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Finding John Irving: The Powells.com Interview

[Editor's note: The following is a reprint of our 2005 interview with John Irving, whose new novel, Last Night in Twisted River, has just come out in hardcover. Click here to get signed editions while they last!]

John IrvingOn one list are the books you like to recommend. You want to turn someone on to your favorite unknown author or introduce them to the season's latest, greatest novel. If you've read widely enough over the years, you'll match reader to occasion. The list comes to include something for just about anyone in any setting:

Funny books and smart ones; easy and hard; books that teach and those that entertain; pages best turned at the beach, on a plane, or sick in bed; a pick for the woman you want to impress or the friend who reads mostly in ten-minute bursts between cab fares; dry, plotless affairs that ease you toward sleep or blazers that set your mind racing, keep you up late into the night...

A much shorter list contains the sure bets — the ones that work for just about any reader, young or old, anywhere, at any time. A Prayer for Owen Meany may be the only book on my second list.

You get OWEN MEANY'S SQUEAKY VOICE into a person's head and the worst they'll ever say is they loved it.You get OWEN MEANY'S SQUEAKY VOICE into a person's head and the worst they'll ever say is they loved it. Without fail, they will thank you. [See our guarantee.] Three people I've given it to, years and oceans apart, reported back that it had become their favorite novel of all-time.

"Which one do I read next?" they all ask, so swiftly converted. (Often they're not even done with the book and already they're planning ahead. Anxiety has set in, a debilitating abandonment neurosis symptomatic of the last hundred pages.) Tell them, "Take your pick." The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, The Hotel New Hampshire, A Widow for One Year...

This summer, John Irving will publish Until I Find You, possibly his most personal book to date. "Here it is my eleventh novel," he considers, "but I think this character, Jack Burns, is more fully developed than any character in any novel I've written."

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Dave: The Fourth Hand offered a much more abbreviated vision of its characters' lives than we typically see in your books. We don't meet Patrick and Doris until they're adults.

John Irving: The Fourth Hand was a novel that came from twenty years of screenwriting concurrently with whatever novel I'm writing. It was a vision of a book, like a movie, that did not have the passage of time as a major or minor character. For that reason, it was more manageable, shorter.

Until I Find You, which has been six-and-a-half years in the works, is a lot more like The Cider House Rules or A Prayer for Owen Meany. It has that scope, that passage of time, that circumference about it. It's a bildungsroman; it's about the overall education of a character. The childhood is principal.

Dave: Those screenplays would seem to give you a useful detachment from projects that otherwise demand immersion for very long periods of time.

Irving: They do. I think it's all to your advantage that you can step away from something as many times as you can, but it's very hard to have the discipline to do that.

If you're writing along and it's going well and everything is flowing consecutively, are you going to get up one morning and say, "God, this novel is going swimmingly. I think I'll put it in a drawer and not look at it for two months"? No. It's hard to do that. I don't have the discipline to do that. But when these other projects are floating out there, these screenplays in varying degrees of completion, they give you the option to turn away.

Screenplays don't go into production because of the writer, the way novels do.Screenplays don't go into production because of the writer, the way novels do. You don't know when that interruption is going to occur. You don't know whether it's going to last two months or three months or four months, but when it happens, given the nature of how they make movies, you have to give in to it. You have to leave whatever novel you're writing; you have to put that to the side.

The first time that happened, I deeply resented it. When I went back to that novel, however, I saw things about it that I never would have seen if I had been focused on that project alone. So I recognized the virtue of being interrupted.

For that reason alone, I love the existence of these screenplays in my life. They have, beginning with A Prayer for Owen Meany, improved my novels. I keep interrupting them and coming back to them and seeing things I never would have seen.

Dave: I saw in the Times that you learned how to tattoo while researching material for the new book. Did you have any talent for it? You actually applied a tattoo, right?

Irving: I did, but I have to confess: I have no talent for it, and I feel very badly for the woman whose forearm I mangled.

