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John Irving

Interview: John Irving
National Book Award

June 3, 2005
New York City

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What was your childhood like, growing up in Exeter, New Hampshire?

John Irving: It was reasonably secluded, largely happy, but there was a mystery in it that I think provoked my imagination.

No adult in my family would ever tell me anything about who my father was. I knew from an older cousin -- only four years older than I am -- everything, or what little I could discover about him. I mistakenly thought that he and my mother were married and divorced before I was born. As it turned out, I was born in 1942, and my parents didn't divorce until 1944, when I was two. But I was born with that father's name, John Wallace Blunt, Jr., and it probably was a gift to my imagination that my mother wouldn't talk about him, because when information of that kind is denied to you as a child, you begin to invent who your father might have been, and this becomes a secret, a private obsession, which I would say is an apt description of writing novels and screenplays, of making things up in lieu of knowing the real answer.

I was 39 and divorcing my first wife when my mother deposited on my dining room table some letters from my father which were written from an air base in India and from hospitals in India and China in 1943. He was a flyer, he flew the Himalayan route, as it was called. He and his crew were shot down over Japanese-occupied Burma and hiked for 15 days, some 225 miles into China. The letters were all patiently, painstakingly explaining to her why he didn't want to remain married to her, but that he hoped to have some contact with me. My mom never permitted him that contact.

In 1948, when I was six, she remarried, and my step-father, Colin Irving, legally adopted me, so that my name was changed from John Wallace Blunt, Jr., to John Winslow Irving, Winslow being my mom's maiden name. And the mystery continued.

I think it probably is the most central or informative part of my childhood, is what I didn't know about it. And as friends and critics have been saying of my novels for some time, I've been inventing that missing parent, that absent father, in one novel after another. It was both a surprise, but an easing of a burden when, in the middle of the novel I just finished -- which I began in 1998 and finished only this spring, in 2002, in December of 2002 -- in the middle of that book, which was, once again, a "missing father" novel, I was contacted by a 39-year-old man named Chris Blunt, who said, 'There's a possible chance that I might be your brother." And of course, I knew it was not a possible chance at all, but a likelihood. And I since have met two brothers and a sister I didn't know about, and I found out more about this man who died five years before Chris found me. And the coincidences of the father I was imagining -- who was waiting for me to finish my story in the last two chapters of this novel -- the actual father turned out to have some similarities to the man I had already imagined.

John Irving Interview Photo
Not as surprising as you might think, given the fact that when you're a kid and you don't know about someone, it's natural to demonize him. In other words, if no one would talk about this guy, how bad a guy was he? There must have been something wrong with him. or people would have talked to me. At least that's always the way my imagination runs. Imagine the worst, right? Imagine the worst.

Well, it was nice to hear from these two brothers and my one sister that they loved him, that they thought he was a good father, although he was married four times and had children with three of those wives, not the fourth. It was astonishing for the first time to see, in my late 50's, early 60's, which I was at the time, photographs of my father when he's younger than my grown children are today. I have a 40-year-old son and a 36-year-old son, and I'm looking at pictures of Lieutenant John Wallace Blunt when he's 24, with his flight crew in China. And he doesn't look like me, to my eyes, although he does. What he really looks like is one of my kids. He so much more closely resembles them than he does me.

Aside from stimulating your imagination, did this impact your childhood in other ways? Were you a good kid?

John Irving: I was a moody kid. I was an aloof kid, I kind of kept to myself. I think that an early sort of pre-writing indication that I had the calling to be a writer was how much time I liked to spend alone. I wasn't anti-social. I had friends, but I didn't really want to hang out with them after school. What I saw of them at school was enough. I needed to be in a room by myself even before I was writing, just imagining things, just thinking about things. If there was a weekend with too many cousins or other people around, I got a little edgy. I think the need to be by myself, which I've recognized in a couple of my own children, is one that was respected by my grandmother, with whom I lived until my mom remarried, as I told you, when I was six. And I was fortunate to be in a big house, my grandmother's house, and there were lots of places to get off by yourself and imagine those things that I didn't know. And I find -- I'm 63, and my capacity to be by myself and just spend time by myself hasn't diminished any. That's the necessary part of being a writer, you better like being alone.

