One of a few modern best-selling writers who also has literary stature, John Irving (born 1942) rose to prominence in 1979 with his fourth novel, The World According to Garp. His novels have combined 19th century traditions with modern-day melodrama, sex, and random violence. In 2000, his screenplay adaptation of The Cider House Rules won an Academy Award.
Beginnings in Academic Life and Wrestling
Born John Wallace Blunt, Jr., in Exeter, New Hampshire, Irving grew up in academia. His mother, Frances, and father, an Army Air Force pilot, divorced before Irving was born and at age six Irving's mother remarried. Her new husband adopted Irving, giving him the name he is known by today. Absent parents played major roles in Irving's later novels, but in real life Irving grew up satisfied to have his stepfather and never met his biological father. His stepfather, Colin, taught history at the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy. Irving enjoyed the rights of a faculty child, gaining automatic entry into Exeter, despite his poor grades. It was years before anyone realized he suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia.
During his time at Exeter, Irving took up wrestling, and it became a lifelong pursuit that spilled over into his novels. Beyond being an integral part of his novels, Irving credited wrestling with preparing him for life. Comparing writing and wrestling, Irving explained to Joan Smith of the on-line publication Salon, "I think what success I've had is more a testimony to my stamina, to my ability to work hard and work long than it is to any talent I would consider God-given or natural." Irving said that he loved wrestling because it was the first thing he was good at. He has often spoken of his first coach, Ted Seabrooke, as a major influence on his life.
After graduating from Exeter in 1961, Irving followed his interest in wrestling to the University of Pittsburgh. The following year, Irving transferred to New Hampshire and won a grant to study in Europe in 1963-64. He chose the University of Vienna Institute of European Studies because it seemed an exotic atmosphere, a place where he found a sense of anonymity and learned to "pay attention." Austria was central to Irving's first five novels.
In August 1964, Irving married photographer Shyla Leary whom he had met in Cambridge. He re-enrolled in the University of New Hampshire (where he had briefly studied earlier) in 1965. His first son, Colin, was born the same year Irving received a B.A. degree cum laude. Irving would point to the importance of becoming a father and how it later shaped his view of the world as a dangerous place. He told People's Kim Hubbard, "I think the anxiety of being a parent—that's really been my sense of myself." While at New Hampshire, Irving had two short stories published—"A Winter Branch" in a 1965 issue of Redbook and "Weary Kingdom" in a 1968 Boston Review.
Now fully focused on writing, Irving moved his family to Iowa so he could attend the prestigious University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. Once there, he studied with Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut. Setting Free the Bears, published in 1968, was well reviewed but sold modestly. It was the first of several books in which bears would play a key role.
After earning his M.F.A. in 1967, Irving had a university writing career that spanned ten years. It included grants from Rockefeller Foundation in 1972, the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1974, and the Guggenheim in 1976. Over the coming years, Irving would teach at Windham College in Putney, Vermont; Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts; the Writer's Workshop in Iowa; and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. He helped make ends meet by coaching wrestling.
Following the release of Bears, Irving lived in Putney, Vermont, and in Vienna. His second son, Brendan, was born in 1971 and Irving wrote his second novel, The Water-Method Man, in 1972. He admitted to Marcus Griel in a December 13, 1979, Rolling Stone interview that he had "wanted to write a book, if I could, with a happy ending, because I didn't feel I had a happy ending in me, and I wanted to get one. I wanted to write a book that was absolutely comic." In her book John Irving, Carol Harter declared that this second novel was an enormous improvement over his first. She praised Irving's strong characters, fine control of tone, successful manipulation of point of view, and dramatic shifts in time sequence. She was not alone in her critical praise, but Irving enjoyed little reward in the way of sales. He worked as a writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa from 1972 to 1975.
Irving patterned his third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage, on Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier and John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges and in the process grew more comfortable with first person narration. But some critics consider it one of his weaker novels. The Los Angeles Times's Michael Harris wrote in 1994, "In retrospect [The 158-Pound Marriage] seems the thinnest and meanest of his books. Its wife-swapping American academics lack seriousness, and Irving lets his contempt for them show."
Literary Acclaim Achieved
Despite his past critical acclaim, no one could have predicted the meteoritic rise Irving would experience when his fourth novel, The World According to Garp, was released in 1978. Irving became an immediate sensation and was able to leave academia and become a full-time writer. Garp was a family saga of the admirable hero T. S. Garp, a writer and father, and the illegitimate son of a nurse turned radical feminist. The novel was a complex interweaving of several life stories, filled with the steadying influence of the New England coastline. Its plot featured such surprises as a pro-football player-turned transvestite family friend, along with several catastrophic events. The novel was wildly popular and in 1980 was awarded the American Book Award for best paperback novel of 1979.
Irving's first marriage ended in 1981, as his career continued to soar. His next book, The Hotel New Hampshire, shared the reach of Garp, following the life arcs of a family full of quirky characters, while maintaining a comic-satiric tone.
