Born into a happy New England family, John Winslow Irving enjoyed the benefits of his father’s position as teacher of Russian history and treasurer of Phillips Exeter Academy. He attended that prestigious school himself, which under various disguises serves as a setting for many of his novels, including The World According to Garp (1978) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). After several false starts in college, including a year at the University of Vienna, he received his B.A. in 1965 from the University of New Hampshire. Following graduate work in the writing program at the University of Iowa, he became an assistant professor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
His first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1969 and received more critical attention than most first novels. It is a picaresque novel and a Bildungsroman. Irving made use of his Austrian experiences in this novel, and he introduced many of the themes and motifs that were to reappear in his canon, such as caged bears, motorcycles, and bizarre deaths. He continued to write, relying on academic salaries from small New England colleges, writer residencies, and grants from large institutions. Although his next novels, The Water-Method Man (1972) and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974), sold only about six thousand copies each, he had gained a reputation as an academic writer and was supported by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1972...
In order to write about the real world, Irving has tried to meet the extraordinary in combat and beat it at its own game. Throughout his sometimes echoing, recurring, and reflective novelistic worlds, a rightness prevails, guided by the hand and eye of the novelist, whose real job is “freeing the bears” of natural human impulses. There is no such thing as seediness or sin in Irving’s novels—all smallness is strengthened by the largeness of life’s positive value, and all sin is washed away by uplifting human emotions.
John Winslow Irving was born John Wallace Blunt, Jr., on March 2, 1942, in Exeter, New Hampshire. His parents were Colin F. Irving and Frances Winslow Irving. A biological father had departed, and Irving was adopted by his stepfather and renamed when his mother remarried. His adoptive father taught Russian history at Exeter Academy, where Irving attended school. At Exeter, he developed two lifelong interests, writing and wrestling, and became convinced that both required the same skills: practice and determination. Though not an outstanding student, he developed an appreciation of hard, steady work and a love of literature. Of his early apprenticeships Irving remarked in a Rolling Stone interview, “I was a very dull kid. But I really learned how to wrestle and I really learned how to write. I didn’t have an idea in my head.” After graduating from Exeter at the age of nineteen, Irving spent a year at the University of Pittsburgh, where the wrestling competition convinced him that writing was a better career choice.
In 1962, Irving enrolled at the University of New Hampshire, where he began to work with authors Thomas Williams and John Yount, but a desire to see more of the world caused him to drop out. After an intensive summer course in German at Harvard University, he left for Vienna, where he enrolled at the Institute of European Studies. During his two years in Vienna, Irving married Shyla Leary, a painter whom he had met at Harvard, studied German, and became seriously devoted to writing. Living in an unfamiliar place sharpened his powers of observation; as he said in a 1981 Time interview, “You are made to notice even the trivial things—especially the trivial things.” He returned to the University of New Hampshire, worked again with Thomas Williams, and graduated cum laude in 1965. From there, with his wife and son, Colin, Irving went to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he earned an M.F.A. degree in creative writing in 1967. During his time at Iowa, Irving continued wrestling with Dan Gable, the Iowa coach who won a medal at the 1976 Munich Olympics. Encouraged by writer-in-residence Kurt Vonnegut, he also completed his first published novel, Setting Free the Bears, which is set in Austria.
John Winslow Irving—born John Wallace Blunt, Jr.— has the rare distinction of having achieved both critical acclaim and huge commercial success. He sprang from relative obscurity to fame with The World According to Garp, which became a best-seller, received the American Book Award as the best paperback novel of 1979, and was made into a film, starring Robin Williams, in 1982. His next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, was also a best-seller and adapted for the screen.
Irving was born to Frances Winslow Irving, and in 1961 he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy (the school became the model for the Steering School in The World According to Garp), where his stepfather, Colin F. N. Irving, was treasurer and instructor of Russian history. There he was a much better wrestler than he was a student; in fact, wrestling also became a recurrent metaphor in his writing. He attended the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Vienna, Austria, before his graduation cum laude in 1965 from the University of New Hampshire. In 1967 he received an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, where he studied with the novelists Vance Bourjaily and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Irving’s years as a bohemian student in Vienna, in 1963 and 1964, informed his first novel, Setting Free the Bears. Caged or trained bears are one of the strongest motifs in his fiction, a central image associated with primal nature, wildness, and the soul. In this darkly picaresque novel of the 1960’s, the popular ideal of freedom is expressed by a plot to set free all the animals in the Vienna Zoo, where a spectrum of primal human nature is suggested by the contrast between timid Rare Spectacled Bears and brutal Famous Asiatic Bears. Underlying this and all Irving’s novels is World War II, when the Prussian bear was released by Adolf Hitler.
In 1963, while taking a summer course in German at Harvard University, Irving met Shyla Leary, a student at Radcliffe and a painter who later became a professional photographer. In August of 1964 they were married in Greece, and they subsequently had two sons, Colin and Brendan. Family became the center of value in Irving’s vision. His comic novel The Water-Method Man is about a doctoral student in literature at the University of Iowa named Bogus, who loses his family through his own folly, then matures in part through a trip to Vienna, where he learns lessons in the dark realities of history and human nature—something that happens recurrently in Irving’s novels. In The 158-Pound Marriage the narrator, a novelist and university teacher, loses his family through an experiment in mate swapping. Two of the sexual foursome come from Vienna and three end up there, leaving the American narrator behind, ironically, as the least perceptive of the four. Throughout his fiction Irving shatters middle-class illusions of security with violence, pain, and sudden death, while...
It is no wonder that so many of John Irving’s books feature Phillips Exeter Academy. Irving was the son and nephew of faculty members at the school, and it played an important part in his youth. Another big influence in Irving’s life at school was wrestling, which also finds its way into many of his stories, including the 1978 book that catapulted him to fame: The World According to Garp. All of his books published since have been best sellers. In 1999, Irving gained another accolade when his novel The Cider House Rules was made into a successful film that won an Academy Award for best screenplay.
Irving’s popular book A Prayer for Owen Meany was adapted into a film, but Irving disapproved and insisted that all character names be changed from the novel.
Irving once publicly criticized author Tom Wolfe in an interview. He said that Wolfe “can’t write.”
Many of Irving’s books have autobiographical elements, including his 2005 novel Until I Find You. It deals in part with his sexual abuse by an older woman.
Irving says of his love of writing, “The building of the architecture of a novel—the craft of it—is something I never tire of.”
In addition to writing, Irving also teaches occasionally and coaches high school wrestling.