John Irving is an American novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter. Irving achieved critical and popular acclaim after the international success of The World According to Garp in 1978. Some of Irving's novels, such as The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, have been bestsellers. Five of his novels have been adapted to film including A Widow for One Year, pictured above. He won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1999 for his script The Cider House Rules. We are sharing an interview that Irving did with the New York Times Book Review. He talks about his writing habits, and reveals what book made him want to be a writer.
Here is an excerpt:
New York Times: Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, but didn’t?
John Irving: Everything by Ernest Hemingway.
NYT: What don’t you like about Hemingway?
JI: Everything, except for a few of the short stories. His write-what-you-know dictum has no place in imaginative literature; it’s advice for a journalist, not for a novelist or a playwright. Imagine if Sophocles or Shakespeare or Dickens had heeded that advice! And Hemingway’s sentences are short and simplistic enough for advertising copy. There is also the offensive tough-guy posturing — all those stiff-upper-lip, don’t-say-much men! I like Melville’s advice: “Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appall.” I love Melville. Can you love Melville and also like Hemingway? Maybe some readers can, but I can’t.
NYT: If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
JI: There’s nothing I need or want to know from the writers I admire that isn’t in their books. It’s better to read a good writer than meet one.
I’m writing on a laptop in bed. About as far from Hemingway as possible, but I have an excuse: a vegan restaurant food-poisoned me. If I move too much, I get sick. Even typing that last sentence made me a tad nauseous.
Like many book lovers, my parents read to me from an early age. I’d beg to read the same books again and again and then—like I’d read about kids in books doing—I’d sneak under the covers to read. During the summer, there were reading competitions at our local library. At five books, you received a pin. At twenty, you earned a gift certificate for the local ice cream shop, where your Polaroid would be taken and tacked onto the wall. At a hundred books, you won a free ferry ride to San Francisco. Along the way—and while enjoying my prizes—the program taught me about embarking and falling into new worlds, one book at a time. It also taught me, through exposure, that there is no formula for a good book; at least, there is no formula for what makes a book enjoyable to me.
In middle school, as punishment, a close friend’s mother would assign her book reports. I was envious and, also, prohibited from helping.
In college and then graduate school, I gained exposure to worlds of books I hadn’t known existed. I discovered vast collections of short stories and literary journals, books that’d received nominations for prizes. I will always feel like I’m behind on reading, like I should have read more, that I can’t believe I haven’t read X—and, while I wish and want to read it all, I’m also grateful that the world of quality literature is so vast.
As an adult, it’s easy for me to fill precious time with things other than reading. Like everybody, I can think of a million and one things that need to be taken care of. But I never, ever regret setting aside time for reading. It has always been and, I believe, always will be an activity of love. Certainly, reading is good for my writing and, even more, it is enlivening for my soul. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
So, here’s to more designated reading time. To my fellow book lovers, I ask: Any recommendations?
A Few Great Authors on the Merits of Reading
"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." — Jorge Luis Borges
“We read to know that we are not alone.” — C.S. Lewis
“If one reads enough books one has a fighting chance. Or better, one’s chances of survival increase with each book one reads.” — Sherman Alexie
“What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.” — Anne Lamott
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.” — Ernest Hemingway
“Be awesome! Be a book nut!” — Dr. Seuss
Every writer has an inner critic. This is what Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird: "Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head."
In the spirit of killing your inner critic, we are sharing a clip from Family Guy.
Are you a writer? Are you sometimes not sure? Thought Catalog's Nico Lang compiled a list of traits belonging to the classic writer-type. If this describes you, you're on the right track:
1. You take a pen and paper with you everywhere, sometimes even into bed with you, just in case you have an idea at three in the morning that absolutely must be remembered. That idea never usually ends up good, but like everything you say when you’re stoned, it sounded very good at the time.
2. You really, really want to buy a typewriter, even though you never expect to actually use it. You just want a typewriter because you’re one of the 10 people in the world who still finds them romantic and sexy. All of those people are writers.
3. When you date someone and they say that they majored in “English” or “Poetry,” you’re instantly excited but then exceedingly nervous. Why? Because you’ll eventually be expected to read some of their poetry — something they really love and don’t show to a lot of people — and have an opinion on this much guarded poem. You can’t deal with this kind of pressure. This has gone badly before.
4. You buy a lot of books you never, ever end up reading — just out of the thought that you might find time to read it someday. I took my copy of Don DeLillo’s Underworld with me on a trip to Paris once — just in case I suddenly felt the urge to read a challenging 900-page opus by my favorite writer. When that book later got stolen out of by bag, I actually cried. It was like losing something I never knew I had. (Side note: I even have a copy of Americana in French, and my French isn’t even very good. Someday.)
5. You will use almost anything as a bookmark or a writing pad in a jam — like receipts, money, bank slips, old envelopes, newspapers, unopened mail or death threats from your bank. You can’t throw out anything in your apartment without checking to see if it has writing on it first. That bag of popcorn could be important.
6. When you hear the words “I’m on deadline,” you immediately burst into action, a Pavlovian response to a) always having something due and b) always being behind on it. You’re certain that if they were able to make your procrastination into an energy source, it will solve our nation’s fuel crisis. Or at least make gas cheaper.
7. Most people get tattoos of trees or pigeons or misspelled odes to their exes. You get tattoos of your favorite lines from Faulkner or Pablo Neruda’s face. Full disclosure: I currently have two poetry tattoos and I’m planning to get some lines from W.H. Auden, when I can figure out the placement. One day, I’m going to be the Guy Pearce in Memento of dead white dude verses.
8. You have more books than you have friends, by a large margin. You’re a little concerned that one day, you might become a hoarder. (Fact: I own two copies of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. One is a backup, just in case I happen to lose the other one. Insurance, my friend.)