After Hotel, Irving wrote some less convoluted novels. The Cider House Rules, published in 1985, was almost entirely a birth to death narrative. But Cider House stood out from his earlier novels in another way—it was a polemic, taking on the issue of abortion, filled with detailed descriptions of abortion and the depressing reality of unwanted pregnancies. "[It] not only imitates the form of a Victorian novel, it may be the most Victorian novel of our times," said Harris of the Los Angeles Times. A Prayer for Owen Meany, published in 1989, was called Irving's "second breakthrough," by Harris. The novel followed the lifespan of Owen Meany, a Christ-like figure, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Some critics considered it his best novel.
In answer to questions about how autobiographical his novels were, Irving dismissed the notion, "I can invent more interesting characters than most people I know," he stated at a question-and-answer session at New York's 92nd Street Y in 2001. "In the world of writing about writers, personal experience is, in my view, always overestimated, and the imagination is almost always devalued." On other occasions, however, Irving also acknowledged the autobiographical themes present in his novels of absent parents and lost children, and that his grandmother was the model for Harriet Wheelwright in A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Books Became Films
At the same time Irving became a best-selling author, his celebrity-status increased because of films based on his novels. His unusual characters and event-filled novels attracted attention as potential screenplays. The World According to Garp was made into a film of the same name starring Robin Williams in 1982. In 1984 The Hotel New Hampshire followed. One project, Simon Birch, was a failed attempt at adapting Owen Meany, and lost Irving's endorsement. Irving finally got the chance to adapt one of his novels to screen with The Cider House Rules. In 1999, he documented his turn to scriptwriting and the 13-year struggle he undertook to bring Cider House to the screen in My Movie Business: A Memoir.
Irving remarried in 1987. His second wife, Janet Turn-bull, was a publisher at Bantam-Seal books when she met him and, after their marriage, became his literary agent and first editor. In 1991, their son Everett was born.
Critics sometimes pointed to Irving's writing as pandering to his audience. "I've read about myself that I am not to be taken seriously because I am a shameless entertainer, a crowd pleaser," he told Richard Bernstein of the New York Times. "You bet. I am. My feeling is I'm not going to get you to believe anything if I can't get you to finish the book. I have a very simple formula, which is that you've got to be more interested on page 320 than on page 32." Irving cited Dickens, George Eliot, Gunter Grass, Robertson Davies, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Salman Rushdie as his models. He believed in diligent rewriting and again pointed to the value of his wrestling discipline, saying that writing was one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline.
Believing strongly in his role as a storyteller, Irving described his approach to writing. "There's a procedure I go through when I write," he told People's Hubbard. "I always try to think: Okay, this is what you think is coming. But what would be worse?" And in another interview with New York Times's Bernstein he stated, "It is my deliberate decision to create someone who is capable of moving you and then hurting him. It's an honorable 199th-century technique." With his later novels, A Son of the Circus, A Widow for One Year, and The Fourth Hand Irving continued a remarkable career and his novels enjoyed wide appeal.
Although widely recognized for his successful career in the United States, Irving benefited significantly from his international appeal. "More than half of my audience is in translation," Irving told Salon's Smith. "'A Son of the Circus,' my last novel, sold as many hardcover copies in France as it sold in the U.S. … So my biggest market is not English language and it hasn't been in the United States for years."
In the acknowledgements for The Fourth Hand, Irving wrote: "Every novel I've written has begun with a 'What if … "' The seed for Hand came from his wife, Janet, asking a question as they watched a news story about the first hand transplant in the United States, "What if the donor's widow demands visitation rights with the hand?" Irving worked feverishly and over the next 48 hours developed the entire storyline and title overnight. In one way, this was typical for Irving, because he always knew where his books would end before starting them, then he worked back to the beginning. "At the point where I actually write that first sentence," he told New York Times's Mel Gussow, "I'm really ready to go until I drop. I'm remembering the story." The Fourth Hand was shorter than most of Irving's novels and was the first that didn't trace its character from childhood and span generations.
Irving's work on The Fourth Hand drew him away from research he was doing for a novel called Until I Find You, set in the world of tattoo artists and church organists. In 2001, plans were announced for Irving and director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules) to adapt The Fourth Hand for the screen. George Clooney was mentioned as a possible lead.
Irving maintains a strong relationship with all three of his sons. He divides his time between a rustic, hilltop home in southern Vermont overlooking the Green Mountains, a Toronto apartment, and an Ontario cottage on Georgian Bay. His routine includes sitting down eight hours each day to write and taking time out to practice wrestling. He writes his first drafts in longhand and then continues on one of many of his Selectric typewriters. Despite a prolific career, Irving seemed to be at another peak in 2001, busy on both a screenplay and a new novel. "It's funny to be 59 and busier than I was 20 years ago," he told New York Times's Gussow. " … I have never filled the day and the night so much with writing."
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Joan Smith, "The Salon Interview: John Irving," http://www.salon.com/march97/interview970303.html (October 26, 2001).
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