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John Irving

Born in Exeter, New Hampshire, John Irving (1942-) majored in English at the Philips Exeter Academy in his native town, then, attended the University of Vienna in Austria and graduated from the University of New Hampshire (1965). He later enrolled at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop (1965-1967) where he received instruction from Kurt Vonnegut. At Iowa, he developed a Master of Fine Arts thesis that became his first published novel, Setting Free the Bears (1968). Irving taught at the Writers' Workshop from 1972 to 1975.

John Irving in Iowa City

On March 13, 2008, the online publication The Iowa Independent published the following report titled “John Irving Immortalizes Iowa City in Upcoming Novel” by T.M. Lindsey:

Albeit a work-in-progress, award-winning author John Irving’s upcoming novel, Last Night in Twisted River, pays homage to his old stomping grounds at the University of Iowa. Irving, 66, gave Iowa Citians a taste of his newest novel effort Wednesday night by reading the 10th chapter of the book, which takes place in Iowa City during the late ’60s when Irving attended the famous UI Writers’ Workshop. Irving also taught in the workshop from 1972 to 1975.
The event was originally scheduled to take place in the Van Allen Lecture Hall on the UI campus, but due to the overflow crowd and potential fire hazard, the event was moved to another venue a minute before the 8:15 pm start time. The announcement prompted Irving aficionados to take to the streets of Iowa City and head toward the Pappajohn Business Building with the hope of commandeering a seat for the legendary alumni writer. The mass exodus of people momentarily shut down traffic on Dubuque Street as the literary mob, undeterred by the threat of jaywalking charges, blindly marched across one of the main downtown arteries.
Irving was introduced by Samantha Chang, director of the Writers’ Workshop, who started with a quip about the last-minute venue change. “It’s great to see 500 people walking in Iowa City who aren’t going to a football game,” Chang told yet another overflow crowd at Buchanan Auditorium. Chang began by telling a story about her induction into Irving’s fictitious world, when she read The World According to Garp in the eighth grade. First published in 1978, Irving’s fourth novel became an international bestseller and cultural phenomenon, catapulting Irving’s writing career by guaranteeing him bestseller status for all of his subsequent books. Garp won the National Book Foundation’s award for paperback fiction and was later adapted into a film starring Robin Williams and Glenn Close. The film garnered several Academy Award nominations and features a cameo by Irving, who plays an official at a high school wrestling match. Chang said her debut experience with Garp served as a blueprint for a novelist’s life and she always knew she wanted to be a writer, but she didn’t know what that really meant. “T.S. Garp, the book’s protagonist, is a writer, and his life is not always glamorous. He spends some mornings at home reading the phone book. He was committed; he had that driving necessity that pushes so many other pursuits out of a writer’s life,” Chang said. “Garp also gave me an artistic truth that I pass on to my students: Writers only learn by coming to the end of one thing and coming to another thing.”
Picking up the narrative strand where Chang left off, Irving joked about the venue change as well. “This building is unsuitable, and we’re moving to another building on the other side of campus,” Irving said sarcastically to the audience, some of whom were packed in the stairwell and the auditorium floor. “I’m sorry that some of you are uncomfortable. Just wait.” In lieu of reading the first chapter of the novel as a means of hooking his audience, Irving chose to skip forward to the 10th chapter, promising that the chapter stands alone and needs little explanation. He described the book as a fugitive novel about a boy and his father, ages 40 and 61, who are on the run, but Irving didn’t tell the audience why or who they are on the run from. Chapter 10, titled “Lady Sky,” is a flashback to 1967, when the father, Danny, is in his final year of the Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa, and his boy, Joe, is a loquacious 2-year-old. The scene takes place in Iowa City at a pig farm rented by University of Iowa art students just outside of the city limits.
Before he began reading the chapter, Irving issued an autobiographical disclaimer. Because he uses a number of elements from his life in his novels, readers and critics have wondered which parts are fictitious and which ones are autobiographical. Those familiar with Irving know this irks him to no end, thus prompting the disclaimer. Danny drinks excessively, whereas Irving says he never drank in excess while at Iowa, nor did he do anything as excessive as Danny. “Although it is true that I was a life-drawing model as an undergraduate student, but it is not true that I met my first wife in this context, or that she and I were both models for the life-drawing class,” Irving confided to the audience. Moreover, Irving told the audience that, like the main character Danny, he was a “Kennedy father” during the Vietnam War era. “For those of you who don’t know what a Kennedy father is, it is not one who has fathered more children than the Kennedys,” Irving joked. “Relatively early in the Vietnam War, President Kennedy issued an executive order that granted deferments to fathers.” Irving joined the officer-training program in Pittsburgh in 1961 and would have, more than likely, been sent to Vietnam after graduating from Pittsburgh University in 1965. But after graduation, Irving married his first wife and had a son. “I didn’t feel lucky at the time, but disappointed,” Irving said. “I wanted to be a writer, so I wanted to see what the war was like. I didn’t go the war, and years later I discovered just how lucky I was,” Irving admitted. His son is now in his 40s and has children of his own. “Every once in a while, when we get into an argument, my son will say, ‘Don’t forget who kept you out of Vietnam.’”
Finally, before Irving began reading the chapter, he informed the audience about an element of his writing craft, while simultaneously giving them instructions on how to listen to the piece. “I always write the last line to a novel before I begin the first chapter,” Irving said. “Similarly, in a set piece like this one, or in a very specific scene which this is, I always have an end phrase in mind that I am writing toward. I know what it is before I begin, and I am going to tell you what it is before we begin this episode. I want you to keep it in your minds as this scene unfolds, remembering the end phrase in my mind when I wrote this. That way, we’ll both know when the reading is over,” Irving joked. “The phrase is ‘Dead in the road.’”

