed over the four decades and 12 novels? Do you ever go back and read your early work?

JI: No, I do not go back and read my early work—except when I'm looking for some technical solution to a very specific situation, and I remember, Oh, there was something like that—a moment in shifting point of view, maybe—in an earlier novel, and I go back to see how I handled it.

GR: What's next?

JI: I've started a 13th novel—an unexpectedly quick start for me. I have two last sentences—a first for me—and that process of wending my way from the last sentence to where the story begins took only 48 hours. I have already written the first two chapters. Too bad I'm starting a book tour and will have to wait a couple of months before I can write the third chapter.

Comments Showing 1-36 of 36 (36 new)

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message 1: by Riley (new)

Riley His answers are so genuine and intelligent. I have a friend who is a big fan of Irving's, and while I haven't read anything by him yet (sorry!!) both her recommendation and this interview have definitely convinced me to.


message 2: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Kim John Irving is one of my favorite writers. A prayer for Owen Meany is one of my top 10 books of all time. He is one of the very few writers that I will read just because he wrote it (I don't need to know the title or what the book is about).


message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

I first heard John Irving read at the Univ of Iowa in 1980. He read the beginning of Hotel New Hampshire that he was writing at the time. The World According to Garp is still my favorite of his works, though!


message 4: by mozhgan (new)

mozhgan Mozhgan Mozhtagh hi

im mozhgan moshtagh!



message 5: by Spaka (new)

Spaka Eon So glad I read this interview, because now I know there is a next book soon to come by my favorite author!!


message 6: by Linda (new)

Linda Fagan The Cider House Rules is my favorite of Irving's books. I love what Dr. Larch tells the orphans following Fuzzy Stone's death (which they don't know about of course): "Fuzzy Stone has found a family. Good night, Fuzzy." Once after one of my cats died unexpectedly, I found myself saying out loud to the other cats, "Maine has found a family. Good night, Maine." It was oddly comforting to me. The cat's name was Maine, which is just a coincidence.


message 7: by Jean (new)

Jean A Prayer for Owen Meany is in my top 5 favorite books of all time - it might even be #1. I love Irving's writing, although some of his later books aren't as good as earlier ones. I'll try the new one....


message 8: by Rlcohen1235 (new)

Rlcohen1235 In his memoir Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, Irving states that Charles Dickens is the author who made Irving want to be a writer. Irving should be proud to know that he is the author who, more than any other, has made my students want to be readers.


message 9: by Julie (new)

Julie M Agree with Jennifer on both counts. Irving's 'A Prayer' is one of the few books I've read 2x. And I, too, would read anything he wrote, regardless of the topic! I found 'Trying to Save Piggy Sneed' a great insight into Irving's life and writing inspiration.


message 10: by Melissa (new)

Melissa John Irving has been my favorite writer since I read The World According to Garp. From there I went on to read everything he wrote. I too will read his next work without knowing what it's about. This was a good interview. I can't wait to get this new book and am excited to know there will be another coming in the near future.


message 11: by Judy (new)

Judy I do love John Irving's books. Since Garp, each one has been a treat, both amsuing and sad, with a pace that few writers have. The last one about the tatooist was fabulous and I hope Last Night in Twisted River will be just as good.


message 12: by Gail (new)

Gail megna I have been reading Irving's books since Garp. I believe there is only one I haven't read. I already have the new one waiting.
I too, think Owen Meany and Cider House Rules are on my very, very top of the list. It's silly, but I feel a personal connection since my cousin went to Exeter with him, and although two years behind, was also on the wrestling team. And I believe he's right. We all have recurring themes in our lives, so it's natural he should write about his. Thanks for the interview.


message 13: by Carol (new)

Carol Bro Tremendous writer. Loved Owen Meany. Loved Cider House. Loved Garp. His characters are always quirky, lovable, and thoroughly human.

What he said about every writer having recurring obsessions was interesting too. I could have rattled most of his off without peeking - Definitely bears jumped into my mind. It was interesting to have a peek inside his head through this interview.

CJ


message 14: by Dana (new)

Dana What makes Irving unique is how unforgettable his characters are. There are scenes from his books, such as the culminating scene in the bathroom in a Prayer for Owen Meany, when he finally discovers his life's meaning, that stay with you forever. I look forward to reading his latest.


message 15: by erin (new)

erin What an amazing interview! Insights like his apply to so much more than just writing. Thoughtful and open-minded.. I knew there was a reason I liked his books so much!


message 16: by Judy (new)

Judy Owen Meany was so moving & the characters very real.


message 17: by Hilcia (new)

Hilcia Loved Meany, Garp & Cider House. I'm looking foward to a new book by a favorite writer. Thanks for this excellent interview!


message 18: by Dave (new)

Dave Moyer I have read all of John Irving's books and am very excited not only that he has a new one out (which I can't wait to read), but also that he has started another one. When I finally got to the point of having read all of his books, I kept nosing around to see when the next one is coming out. I do not like it when he gets ridiculous just to seemingly provoke, when it seems unnecessary to me, but who am I to tell him? A Prayer for Owen Meany is among a handful of my all-time favorite books and was an inspiration for my first novel.


message 19: by Dessang (last edited Nov 20, 2009 10:17AM) (new)

Dessang i am very happy to have read this interview. since Garp,Hotel New Hampshire and Meany, John Irving has become one of my favourite authors. he has a way of telling painful truths or horrifying tragedies with humour, so you would find yourself choked from wanting to cry and laugh at the same time! i read the 'Widow for One Year' twice and would read it again if i ran out of books! i liked the ending so much! i am presently reading 'Until I Find You.'


message 20: by Susan (new)

Susan As a John Irving Fan,this is going to be a great read for me..Last Night in Twisted River already is giving me goosebumps.As a fellow Vermonter and a Northshire Bookstore Lover,I hope John irving visits our Neighborhood 'hub" of our commonity...'Widow for one Year" my last John Irving book..I never wanted it to end...Good Luck,Enjoy the tour....


message 21: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie I have always loved John Irving. What an imagination--his stories are unique. I own most of his books and have reread them many times.


message 22: by Richard (new)

Richard Sutton John Irving, if never published, would have still have been a great teacher. He and Annie Proulx made me want to work at becoming a novelist myself.