The research in my novels is pretty carefully delineated. I have to do it: the OB-GYN with Dr. Larch in The Cider House Rules, the orthopedic surgery in A Son of the Circus, the business of granite quarrying and being a body escort in A Prayer for Owen Meany, even the prostitutes in A Widow for One Year. I feel I have to be the dutiful journalist. I have to put myself in the hands of someone whose life that is and learn it. You just have to know that stuff or you shouldn't write about it.

It works in well with my system; namely that I have to know everything of emotional importance about a novel, especially where it ends, before I even think about writing the first sentence. So while I'm taking notes it's good to have these research projects; it's good to have to learn about something you didn't know before — in this new novel's case, not just the tattooing but church organ music, how an organ works...

In many ways, the novelist in my time that I feel most connected to is Michael Ondaatje, who does the same thing. He makes it a given of every new book that he has to become a student of something; he has to learn something. I've always felt that way.

With every book you go back to school. You become a student. You become an investigative reporter. You spend a little time learning what it's like to live in someone else's shoes.

Dave: Your books never feel like journalism though, and maybe that's because you've completed the research before starting the fiction. That's somewhat unusual among novelists.

Irving: The research is the easy part. Anybody can do research. The plotting of the novel, writing the ending before you write anything else, which I always do — I don't know that everybody can do that. That's the hard part.

The research is easy. We all went to school, for God's sake.The research is easy. We all went to school, for God's sake. We know how to do it. It's time consuming, but one shouldn't be given credit for it; one should only be held accountable when one hasn't done it. It's not difficult. It just takes time.

Anyone can learn about something, but to know where a book ends, to feel the ending, to write the last four or five pages so that you know what the tone of voice is, what the combination of melancholy and sorrow or whatever should be you've got to know that. Or I do. It's like a musical note that you're aiming toward for the next five or six years.

When all of that stuff is in place, not just the research but the tone of voice and where you're going, why it is at the end of the story that something has happened that makes it worthwhile to have told the story in the first place, once you know that, it's liberating. When you start writing a novel, you don't want to be distracted by what's going to happen. In my case, I know what's going to happen. It's all worked out. I know everything about it. Okay, maybe I don't know every little transition in the middle of the story, but I certainly know who the main characters are and when they meet and when their paths cross again, and I certainly know the ending; I especially know the ending.

When I start a novel, it might be eighteen months, even two years after I've been taking notes, doing research on that novel. The important thing to me is that I already know the story. The story has already happened — it's as if I'm retelling something that already exists. It exists in my mind, anyway. It's over.

When I begin a novel I don't want to be thinking about When does Nancy see Fred again? I know when Nancy sees Fred again. All I want to be thinking about is, How good is this sentence? Was it long? Should it be followed by another long one? Should it be followed then by another short one? That's all I want to be thinking about.

Dave: Are there parts of that process that have become easier for you?

Irving: I've become more comfortable about the patience, about how long the process takes. You could ask a tennis player or a skier or a boxer, whomever: you're not as patient when you're younger as you are when you get older.

I'm never rushing, that's all. I just feel like, Take your time. Just take your time. That's something I've learned. There's no point in being in a hurry to do something.

Dave: If you're dedicating so much time and energy to the quality of each sentence, how is it to have such a large portion of your audience reading you in translation? What is it like to have someone else putting your words into new sentences under your name?

Irving: That's a good question because surely more than half of my income is from works in translation. I have a very simple rule: In the case of every foreign publisher, I want to meet the acquisitions editor; I want to talk to him or her. I want to know how good his or her English is. That's the person who's overseeing the translation. You don't want someone overseeing the translation whose English isn't pretty impeccable.

All I can say is, it works. If I meet with a publishing house and there isn't anybody in that house that can speak or understand English, who is going to oversee the translation? You have to feel that somebody there gets the vernacular and is going to be dogged about the translation. I can't do it — I don't know these languages — but what I can do is be persistent about saying, "Excuse me. I haven't met the person at your publishing house whose English impresses me. Show me that person." That's all you can do.

