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What It Takes - John Irving

What It Takes - John Irving
What It Takes - John Irving
What It Takes: John Irving
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00:00:01 JOHN IRVING: I’ll begin where I always begin, which is at the end. I’ve never started to write a novel or a screenplay without knowing the ending first, and I don’t mean that I need only to know what happens at the end of a novel or a screenplay before I begin. I need to know the sentences themselves.

00:00:23 ALICE WINKLER: But I need to start at the beginning. That voice belongs to John Irving. He’s one of the finest and most widely read American novelists of the past 50 years: The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules — all his — and most recently, Avenue of Mysteries. Five of his novels have been turned into movies. Before we return to the story of John Irving’s approach to writing stories end-first, I need to say, “This is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler.”

00:01:01 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:01:07 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:01:13 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:01:18 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:01:26 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:01:34 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:01:39 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:01:52 ALICE WINKLER: I interrupted John Irving with my introduction. He was starting to explain how he never begins writing a novel without knowing first what the final sentences will be, which, if you think about it, is a little mind-boggling. So picking that back up, here’s John Irving speaking in New York to an international gathering of Academy of Achievement delegates in 2005.

00:02:16 JOHN IRVING: I need to know what the words are and the atmosphere that those words convey. I need to know how melancholic a story this is, how uplifting or not. It’s like an endnote to a piece of music. I can’t imagine where the reader should jump into this story if I don’t know where I’m going first. This is an aspect, my wife tells me, of my over-controlling nature.

00:02:46 But I am a believer in the novels of the 19th century, a plot-driven, character-based novel where the passage of time is almost as important — or as important — as any of the major/minor characters in that story; the passage of time and the effects of the passage of time on the people in that story.

00:03:11 In The World According to Garp, "We are all terminal cases," is the last sentence of that novel, but it was the first sentence I wrote. "You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed. You have to keep passing the open windows," was the first sentence I wrote for The Hotel New Hampshire, but I knew it was the end of the novel. It was the pep talk, the anti-suicide language at the end of what was a suicidal novel.

00:03:39 ALICE WINKLER: In the case of The Cider House Rules, it was a benediction, a tender phrase that the doctor at the orphanage says to the orphans every night as he turns out the light.

00:03:50 JOHN IRVING: "Princes of Maine, Kings of New England," they're anything but. They're orphans. Nobody wanted them. But he says this to make them feel better.

00:03:59 ALICE WINKLER: That line, "Princes of Maine, Kings of New England," isn’t just the last line. It’s a refrain, repeated several times in the novel, a technique John Irving is very fond of and compares to the repetitions you find in any long piece of music, in an opera or a soundtrack. John Irving’s novels are always long, and his stories famously complicated. He says the process of researching and note-taking and mapping typically takes him 18 months before he begins writing, but always, those final lines are on a postcard, tacked to the wall, because what he is doing is reconstructing the story from the back to the front, as he says, until he knows where the front is.

00:04:47 JOHN IRVING: The atmosphere at the end of a novel, if I don’t know what it is, how do I know I want to spend five years making that journey? If I don’t know that there isn’t something that is an emotional kick at the end of that story, why am I going to invest the time? The novel I’ve just finished took seven years. That’s my longest, and I hope that I don’t do that again.

00:05:08 But believe me, I never would have started if I didn’t know that there was something emotionally gratifying enough at the end of the story. Why would I take the time? Why would I take the time? At the end of The Fourth Hand, a man who’s lost a hand and a woman who’s lost a husband are making love in a Green Bay, Wisconsin hotel.

00:05:32 We don’t know what the future holds in store for them or for people like them, for people who’ve lost things. People are always losing things in my novels, not always comically, but sometimes so. This ending was on another postcard for two-and-a-half years: “Outside their warm hotel, the cold wind was a harbinger of the coming winter, but they heard only their own harsh breathing. Like other lovers, they were oblivious to the swirling wind, which blew on and on in the wild, uncaring Wisconsin night.” If I can’t hear the sentences, I don’t start. I don’t know enough yet about the story.

00:06:15 ALICE WINKLER: It would be like coming home from the airport, Irving says, and telling his wife that something amazing had happened during the landing, but without knowing what it was. He says he'd have to be a pathological liar to pull that off.

00:06:28 JOHN IRVING: I think one of the reasons that there’s so much research in most of my novels, one of the reasons I’ve become fascinated in learning about people I know nothing about: ether-addicted abortionists in Maine orphanages in the 1930s, children's orthopedic surgeons — I don’t know anything about that, or I didn’t.