In Irving’s own admission, he learned this method from Graham Green, “the most accomplished living novelist in the English language,”[fn]Irving, John. The Imaginary Girlfriend. New York, Ballantine Books, 2002, p. 31.[/fn] who wrote in The End of the Affair: “So much of a novelist’s writing […] takes place in the unconscious: in those depths of last word written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story; we do not invent them.”

The Imaginary Girlfriend

 

Irving is among the rare few writers who have written extensively about their time and the people they met in Iowa City and used Iowa City as the background of their novels.[fn]Irving, John. The Imaginary Girlfriend. New York, Ballantine Books, 2002, p. 99-109.[/fn]

IN IOWA—I was a student at the Writers’ Workshop from 1965 until 1967—Vance Bourjaily befriended me, but Vance was not my principal teacher. For a brief moment I tried working with Nelson Algren, who—except for the unnamed Instructor C from my unsuccessful days in Pittsburgh—represented my first encounter with a critic of an unconstructive nature. I was attracted to Mr. Algren’s rough charm, but he didn’t much care for me or my writing. I was "too fancy” a writer for his taste, he told me; and, worse (I suspect), I was not a city boy who’d been schooled on the mean streets. I was a small-town boy and a private-school brat; I was even more privileged than Algren knew—I was a “faculty brat.” The best tutor for a young writer, in Mr. Algren’s clearly expressed view, was real life, by which I think he meant an urban life. In any case, my life had not been “real” enough to suit him; and it troubled him that I was a wrestler, not a boxer—the latter was superior to the former, in Mr. Algren’s opinion. He was always good-natured in his teasing of me, but there was a detectable disdain behind his humor. And I was not a poker player, which I think further revealed to Algren the shallowness of my courage.

My friend, the poet Donald Justice (a very good poker player, I’m told) once confided to me that Mr. Algren lost a lot of money in Iowa City—coming down from Chicago, as he did, and expecting to find the town full of rubes. He took me for a rube—and certainly I was—but he caused me no lasting wounds. Creative Writing, if honest at all, must be an occasionally unwelcoming experience. I appreciated Mr. Algren’s honesty; his abrasiveness couldn’t keep me from liking him.

