The Writing World According to John Irving

irving, john

I THINK I WAS FASCINATED by John Irving’s titles long before I really plunged into the stories locked away in his novels.

After all, who can resist such books as The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, and A Widow for One Year.

Those titles intrigued me.

They made me want to open the book and see what lay scattered on pages scripted by John Irving.

I wasn’t disappointed.

For a long time, John Irving was like thousands of other writers in America.

He wrote a book.

He found publisher.

He didn’t sell many copies.

Then out of the blue, The World According to Garp was one of three books recommended to the Pulitzer Advisory Board for consideration for the 1979 Award for Fiction.

It didn’t win.

It didn’t matter.

Irving’s career was launched.

He has written thirteen novels, and nine became best sellers.

John Irving told the Paris Review: “I don’t give myself time off or make myself work; I have no work routine. I am compulsive about writing, I need to do it the way I need sleep and exercise and food and sex; I can go without it for a while, but then I need it.

“A novel is such a long involvement; when I’m beginning a book, I can’t work more than two or three hours a day. I don’t know more than two or three hours a day about a new novel. Then there’s the middle of a book. I can work eight, nine, twelve hours then, seven days a week—if my children let me; they usually don’t.

“One luxury of making enough money to support myself as a writer is that I can afford to have those eight-, nine-, and twelve-hour days. I resented having to teach and coach, not because I disliked teaching or coaching or wrestling but because I had no time to write. Ask a doctor to be a doctor two hours a day.

“An eight-hour day at the typewriter is easy; and two hours of reading over material in the evening, too. That’s routine. Then when the time to finish the book comes, it’s back to those two- and three-hour days. Finishing, like beginning, is more careful work.

“I write very quickly; I rewrite very slowly. It takes me nearly as long to rewrite a book as it does to get the first draft. I can write more quickly than I can read.”

I was intrigued when I read Irving’s book: My Movie Business: A Memoir.

Irving made a statement that startled me.

He said, “When I feel like being a director, I write a novel.”

I had never thought about it in those terms.

But when we write novels, we are our own scriptwriter and director. We cast the characters, we move the pieces of the story around like pawns on a chessboard, we are in total control.

How does John Irving, the director, assemble his story?

He told the Paris Review: “I have last chapters in my mind before I see first chapters, too. I usually begin with endings, with a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue. I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first? How do you know how to introduce a character if you don’t know how he ends up? You might say I back into a novel.

“All the important discoveries—at the end of a book—those are the things I have to know before I know where to begin. I knew that Garp’s mother would be killed by a stupid man who blindly hates women; I knew Garp would be killed by a stupid woman who blindly hates men. I didn’t even know which of them would be killed first; I had to wait to see which of them was the main character.

“At first I thought Jenny was the main character; but she was too much of a saint for a main character—in the way that Wilbur Larch is too much of a saint to be the main character of The Cider House Rules.

“Garp and Homer Wells are flawed; by comparison to Jenny and Dr. Larch, they’re weak. They’re main characters. Actors know how they end up—I mean how their characters end up— before they speak the opening lines.

“Shouldn’t writers know at least as much about their characters as actors know?

“I think so. But I’m a dinosaur.”

Irving also left us with these words of wisdom:

  • I’ve always preferred writing in longhand. I’ve always written first drafts in longhand.
  • Whatever I write, no matter how gray or dark the subject matter, it’s still going to be a comic novel.
  • 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.
  • Of all the things you choose in life, you don’t get to choose what your nightmares are. You don’t pick them. They pick you.
  • More than half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is re-writing. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.
  • Writing a novel is like searching for victims. As I write, I keep looking for casualties. The stories uncover the casualties.
  • I suppose I’m proudest of my novels for what’s imagined in them. I think the world of my imagination is a richer and more interesting place than my personal biography.

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