Sunday I got to the PEN offices over an hour ahead of time. Anticipating traffic and road closures due to the marathon, I thought I would need more time. I grabbed my notebook and walked down to the Coffee Bean. The extra chunk of time allowed me to sit with a story.
By the time I arrived at the Mid-Project Review, I felt relaxed. Unlike the Defense, this meeting felt a lot more laid-back. Don’t get me wrong: it was not a love fest. As Marissa pointed out earlier this week, more growth happens with criticism than with praise.
Antoine Wilson, Rob Roberge, and Libby Flores provided great feedback. They asked excellent, probing questions about specific stories and the collection as a whole. One of the amazing parts of having a team read the entire manuscript is that they’re able to see how stories connect, and point out weaknesses. Questions of theme were brought up, which is one aspect I need to develop. These questions will keep me focused.
Story-specific tips were given as well. For example, Libby brought up the fact that in one story a couple of scenes are set in a restaurant but there isn’t any description of the place. After all, the reader needs to see, hear, and smell an eatery. That’s a great setting opportunity that I was completely passing by. Between now and the end of the program I have a lot to work on and a lot to work out.
What I keep coming back to is something both Antoine and Rob stated a couple of times: trust. This was brought up in relation to the endings of most of my stories. When it comes to endings I tend to be a bit too didactic, hammering home a message. They told me that I need to allow the story to trust itself, and trust moments in the story to be mysterious. Trust the reader to do some of the work as well—everything doesn’t need to be explained. Give the reader space to feel. Give the reader space and trust that the images and details will do their jobs.
As Rob said, “You can’t tell the reader what to FEEL. It’s not that the reader can’t be told what something MEANS. It’s that they can’t be told what to FEEL. That is something THEY supply, based on the use of image and detail that the writer supplies.”
Author Steve Almond has some excellent rules for writing about sex. Utne has republished his three-page essay on the tricks of the trade. Here's a sampling below. Read the full text here.
Last Sunday I had my Mid-Project Review, and that same night, someone stole my car. I had just left a party to drive home, but the car was not where I’d parked it. I scanned the block. No car. Trying not to panic, I noticed two guys nearby hanging out in their yard, and asked if they’d seen a blue Subaru parked there. They had, but also recalled two guys getting in it and driving off.
Shit! I screamed. Not only was my car stolen, but I’d also left the only hard copy of my manuscript in it, all my notes, and my phone. One of the guys in the yard let me borrow his to call 911.
Before it even rang, a voice said, Hi.
Hi, the man repeated.
For a moment, I thought I had accidentally picked up a call.
Is this 911?
He sounded hesitant.
Are you sure?
He was entirely too casual for a 911 operator, and yet when I checked the phone, I had indeed dialed correctly.
I explained to him the situation, and he told me they were backed up, but eventually, the police would show. After waiting around for a bit, I decided to return to the party I’d left several blocks away. In attendance were many friends, old and new, many who didn’t even live in LA, including a woman who I had rekindled something with. Everyone was pretty lit by this point, and finding out my car and my book were stolen had definitely sobered me up. I tried telling people, but they were so wasted, they couldn’t even seem to drum up a lot of sympathy. Oh, that sucks, went the common response.
I figured, if I can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and proceeded to get pretty hammered myself. A hour past, maybe two, I lost track, and had almost forgotten the whole car situation when suddenly it all came back. I needed to get back before the police showed up, if they hadn’t already.
I stepped out on the porch and felt a profound sense of disorientation. Where had I parked? I knew it was on some side street, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember. I went back into the party, asking if someone would give me a ride, but everyone had an excuse, they were too wasted, they needed time to sober up, they didn’t drive, even the woman I liked––no one would do it.
Fuck all of you! I screamed. You’re not my friends! I took off, enraged. My tirade had some effect, and as I set out into the streets a small group came out to the porch to watch me go. To give the scene extra dramatic flair, I tore off my shirt, threw it down, and took off running.
I ran block after block, but only got more and more lost. Nothing was familiar, and soon I wasn’t even sure if I was still in the same neighborhood. Exhausted, I finally stopped to catch my breath, lay down on the sidewalk, panting.
A car pulled up, and a woman rolled down the window. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her. Are you okay? she asked.
No, I said. I’m lost.
Maybe I can help?
We started driving around, but it was much darker now, and nothing looked familiar. I was ready to give up. What does your car look like? the woman asked me.
It looks kind of… like this, I said, realizing that we were in fact in my car.
I felt a great sense of relief, and joy, and didn’t even question how this woman came to take possession of it. I looked out the window and realized where we were. Turn around, I told her.
She tried to pull a U-turn, but it was a narrow road hugging a hillside, beside a steep cliff. Backing up too far, the wheels spun in the dirt dangerously close to the edge. Watch out! I cried, and she jerked the car forward as far as it could go, but we still didn’t have enough room to make the turn.
Don’t back up so far this time, I warned her. But she did it again, and again the wheels slipped, and spun, not catching. I felt the car slowly sliding backwards, closer and closer to the long drop.
That’s when I woke up.
Yes, I’m breaking the golden rule about never ending a story by saying it was all a dream. But this was an actual dream (with some slight embellishment) I had after my Mid-Project Review last Sunday. I’m still processing both the dream and the review, but I feel like the symbolism is almost transparent, and metaphorically speaks volumes about how I’m feeling now, afraid I’ve lost my way, still needing help, but discovering that in the end, only I can find my way out. The dream revolved around the same metaphor our instructor Antoine once used, a car meandering close to the ditch. The car could be my book, or my life, or probably both, dangling on the edge between the certainty of death, the cliff, and the uncertainty of life, the unknown road ahead. Between the two, I’ll take the road.