There are many authors whom I love, but there are few that I adore as much as I adore John Irving. I was fairly late to reading his books, despite being brought up in a family of fans, and began with A Prayer for Owen Meany. That book changed me in ways I still have yet to articulate but, suffice to say, it placed Irving on my top authors list. Several months ago, my husband bought me tickets to Denver’s Pen and Podium series, which kicked off with John Irving earlier this week, and it is quite possibly the best gift I will ever receive from him. Being in the same room as Irving was such a treat and I left with a much deeper appreciation for his writing.
The event was was a one-on-one conversation with the moderator, who admitted to calling out sick every time a new Irving book came out. They quickly dove into Irving’s latest book, Avenue of Mysteries (read my review here), and why the process of writing it was different from previous books. It turns out, Avenue of Mysteries spent 20 years as a screenplay that never made it to the screen, thanks to certain laws in foreign countries that prevented stories that portrayed children in a negative light from being produced. After multiple attempts to find a suitable filming locale, Irving started adapting the screenplay to a novel, rather than the other way around.
This tied into the conversation about his writing process overall, which is to write in longhand and always begin with the ending in mind, for, “if you don’t know how your voice sounds at the end of a story, how do you know where to begin?” Unsurprisingly, this comment resulted in an audible wow from the audience. He when on to share why, although he loves the theater, he could never write a play (he’s too visual) and reminisced about the days when he only had two hours a day to write. He always thought that if he had more time, he would do great things and, although he did, he admits the shift to full-time writing (around the time of The World According to Garp) was harder than he had anticipated. He also shared anecdotes about his time in Iowa, where he met Kurt Vonnegut, who became a friend and mentor who would smoke cigarettes on his front porch every morning until Irving opened the door to let him in for coffee (his son would count them and try to figure out how long he was out there).
He is also a man of convictions. He spoke about why, and how, he tackles a variety of politically-charged topics, such as abortion and the rights of the LGBT community. He was very clear that he has sides and comes down on them, pointing out that he will not accept invitations to states that have sued the federal government over the transgendered bathroom laws. He responded to an attendees’ question about the sexual explicitness of non-heterosexual sex in The Cider House Rules by bluntly asserting that perhaps people’s problems with the explicitness isn’t about the explicitness itself, but rather that they don’t like who people are being explicit with, an opinion he believes is wrong in and of itself. Regardless of whether you agree with him or not, it is clear he is not afraid to share his opinions with the world.When you are able to see your favorite author live, everything is better. For @thebookwheel, that was John Irving. Click To Tweet
He was also asked about his legacy (which he doesn’t think about because, “it’s like spending the middle years of your life inscribing your tombstone”), how society has progressed since The World According to Garp (not much or he wouldn’t be discussing it), and what he’s loving right now (The Nix by Nathan Hill). He lamented the fact that feminism and LGBT rights have not progressed as much as he would like, and divulged that he turned down a 1982 film of The World According to Garp because he knew that the transgender character would be “treated as a joke.” He shared that while he thinks LGBT rights are, as a whole, better, they are not where they need to be and it’s too early to declare victory. It was clear from his passionate monologues that social equality is important to him and my guess is that he’s not done writing about it.
He’s also not done writing about worst-case scenarios and the perils of children, both of which intrigue him. In particular, he’s drawn to stories about children who have a turning point or pivotal moment in their formative years that make make them who they become as an adult. This is one of the reasons he has a hard time adapting his books into film – most of his books have a character looking back as an adult, and when you do this in film it requires two people to play the same character (the adult and the child versions), which breaks the emotional connections. In addition to children, many of his books also feature writers, which he prefers because writers can get away with a certain degree of dreaminess and have active imaginations, which allows them to get into troubles that would be implausible with any other type of character.
And for those who think Irving is all doom and gloom, he readily admits it. As a writer who is inspired by 19th century writers (but doesn’t mimic because that’s impossible to do successfully), he is drawn to what bad things could happen, and then wonders how he can make them worse. After all, he said, if you’re going to invest 12 years in a book, it may as well be dreadful. Even so, he describes himself as both a tragic and comic writer, for he is prone to writing witty one-liners right before someone is killed. He also pointed out something that I never realized before but that he was absolutely right about – people are more touchy about humor than sex. People get so caught up in being offended that they oftentimes forget (or don’t realize) something was a joke, and it gets people into trouble. I, for one, have been in trouble for saying something I thought was funny that others did not.
After 90 minutes of listening to the incredible John Irving, I left a better reader and, dare I say, person. Not only do I have a renewed respect for Irving the writer, I’m amazing by all that he has accomplished. I had no idea that he was also a successful screenwriter (where have I been?) and while I knew he wrestled, I didn’t know that he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Knowing how he writes his books and where he draws his inspiration from has only deepened my appreciation for him and I am even more of a loyal Irving fan than I was before, which was a big one. If you are so inclined, I highly recommend you check out some of his interviews so that you can be as captivated by his husky, thoughtful, and dignified theatrics as I was.