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16 November 2022

John Irving Q&A: “Kurt Vonnegut told me: ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind’”

The author of The Cider House Rules on his biggest influences: Dickens, Melville, the Brontës, and a stuffed armadillo.

By New Statesman

John Irving was born in New Hampshire in the US in 1942 and now lives in Toronto, Canada. He is the author of many bestselling novels, including The World According to Garp (1978) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989).

What’s your earliest memory?

Meeting my stepfather, Colin Irving; he gave me a stuffed armadillo. My name was John Blunt then, from my biological father. I remember my mom’s wedding – I was six when I became John Irving. My mom was happy. I loved Colin Irving.

Who are your heroes?

My dad was my childhood hero: I named my first child Colin. As an adult, my heroes are authors. I was 15 when I read Great Expectations. I wanted to be a novelist, like Charles Dickens. I was 17 when I read Moby-Dick. Herman Melville showed me how to end a novel.

What book last changed your thinking?

I was 20 when I read The Tin Drum. Günter Grass wrote a 19th-century novel with contemporary sexuality. I hadn’t known this was possible.

[See also: Kamila Shamsie Q&A: “Ali Smith’s books force me out of pessimism”]

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Margaret Sanger, the Planned Parenthood founder. She opened the first birth control clinic in the US. I won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules, but I also won a Media Excellence Award from Planned Parenthood – for the film’s “exceptional contribution to enhancing the public’s understanding of reproductive rights”.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The ending-driven, plotted novel with realistically developed characters. In addition to Dickens and Melville, I love Hawthorne and Flaubert, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf and Thomas Mann. 

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I don’t feel strongly about place. But I do feel strongly about time. As a novelist, I feel at home in the 19th century or the early 20th century.

What TV show could you not live without?

My wife and daughter would tell you: Monday Night Football.

Who would paint your portrait?

The artist John Hartman has painted me. My wife, Janet, and I love his work.

What’s your theme tune?

There are so many Bob Dylan songs I love.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Kurt Vonnegut was the first reader of my first novel, Setting Free the Bears. “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind,” Kurt wrote.

[See also: Leah Thomas’s Q&A: “My earliest memory involved a priest, a rabbi and a firefighter”]

What’s currently bugging you?

The overturning of Roe vs Wade by the craven Republican justices on the US Supreme Court.

What single thing would make your life better?

If I could stop imagining bad things happening to the people I love.

When were you happiest?

Right now. My children are in good places. My grandchildren, too. My wife and I are happy, loving our lives.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Being a novelist is the only job I wanted, but before that I taught English and coached wrestling, which was a good life.

Are we all doomed?

I try to make a distinction between my worst-case-scenario imagination and how I live my life. “In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Yes, I finished one novel with this doomsaying, but these aren’t words to live by.

“The Last Chairlift” by John Irving is published by Scribner

[See also: Ranulph Fiennes Q&A: “John le Carré was my German teacher”]

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This article appears in the 16 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in