I would not see Nelson Algren again until shortly before his death, when he moved to Sag Harbor and Kurt Vonnegut brought him to my house in Sagaponack for dinner. Again I liked him, and again he teased me; he was good at it. This time he claimed not to remember me from our Iowa days, although I went out of my way to remind him of our conversations; admittedly, since they have been few and brief, it’s possible that Algren didn’t remember me. But in saying goodnight he pretended to confuse me with Clifford Irving, the perpetrator of this notorious Howard Hughes hoax; he appreciated a good scam, Mr. Algren said. And when Vonnegut explained to him that I was not that Irving, Algren winked at me—he was still teasing me. (You shouldn’t take a Creative Writing course, much less entertain the notion of becoming a writer, if you can’t take a little teasing—or even a lot.)

But, thankfully, there were other teachers in Iowa. I was tempted to study with José Donoso, for I admired his writing and found him gracious—in every way that Nelson was not. Then, upon first sight, I developed a schoolboy’s unspoken crush on Mr. Donoso’s wife; thereafter I could never look him in the eyes, which would not have made for a successful student-teacher relationship. And so my principal teacher and mentor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop became Kurt Vonnegut. (I once had a brawl in a pool hall—convincingly demonstrating, although never to Nelson Algren and not in his presence, that wrestling is superior to boxing—because a fellow student at Iowa, a boxer, had called Mr. Vonnegut a “science-fiction hack”; this false charge was made without the offending student’s having read a single one of Kurt’s books, “only the covers.”)

Did Kurt Vonnegut “teach” me how to write? Certainly not; yet Mr. Vonnegut saved me time, and he encouraged me. He pointed out some bad habits in my early work (in my first novel-in-progress), and he also pointed out those areas of storytelling and characterization that were developing agreeably enough. I would doubtless have made these discoveries on my own, but later—maybe much later. And time, to young and old writers alike, is valuable.

Later, as a teacher—I taught at the Workshop from 1972 until 1975—I encountered many future writers among my students at Iowa. I didn’t “teach” Ron Hansen or Stephen Wright or T. Coraghessan Boyle or Susan Taylor Chehak or Allan Gurganus or Douglas Unger how to write, but I hope I may have encouraged them and saved them a little time. I did nothing more for them than Kurt Vonnegut did for me, but in my case Mr. Vonnegut—and Mr. Yount and Mr. Williams—did quite a lot.

I’m talking about technical blunders, the perpetration of sheer boredom, point-of-view problems, the different qualities of first-person and third-person voice, the deadening effect of exposition in dialogue, the crippling limitations of the present tense, the intrusions upon narrative momentum caused by puerile and pointless experimentation—and on and on. You just say: “You’re good at that.” And: “You’re not very good at this.” These areas of complaint are so basic that most talented young writers will eventually spot their mistakes themselves, but perhaps at a time when a substantial revision of the manuscript might be necessary—or worse, after the book is published.

Tom Williams once told me that I had a habit of attributing mythological proportions and legendary status to my characters—he meant before my characters had done anything to earn such attribution. (The same could be said of Garcia Marquez, but in my case Mr. William’s criticism was valid.) And Kurt Vonnegut once asked me if I thought there was something intrinsically funny about the verbs “peek” and “peer.” (What would be “intrinsically funny” about verbs? I thought. But Mr. Vonnegut meant that I overused these verbs to a point of self-conscious cuteness; he was right.)

When I was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Gail Godwin was a student there, and the future (1989) National Book Award winner, John Casey, was in my class—Gail and John were “taught” by Kurt Vonnegut, too.

Mr. Casey recently reminded me that Ms. Godwin was, upon her arrival in Iowa City, already a writer to take seriously. Casey recalled how Gail defended herself in the parking lot of the English & Philosophy Building from the unwanted attention of a lecherous fellow student, who shall remain nameless.

“Please leave me alone,” Ms. Godwin warned the offending student, “or I shall be forced to wound you with a weapon you can ill afford to be wounded by in a town this small.”

The threat was most mysterious, not to mention writerly, but the oafish lecher was not easily deterred. “And what might that weapon be, little lady?” the lout allegedly asked.

“Gossip,” Gail Godwin replied.

