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Q & A with John Irving

Novelist and screenwriter John Irving has published more than a dozen books – he is perhaps best known for his first novel, “The World According to Garp,” and a later novel (whose screenplay garnered him an Academy Award), “The Cider House Rules.” Irving will be in St. Louis at the St. Louis Speakers Series, presented by Maryville University, on Tue., Oct. 13. LN caught up with him in advance of his visit.

You’ve said many times before that you write your last sentence of your books first. Has it always been that way, since your first book in 1968?

It has always been that way, and I don’t imagine my process will change. It seems to work and seems to be the way I need to begin every story. I don’t feel confident to begin a novel until I know everything that will happen in it, most especially how it ends. Oftentimes, it’s more than the last sentence. Sometimes, it’s the last few paragraphs. It isn’t a religion for me, though. If in the process of writing a novel, I saw midway through there was a better last sentence, I wouldn’t hesitate to change it, and I hope I have the sense to recognize it. My novels are developed over years, not over a weekend.

Process-wise, how does working on a screenplay for a book like The Cider House Rules differ from working on a novel?

In the first place, I don’t usually see or imagine my novels as films. In many cases and most cases, even when asked, I’m not inclined to be part of an adaptation process if I don’t see myself that the film might be contained in that novel. However, I like writing screenplays. I’ve written original screenplays, and in the course of revising them and reworking them, they kind of naturally evolve into something bigger than a movie. I find writing screenplays a good way to find out if you want to write a novel. It’s a lot easier to develop a screenplay to a novel than to throw so much of it away. For example, the novel of “The Cider House Rules” takes place over 50 years. The film takes place over 18 months. The hardest part of that adaptation was losing those years, because that has a serious influence on what happens in the story and characters connected to the novel.

Lately, I like the (screenplay-writing) process if I’m thinking about an idea and wondering if it might be better as film. I’ll write it as a film because it’s easier.

I’m grateful for the experience I’ve had writing screenplays. I wrote an adaptation of my first novel, which was never made into a movie. I didn’t feel good about it at the time. It wasn’t a happy experience and I didn’t feel like repeating it right away. But the experience wasn’t wasted, because I learned how to do something.

Do you have a philosophy on life? If so, what character of yours best embodies it?

No, I don’t. I’m a fiction writer – I make things up. Real life doesn’t overwhelm me or impress me very much. To put it in perspective, when I see a film or book that’s advertised as “based on a true story,” I realize the story could be better if the writer with more imagination could’ve made it up. “Based on a true story” can only be as good as what happened.

Can you tell us a little bit about “Avenue of Mysteries,” out Nov. 3? Where did the idea for the book come from? What do you want people to take away from it?

“Avenue of Mysteries” is about a Mexican-American who lives the first 14 years of life in southern Mexico, then leaves at 14 and never goes back. The experience and what happens to him in his childhood is the most formative time in his life and we later follow him as an older man as a trip to the Philippines, 40 years after his time in Mexico. Nothing has ever been quite the same for him after his childhood. That trip triggers dreams of childhood. There are parallels, and the older man’s memory of what haunts him in the past is triggered by the trip. Simply put, it’s about a Mexican-American who takes a trip to the Philippines. [Irving laughs.] It’s about a guy whose experience up to age 14 is never matched.

The ideas for stories and characters in my books don’t really come from a single moment, so much as they emerge over time from thinking of a character in a certain situation and what life-changing or life-lasting effects the situations we encounter as children or adolescence can have on a person. That’s a fair description of all my novels. They’re founded on the premise that what happens to us or what can happen to us in those formative years cannot only make us who we become as adults, but in some instances, as we grow older, dominate even our older lives. The older we get, the more we live in our memories and in our dreams from the past. I’ve always put a considerable belief in the past, or in the foundations of the past and its effect on what becomes of us in our later and grown-up lives.

This story was originally published at Read it on LN’s website here.

John Irving headshot

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