“I’ll never stop writing”

John Irving



His heroes are outsiders – bears, circus folk and orphans. John Irving talks about adolescence, unfinished novels and how much he loves his work.

Mr. Irving, You turn 75 this month, an age at which many people consider taking things a little easier. You, however, are planning reading tours and writing film scripts …

… and I will certainly write another novel or two. I always have material lying around waiting to be brought into shape. It’s like children you still need to raise, you would never just go away and leave them either, would you?

They say you spend eight to nine hours at your desk every day. Are you incapable of taking a break?

I write every day when I’m not traveling. Why should I stop? If I had a job I didn’t like, sure, I’d be happy to stop early and go have a beer, but that’s not how it is. Every day, I feel grateful to be able to write and not have to do something else. It wasn’t always like this. My first three books didn’t sell very well, and since I already had young children, I had to teach college in order to support my family. I had to steal my writing time, and didn’t get more than two or three hours – and not every day, either.

You have sold over 12 million books and won an Academy Award for the screenplay you wrote for the film adaptation of the The Cider House Rules. Where do you get the discipline?

It has nothing to do with discipline, which is only needed for activities you don’t enjoy. Sitting here and slipping into the lives of my characters is fun, and it keeps me young. Perhaps that’s the secret to my energy: I am very interested in coming-of-age stories because I consider that phase of life – when you’re no longer a child but not yet an adult – crucial.

US author John Irving

Dedicated: Irving never works on just one storyline

© Gaby Gerster/laif

You don’t believe in growing up?

It is a possibility … What interests me about adolescence is that even though it’s such a short period in our life, it often has such an impact on the rest of it. Concerning myself with this topic might just be what keeps my mind young.

But how do you persuade the rest of your body to follow suit? Don’t you ever get tired?

My novels are getting shorter. I no longer want to spend three years on a single novel, especially since I only write by hand and no longer use a computer.I have always written the first draft by hand, but I would then rework things on the computer. These days, my assistant types up my scribbles, which I go over and over with my pen.

Do you not trust the technology, or why do you think most of the work should be done by hand?

It’s just slower, and slower is good. I’m a better, more careful stylist when I write by hand.

Your hero in Avenue of Mysteries is a writer who dies before he is able to finish his last novel. Do you sometimes fear that you are running out of time?

I don’t write about my personal fears, I would find that too boring. No, it’s always about the plot, drama and structure. The ancient Greeks already made use of effects. I think about what bad things could happen to my hero and then I go even further, not as an end in itself but to develop the story.

So it’s not a horrifying thought not to be able to finish your “final” novel?

I don’t really think about that, but I will tell you this much: I make provisions. The novel that Juan Diego leaves unfinished in Avenue of Mysteries is based on material for a story that I also wanted to write. I basically sacrificed it to my hero in the novel. And this is why: The material I have on mail-order brides in Lithuania and botched adoptions is very complex and would have taken up a lot of time. So at some point I had to admit to myself that I was never going to write that novel. Too big, too broad, too demanding. So I brought the material to life, but just briefly, and left it incomplete.

I think about what bad things could happen to my hero and then I go even further

Can you afford to give material away like that because you have so much of it?

I always have two or three things going that I work on periodically, that I prepare and advance in my head. Whenever I finish something, I take a look at what I still have and decide what
to use next. And once I have a clear picture of how a story will end, I keep on writing till it’s finished. I’ve been writing for about 30 years, basically without stopping. I don’t think that will change.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve been writing some screenplays for a TV show for HBO based on The World According to Garp.

When will the result be aired?

No idea, perhaps not at all. I don’t know how many projects they’re developing simultaneously at HBO…

So John Irving is actually happy to write things that could end up in the trash?

They pay me even if they never publish it. No, seriously: I get to learn a lot about scriptwriting, so it’s not at all a waste of time and effort. That’s probably what keeps me going: I’m curious, I like learning new things, going places, talking to people and listening to them explain interesting things. I never want to stop doing that, never!

What about wrestling?

I had to stop. I sparred with young men into my forties and coached my sons, but it was not a good idea and my body couldn’t handle it. I ruined my knees and can’t even go jogging properly anymore. Uphill would work, coming down is the problem. But that’s okay – I either set my treadmill to “hills” or go for a walk in Toronto, where I now live. It’s a great city for walking.