Andre Dubus and James Crumley were also students at the Writers’ Workshop then. I remember a picnic at Vance Bourjaily’s farm, where a friendly pie-fight ensued; Dubus or Crumley, bare-chested and reasonably hairy, was struck in the chest by a Boston cream pie. Who threw the pie, and why, escapes my ever-failing memory—I swear I didn’t do it. David Plimpton is a possible candidate. Plimpton and I were wrestling teammates at Exeter—he was the team captain a year ahead of me—and our being together in Iowa seemed an unlikely irony to us both.

These were the days before the fabulous Carver-Hawkeye Arena; the Iowa wrestling room was up among the girders of the old fieldhouse. Dave McCuskey was the coach; he was friendly to me, but ever-critical of my physical condition. I was capable of wrestling, hard, with Coach McCuskey’s boys, but only for three or four minutes; then I needed to sit down and rest on the mat with my back against the wrestling-room wall. McCuskey frowned upon this behavior: if I wasn’t in shape to go head to head with his boys for “the full nine minutes,” then I shouldn’t be wrestling at all. I was content to shoot takedowns until I got tired; then I’d rest against the wall—and then I’d shoot a few more takedowns. Coach McCuskey didn’t like me resting against the wall.

David Plimpton, who was out-of-shape as I was, also enjoyed sparring with Coach McCuskey’s Iowa wrestlers. Plimpton told me that McCuskey was similarly disapproving of him. From Plimpton’s and my point of view, we were making a contribution: we were offering our aging bodies as extra workout partners for McCuskey’s kids. But it was Coach McCuskey’s wrestling room; he set the tone—and I respected him. No resting against the wall. As a consequence, my appearances (and Plimpton’s) in the Iowa wrestling room were sporadic—I went there only when I wanted to punish myself.

A happy solution might have been for Plimpton and me to wrestle together, but Plimpton had been a 191-pounder at Yale (when I’d been a 130-pounder at Pitt); we’d both put on 15 to 20 pounds since then, but we couldn’t wrestle together—there was about a 60-pound difference between us.

Seven years later, when I would go back to Iowa to teach at the Writers’ Workshop, the wrestling room was still in the girders of the old fieldhouse but the atmosphere in the room had changed. Gary Kurdelmeier, a former national champion for Iowa in 1958, was the head coach. In ’72, Kurdelmeier’s new assistant coach arrived in Iowa City—Dan Gable, fresh from a Gold-Medal performance in the Munich Olympics at 149.5 pounds. In Kurdelmeier and Gable’s wrestling room, there were lots of “graduate students” (as Plimpton and I had been in 1965-67) and other post college wrestlers. The years I taught at the Workshop (1972-75) were the beginning of Iowa’s dominance of collegiate wrestling under Dan Gable.

Brad Smith, Chuck Yagla, Dan Holm, Chris Campbell—they were all in the Iowa wrestling room at that time, and they would all become national champions. That wrestling room was the most intense wrestling room I have ever seen; yet Gable and Kurdelmeier were happy to have you there, contributing—even if you were good for no more than two minutes before you had to go rest against the wall. In that room, two minutes was all I was good for.

At several of Iowa’s dual meets, I sat beside the former Iowa coach Dave McCuskey, who was retired; as fellow spectators, Coach McCuskey and I had no philosophical differences of opinion. Everyone admired Gable: with three national collegiate titles at Iowa State (just one loss in his entire college career), he drew a crowd—not only at Iowa’s matches but in the wrestling room. Everyone wanted to wrestle with him—if only for two minutes. In those years, I generally chose easier workout partners, but there were no easy workout partners in that Iowa room. Like everyone lese, I couldn’t resist the occasional thrill (and instant humiliation) of wrestling Dan Gable. I never scored a point on him, of course. In this failure, I was in good company: in the 1972 Olympics at Munich, where Gable won the Gold Medal, none of his opponents scored a point on him either.

