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The world according to Irving

Author John Irving. Author John Irving. (Jane Sobel Klonsky)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / September 6, 2011

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John Irving

Irving, 69, is a best-selling novelist ("The World According to Garp," "A Prayer for Owen Meany") and Oscar-winning screenwriter ("The Cider House Rules"). A New Hampshire native, he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, where he began a lifelong love affair with the sport of wrestling, and later attended the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where his mentors included Kurt Vonnegut. Irving's most recent novel, "Last Night in Twisted River," appeared in 2009; his next, "In One Person," will be published in 2012. Often compared to Charles Dickens for his sprawling, character-driven narratives, Irving divides his time between homes in Vermont and Canada. On Sept. 13, at 8 p.m., he'll speak at Salem State University. For ticket information, call 978-542-7555 or visit

Q. What will you talk about at Salem State?

A. Years ago I decided to talk to audiences like this one about the book I was writing, the one that hadn’t been published yet, so my most passionate readers aren’t disappointed by my repeating myself.

Q. Can one assume that, like your other novels, “In One Person’’ began with its final sentence? That what you’ve called your “roadmap in reverse’’ formula still applies?

A. It does. But if I thought of a better last sentence midway through, I wouldn’t hesitate to use it. This isn’t a belief system, in other words. I’ve never prescribed it as a way other writers should write, either. Still, I’ve always found it hard to start writing a book not knowing what was going to happen.

Q. In revisiting plot elements like the death of a child, you’ve said you write about the things you obsessively fear, not necessarily what’s happened to you personally. Is that true for this book?

A. 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. It’s never far into the writing process before I think, oh God, here they come again: those emotional and psychological territories you’ve explored before. That said, “In One Person’’ is probably my most political novel since “Cider House.’’ Only that and “Owen Meany’’ - one dealt with abortion, the other with Vietnam - are by my definition political. This one has a first-person narrator who’s a bisexual man, distrusted by gay men and straight women both. It’s a social-political novel asking for more tolerance of our sexual differences, I suppose.

Q. Why that subject and why now?

A. After “Garp,’’ which was also about sexual hatred and intolerance, I never thought I’d go down that road again. But here I am. Then again, when “Cider House’’ appeared, in 1985, many abortion-rights activists thought it quaint that I’d write about that subject after the battle had been won. I remember thinking, do they honestly believe it’s going away after Roe v. Wade? Did homophobia end with the Stonewall riots? No.

Q. Do you find writing screenplays much different from novels?

A. I find screenplays easy to write, my novels being very visual. You see what people look like. The physical action is described. That comes from my early influences: Dickens and Hardy and Melville. Screenplays are nothing but description. You write one by describing a movie you’ve seen but nobody else has. Yet.

Q. But you’ve also indicated you’re pretty much done with them, right?

A. The film industry today is in even worse shape than the publishing industry. Meaning the degree of risk being taken. How simply awful most movies are. At 69, I don’t see myself writing any more new screenplays. In fact, I have a couple already written that are so very much not going into production anytime soon, and which I may rewrite as novels. It’s disheartening, though, to be involved in an industry where a committee of morons, who aren’t artists, decide whether your stuff is going to make back what it costs. At 29, I could maybe play that crapshoot for another decade or so. At 69, I don’t have the time.

Q. Have you entered the modern world of author websites and social media?

A. It may sound anachronistic for someone who still writes in longhand, but I am interested in it - for an old-fashioned reason. Having an interactive website may mean I never have to do another book tour. Also, I do more interviews by e-mail now than in person, which I love. What the hell, I’m a writer. I write better than I talk.

Interview was condensed and edited. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at