I also prefer the structuring of older literary fiction to most modern work, and he proves with each new novel, that a classic form can easily carry off modern subjects.


message 23: by Carol (new)

Carol Bro Problem is, Richard, were an unknown author today to submit a manuscript to an agent or publisher that was written in the style of Irving (or Conroy or Michener - and I agree with you, they're far superior to the trend toward blandness that publishers are looking for today), he/she would have a heck of a time getting it published.

CJ

Irving has already made a name for himself so he can get away with it; new writers cannot. I personally prefer something written by a writer who still understands that a sentence can be a work of art or pure poetry when properly constructed.


message 24: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Murray John Irving never disappoints me. Reading Garp was rediscovering books while I was in my Mommy years. Kind of took a break from "literature" after getting my degree in English Lit. Have 70 pages left to read in his new one and I'm savoring it.

Now, I find that Irving is a Hardy fan too. Jude the Obscure is very Irving like now that I think of it. Thanks for the interview.


message 25: by Linda (new)

Linda Fagan I read Owen Meany years ago, and just recently listened to it in audio after it was released during the summer. It was very well done, and I wish that some of Irving's other older books would be released in audio.

I had forgotten about Hotel New Hampshire. It was very good as well, and perhaps I will read it again.


message 26: by Richard (last edited Nov 21, 2009 09:30AM) (new)

Richard Sutton CJ wrote: "Thanks, Susan. I, for one, will check it out and make a recommendation in return:

www.mikeswritingworkshop@yahoogroups.com

Highly acclaimed - voted one of top 100 writing sites in Writers' Digest..."


Well stated, CJ. I was hoping someone would make that comment! I'd even like to ask Irving what he thinks of that situation. It is very hard to sell a literary fiction work right now, and with all the changes coming to publishing, new writers with more traditional voices should be able to find readers. It doesn't seem to be working that way, does it?



message 27: by Carol (new)

Carol Bro And we, the reading public, are being deprived of a lot of good books as a result.


CJ


message 28: by Susan (new)

Susan A good website to look into authorhouse.com I believe one can self publish,which I am sure you have looked into..new writers,some good info...On barnesandnoble.com there is a Writers Board...I spend hrs,when I can exploring BN...great Blogs as well...UNBASHEDLY BOOKISH...Will feed your mind


message 29: by Carol (new)

Carol Bro Thanks, Susan. I, for one, will check it out and make a recommendation in return:

www.mikeswritingworkshop@yahoogroups.com

Highly acclaimed - voted one of top 100 writing sites in Writers' Digest polls - is also a great place for discussion and feedback. As one who has benefitted from it often, I highly recommend it.
CJ


message 30: by Richard (new)

Richard Sutton I might as well weigh in here, too. I also highly recommend a new site designed specifically for Indie Authors and publishers called Publetariat at www.publetariat.com. You may even find me lurking around under the guise of the Indie Curmudgeon. Take a look -- it's also got a lot of really important material, and nobody there is really trying to sell services to authors -- well, maybe a few, but it's mostly real information.


message 31: by Susan (new)

Susan Thanks CJ,Richard...I lurk around BN as VTcozy,will check on sites you both enjoy..one never can get too much knowlege,or books...My Angel Luck to both of you


message 32: by Richard (new)

Richard Sutton Luck. What a concept! Here's an interesting link, to a blog about writer's agents that was handed down by Nathan Bransford, a very sucessful lit agent:

http://www.idealog.com/blog/literary-...


message 33: by Susan (new)

Susan Luck and being fearless..because you know you have a great novel...I know this sounds naive,but what about those Auctions that the Pub.Houses have..can one represent oneself? also a good blog and he will answer your questions is ,,fresheyes.com Robert Gray..Really good guy with lots of experience in the Publishingworld..He is also on twitter...just mention vtcozy,Susan sent you.to his site...


message 34: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Great interview, and I really enjoyed reading John Irving's answers. Very nice of him to stop by.

Just one thing, though, there's a typo in the interview. The mother in A Widow for One Year was Marian, not Mario.


message 35: by Elizabeth (last edited Nov 29, 2009 11:03PM) (new)

Elizabeth Dear Melissa,
Thank you so much for pointing this out. We'll fix it right now.
Best,
Elizabeth


message 36: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Herrle I am a little late to the game here, only a few years, but John Irving is my all-time favorite. A Widow for One Year was my first, but the World According to Garp is my favorite. One of my most memorable nights was getting to see him (as well as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling) read at Radio City Music Call about 8 or 9 years ago - Harry, Carry & Garp. Truly the best (and In One Person - if that is what he was referring to at the end, is just as wonderful as the rest!)


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