To win the Olympics in freestyle wrestling without losing a single point is akin to winning the men’s final at Wimbledon in straight sets, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0; or perhaps a four-game sweep in the World Series, while holding the losing team scoreless. It’s rarer still that Gable’s dominance as a wrestler has undergone the transiting from competitor to coach with equal success: in 1955, Iowa won its fourth NCAA title of the last five years—and its fifteenth national championship of the last 21. In ’95, Iowa also captured its 22nd straight Big 10 crown; I believe that’s a record for consecutive collegiate championships—in any conference, in any sport. Out of 10 weight classes, the ’95 Iowa team advanced seven wrestlers to the semifinal round of the NCAA tournament. Ever the perfectionist, Dan Gable was disappointed: Iowa’s 150-pounder and 190-pounder were both defending national champions—in the finals, they both lost.

It’s always the wrestling I remember; it marks the years. My memories of being a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and of being a teacher there, frequently intermingle; I even confuse my fellow students with my students. But I can manage to sort out the years (not only in Iowa) by the workout partners that I had, and by recalling who the coach was—and in which wrestling room I worked out. And possibly it is a testimony to the practical, businesslike atmosphere of the Writers’ Workshop that I remember my student days and my teaching days as much the same. I felt fortunate to be at Iowa—in both capacities.

Irving has maintained a strong interest in both writing and the wrestling programs at the University of Iowa, and has been enormously helpful in assisting The University and its recruiting endeavors through his enthusiasm for these programs. He continues to celebrate his Iowa connection both in his novels and with his periodic campus visits. In 2005, Irving was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.

The University of Iowa Main Library possesses a typewritten letter by John Irving, dated August 29, 1974, which is a response to an invitation by Judith Hendershot, Director of Educational Placement, to take a vacant position at Carother’s Community College. Irving’s letter speaks volumes about his confidence, voice, and positive attitude to the University, even before he became a famous and respected novelist:

 

Dear Ms. Hendershot,
Do not think you can fool me. I know very well that the last three appointments made in the Rhetoric Department at Carother’s Community College all died of snakebite – in the classroom. Under the circumstances, I prefer to stay at the University of Iowa, where my greatest suffering is from electrical failures and the occasional assaults of unruly fans. I assume, Ms. Hendershot, that you are not unruly and I very much appreciate having you as a fan. In fact, yours is the only fan letter I have received in two months, and the last fan letter before yours was the sort of letter I’d almost prefer not to receive. It was from someone identifying himself as Master Sgt. Edelmann, U.S. Army Intelligence, who used for his stationary the backside of old bombing-surveillance maps of H8ungary. He wrote: “The Army is short of paper these days, ha-ha!”

 

I’m glad to note that I may reactivate my file at any time. I may indeed be doing that, later this fall. I have moved twice a year for the last ten years; this is a difficult habit to break. My third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage, will be published by Random House in October of this year. It is, I believe, my best work, and I hope you will like it as well as the others [Ms. Hendershot says in her letter that she read his first two novels].

 

Sincerely,
John Irving
Visiting Lecturer

 

Irving's Literary Walk Plaque

 

John Irving’s plaque on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk reads: “To each other, we were as normal and nice as the smell of bread. We were just a family. In a family even exaggerations make perfect sense.”

It is a quote from The Hotel New Hampshire (Dutton, 1981). The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) is Irving’s 5th novel that followed the great success of his fourth and breakthrough novel The World According to Garp (1978). His first three novels didn’t enjoy commercial success nor the reviewers’ praise. The first one, Setting Free the Bears (1968), he wrote while being a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The second and third also happened to have connections to Iowa: the plot of The Water-Method Man (1972) is set in Iowa City and The 158-Pound Marriage (1975) was written during Irving’s tenure as a teacher at the Workshop.

Then came The World According to Garp (1978), the novel that propelled Irving to a national best selling author status and, thus, national prominence. Almost anyone you ask today about Garp will tell you that they remember it and that it is a great novel. The novels by Irving that appeared throughout the following three decades are, chronologically: The New Hampshire Hotel (1981), The Cider House Rules (1985), A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), A Son of the Circus (1994), A Widow for One Year (1998), The Fourth Hand (2001), Until I Find You (2005), and Last Night in Twisted River (2009). He also published a memoir, The Imaginary Girlfriend (1996).

