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Irving, Paul discuss writing methods in regard to present politics, social issues

John Irving always starts with the end.

The renowned author spoke to his reverse writing process in a conversation with Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, on Monday, June 25, in the Amphitheater to open the season’s morning lecture series and Week One’s theme of “The Life of the Written Word.”

Irving’s work has earned him accolades, including three National Book Award nominations, winning once for his 1980 novel The World

According to Garp. His works have been translated in over 35 languages — A Prayer for Owen Meany is his best-selling novel in every language.

Outside of the literary circle, Irving won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules, and The World According to Garp became an Academy Award-nominated film starring Robin Williams.

Pamela Paul, a journalist and author herself, grew up reading Irving (after watching the movies).

For his first four novels, including The World According to Garp, Irving started with the ending — something he thought he’d outgrow.

But, his method stuck.

“I don’t know where else to begin,” he said.

His process usually takes him around the plot; he starts with the ending, moseys around the story and ends at the climax.

“Even after the end comes to me, the novel will wait eight, 10 or more years before I decide to begin,” Irving said.

For Irving, the characters don’t drive the plot, and there’s no guarantee that they will be alive for the whole novel.

“You’ve heard writers say ‘the characters tell me what’s going to happen,’ but not with mine. I’d kill that character off very quickly,” Irving said.

Irving described his cataclysmic approach as a product of his “disaster- prone imagination.”

“If there weren’t something in the novel that I hope never happens to me or someone I love, if there wasn’t that element in the story and if that element wasn’t crucial to the story, I don’t know why I would give it so much thought,” Irving said.

His ending-driven plots reflect his love for 19th-century literature.

“Whether you finished Moby Dick or you just can’t, you know you can’t get on the Pequod and get home safe,” he said.

Despite the influence of writers like Melville and Dickens, Irving said his writing could never sound anything like them — even if he wanted to — because of cultural differences. Irving said the language and attitudes toward sex have changed, allowing him to write about what his predecessors could not.

Addressing timely political and social issues is a driving force in Irving’s novels, which proves to be timeless in works like his 1978 novel, The World According to Garp.

“What I think really went into the writing of The World According to Garp was principally a lot of anger and disappointment at what I thought was going to be a sexual revolution, at what I thought was going to be a feminist movement and a sexual liberation movement,” Irving said.

Irving reflected on how Garp echoes similar themes in 2018, despite celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

“The sad thing about that novel is that its not to my credit that it’s still relevant — it’s an embarrassment,” he said.

The Cider House Rules addresses abortion, which was legalized 12 years before the book’s publication. While working on the novel, Irving said people thought it was “quaint” that he was writing literature on a issue that was “solved.” In response, he said, “This one will ever be solved.”

“I said, let’s tell a story where a lot of awful things happen, not one of which would have ever happened if abortion had been legal, safe and available,” he said. “Everything in Cider House Rules happens because abortion is illegal, not safe and not available.”

He said it’s upsetting how his predictions for the future are usually wrong, but his prediction about the discussion surrounding abortion rights is the “small political point (he’s) been right on.”

Paul prodded at this, asking how Irving felt about the political state of the country. Irving paused.

“I never thought I’d hear myself say I wish George W. (Bush) was back,” he said over a cacophony of laughter and applause.

Now a permanent resident of Toronto, Irving is eligible for Canadian citizenship but plans to keep his American citizenship.

“I don’t want to not ever be able to vote here,” he said. Irving stressed the right to vote — he emphasized the importance of not wasting a vote by not voting.

“I expect Republicans to disappoint me; I am angry when my fellow Democrats disappoint me,” he said, regarding the millions of Americans who forwent the voting booth in the 2016 election. “I don’t care if you don’t like either candidate, one is always better than the other.”

Paul asked if Irving could see himself writing a protest novel about the current political era and what that would look like. Irving said he “doesn’t do the future well.”

Irving went on to compare President Donald Trump’s “bullying” tactics to that of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini — Irving specified that Mussolini had better hair.

“The vulgarity aspects of Mr. Trump aside — the extreme narcissism aside — fascism is looking alive and well, and not only in the United States,” he said.

Fascism is seeping into developed countries from Italy to Canada, Irving said. Paul added to that with examples including Brexit and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

“Xenophobia is not Mr. Trump’s idea. Hatred of others, blaming of others instead of addressing what the problem is here at home, is an old, old tactic,” Irving said. “If we don’t make education the priority of every functioning democracy, how can we expect everyone to know that? We always need to know more, but I’ve never lived in a time when so many of the general population know less.”

After the conversation, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill started the Q-and-A with speakers’ advice for young writers.

“My advice to anyone that wants to write is to read,” Paul said.

Irving agreed and added that he was fortunate to be an avid reader as a young man.

Hill closed the Q-and-A with an audience question about the writers’ daily writing routines.

For her most recent book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, Paul said her time to write was limited to the 38-minute train ride to and from work. She said having that tight window forced her to crank out pages at a time.

“That’s impressive,” Irving said. “I’m trying to think of the last time I did anything in 38 minutes.”

Irving compared his routine to training for wrestling, or any sport.

“The discipline comes in loving repetition,” he said. “You have to love the process itself; you can’t be enamored with the end result.”

Tags : AmphitheaterJohn Irvingmorning lectureNew York TimesPamela PaulThe Life of the Written Word
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The author Maggie Prosser

Maggie Prosser will be covering the morning lecture series this summer for the Daily. Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, she is a rising sophomore studying journalism in Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College. Outside of her studies, she serves as news editor at The New Political, an independent political publication at OU.