5 Questions: John Irving

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5 Questions is a series by Steve Duffy –

Photo credit: Jane Sobel Klonsky

Photo credit: Jane Sobel Klonsky

Irving achieved critical and popular acclaim with his 1978 novel The World According to Garp. Several of his 14 novels have been bestsellers, and five have been adapted to film, including The Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire. Irving won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his script for The Cider House Rules. He will be at Boston Symphony Hall as part of Lesley University’s Boston Speaker Series on March 23, 2016.

SD: Where do your ideas for your novels come from?

JI: They usually start in terms of a concept or an idea. It is so different each time. What is the same though is the construction of the story. I always begin with an ending. I have this notion that some life changing or formative event has happened and that has made the character who they are or that event may have placed them on a course which I take them.  I think of how often something happens to us all at a “formative age” and then I build from that. Over the passage of time, we see how important it is to their adult life.

SD:  Reflecting back on your first novel to your newest one, Avenue of Mysteries, how have you grown as a writer?

JI: Oh boy! I have always worked slowly. I have also learned to be slower, to take more time. It is said   that my novels sit around waiting to begin. My novels sit and wait while I gather storylines, character sketches and a story progression. I begin with what happens to the main character and then work backwards. As a kid and as a student, I wanted to be an actor and I even did some local amateur acting, but after reading some of the great 19th century novels I wanted to become a writer.  As a writer, I like to know what happens.   First sentences are always easy to change, but for me the last sentence shows you where you start from. I have never really had a method, but as I grow older I am even more deliberate in my writing than ever.

SD: What is the experience like for you when your novel is adapted to a film?

JI: That has been a very mixed experience for me. When I was living in Vienna around the time my second son was born, I was working with a director on writing the screenplay for “Setting the Bears Free.” He was a much older and experienced director who taught me how to write a screenplay. Unfortunately, after all our hard work Columbia Pictures ended up dropping the film. I did not see “The World According to Garp” as a film, because it was too long and the director wanted to leave out the sexual violence, anger and intolerance of the story. I kept declining the invitation to write my novels as films because I don’t see how you can properly portray the passage of time from a book to a film.  You really need to see and understand the passage of time and how it affects the character and the overall story. I am writing “Garp” for HBO as a miniseries and this time I can focus on the sexual anger and intolerance while finally having it done my way.

SD: When you think of your literary legacy, what do you hope to be remembered for?

JI: You have no control as a writer what people respond to. What draws them to your writings is their beliefs and how they were brought up. I hope that I have been able to portray the changes in the social landscapes of life. I also want to be remembered for how well they were written. My job is the architecture and construction of the story. It is the process of the story that I really tend to. I want that to be apparent with each book. I do get a little better with each novel. For me a good book is when I am focused on setting up the story and rewriting, fine-tuning and polishing the way the story should truly be told.

SD: What was the last book you read?

JI: Edmund White’s new novel, “Our Young Man.” I believe the release date is in early April. He is a great man and a great friend. We share our gallows and unpublished writings with each other. We both write a lot about sex, so that is why we may be good friends.


For more information on John visit www.john-irving.com and to purchase tickets to see him at Symphony Hall on March 23rd visit www.bostonspeakersseries.org

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