Four of Irving’s novels were turned into movies. In 1984, director Tony Richardson made the film The Hotel New Hampshire after the novel of the same name, starring Rob Lowe, Jodie Foster, and Nastassja Kinski. After ten years of work, Irving himself wrote the screenplay for the movie The Cider House Rules and received a 2000 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie, directed by Lasse Hallström, was shot and released in 1999, starring Michael Caine, Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron and Delroy Lindo. In 1998, the director Mark Steven Johnson wrote a screenplay suggested by A Prayer for Owen Meany and directed the movie called Simon Birch. In 2004 a portion of A Widow for One Year was adapted for the screen by director Tod Williams under the title The Door in the Floor, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger.

John Irving is considered among the most imaginative and entertaining contemporary American writers since Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. An exceptional storyteller, whose intelligent novels appeal to both academic and mainstream readers alike, Irving dismisses any demarcation between high literature and popular fiction and asserts the primacy of plot and content over style. In his novels one finds an amalgam of recurring themes, such as New Hampshire, wrestling, Vienna, Iowa, bears, deadly accidents, adultery, incestuous desires, sexual violence, sexual relationships between young men and older women, and other shocking or unusual circumstances. As many critics note, Irving’s work effectively merges the realism and morality of the conventional novel with the sophisticated metafictional techniques of postmodern writers, especially through the frequent use of texts within texts and flashbacks.

John Irving: Writer and Wrestler

John Irving’s two passions that mark his entire life are writing and wrestling.

He described their influence on him in The Imaginary Girlfriend: [fn]Irving, John. The Imaginary Girlfriend. New York, Ballantine Books, 2002, p. 132, 153-161, 124-126.[/fn]

I taught Creative Writing, at one place or another, for a total of 11 years; yet I continued to coach wrestling long after the publication of The World According to Garp freed me of the financial need for an outside job. I coached until 1989, when I was 47, not only because I preferred coaching to teaching but for a variety of other reasons; the foremost reason was the success of my two elder sons in the sport. […]

My involvement with wrestling has been widely misunderstood, even among my friends. John Cheever was a friend to me when we both taught at Iowa; he was a fan of Italian cooking, as I am, and we used to watch Monday Night Football at my house in Iowa City over a dish of pasta. Cheever once wrote a letter to Allan Gurganus in which he said: “John has always struck me as having been saddened by the discovery that to have been a captain of the Exeter wrestling team was a fleeting honor.”

Mr. Cheever was terribly correct, and often right about many things: he once warned me that it was a weakness in my writing that I described sexual acts and people consuming food, for these things were best enjoyed when not described; yet he mistook whatever had “saddened” me for the wrestling, the honors of which were never “fleeting” to me. Long after I stopped competing—and after I stopped coaching, too—the discipline remained. (My life in wrestling was one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline. I believe that my life as a writer consists of one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline, too.)

[…] I have no doubt that I have learned more from wrestling than from Creative Writing classes; good writing means rewriting, and good wrestling is a matter of redoing—repetition without cease is obligatory, until the moves become second nature. I have never thought of myself as a “born” writer—anymore than I think of myself as a “natural” athlete, or even a good one. What I am is a good rewriter; I just know how to revise, and revise.

And for me to continue coaching wrestling, when there was no longer any financial need, was not a strain; coaching was never as time-consuming as teaching. […] Another factor, the videocassette recorder, has entered the world of coaching—the coaching of any sport. To my knowledge, there is no such handy tool available for Creative Writing classes. [With the recorder] I had a backup: the camera made my criticism valid.

There is no such indisputable backup in Creative Writing classes; frequently the student who perpetrates the deeply flawed story is adored and supported by his or her peers. A teacher’s triumphs are few. You say: “When the father drops dead with an apple in his mouth while urinating on the front fender of his mother-in-law’s car … uh, well, I just had trouble seeing it.” Whereupon the student breaks into tears and confesses that this actually happened to her own father, in exactly the way she described it; and there then must follow, always unsatisfactory, the timeless explanation that “real life” must be made to seem real—it is not believable solely for the fact that it happened. The truth is, the imagination can select more plausible details than those incredible-but-true details that we remember.

