Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Conversation with John Irving

By R.B. Moreno

American novelist John Irving sat down tonight with Oregon’s Willamette University (where I studied nonfiction as an undergraduate). Born in New Hampshire and schooled at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Irving is perhaps best known for The World According to Garp (1978), for which he won the National Book Award in 1980, and The Ciderhouse Rules. Both works later became films. Irving’s 12th and latest novel is Last Night in Twisted River (2009), a story whose plot he's been contemplating for two decades -- longer than any other.

Professor Gretchen Flesher Moon, head of Willamette’s English Department, posed questions to silver-haired Irving before an audience of several hundred. He began by explaining his process, which centers on first composing each novel’s last sentence -- “a kind of backwards roadmap.”

On the drafting process:

“You can’t do much as a writer, in the way of foreshadow, unless you know how it ends.”

On language:

“I love punctuation.”

On an obsession with tragic characters:

“If you want to write something about someone who’s been very lucky, make it a short story.”

On a theme driving many of his stories:

“Something violent ensues, and from that everything unfolds.”

On phobias:

“All writers are afraid of unconsciously plagiarizing something.”

On imitating nineteenth century writers in modern prose:

“A fairly safe thing to do.”

On the perils of having an encyclopedic memory:

“I read a lot of medical things.”

On Hemingway’s influence on American literature:

“Dragged to the depths of boredom.”

On what literature does best:

“Take a character behaving badly and make him or her human, sympathetic.”

On copy editing:

“There are so few editors who edit anymore. And so few authors who care.”

On whether his characters always conform to his plot:

“Was Ahab asking for trouble?”


  1. Love it! Thanks Raul!

  2. I think one of the most amazing and terrifying things about writing is that a story can live inside you for so long. Kind of like a giant snowball rolling soooo slowly down the hill that finally gathers enough momentum. But how long will it take? Why won't now be its time? It can be so frustrating, but patience is a virtue even in writing. A story will be written when it wants to be. Slowly I learn this.

  3. Well said, Boomka. Patience is hard to come by in this world.