00:06:50 But becoming a student of something as a process of beginning a story, it’s another way of making you wait before you start writing. You can’t start this book because you don’t know enough yet. You haven’t learned enough about obstetrical-gynecological surgery. You have to study it. You have to learn something about it. You have to find a doctor who will talk to you and a doctor who’s going to be willing to read that manuscript and say, "No, you idiot. The episiotomy doesn’t work that way."

00:07:19 You need an expert, and you have to become a kind of quasi-expert yourself, and that is a way — it's a way of keeping myself from jumping into the story before I know as much as I can about it. The research in that way is useful. My friend and fellow writer, Michael Ondaatje, has often told me the same thing. You go off and make a student of yourself of something. You learn something you know nothing about, and it’s a way of slowing yourself down.

00:07:45 I also write in longhand and on an old-fashioned typewriter. I don’t want something in my life that speeds up the process of telling the story. I’m not an intellectual. I’m a storyteller. I don’t even think of myself as an artist. I’m a craftsman. I’m building a house, and it’s the architecture of my novels, the structure of them, the overall building itself that first interests me, that gets me interested in the process.

00:08:15 The ending of A Prayer for Owen Meany was, of course, a prayer. He’s dead. You know it from the opening. But how he dies and why, you’ve got to wait. You’ve got to wait a long time to find that out. "O God — please give him back! I shall keep asking You." Another postcard, another thing tacked on the wall. There’s another reason for all of this. It isn’t just the over-controlling instinct that my wife points to.

00:08:42 It's that, by the time I start writing the story, I want to know everything that happens. I don’t want to be distracted by the questions: “Is Alice going to see Jack again? When? Are their paths going to cross again? How long do we have to wait?” I want to know all those things. I want to know everything that happens so that the story I’m telling you, it’s already happened to me. I know it.

00:09:07 It’s already happened so that all I’m thinking about are the sentences. Make them short if you want the thing to move quickly, make them long if you want the reader to slow down. Right? I don’t want to be distracted from the language. All I want to be thinking about is the language, the sentences, the next sentence and the sentence after that. I don't want to be thinking about what happens to so-and-so. I know. I know. It's already happened, and all I’m thinking about is in what order should you receive the news.

00:09:35 ALICE WINKLER: When people hear about his process, John Irving says, they almost always ask...

00:09:39 JOHN IRVING: Surely something changes. Surely somewhere along the way you get a better idea.

00:09:44 ALICE WINKLER: Here’s how he answers them.

00:09:45 JOHN IRVING: In the sequence of events in the middle of the story, that's often true. Sometimes a character I had never thought of, a minor character or a major/minor one, will make an appearance in the middle of the story and move the story in a slightly different way, but the ending never changes. It never has. Never has. Eleven novels, it never has changed. I might fool around with that first sentence, but I won't fool around with the last. It's just — it is where I'm going.


00:10:25 ALICE WINKLER: His need for clarity about where he is going makes good sense if you know where he has been. So I’m going to switch gears here and move away from how John Irving writes his novels, to talk about what went into making him the writer that he is, the person that he is. Most of what you’re going to hear from here on is from an interview Irving sat for when he attended that Academy of Achievement Summit. The interviewer was journalist Irv Drasnin, who started the conversation by asking John Irving to talk about his childhood in Exeter, New Hampshire.

00:10:59 JOHN IRVING: Largely happy, but there was a mystery in it that I think provoked my imagination. Namely, no adult in my family would ever tell me anything about who my father was. I knew from an older cousin, only four years older than I am, everything, or what little I could discover about him. But I was born with that father's name, John Wallace Blunt, Jr., and it probably was a gift to my imagination that my mother wouldn't talk about him because when information of that kind is denied to you as a child, you begin to invent who your father might have been.

00:11:51 And this becomes a secret, a private obsession, which I would say is an apt description of writing novels and screenplays, of making things up in lieu of knowing the real answer.


00:12:13 JOHN IRVING: I was 39 and divorcing my first wife when my mother deposited on my dining room table some letters from my father, which were written from an air base in India and from hospitals in India and China in 1943. He was a flyer. He flew the Himalayan route, the Hump, as it was called. He and his crew were shot down over Japanese-occupied Burma and hiked some 15 days — 225 miles later — into China.

00:12:51 The letters were all patiently, painstakingly explaining to her why he didn't want to remain married to her but that he hoped to have some contact with me. My mom never permitted him that contact. In 1948, when I was 6, she remarried, and my stepfather, Colin Irving, legally adopted me, so that my name was changed from John Wallace Blunt, Jr. to John Winslow Irving, Winslow being my mom's maiden name.

