John Irving Biography

John Irving was the son and nephew of faculty members at Phillips Exeter Academy, and the school played an important part in his youth. It is no wonder, therefore, that Phillips Exeter features in so many of Irving's books. 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.

Facts and Trivia

  • 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.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 948

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.

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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.

Setting Free the Bears was well received by critics and sold well (6,228 copies) for a first novel. A projected film adaptation of the book did not materialize, and Irving moved his family back to New England. After a brief period of teaching at Windham College, he taught at Mount Holyoke College until 1972, and for 1971-1972 he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant. The Water-Method Man, published in 1972, did not sell as well as Setting Free the Bears, but Irving was invited to be a writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa from 1972 to 1975, and for 1974-1975 he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. During that time, he published his third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage, which is set in Iowa City. Sales of The 158-Pound Marriage, which Irving considers his weakest novel, were poor, and Irving returned to New England to begin a second period of teaching at Mount Holyoke.

The turning point in Irving’s career came in 1978, with the publication of The World According to Garp. Discouraged by the seeming reluctance of Random House to promote his novels, he moved to the publishing house of E. P. Dutton and the guidance of Henry Robbins, Dutton’s editor in chief. Although Dutton promoted the novel in ways that normally disenchant serious reviewers (bumper stickers, T-shirts), the critical reaction was good and the public reception overwhelming; combined hardback and paperback sales reached three million in the first two years. In 1982, a motion-picture adaptation of The World According to Garp was released; Irving played a bit part as a wrestling referee in the film. The success of the novel allowed Irving to devote more of his time to writing, and in 1981 Dutton published his fifth novel, The Hotel New Hampshire. Although some critics expressed disappointment in the novel, it was a best seller and a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. A1984 film version was unsuccessful, however.

The name of the author of The World According to Garp had become a household word. Irving’s four subsequent novels—The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Son of the Circus, and A Widow for One Year—were also best sellers and book-club selections. Three also became motion pictures. A Prayer for Owen Meany became the 1998 film Simon Birch, which proved a disappointment by not living up to the novel. A portion of A Widow for One Year was adapted as the 2004 film The Door in the Floor, which was not commercially successful. The more fortunate 1999 film version of The Cider House Rules was written by Irving, who won an Oscar for his screenplay.

As predicted by his earlier performance, Irving has managed both to sustain a popular following and to provoke frequent scholarly interest; articles about and reviews of his work have appeared in periodicals as diverse as Novel, the Sewanee Review, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. In Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, a collection of essays and short fictional pieces originally published elsewhere, Irving updates his biography with mention of divorce, remarriage, and the birth of a third son. Like Johnny Wheelwright, the narrator of A Prayer for Owen Meany, Irving has a home in Toronto; according to a 2005 interview, he also has another on an island in Georgian Bay north of Toronto, and one in Vermont. In 2001 and 2005, two subsequent novels, The Fourth Hand and Until I Find You, were not widely praised by critics but reflected the novelist’s continued productivity.

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