Were you a good student?

John Irving: No, I wasn't.

At the time, they didn't have the language for it that we have perhaps an over-abundance of today. Dyslexia, learning disabilities, whatever they are. I had something of that nature and never knew I had it until one of my children was diagnosed as being slightly dyslexic, and when they showed me the results of how they determined that he had a learning disability, I realized that they were describing exactly what I had always done. What it amounted to, in essence, was that I would ask my friends, "How long did the history assignment take you? How long did the English assignment take you?" And if they said, "Oh, it's 45 minutes," I would just double the time, or triple the time, and I'd say, "Well, it's an hour and a half for me." I just knew that everything was going to take me longer. Right?

I don't think that's a bad disability to have if you're going to write long novels.

There's no reason you should write any novel quickly. There's no reason you shouldn't, as a writer, not be aware of the necessity to revise yourself constantly. More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn't say I have a talent that's special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina. I can rewrite sentences over and over again, and I do. And the reshaping of something -- the restructuring of a story, the building of the architecture of a novel -- the craft of it is something I never tire of. And maybe that comes from what homework always was to me, which was redoing, redoing, redoing. Because I always made mistakes, and I always assumed I would. And that meant that my grades weren't very good, and that meant that school was hard for me. But when I got out of school and my focus could go to the one thing I wanted to do, the novel, the screenplay of the moment, I knew how to work. I knew how to concentrate, because I had to.

Were there books that were important to you?

John Irving: Very. Yeah.

John Irving: I read Charles Dickens when I was 14 or 15. It might be hard for many 14, 15-year-olds today to read Dickens. That language seems so old fashioned, if not exactly dated, to us now -- the amount of detail, the sheer complexities of those stories and plots. But those were the novels I read that made me want to write novels. If I had read, frankly, some more modern or post-modern novels at the time, I might have wanted to do something else. I've always been a fan of the 19th century novel, of the novel that is plotted, character-driven, and where the passage of time is almost as central to the novel as a major minor character, the passage of time and its effect on the characters in the story. Those old 19th century novels, all of them long, all of them complicated, all of them plotted. Not just Dickens, but especially Dickens, but also George Eliot, Thomas Hardy. And among the Americans, Melville and Hawthorne always meant more to me than Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald. I'm not a modern guy.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer, a novelist?

John Irving: Well, before I went to college anyway.

When I was still in prep school --14, 15 -- I started keeping notebooks, journals. I started writing, almost like landscape drawing or life drawing. I never kept a diary, I never wrote about my day and what happened to me, but I described things. If I had known how to draw, maybe I would have drawn hundreds of pictures of my grandmother's garden, but instead I wrote sort of landscape descriptions of it. I think that was what was so compelling to me about those Dickens and Hardy novels. Just the lushness of detail, the amount of description, the amount of atmosphere that is plumped into those novels. It's like nothing you read today, except from those writers who are essentially 19th century story tellers themselves: the Canadian, Robertson Davies; the German, Günter Grass; Garcia Marquez; Salman Rushdie. Basically old fashioned 19th century plot-driven story tellers. Among my contemporaries, I still like the old fashioned ones. Some exceptions, to be sure. I mean Graham Greene is such a good story teller that I forgive him for being as modern as he is. But I was never a Hemingway person. I never understood that. Moby Dick, there was a story. The longer, the better. I remember kids who were reading Moby Dick in a class and would be just complaining about, "Do we have to know everything about the whaling industry? Do we have to read about the blubber and all the rest of it?" I couldn't get enough of it, you know. I couldn't get enough of it.

For someone who doesn't understand what a writer does, or how it happens, how would you explain what you do and how you do it?

John Irving: Well, I've always been patient.