00:13:34 And the mystery continued. I think it probably is the most central or informative part of my childhood — is what I didn't know about it — and as friends and critics have been saying of my novels for some time, I've been inventing that missing parent, that absent father, in one novel after another.

00:14:07 ALICE WINKLER: Including in the novel John Irving had just published when he sat down for this conversation. That book is called Until I Find You. It’s the one he mentioned that took him seven years to write, and it weighs in at whatever 824 pages weigh. A lot.

00:14:26 JOHN IRVING: In 2002, in December of 2002, in the middle of that book, which was, once again, a missing-father novel, I was contacted by a 39-year-old man named Chris Blunt, who said, "There's a possible chance that I might be your brother," and of course, I knew it was not a possible chance at all but a likelihood. And I since have met two brothers and a sister I didn't know about, and I found out more about this man, who died five years before Chris found me. And the coincidences of the father I was imagining, who was waiting for me to finish my story in the last two chapters of this novel — the actual father turned out to have some similarities to the man I had already imagined.

00:15:30 ALICE WINKLER: Meeting his siblings, hearing about his father, it knocked John Irving for a bit of a loop, but it also eased his burden, he says.

00:15:38 JOHN IRVING: When you're a kid and you don't know about someone, it's natural to demonize him. In other words, if no one would talk about this guy, how bad a guy was he. Right? Imagine the worst. Well, it was nice to hear from these two brothers and my one sister that they loved him, that they thought he was a good father, although he was married four times and had children with three of those wives, not the fourth. And it was astonishing, for the first time, to see — in my late 50s, early 60s, which I was at the time — photographs of my father when he's younger than my grown children are today.

00:16:27 I have a 40-year-old son and a 36-year-old son, and I'm looking at pictures of Lieutenant John Wallace Blunt when he's 24, with his flight crew in China. And he doesn't, to me, to my eyes, look like me, although he does. What he really looks like is one of my kids. Right?

00:16:51 ALICE WINKLER: So that is the tale of how John Irving began to fill in the missing pieces of his own life, as a middle-aged man already with grown children of his own, and already an accomplished author. As he said, it was the holes in his story that had driven him to invent and to write decades before — that, and the perfect disposition for a life of writing.

00:17:15 JOHN IRVING: I think that an early sort of pre-writing indication that I had the calling to be a writer was how much time I liked to spend alone. I wasn't antisocial. I had friends, but I didn't really want to hang out with them after school. What I saw of them at school was enough. I needed to be in a room by myself even before I was writing, just imagining things, just thinking about things.

00:17:42 If there was a weekend with too many cousins or other people around, I got a little edgy. I think the need to be by myself, which I've recognized in a couple of my own children, is one that was respected by my grandmother, with whom I lived until my mom remarried when I was six. And I was fortunate to be in a big house, my grandmother's house, and there were lots of places to get off by yourself and imagine those things I didn't know.

00:18:14 And I find as — and I'm 63, and my capacity to be by myself and just spend time by myself hasn't diminished any. That's a necessary part of being a writer. You’d better like being alone.

00:18:39 ALICE WINKLER: There was another feature of John Irving’s life as a child that you wouldn’t think would incline him towards a brilliant career in literature, but think again.

00:18:47 JOHN IRVING: At the time, they didn't have the language for it that we have, perhaps in overabundance, today — dyslexia, learning disabilities, whatever they are. I had something of that nature and never knew I had it until one of my children was diagnosed as being slightly dyslexic. And when they showed me the results of how they determined that he had a learning disability, I realized that they were describing exactly what I had always done.

00:19:20 I just, you know — what it amounted to, in essence, was that I would ask my friends, "How long did the history assignment take you? How long did the English assignment take you?" And if they said, "Oh, it's 45 minutes," I would just double the time or triple the time, and I'd say, "Well, it's an hour-and-a-half for me." I just knew that everything was going to take me longer. Right?

00:19:41 Well, I don't think that's a bad disability to have if you're going to write long novels. There's no reason you should write any novel quickly. There's no reason you shouldn't, as a writer, not be aware of the necessity to revise yourself constantly. And surely, as much as — more than a half, and maybe as much as two-thirds of my life, as a writer, is rewriting. I wouldn't say I have a talent that's special as that I have an unusual kind of stamina.

00:20:14 I can rewrite sentences over and over again, and I do, and the reshaping of something, the restructuring of a story, the building of the architecture of a novel, the craft of it is something I never tire of. And maybe that comes from what homework always was to me, which was redoing, redoing, redoing, because I always made mistakes, and I always assumed I would. And that meant that my grades weren't very good, and that meant that school was hard for me, but when I got out of school and my focus could go to the one thing I wanted to do — the novel, the screenplay of the moment — I knew how to work, you know. I knew how to concentrate because I had to.

