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If you like John Irving's story, you might also like:
John Grisham,
Khaled Hosseini,
Norman Mailer,
James A. Michener,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Carol Shields,
John Updike
and Tom Wolfe

John Irving can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

John Irving's recommended reading: Moby Dick

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John Irving
John Irving
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John Irving Biography

National Book Award

John Irving Date of birth: March 2, 1942

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  John Irving

John Irving was born John Wallace Blunt, Jr. in Exeter, New Hampshire during World War II. At the time of his birth, his father was serving as an airman in the Pacific. His parents divorced when he was only two years old. He was renamed John Winslow Irving when his mother re-married in 1948 and he grew up without ever meeting his biological father.

John Irving Biography Photo
As a boy, John Irving was notably withdrawn, a characteristic he attributes not to unhappiness but to an inborn love of solitude that he believes has served him well as a writer. He read with difficulty, a learning disorder that today would probably be characterized as dyslexia. In spite of this, he became an enthusiastic reader and student of literature. As a student at the Philips Exeter Academy, where his stepfather taught Russian History, John Irving began to wrestle competitively, a sport he credits with teaching him discipline and perseverance.

Irving left the University of Pittsburgh after one year and moved to Vienna, Austria. He studied at the University of Vienna and roamed Europe on a motorcycle, absorbing many of the experiences that would later find their way into his novels. After returning to the United States, he enrolled in the University of New Hampshire, and graduated in 1965. He married while still an undergraduate, and became a father at 23. Already set on a writing career, he earned an MFA from the Creative Writing program at the University of Iowa, where his instructors included Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

After completing his graduate degree in 1967, Irving returned to New England with his growing family, and took a job as Assistant Professor of English at Windham College in Vermont. His first novel, Setting Free the Bears, published when he was 26, drew on his European experiences for a darkly comic story of two students who conspire to liberate the animals from the Vienna zoo. Inspired by an actual incident from the last days of World War II, it introduced many of the themes and techniques he has explored throughout his career: the disasters of history and the capriciousness of fate, dramatized through interlocking stories within stories. He was approached to adapt his novel for the screen, in collaboration with director Irving Kershner. Although nothing came of the project, it was not to be John Irving's last encounter with Hollywood. In the meanwhile, his academic earnings were augmented by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

John Irving Biography Photo
Irving's second novel, The Water-Method Man, published in 1972, revisited the Austrian locale of Setting Free the Bears, while also satirizing academic life in America. That same year, Irving was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of Iowa. Irving's 1974 novel, The 158-Pound Marriage, was more narrowly focused than his previous efforts, concentrating on the erotic intrigues of two couples in an American university setting. Its title plays on a term from the world of wrestling, a sport in which Irving continued to compete as an adult. While at the University of Iowa, Irving received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1975, Irving took a job as Assistant Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. The move back to New England was a welcome one; he has kept a home in the region ever since. While teaching at Mount Holyoke, Irving received additional support from the Guggenheim Foundation, and served as Writer-in-Residence at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference.

Although Irving's first three novels were well-received critically, popular success had eluded him for a decade. The publication of his fourth novel was to change his life irrevocably. The World According to Garp featured, as its protagonist, an author whose stories comment on his own life and on the book itself, and involve him with a set of dizzyingly eccentric characters, besieged by hostile fate. First published in 1978, Garp received ecstatic reviews and sold prodigiously. It won its author a loyal worldwide audience. Passed over for the National Book Award in 1979, it was honored in 1980 when the National Book Foundation granted separate awards for fiction in hardcover and paperback. Since the international success of Garp, every book Irving has written has been a best-seller. Although success freed Irving to write full time, he did not choose to cloister himself in his study. After completing the last of his Writer-in-Residence appointments, this one at Brandeis University, he coached wrestling at prep schools for most of the 1980s, while writing the most popular literary novels of the decade.

John Irving Biography Photo
Like The World According to Garp, Irving's next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), presented a cast of vividly imagined eccentric characters. The Cider House Rules (1985), is set in Maine in the early decades of the 20th century, at an orphanage presided over by a kindly, ether-addicted obstetrician and abortionist. This book threw Irving into the thick of the debate over abortion in America. Irving's own pro-choice position was informed in part by the life and writings of his adoptive grandfather, a prominent obstetrician and gynecologist. Questions of religion, morality and the randomness of fate figure strongly in Irving's next work, A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), in which a foul ball hit by a small boy in a Little League game kills a spectator, the mother of the boy's teammate.

The World According to Garp was made into a successful film, released in 1982. A film adaptation of The Hotel New Hampshire followed quickly. A Prayer for Owen Meany was filmed under the title Simon Birch in 1998. Filming The Cider House Rules proved to be a more challenging undertaking. In his book, My Movie Business, Irving recounts that it took "two producers, four directors, thirteen years, and uncounted rewrites," to bring the book to the screen. It was worth the wait. The film, finally directed by Lasse Hallstrom, was both a critical and a popular success. Irving wrote the screenplay himself, and received the 2000 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Irving's novel A Widow for One Year (1998) was the next of his works to be adapted. In 2004, a film version was released, entitled A Door in the Floor.

John Irving Biography Photo
In the 1990s, Irving's work became increasingly dark and complex, and the intricacy of his plots drew frequent comparison to the work of Charles Dickens. A Son of the Circus (1994) introduces us to an East Indian doctor, now living in Canada, and immerses us in his memories of childhood in a traveling circus in rural India, a surreal dream-world of freaks and wonder-workers. In The Fourth Hand (2001), also set partly in India, a photojournalist loses his hand in an accident and receives the world's first hand transplant. Complications ensue when the widow of the hand's donor insists on visitation rights with her deceased husband's hand. In Until I Find You (2004), a successful actor recalls a childhood spent searching for his church organist father in the tattoo parlors of Northern Europe. During the writing of this book, Irving was contacted for the first time by a half-brother he had never met, and at last learned something of the life and character of the father he never knew. His 2009 novel, Last Night in Twisted River, set in the logging country of northern New Hampshire, also treats the complex relations of fathers and sons.

Apart from his novels, Irving has published a collection of short stories, Trying To Save Piggy Sneed, including a "miniature autobiography," The Imaginary Girlfriend, embodying his reflections on writing and wrestling. Throughout his work, he has expressed a warm affection for humanity in all its astounding variety, and a deep admiration for the courage and good humor of men, women and children in confronting the cruelties and catastrophes of life. Among other themes, he has displayed a continuing interest in themes of marriage and family life. Although his own first marriage ended in 1981, he married his literary agent, Janet Turnbull, in 1987 and began a second family. Today, John Irving and his family live in Vermont and in Toronto. He continues to write novels and to adapt his previous works for motion pictures. Around the world, readers eagerly await his next book, but his past works have long since established him as a master storyteller and comic genius of our age.

This page last revised on Jun 17, 2010 11:56 EDT
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