Dave: So much of A Prayer for Owen Meany revolves around various examples of cultural cataloging: Congregationalist and Episcopalian and Anglican; middle class and upper and lower; American and Canadian... Then the townspeople each have an alter ego they're known through their roles in the productions that have been staged locally over the years.

Taking sides is a big part of the novel, taking a stand. I grew up in Massachusetts, and I wondered, Is that particular to New England, do you think?

Irving: You're asking me? You came from Massachusetts? How long have you been in Oregon?

Dave: Out of Massachusetts for fifteen years.

Irving: And how old are you?

Dave: Thirty-five.

Irving: I have a son your age. Don't you find that the people where you live are a lot friendlier and more open than the people you grew up with?

Dave: Definitely.

Irving: I'm glad you didn't hesitate.

Dave: Just last night I quoted a line from the movie of The Cider House Rules. I love when the boy asks what an immigrant is, and March tells him, "Someone not from Maine." I thought, Exactly.

Irving: It's true. And it's my line, god damnit — it's not in the novel, but it's my line.

I lived five years in the Midwest, and I loved it. The people were so nice. The people were so open. There's an enormous uptightness in the part of the world we both come from, and for sure it's reflected in not just Owen Meany but in most of my novels with a New England setting.

There's a judgmental strain here. Politically, you can love it. I mean, especially in the case of the last election — even New Hampshire was a blue state. How about that? Who would have figured that New Hampshire would ever be a Democratic state?Who would have figured that New Hampshire would ever be a Democratic state? What a surprise. But there's a level of suspicion, nastiness toward foreigners, whatever, which is so bizarre given that the principal industry of New England is tourism.

Dave: I spent a lot of time in Maine when I was young...

Irving: Me, too. I grew up in New Hampshire, but I spent every summer in Maine.

Dave: Where were you?

Irving: Boothbay Harbor; Georgetown; Damariscotta — midcoast.

Dave: I've always thought it's something about being tucked up in the corner of the country. To leave, you have to pass through New York City, which is a nightmare by car; the alternative is to drive hundreds of miles through upstate New York and not get anywhere fast.

I lived in Maine the winter before I moved here. We were in a small town, among people who were native to the area. The majority hadn't made the three-hour trip to Boston in years and years

If you don't live in a tourist town, which is to say on the coast or a lake, you might not see "immigrants" for years at a time.

Irving: I agree. But there's also the Puritan thing here, the sense that we're not a part of the rest of the country, we're apart from it, we're special. And in some ways, politically, that may be admirable, but in other ways the sense of privileged isolation, I don't know how healthy that is.

Portland [Oregon] has always struck me as a place where young people who were bored with wherever they came from go.

Dave: That's fair.

Irving: Do you think?

Dave: It's how I got here, at least in part.

Irving: But New England is a place where old people from New York and Boston go to retire.

Dave: Or their families have been living there for generations. Or they come for college, stay into their twenties, then go somewhere else to settle down.

Irving: Something like that.

In my case, my family is here. My roots are here. I live here. But do I love it? No, I don't. I find a lot of fault in it. But then, hey, that's what I'm supposed to do: I'm a writer. Anyplace that I'm familiar with, if I don't find fault with it, I'm brain-dead.

Dave: Cider House Rules took so long to get made as a film — thirteen years, right? You've talked about how you had to reduce the time frame, all the changes...

Given the scope of what a movie can accomplish in two or three hours, could a screenplay satisfy you to the same degree as a fully realized novel?

Irving: Notwithstanding the difficulties of getting Cider House made, I find the film enormously gratifying. I loved working with the director, Lasse Hallstrom, and I love that film. I feel as good about that film as I do about that novel. I'm not kidding.I feel as good about that film as I do about that novel. I'm not kidding.