This is a tough sell to students rooted in social realism and young writers without the imagination to move beyond autobiographical fiction—namely, to that host of first novelists who treat a novel as nothing but a thinly masked rendition of their lives up to that point.

Nor are the earliest efforts young writers make to escape autobiographical fiction necessarily successful. A student of mine at Iowa—a brilliant fellow, academically; he would go on to earn a PhD in something I can’t even pronounce or spell—wrote an accomplished, lucid short story about a dinner party frm the point of view of the hostess’s fork.

If you think this sounds fascinating, my case is already lost. Indeed, the young writer’s fellow students worshiped this story and the young genius who wrote it; they regarded my all-too-apparent indifference to the fork story as an insult not only to the author but to all of them. Ah, to almost all of them. For I was saved by a most unlikely and usually most silent member of the class. He was an Indian from Kerala, a devout Christian, and his accent and word order caused him to be treated dismissively—as someone who was struggling with English as a second language, although this was not the case. English was his first language, and he spoke and wrote it very well; the unfamiliarity of his accent and the cadence, even of his written sentences, made the other students regard him lightly.

 

Into the sea of approval that the fork story was receiving, and while my "but …" was repeatedly drowned out by the boisterous air of celebration in the class, the Indian Christian from Kerala said, “Excuse me, but perhaps I would have been moved if I were a fork. Unfortunately, I am merely a human being.”

That day, and perhaps forever after, he should have been the teacher and I should have given my complete attention to him. He is not a writer these days, except on the faithful Christmas cards he sends from India, and the annual photograph of his increasing family, he writes in a firm, readable hand: “Still merely a human being.”

On my Christmas cards to him, I write: “Not yet a fork.” (I used to say this to my students in Creative Writing: the wonderful and terrifying thing about the first page of paper that awaits the first sentence of your next book is that this clean piece of paper is completely unimpressed by your reputation, or lack thereof; that blank page has not read your previous work—it is neither comparing you to its favorite among your earlier novels nor is it sneering in memory of your past failures. That is the absolute exhilarating and totally frightening thing about beginning—I mean each and every beginning. That is when even the most experience teacher becomes a student again and again.)

And what about the fork author—where is he today? In Boston, I believe; more pertinent, he’s a published novelist—and a good one. I much admired his first novel and was overall relieved to see that the characters in it were human beings—no cutlery among them.

Alas, these generally pleasant memories should not conceal the fact that I must have played the Nelson Algren role to more than one of my writing students. I’m certain that I’ve hurt the feelings of young writers who were more serious and gifted than I judged them to be. But just as Mr. Algren didn’t harm me by his blunt and (I think) unfair assessment, I doubt that I have harmed any real writers; real writers, after all, had better get used to being misunderstood.

When it happens to me, I just remind myself of what Ted Seabrooke told me: “That you’re not very talented needn’t be the end of it.”

I’ve heard many of my fellow writers say that a writer must make it on his own and not lean on the university for assistance; they say that a writer who teaches for his daily bread—so that he’s not putting financial burdens on his writing—is not a real writer … only hedging his bets. But in my own experience I wanted my writing to be free from the pressure to publish it too soon—free from the need to make a living from it. Friends who were constantly interrupting their novels-in-progress to write for magazines, or who published novels badly in need of rewriting because they needed the advances, have suffered the constraints of time and money as, truly, I never did.

Nowadays, nothing angers me as much (from my fellow writers) as to see those fortunate souls who are self-supporting in the writing business make their insensitive pronouncements at various Creative Writing programs across the United States. In the presence of good writers who teach for a living, these best-selling authors are fond of denouncing the university as too safe a haven; they frequently urge student writers to make it on their own—even, hypocritically, to starve a little. This is idle hypocrisy, of course; it is doubly hard to tolerate when the proselytizing author is expensively well tailored and riding a multibook contract in 25 languages.

Creative Writing courses are an economic necessity for writers in this country; for the writers who teach them, they are essential to their lives as writers. And for those few students who truly benefit from them, they are a gift of encouragement and time; writers—young writers, particularly—need more of both.