00:21:07 ALICE WINKLER: Whatever kind of learning challenges Irving had, it didn’t keep him from reading and loving books, even if it took him longer than most to get through them. His favorite author was Dickens.

00:21:18 JOHN IRVING: I read Charles Dickens when I was 14 or 15. It might be hard for many 14-, 15-year-olds today to read Dickens. That language seems so old-fashioned, if not exactly dated, to us now — the amount of detail, the sheer complexities of those stories and plots — but those were the novels I read that made me want to write novels. If I had read, frankly, some more modern or post-modern novels at the time, I might have wanted to do something else.

00:21:48 I've always been a fan of the 19th-century novel, of the novel that is plotted, character-driven, and where the passage of time is almost as central to the novel as a major/minor character — the passage of time and its effect on the characters in the story. Those old 19th-century novels, all of them long, all of them complicated, all of them plotted.

00:22:17 Not just Dickens — but especially Dickens — but also George Eliot, Thomas Hardy. And among the Americans, Melville and Hawthorne always meant more to me than Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald. I'm not a modern guy.

00:22:30 ALICE WINKLER: So this old-fashioned guy, at around the age of 14 or 15, suddenly felt the urge to write and began filling notebook after notebook.

00:22:41 JOHN IRVING: I started writing almost like landscape drawing or life drawing. I never kept a diary. I never wrote about my day and what happened to me, but I described things. You know, if I had known how to draw, maybe I would have drawn hundreds of pictures of my grandmother's garden, but instead, I wrote sort of landscape descriptions of it. I think that was what was so compelling to me about those Dickens and Hardy novels, that — just the lushness of detail, the amount of description, the amount of atmosphere that is plumped into those novels.

00:23:28 It's like nothing you read today, except from those writers who are essentially 19th-century storytellers themselves: the Canadian, Robertson Davies; the German, Günter Grass; García Márquez; Salman Rushdie. Basically, I was never a Hemingway person. I never understood that. In Moby Dick, there was a story — the longer, the better.

00:23:56 ALICE WINKLER: Back to Irving at 14, though. There was one other thing besides his devotion to 19th-century literature, besides his learning disability, besides his need for solitude that John Irving credits with giving him the skills to write the kind of books he would grow up to write. It’s the thing we’re going to end this episode with: wrestling. Mm-hmm. I’ll say it again. Wrestling.

00:24:23 JOHN IRVING: Well, you’ve got to be disciplined. I think the sport of wrestling, which I became involved with at the age of 14 — I competed until I was 34 — kind of old for a contact sport. I coached the sport until I was 47. I think the discipline of wrestling has given me the discipline I have to write. There's a kind of repetition that's required.

00:24:52 You repeat and repeat over and over again the dumbest things, the simplest moves, the simplest defenses, until they become like second nature, but they don't start out that way. They don't start out that way. So much of a sport like wrestling is drilling, is just repeating and repeating and repeating so that you've done this thing so many times that if somebody just touches your arm on that side, you know where to go.

00:25:21 You could do it with your eyes closed. If you're off your feet and you're up in the air, you — if you've been there enough, you know where the mat is. You know it's here. It's not there. You just know where it is. You don't have to see it, but you've been through that position enough so that you're not looking for the mat. You're not thinking, "Is it up here? Is it down there? Am I going to land on my head? Am I going to land on my tail?" You know.

00:25:46 Well, I think sentences are like that. If you're comfortable enough with all kinds of sentences — with verbs and their gerundive, with active verbs, with short sentences, with long sentences — you know how to put them together. You know how to slow the reader down when the reader is at a place where you want the reader to move slowly, and you know how to speed the reader up when you're at a place in the story where you want the reader to go fast.

00:26:11 It's drilling. It's repetition. I don't put much value in so-called inspiration. The value is in how many times you can redo something. Most people would find it boring, like sit-ups, you know, like skipping rope. But I always had — I could put my mind somewhere else while I skipped rope for 45 minutes. You know, people say, "What? How can — you have to be dumb to skip rope for 45 minutes." No. You have to be able to imagine something else.

00:26:40 While you're skipping rope, you have to be able to see something else. You have to imagine that your next opponent stopped skipping rope 15 minutes ago. Then you keep going.

00:26:55 ALICE WINKLER: Novelist and workhorse John Irving. This conversation was recorded at the Academy of Achievement Summit in 2005. I’m Alice Winkler, and I guess it’s cheating when I say that I always know what my last line is before I begin. This is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. Thanks to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for making every episode of What It Takes possible.


What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.