I don't begin a novel or a screenplay until I know the ending. And I don't mean only that I have to know what happens. I mean that I have to hear the actual sentences. I have to know what atmosphere the words convey. Or is it a melancholic story? Is there something uplifting or not about it? Is it soulful? Is it mournful? Is it exuberant? What is the language that describes the end of the story? And I don't want to begin something, I don't want to write that first sentence until all the important connections in the novel are known to me. As if the story has already taken place, and it's my responsibility to put it in the right order to tell it to you. Do I begin at the beginning chronologically? Sometimes. Or is it the kind of story that's better to jump into in the middle and go backwards and forwards at the same time? I am a person who just can't make those judgments -- I can't come to those decisions -- unless I know what's waiting for me at the end. What makes this story worth the five years it's going to take me to write it? What is emotionally compelling enough at the end of this novel? What's waiting for you that's going to move you at the end of this story? That makes a reader tolerate how long and complicated and at times difficult it's going to be? And so I always go there. I write those end notes as if they were two pieces of music, so I know what I'm going to hear at the end of the story. I know what the sentences themselves, what they're going to sound like, and I put them in a log. You know? And they're waiting for me, and I know I'm not going to get to that part of the story for four, five -- in the case of this most recent novel, seven years, but it's important to me that I hear it.

In The World According to Garp, "We are all terminal cases," was the first sentence I wrote, the last sentence of the book. "Oh God, please give him back, I shall keep asking you," in a A Prayer for Owen Meany, was the first sentence I wrote. The whole novel is a prayer, but what's the prayer at the end? What is the narrative? Why he wants him back. I have to know those things.

I think working my way through that process, begin with the end and then work your way back to where you began. Sometimes that's a year, sometimes it's 18 months, where all I'm doing is taking notes. I'm reconstructing the story from the back to the front so that I know where the front is. Now people always ask me, "Well surely something changes. Surely somewhere along the way you get a better idea." In the sequence of events in the middle of the story, that's often true. Sometimes a character I had never thought of -- a minor character or a major/minor one-- will make an appearance in the middle of the story and move the story in a slightly different way. But the ending never changes. It never has. Eleven novels, it never has changed. I might fool around with that first sentence over time, but I won't fool around with the last. It's as clear as a note of music. It is where I'm going.

I could no more imagine writing a novel without knowing those things then I could imagine coming home from the airport and saying to my wife, "An amazing thing just happened when I landed," if I didn't know what it was. I'm not that good a pathological liar to pull that one off.

What does it take to be a writer? What is the writer's life like?

John Irving: You've got to be disciplined. I think the sport of wrestling, which I became involved with at the age of 14... I competed until I was 34, kind of old for a contact sport. I coached the sport until I was 47. I think the discipline of wrestling has given me the discipline I have to write. There's a kind of repetition that's required. In any of the martial arts, and in some other sports as well, but especially in the martial arts sports, you repeat and repeat over and over again the dumbest things, the simplest moves, the simplest defenses, until they become like second nature. But they don't start out that way. They don't start out that way. And I think what I've always recognized about writing is that I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something. The value is in the importance of the refrain. The third time you repeat something, it has more resonance than the second time you repeat something, if it's good enough to begin with. Right?

So much of a sport like wrestling is drilling, is just repeating and repeating and repeating, so that you've done this thing so many times that if somebody just touches your arm on that side, you know where to go. You could do it with your eyes closed. If you're off your feet and you're up in the air, if you've been there enough, you know where the mat is. You know it's here, it's not there. You just know where it is. You don't have to see it, but you've been through that position enough so that you're not looking for the mat. You're not thinking, "Is it up here? Is it down there? Am I going to land on my head? Am I going to land on my tail?" You know? I think sentences are like that. If you're comfortable enough with all kinds of sentences, with verbs and their gerundive, with active verbs, with short sentences, with long sentences, you know how to put them together. You know how to slow the reader down when the reader is at a place where you want the reader to move slowly, and you know how to speed the reader up when you're at a place in the story where you want the reader to go fast. And it's drilling, it's repetition. Most people would find it boring, like sit-ups, you know? Like skipping rope. But I always had -- I could put my mind somewhere else while I skipped rope for 45 minutes. You know, people think you have to be dumb to skip rope for 45 minutes. No, you have to be able to imagine something else. While you're skipping rope, you have to be able to see something else. You have to imagine that your next opponent stopped skipping rope 15 minutes ago. Then you keep going.

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

John Irving Interview Photo
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.

That's great. Thank you.

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