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If you like John Irving's story, you might also like:
John Grisham,
Khaled Hosseini,
Norman Mailer,
James A. Michener,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Carol Shields,
John Updike
and Tom Wolfe

John Irving can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

John Irving's recommended reading: Moby Dick

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Random House
Mother Jones

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John Irving
John Irving
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John Irving Interview (page: 4 / 4)

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  John Irving

How did your first novel come about? Did you imagine that before it happened?

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John Irving: In that case, because it was a historical novel and I knew the history, I was cheating a little bit, because of course I knew how it was going to end up. There was an interesting story at the end of the war in Vienna, which the Russians got to first. All during the war, the animals in the Hietzinger Zoo -- near the palace, on the outskirts of Vienna -- those animals in the Hietzinger Zoo were somehow fed and protected from all the air raids, all the attacks. Nobody broke into that zoo and ate those animals, or killed those animals, took them home for dinner. Although the city was starving, somebody looked after the animals. When the cages were blasted or bombed, somebody rebuilt the cages, although the zoo itself was in virtual rubble by the end of the war.

But when the Russians got to Vienna, the zoo was empty. The animals were gone. No one has ever written about this, it's just a fact. The Russians went to Hietzing because there were some big animals out there, or so they imagined, but there were no animals out there.

So the idea of the people in Vienna keeping those animals alive for the course of the war. Then, when they realized the Russians were going to take everything they could get when they got there... So, we're not leaving them for the Russians. That was the background to the story. That and the Yugoslav theater of the war: General Mihajlovic and what happened to him.

John Irving Interview Photo
So I thought of writing a historical novel about how two young Austrian students are connected through ancestry to that story and get the idea -- ill advised, as many young peoples' ideas are-- to free those animals, to let them go, to stage a zoo bust, because the period of the war has marked their lives. But at the same time, they were never a part of it. It's somebody else's generation, it was somebody else's war. This novel was first published at the time of the Vietnam War. Nobody saw the parallels, the degree of protest that was in it, the spirit of a sort of demonstration with which it was written.

It got good reviews here, but American reviewers weren't as knowledgeable about Austria and World War II as I was. I had been a student in Vienna, and one of the neat little things I had found out was about that zoo. It was a good debut novel for me to have published. I was 26 or 27 when it was published. I already had a kid and would soon have a second. I had a child when I was still an undergraduate. I kind of did everything early.

You mentioned reviews. You can't be a writer without reviews, without critics, without controversy. How do you handle that?

John Irving: I have pretty thick skin, and I think if you're going to be in this business, if you're going to be an actor or a writer, you better have a thick skin. You don't want to dwell on your enemies, you know. I basically feel so superior to my critics for the simple reason that they haven't done what I do. Most book reviewers haven't written 11 novels. Many of them haven't written one. So I try not to take very seriously what someone who can't do what I do says about what I do. It's different when you're reviewed by a fellow novelist. The best reviews I've had have all been written by fellow novelists. Novelists who occasionally -- but not regularly or professionally -- write book reviews. That's just the way it is. Margaret Drabble's review of The World According To Garp, Robertson Davies' review of The Hotel New Hampshire, Frank Howard Moser's review of The Cider House Rules, Stephen King's review of A Prayer For Owen Meany. His review of Under The Circus, William Boyd's review of My Movie Business, Jay Parini's review of The Fourth Hand, Carol Shields's review of A Widow For One Year. These are all working novelists, and they're all novelists that I respect, so that they should respect me. They do what I do. They're qualified to evaluate what I do, because they do what I do. Most critics aren't qualified. It's as simple as that.

If a young man or woman came to you and said, "I want to do what you do," what advice would you give them?

John Irving: The foremost advice I'd give them is that they better read everything they can. They better read, read, read, read, read. They better read as many good books as they can. They better put the literature of the world into storage somewhere, because they're going to need it. The truth is, if you get to be a writer -- especially if you get to be a self-supporting one, which means you get to write all day, nothing else gets in your way -- if you get to do that, what happens is you'd rather be writing than reading. I'm not a good reader anymore because I write all the time. Literally, all the time. Well, I'm glad. I feel lucky that I was a good reader as a kid, because I don't know when else I would have done it. I'm not embarrassed that I'm not much of a reader now, because I'm not slacking, you know. I write seven days a week, I can write eight hours a day. Not everybody can do that. I couldn't do that 20 years ago, but I can do it now. Twenty years ago, when I wasn't writing screenplays concurrently with whatever novel I'm writing, I was a better reader. I used to read a lot of things when I was between one novel and not yet started in the next. But now I'm never between things, because when I finish a draft of a novel, I go immediately to one or two or three uncompleted screenplays. I just go back and forth. There's always something on my desk. There's always something I can be writing, and I'd rather be writing than reading.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

That's great. Thank you.

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This page last revised on Oct 09, 2006 16:30 EDT
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