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A Writer’s Life: Novelist John Irving at BU Tonight

Will read from Twisted River and a work in progress

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Author John Irving, whose novels The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Son of the Circus have been successfully filmed for the big screen, speaks tonight at COM. Photo by Everett Irving

A former competitive wrestler, John Irving is known for his intricately plotted, lavishly populated, often heartbreaking novels. The internationally renowned novelist will be at BU tonight to read from his latest book, Last Night in Twisted River, and to discuss and read a bit from a novel-in-progress. Several of Irving’s 12 novels, among them The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Son of the Circus, have been made into successful Hollywood films.

Tonight’s talk, at the College of Communication at 7 p.m., is hosted by the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Creative Writing Program. BU Today asked Irving about his craft, his critics, and recurring themes in his work.

BU Today: What do you think is the most important quality of a good fiction writer?

Irving: If you’re going to write novels, you need to establish momentum. The longer the novel, the more that momentum is essential. A novel must be more compelling, more urgent, to the reader on page 400 than it was on page 40. Two elements give you this necessary momentum. You must be able to develop characters; the characters must grow, and the reader must be growingly involved in what’s going to happen to these characters. You have to make the reader care about your characters. The second element is connected to the characters; the story must hold the reader’s attention—first, by inviting the reader to anticipate what’s going to happen; later, by having kept something a secret from the reader. You must allow a reader to guess what’s going to happen, but the reader has to be a little wrong. Note that I’ve said “going to happen” three times in this paragraph. That is where the momentum lies: always ahead of where the reader is in the book.

You’ve said that you read and write very slowly. What advice do you have for writing students about settling into a pace and writing habits that produce the best work?

Read while you’re young—read everything you can. If you’re lucky enough that you get to be a writer, you will one day be able to write for many more hours a day than you will want to read. Given the choice between writing and reading, I write. It’s fortunate I was a good reader as a young man; I read very little now.

Is it flattering or annoying to see your style imitated by younger writers?

Flattering.

Accidents, happy or grim, are a driving force in your novels. Do you believe that accidents shape our lives?

This is a contradiction. My novels depend on accidents—ones you don’t see coming, but also ones you do see coming. Yet these accidents aren’t accidents to me; I plan them. I know the plot of the novel before I begin writing it—I write last sentences first.

Our actual lives may or may not be shaped by accidents, but my novels are very much composed of these deliberate accidents.

Do your assistants help with your research?

My assistants don’t do research; I do my own research. I write in longhand. My assistants transcribe my longhand to a computer and then print out pages for me. They also make my travel plans; they answer a lot of mail and emails.

Critics—not your favorite people—have a field day with your seeming obsession with bears. Why so many bears?

I’m not interested in critics. Bears are interesting animals, and they have a long history with human beings, whom bears in many ways resemble—in some ways, not. (Bears are not at all social.) Bears had a mystifying role in early Christian legends. Saint Ursula was called Ursula because she supposedly defended 11,000 virgins from bears. What the bears wanted with the virgins is unclear to me; I’ve read that perhaps Saint Ursula was saving these innocent girls from the perils of nature worship. That sounds like nonsense to me. I think nature worship is a lot less dangerous than Christianity.

The habit of anthropomorphizing bears was very big among Native Americans. The Ojibway Indians, in the region of the Great Lakes, thought bears were descended from humans. They thought bears were sacred—medicine men who were messengers of immortal life. That’s certainly more sensible than bothering to protect 11,000 virgins from bears. (I like bears.)

It’s sad that our country has killed so many bears in such a relatively short period of time. I believe they should be protected.

How do you feel about the profusion of memoirs and the genre itself? Is there a memoir in your future?

Most memoirs don’t interest me; I have no interest in writing one. When I do use things that have happened to me in my fiction (and not much of interest has happened to me), I always change it; I’m a fiction writer—I can improve on almost any so-called “true” story; sometimes making a story better in fiction means making it far worse.

You’ve railed against book reviewers who don’t bother to read what they review. Has this happened to you often?

Another question about critics! Many practicing critics don’t write novels; I’ve written 12. What can someone who hasn’t written one novel—or has possibly written a couple of mediocre novels—teach me about my writing? Nothing. I will keep saying this till the day I die: when you’ve written a number of novels, the process of being reviewed is often an exercise in being condescended to by your inferiors. Yes, I’ve read reviews of my novels where it’s clear that the reviewer didn’t finish the book.

I often walk out of interviews when it’s apparent that the interviewer hasn’t read my novel. Increasingly, you encounter the lazy interviewer who has gone on the internet and read “about” your book. It’s just laziness; there seems to be more of it in evidence, everywhere.

Do you have a contract to write a new novel before you’ve conceived of it?

No, never.

Which of your novels took the longest to write?

Until I Find You; it took seven years. A Son of the Circus took almost that long.

What writers, living or dead, do you admire most and why?

I love the 19th century. Dickens, first, but also Thomas Hardy; also Melville and Hawthorne. I love those long, plotted, character-driven novels. Not surprisingly, the contemporary writers I most admire are also storytellers. Rushdie, Grass, García Márquez. I liked Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections very much, and I look forward to reading his new one, Freedom. I’m not reading anything right now, because I’m trying to finish my 13th novel, but I was just in Europe—on a translation trip—and my wife was reading Freedom all the time. She just loved it. The writing in The Corrections reminded me of Flaubert and George Eliot; it was a Madame Bovary or a Middlemarch kind of novel—character-driven, which I like.

Were you involved in any of the film adaptations of your novels?

I am usually not involved in the movies adapted from my novels. The exceptions are The Cider House Rules and The Door in the Floor—the latter was adapted from the first third of A Widow for One Year. I think these films are the two best adaptations of my novels as screenplays. I wrote the Cider House screenplay, and I worked closely with Tod Williams, the writer-director of The Door in the Floor. I am working with Williams again; this time, we’re cowriting The Fourth Hand.

Most of my novels entail a considerable passage of time. The only adaptations of my novels to films that I’ve been involved in are stories where that passage of time doesn’t happen. Novels do passage of time well; films don’t handle the passage of time well.

What are you working on now?

I’m going to talk about the novel I’m writing now at BU, and read a little bit from it.

Do you still wrestle?

I’m 68. I’ve had a lot of injuries. I go to the gym every day, but I don’t wrestle anymore.

The GRS Creative Writing Program hosts a reading and talk by John Irving on Tuesday, October 19, at 7 p.m. at the College of Communication, 640 Commonwealth Ave., Room 101. The event is free and open to the public.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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