John Irving is the author who made me want to write. No doubt about it. A Prayer for Owen Meany and Cider House Rules are, quite simply, two of the most inspirational novels that I have read. Why? The characterisation is extraordinary. But there is something else about his work that I admire: he has the confidence to approach the most complex of subject matters with language that is simple. By that, I mean that it is pure and unpatronising and without sentiment. And his themes! Don’t get me started…
So when I saw that John Irving was appearing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall I questioned whether or not I should go. There was a slight fear at the back of my mind that, like seeing the film interpretation of your favourite book, it might destroy my mental image of him. I need not have worried.
It is hard to believe that so gifted a writer is dyxlexic, but he claims that this is one of greatest gifts. Knowing that he had to work twice as hard at school as his contemporaries, he developed the discipline of checking his work not just two or three times, but five or six. He has been editing his entire life. In the process of writing a novel, he spends eight or nine hours reworking a single paragraph, sometimes changing a comma to a semi colon and then changing it back again until it is perfect. It is this level of detail that fascinates him – and as a creative writing teacher he suggests to his students that they must love this part of the process otherwise they might as well not bother. Scary? Not nearly as daunting as learning that John (that’s Mr Irving to you) does not start writing a book until he has the last sentence – and then he works the plot backwards. Backwards! I can’t even plot forwards. He spent twenty years finding the last sentence for his latest novel, Last Night in Twisted River. It was twenty years in the thinking and two and a half years in the writing – the quickest he has ever completed a novel.
Was there any hope for a novice like me? Yes. He say that he didn’t really get to be very good at his craft until the fifth or sixth novel (and the last six he rates very highly indeed). ‘Keep on practising’ is the message.
When asked if his work is autobiographical, he questions why journalists pick on the obvious and ignore the real issues. They get bogged down in immaterial facts when what they should be asking is why does this man keep on writing about the death of children? Why is the father/son relationship so important to him? Why do several of his books contain oversized and oversexed young girls? What do these things say about a person? Considerably more, he suggests, than then name of his primary school.
Would I like to have him as a creative writing teacher? Probably not. He wasn’t very kind about other writers’ work, I have to say. (He thought most could benefit from some serious re-working.) He also doubts that he can teach anything to someone who lacks talent in the first place. When they have the talent, his job is easy. He just tells them to keep on going.
Perhaps you’ll forgive me for keeping it short this evening. Aside from reconsidering my decision on whether I should have given up the day job, I must go back to the beginning and start thinking about those commas.
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