Irving in Warsaw, Poland, 10-09-2006
|Born||John Wallace Blunt, Jr.
March 2, 1942
Exeter, New Hampshire
|Notable work(s)||The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany|
|Notable award(s)||Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay|
Irving achieved critical and popular acclaim after the international success of The World According to Garp in 1978. Some of Irving's novels, such as The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, have been bestsellers and many have been made into movies. Several of Irving's books (Garp, Meany, A Widow for One Year) and short stories have been set in and around Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire where Irving grew up as the son of an Exeter faculty member, Colin F.N. Irving (1941), and nephew of another, H. Hamilton "Hammy" Bissell (1929). (Both Irving and Bissell, and other members of the Exeter community, appear somewhat disguised in many of his novels.)
Irving was in the Exeter wrestling program both as a wrestler and as an assistant coach, and wrestling features prominently in his books, stories and life.
He won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for 1999 for his script of The Cider House Rules.
Irving's career began at the age of 26 with the publication of his first novel, Setting Free the Bears. The novel was reasonably well reviewed, but failed to gain a large readership. In the late 1960s, he studied with Kurt Vonnegut at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. His second and third novels, The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage, were similarly received. At around this time, in 1975, Irving accepted a position as Assistant Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College.
Frustrated at the lack of promotion his novels were receiving from his first publisher, Random House, Irving offered his fourth novel, The World According to Garp (1978), to Dutton, which promised him stronger commitment to marketing. The novel became an international bestseller and cultural phenomenon, and was a finalist for the American Book Award (now the National Book Award) for hardcover fiction in 1979 (the award went to Tim O'Brien for Going After Cacciato). Garp won the National Book Foundation's award for paperback fiction the following year. Garp was later made into a film directed by George Roy Hill and starring Robin Williams in the title role and Glenn Close as his mother; it garnered several Academy Award nominations, including nominations for Close and John Lithgow. Irving makes a brief cameo in the film as an official in one of Garp's high school wrestling matches.
Garp transformed Irving from an obscure, academic literary writer to a household name, and his subsequent books were bestsellers. The first was The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), which sold well despite mixed reviews from critics. Like Garp, the novel was quickly made into a film, this time directed by Tony Richardson and starring Jodie Foster, Rob Lowe, and Beau Bridges.
In 1985, Irving published The Cider House Rules. An epic centered around a Maine orphanage, the novel's central topic is abortion. Many drew parallels between the novel and Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. Irving's next novel was A Prayer for Owen Meany, another New England family epic centered around religion set in a New England boarding school. The novel was influenced by The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the works of Dickens. In Owen Meany, Irving for the first time examined the consequences of the Vietnam War - particularly mandatory conscription, which Irving avoided because he was a married father when of age for the draft. Owen Meany became Irving's best selling book since Garp, and is now a frequent feature on high school English reading lists.
Irving returned to Random House for his next book, A Son of the Circus (1995). Arguably his most complicated and difficult book, and a departure from many of the themes and location settings in his previous novels, it was dismissed by critics but became a national bestseller on the strength of Irving's reputation for fashioning literate, engrossing page-turners. Irving returned in 1998 with A Widow for One Year, which was named a New York Times Notable Book.
In 1999, after nearly ten years in development, Irving's screenplay for The Cider House Rules was made into a film directed by Lasse Hallström, starring Michael Caine, Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, and Delroy Lindo. Irving also has a cameo appearance as the disapproving stationmaster. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and earned Irving an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Soon after, Irving wrote My Movie Business, a memoir about his involvement in creating the film version of The Cider House Rules. After its publication, Irving appeared on the CBC Television program Hot Type to promote the book. During the interview, Irving criticized bestselling American author Tom Wolfe, saying Wolfe “can’t write,” and that his writing makes Irving gag. Wolfe appeared on Hot Type later that year, calling Irving, Norman Mailer and John Updike his “three stooges” who were panicked by his newest novel, A Man in Full.