Any film from any long novel, any complicated novel, is going to be a compromise, but most of the compromises between novel and film in the case of Cider House were made by me — I was the one who truncated; I was the one who compressed; I was the one who brought that screenplay down to film-time size.

The collaboration was a really good one, and I'm happy to know the people that I met in that process. I'm working with some of them still on other film projects. It was an extremely positive experience.

Dave: And that's so unlike novel-writing, which almost by definition is an isolated experience; it's not collaborative, and it doesn't give you access to other peoples' ideas and skills that you might, frankly, lack.

Irving: What I do, my principal creative endeavor, is solitary. You're right. That's what I do. It's also true that that's what I love about it: I love being alone most of the time.

But occasionally that collaborative project and I would stress occasionally is exciting because of how solitary my principal creative endeavor is. When there is that occasional film endeavor, I love it all the more.

If that were my day job? I would shoot myself. I would hate it. But as a respite, as change, it's great.

Dave: Nick Hornby writes a column in the Believer magazine called "Stuff I've Been Reading." Each month, he lists books that he's bought and books that he's read, and that forms the basis of his column.

He's a big fan of Dickens. In a piece about David Copperfield, he admitted, "For the first time since I've been writing this column, the completion of a book has left me feeling bereft."

Similarly, there is something about a John Irving novel, a familiar feeling when you get within fifty or sixty pages of the end; you start reading slowly, taking breaks, because you don't want the characters to leave your life.

Irving: Yes. I certainly hope so. If you can't construct an emotional attachment between the reader and your character, then to me you ought to be writing 115-page novels, which can be admired strictly for their lucidity of prose and their minimalism. I don't, as a rule, write short books.

This book I've just completed... it's three-hundred twenty thousand words. To give you some perspective, A Son of the Circus, my longest book until now, was two hundred fifty-eight thousand words. This is a long book. This is eight hundred twenty-six book-pages.

Why do you keep reading it? Because you are emotionally engaged. Because you care about what happens to the people. That idea is not an intellectual one. That idea goes back to the nineteenth century novel and says, The reason we are entertained, the reason we want to keep going, is that we have an investment in these people.

That would suggest that the people have been in some way realistically created, that the novel is not an intellectual, discursive exercise, that it is a creation of characters whom you want to follow and that there is a story, a plot, that has engaged you. This is not part of the twentieth century mantra.

Dave: You might argue that in too many twentieth century novels, the author writes about emotions instead of eliciting them.

Irving: I hate the twentieth century, and what I've seen so far of this one.I hate the twentieth century, and what I've seen so far of this one. The novel that made me want to write novels is that of the nineteenth century, Dickens especially, but not only Dickens; also Hardy, George Eliot. The novel has not been improved in the twentieth or the twenty-first century.

There was — I don't know, what would you call it? a poll? — about who the greatest twentieth century writer was, and the critics at Time magazine chose Joyce. Spare me. Okay, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — nice book. The rest of it? Self indulgent, intellectual crap. It's graduate student-ese, the stuff that people who are now writing for magazines remember from their graduate school courses.

Give me a break. Are you going to go on a long trip and take Ulysses? Are you going to go on a long trip and read Finnegans Wake? It's bullshit. No, you want to read a book, you read something by Dickens, you read something by George Eliot, you read something by Thomas Hardy, not some self-indulgent, intellectual onanism.

Dave: You've said that Dickens would be a screenwriter today. Why?

Irving: I didn't mean that he wouldn't also be an author, but the storytelling possibilities are just too good. He was involved in amateur theatrics. What better description of filmmaking do you have?

Dave: What does a movie offer you in terms of possibilities that a novel doesn't?

Irving: Nothing. The exercise is fun. It's interesting, and I have some people now that I trust, that I like to work with. And I like movies. But my day job is writing novels. Now and then, not just among my novels but originally or in terms of other adaptations, I see things that would work well as movies — but it's a sidebar.