There is a quandary here, however, not every writer can or should teach Creative Writing. Many of my writer friends are simply too standoffish for the requisite social contract of the job; some are preternaturally uncomfortable in the presence of “young people”—many more are too thin-skinned to endure the nastiness of English Department politics.

Our Childhood is Stolen from Us[fn]Irving, John. Until I Find You. Garp Enterprises Ltd., (published in New York © 2005, by Random House).[/fn]

 

“No adult in my family would tell me anything about who my father was—not until I was thirty-nine and divorcing my first wife. This was an immeasurable gift to my imagination; I have been inventing my father most of my writing life. And I had sex with an older woman when I was eleven; in Until I Find You, Jack is ten. This is not without effect. As a teenager, and into my twenties and thirties I had an attraction to older women that I couldn’t understand or explain. I am an overprotective father—even a paranoid one. But human experience is individual. I am a novelist and occasional screen writer because I don’t believe in generalizations; I believe in specific stories.” (© 2005 by Garp Enterprises, Ltd) 

 

Irving has always known it would be a fugitive story about a cook and his son on the run, but couldn't come up with the last sentence. "When I got it, I thought, ‘Oh you idiot. This took 20 years?'" recalls Irving. "When I make a road map of the action of the novel, once I have that last sentence then I make my way to where I believe the book should begin. By the time I get to the first sentence, I don't know everything, but I know all the action. I know who meets whom when, I know where their paths cross again, I know who dies and how and when—all those things are worked in."

Irving was also certain the book would be set in a frontier environment: a fishing village or community of lobstermen. He settled on a logging camp, a way of life that no longer exists in New England. This setting gave birth to Ketchum, the book's most memorable character, a libertarian, gun-toting river driver who tries to protect the cook and his son from the cop.

"I know a lot of guys like Ketchum who are permanently angry, who are neither liberals nor conservatives, who certainly are neither Democrats nor Republicans, who just think that everybody in charge of everything is an asshole. But I don't think I know one, from beginning to end, as well as I know Ketchum." His words echo a scene in the novel where Danny, now a novelist himself, tells a journalist that "so-called real people are never as complete as wholly imagined characters," a sentiment with which Irving agrees.

"I've known very few people in real life as intimately, with as many revelatory details, as I know characters I've written about or even characters I've read about," he says. "I know more than a few women who have committed adultery, but the adulteress I understand best is Emma Bovary ... There might be many a son who feels disappointed in or betrayed by his own mother, but maybe not quite in the way that Hamlet must have felt. Maybe not that way. You see? And I'm sure there were many old, vain, needing-to-be-appreciated fathers who chose the affection of the wrong daughters and ignored the affection he should have understood from the right one. I think there's been more than one Lear."

But there's been only one Kurt Vonnegut. The late author makes an appearance, as a fictional version of himself, in the novel, when Danny studies at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, just as Irving did. Unlike Danny, who has only a brief relationship with the writer, Irving was a lifelong friend with Vonnegut, who died in 2007.

"One of the things Kurt Vonnegut said to me when I had my first conference—he'd read a third of Setting Free the Bears, and he said (and he was being completely sarcastic), he said ‘I think this is really great, but I don't know why you hold back so much.' I was a kid, and I just kind of thought, ‘What is this guy, nuts?' Then he broke into this big smile and said, ‘Just kidding.' I thought, ‘Oh, he gets it. He gets it!'" The it being Irving's often-indulgent writing style, for which he has been criticized and which he brushes off. It's undeniable: Irving writes long books. Last Night in Twisted River weighs in at 554 pages - 50,000 words shorter than The Cider House Rules; 81,000 words shorter than A Prayer for Owen Meany; 110,000 words shorter than his last novel, Until I Find You. Irving says he imagines his books will keep getting shorter as "my memory deteriorates, which it is." But he scoffs at the idea of retiring. "I can't imagine [writing] ever gets old, or that it will. I don't know how much I want to be around if it doesn't give me that feeling," he says. "I don't plan to retire. I'd rather just drop dead doing it. And I expect I will."

 

 

Text by: Zlatko Anguelov