When The Fourth Hand was published in 2001 it became a bestseller. A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, a children's story originally included in A Widow for One Year, was published as a book with illustrations by Tatjana Hauptmann in 2004. Irving's novel, Until I Find You, was released on July 12, 2005.
On June 28, 2005, The New York Times published an article revealing that Until I Find You contains two specifically personal elements about his life that he has never before discussed publicly: his sexual abuse at age 11 by an older woman, and the recent entrance in his life of his biological father's family.
Since the publication of Garp made him independently wealthy, Irving has been able to concentrate solely on fiction writing as a vocation, sporadically accepting short-term teaching positions (including one at his alma mater, the Iowa Writers' Workshop) and serving as an assistant coach on his sons' high school wrestling teams. (Irving was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as an “Outstanding American” in 1992.) In addition to his novels, he has also published Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, a collection of his writings including a brief memoir and unpublished short fiction, My Movie Business, an account of the protracted process of bringing The Cider House Rules to the big screen, and The Imaginary Girlfriend, a short memoir focusing on writing and wrestling.
In recent years, his three most highly regarded novels, The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, have been published in Modern Library editions. Owen Meany was adapted into the film Simon Birch (Irving required that the title, and character names, be changed because the screenplay's story was "markedly different" from that of the novel; Irving is on record as having enjoyed the film, however). In 2004, a portion of A Widow for One Year was adapted into The Door in the Floor, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger.
In a New York Magazine interview in 2009, Irving stated that he has begun work on a new novel, based, in part, on a speech from a play by Shakespeare, "Richard II." The novel is tentatively titled, "In One Person."
Recurring themes in Irving's work include New England, prostitutes, wrestling, Vienna, Iowa, bears, deadly accidents, a main character dealing with an absent or unknown parent, a main character who is involved in film making, sexual relationships between young men and older women and other variations in sexual relations. Severing of body parts (tongue, finger, other) appears in several novels.
|Title||New England||Prostitutes||Wrestling||Vienna||Bears||Deadly accident||Absent Parent||Film-making / Screen Writing||Sexual variations|
|Setting Free the Bears|
|The Water-Method Man||adultery|
|The 158-Pound Marriage||swinging, ménage à trois, adultery|
|The World According to Garp||asexualism, rape, pedophilia, transsexualism, swinging, adultery|
|The Hotel New Hampshire||rape, gang rape, older woman/younger man, incest, homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality|
|The Cider House Rules||lesbianism, adultery, rape, incest, bestiality|
|A Prayer for Owen Meany||asexualism, incestuous desires|
|A Son of the Circus||transsexualism, homosexuality|
|A Widow for One Year||older woman/younger man, rape, lesbianism|
|The Fourth Hand||
older woman/younger man
|Until I Find You||older woman/younger man, lesbianism, pedophilia|
|Last Night in Twisted River||older woman/younger man, Ménage à trois|
Irving has often used the literary technique of a story within a story. In addition, his novels have a character who is a writer.
In 1964 Irving married Shyla Leary, whom he had met at Harvard in 1963 while taking a summer course in German, before traveling to Vienna. They had two sons, Colin and Brendan, and divorced in the early 1980s. In 1987 he married Janet Turnbull, who had been his publisher at Bantam-Seal Books and is now one of his literary agents. They have a teenage son, Everett. Irving has homes in Vermont, Toronto, and Pointe au Baril.
Irving's biological father, whom he never met, had been a pilot in the Army Air Forces and during World War II was shot down over Burma, but survived (an incident incorporated into the novel The Cider House Rules). Irving did not find out about his father's heroism until 1981.
Book Magazine, July/August 2001 ("John Irving Wrestles Fate" by Dorman T. Shindler)
Pages Magazine, July/August 2005 ("The Creative Crucible" by Dorman T. Shindler)
Eighth Series, ed. George Plimpton, Penguin, 1988, ISBN 0-140-10761-4