Dave: You've been quite outspoken about learning a lot about life from wrestling. What has writing taught you about life? What lessons have you taken from writing that you've applied away from your desk?

Irving: Revision, probably. Rewriting is surely three-quarters of my life as a writer, and it may be the part of my life as a writer that I value the most or have the greatest confidence in. Fine tuning, fine tuning, fine tuning — I love it. There was a lot of that in wrestling, too: drilling, repetition, doing something that wasn't natural until it became second nature.

I guess that would be it. I think that whatever people do, they don't do it enough. They don't give it one more look or two more looks or three more looks, and the advantage of re-looking at something is huge. But most of our culture, it's in such a hurry; the idea of painstakingly going back over something a tenth time or a fifteenth time — I mean, that's not what we do.But most of our culture, it's in such a hurry; the idea of painstakingly going back over something a tenth time or a fifteenth time — I mean, that's not what we do. That is the virtue that I have learned, both from wrestling and from writing. You can't go over anything enough. You can't.

Dave: So how do you know when a novel is finished? At what point do you say you're done?

Irving: Usually it's because somebody says, "Enough already."

It's never me. I could just keep going. But usually someone says, "We have to print galleys on the thirty-first of March." That's usually what happens.

Dave: What novels that are unlike anything you'll ever write have made the greatest impression on you?

Irving: Vonnegut's. I don't write at all like Vonnegut, I don't think at all like Vonnegut, but I love Kurt Vonnegut. He was a great teacher and a great supporter of mine.

When I discovered him in Iowa City there were so many snobs there who would say, "Oh, he's a science fiction writer." I thought, He's also incredibly readable and funny and right about everything. He isn't a science fiction writer; he's writing about what the fuck is going to happen to us in the next twenty or thirty years.

I just thought he was wonderful. I loved working with him. He was that older man/mentor that I had been seeking. He was fantastic.

Dave: Is there a topic or an interest that occupies a lot of space in your brain that hasn't yet made it into a book?

Irving: I can't imagine that there is something. Everything has made its way into a book.

I can't think of anything.

Dave: What got into Until I Find You that wasn't in the previous books?

Irving: Psychologically, emotionally, there may be more of myself in Until I Find You than there was in previous books, no small part of the reason being that I wrote the novel in the first-person voice. It was my first first-person novel since A Prayer for Owen Meany, and then in April of last year I decided, No, it's got to be in the third-person, and I converted it.

Part of the reason was that it was my feeling that it was too personal. From a writing point of view, personal isn't always a good thing to be. It means sloppy; it means a lack of control; it means attenuation.From a writing point of view, personal isn't always a good thing to be. It means sloppy; it means a lack of control; it means attenuation. Do you know what I mean? I know it's not the answer to the question you asked.

Dave: What do you think people will be talking about when Until I Find You is published? What will surprise people or catch their attention?

Irving: It's a novel about the whole life of a character. Here it is my eleventh novel, but I think this character, Jack Burns, is more fully developed than any character in any novel I've written, by which I mean that the experiences of his childhood and his youth, his young adulthood, create a kind of forgiveness or sympathy for who he becomes as an adult. I think I've never grounded a character so realistically in a childhood and adolescence as I have this one.

But we live in a prudish, stupid country. We live in a country virtually without a culture. And there isn't anything in the arts film, painting, novels — that can be reviewed without the issue of good taste, so to speak, being brought to bear. Given the sexual explicitness of this novel, I can't imagine that half of the critics, the so-called good taste police, will resist calling it prurient or pornographic. But I don't think readers are going to balk at that.

It's not only a divided country because of Mr. Bush's war in Iraq; it's a divided country culturally, and this is an explicit and a dysfunctional novel. A lot of people will simply be turned away. Aren't we the only country in the world that could have been offended by that brief millisecond of Janet Jackson's breast? Aren't we the only country in the world that could engender a half-time show at a Super Bowl with an aging Beatle — my age! — because he couldn't possibly offend anyone? You're talking about a dog-stupid culture here.

