John Irving, one of America’s greatest storytellers, is the novelist behind bold, sprawling sagas that have topped bestseller lists, such as “The Cider House Rules,” “The World According to Garp” and “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” But Irving is more than just an author: in his career, he has been an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, an English professor and a wrestling coach (in fact, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992). This week, Irving chats with WEEKEND about his role as a teacher and coach, the qualities of fine craftsmanship and writing as “profession,” with a few thoughts on Shakespeare thrown into the mix.
Q. You come from an academic background: college and then an MFA program at the University of Iowa. What made you decide to get an MFA instead of just jumping into writing?
A. I think the choice to go to an MFA program in creative writing was guided by the fact that I was a very young father. I became a father in my early 20s … before I graduated from college. And in those days, there were really only two MFA programs in creative writing. I know that sounds inconceivable, but the only two that had any kind of credibility were in Iowa and Stanford. And Iowa had a better reputation because they put more of an emphasis on your writing and there were fewer academic requirements … If you were accepted at those programs at that time, you’d go to Iowa if you cared about your writing.
Q. Your academic life didn’t end there — you went on to teach creative writing. What made you decide to teach the craft as well as practice it?
A. I knew at a young age that I wanted to write novels, and I wanted to write long novels. The prospect of writing journalism in order to support my writing habit was very unappealing because I felt certain that I would have less time to do the writing I cared about in that circumstance than I would have if I had a college teaching job. And I also had a background as a wrestler, so I could enhance my teaching position with a coaching job. So between the coaching and the teaching, I didn’t have to worry about money. That was huge … there was no commercial burden. I could take as long as I wanted to write a book. The fact that I didn’t have to associate writing with making money means that I could write novels as ambitious as I wanted … I didn’t find teaching distasteful, I didn’t dislike coaching, I was in both cases talking about something I thought I knew. I felt qualified … It wasn’t until my fourth novel in 1978 that I had my first bestseller, and I became self-supporting as a writer. I never expected that to happen.
Q. Most people know that writing is a pretty emotionally wrenching and unstable career path. What would you tell your students who wanted to be writers?
A. I told them that if they were thinking of writing as a so-called career of choice, they might consider selling drugs or betting on horses. If they were in it because they thought there was a career to be had in it, they were in it for the wrong reasons. It was not a choice for me. I started writing at the age of 14, the same age I started wrestling. It was a compulsion. It was a physical and psychological need. I knew I was always compelled to be writing stories.
Q. Earlier, you remarked about the necessity of time, about taking your time to make your books as ambitious and long as you wanted. If you’re reading someone else’s work, can you tell whether or not the writer was rushed? Can that come through in the work?
A. The judgment that the writer was rushing is nothing more than an intelligent guess. What you can tell is that the writer didn’t reread and rewrite the material, for whatever reason. Maybe they weren’t rushed. Maybe they thought two passes were okay. When you read something that’s sloppy and incomplete, and the architecture can stand to be a little better … whatever fault you find, it simply comes down to not enough attention to detail, not enough passes to catch your own mistakes. If you’re in the business of making something, you know when someone’s craftsmanship is shit, you just know.
Q. Let’s talk about craftsmanship for a second. Writing is a craft, but how much of it can be learned? For someone to be a great writer, does he or she have to have something innate, something that can’t be taught?
A. Well, sure. You can teach anyone who’s not physically disabled how to wrestle, how to ski, but there’s a limit to how much they can utilize the technique that they learn or that they practice. You can’t teach balance, reflexes, quickness … people either have it or they don’t. And I believe you’ve got to have an imagination that keeps going, that says, “So, what if this guy goes home? It’s spring break, his dad is dead. But what if his dad isn’t just dead, his dad’s a ghost, and his dad is angry about being a ghost? Well, what’s he angry about? His wife was with someone else. Who? The uncle? He’s hiding behind the curtain … ” So your job is to say that this is a simple story, but it’s not a simple story. Because Shakespeare kept saying, “What if?” You can’t teach that. You can say, “This is how iambic pentameter works, this is how alliteration works.” You’ve got to have a gift, of course … When I taught, there were already writers [in my class]. I knew … so I said, “That’s good, that’s good, just keep doing what you’re doing, and don’t listen to anybody.” Kurt Vonnegut was my first teacher and he told me this.
Q. Do you believe there are any new stories left to tell, or that writers are simply recycling the same material over and over?
A. I think there is a time in your life when you’re a new writer, when you think the most important thing about your writing is that it’s new. But you realize that the most important thing is that the language is as good as you can make it … that these people are true to the way human beings behave. I’ve been in an audience of “King Lear” with a 12-year-old who I could tell clearly understood perhaps one-third of Shakespeare’s language. A 12-year-old who, in Act I, Scene i, already knew that this story is about a king who’s a fool. You can miss two-thirds of the language, but you understand the most important thing about Lear: he has it completely wrong. This is the whole story. You learn it in Act I, Scene i, but that doesn’t get old. What gets tiresome is when someone doesn’t know how to tell a story. The play I’m coming to [Yale to] see is about a boy who loses his friend because of the war in Vietnam … I suppose if you look in a library it’d be categorized under “Vietnam novel” or something. I couldn’t deny it. But it’s a novel about a certain age — your age. That’s all. That time in your life when you’re supposed to be going forward and you lose somebody … that’s what “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is about.
Contact joy shan at