Dave: To sell half or more of your books overseas certainly gives you some freedom to work outside that.

Irving: But it makes a difference to me as an American that the country has been not only so divided, but that the divisiveness of the country has been so encouraged by the present administration, that as an advanced country we're just so lagging behind, that we're just so out of it. It bothers me as an American that we're just so stupid.

Dave: Multnomah County was more than seventy percent blue in the last election. It's an interesting place to live in that respect because if you don't get out of town often enough you start losing touch with what the rest of the country is actually like.

Irving: That's a little like Vermont, too. You forget that.

It's horrendous. Why do so many people care about gay marriages? How do gay marriages affect those of us who have heterosexual unions? How are we threatened? Mind-boggling. I thought the real endangerments to heterosexual marriages were other women or other men, or maybe spousal abuse. Wife beating — how about that one? When the president talks about the sanctimony of marriage, why doesn't he address that? He's a fucking moron. You can quote me on that.

John Irving spoke from his Vermont home on March 16, 2005.

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Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The World According to Garp Used Mass Market $2.50
  2. Hotel New Hampshire Used Mass Market $3.50
  3. Ulysses (Vintage International) Used Trade Paper $8.95
  4. A Son of the Circus
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  5. David Copperfield
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  6. The Polysyllabic Spree Used Trade Paper $3.95
  7. My Movie Business: A Memoir New Trade Paper $16.00

  8. My Movie Business: A Memoir New Trade Paper $16.00

  9. The Fourth Hand Used Trade Paper $3.50
  10. Prayer for Owen Meany
    Used Mass Market $2.95
  11. A Prayer for Owen Meany
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  12. A Son of the Circus
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  13. The Fourth Hand Used Trade Paper $3.50
  14. Until I Find You: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  15. Until I Find You: A Novel
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  16. The World According to Garp
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  17. The Cider House Rules
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  18. A Widow for One Year
    Used Trade Paper $3.71
  19. Last Night in Twisted River
    Used Hardcover $4.95

  20. Prayer for Owen Meany
    Used Mass Market $2.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

4 Responses to "Finding John Irving: The Powells.com Interview"

    fahrender November 19th, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    Finnegan's Wake. sorry, John. a bit of a challenge, yes, especially for the Oprah crowd, but definitely rewarding for somebody willing to turn off the tube and the Ipod. so it's not for the beach or flights to St. Kits but there are marvels there.

    The World’s Longest Book July 26th, 2010 at 2:05 am

    Dave: And that's so unlike novel-writing, which almost by definition is an isolated experience; it's not collaborative, and it doesn't give you access to other peoples' ideas and skills that you might, frankly, lack.

    i disagree. i'm creating the world's longest book at the moment and it's going to be one Massive collaboration. although i suppose it isn't on continuous story.... anyway it here if you want to check it out http://www.worldslongestbook.webs.com/

    Dr. K – Orthopedic Surgeon March 6th, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I've enjoyed reading your work. I can tell you that as a specialist in
    hip replacement surgery
    , your description in A Son of the Circus was spot on.

    Arthur Mitchell December 18th, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    John Irving's personality (the Interview) is like a wrestler's unafraid, strong, bold, confident,& so on, and a man whose company I might enjoy on a fishing trip; I'm no expert on Irving's books as having read but two: Cider House Rules, which I enjoyed, and The World According to Garp, which I feel totally over-rated and clumsy in style, a waste of time, but I finished it. Hotel New Hampshire, one of the very few books out of hundreds, to have tossed after 50 pages; another bore, and after WATG, I learned my lesson. Also his opinions are far from fact: James Joyce, a Post Modern trail blazer, whose Portrait of the Artist definitely, to me, did not a strain a gut to develop his premise and uniqueness, as did TWATG, & is a far, far superior literary achievement IMHO.

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