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John Irving’s novels always have elements of real life in them, and his latest work, Last Night in Twisted River, is no exception.

IT IS NOT ONLY IN THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP that we are all terminal cases. So it is as well in the world according to author John Irving, the 67-year-old novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter behind some of our most beloved best sellers, including A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Hotel New Hampshire, and, of course, The World According to Garp. And in his tomes, appropriately, stories and storytelling are the only things that can save lives.

Irving’s numerous works have earned him a devoted following of readers, and these fans will undoubtedly love the New Hampshire–bred writer’s latest novel, Last Night in Twisted River. The book is rich with Irving trademarks: sudden accidents, absent parents, unexpected couplings, and vivid characters. Kurt Vonnegut, who was a real-life friend of Irving’s, even appears in the pages. We chatted with Irving about the autobiographical nature of his work, fear, and the life of a writer.

So much of your work feels autobiographical. Where does the truth stop and the fiction begin? Well, Twisted River is not autobiographical, not at all to the degree that [my previous novel] Until I Find You was. Jack Burns, [the protagonist of Until I Find You,] was the closest I have come to writing about me.

There’s a wonderful inevitability to much of Twisted river’s action. The reader knows, almost from the beginning, what’s going to happen: The cowboy is coming after the father and son; he’s going to find them. No one can keep the father safe forever. Of course, for a writer who writes last sentences first, like me, who always knows the ending -- all of my novels are a little bit inevitable, but this one feels more inevitable. You know the shootout is coming at the end.

Your novels, at least since Garp, have been about stories and storytelling as much as anything else. Twisted river is no different, as the novel we read is revealed to be the story our protagonist will eventually write. I’ve written several novels about writers. Twisted River is also about the process of becoming a writer. It’s a subject I know pretty well. It wouldn’t surprise me if the main character in however many novels I have remaining to write is always a writer.

It feels like everything is out to get us in the world according to John Irving: man, machine, nature, and animal alike. Herman Melville wrote: “Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appal!” To appall is good storytelling. I try to appall. To write about what you fear is also a little autobiographical -- even if what you fear has never happened to you. When I start a novel, I try to create a situation I never want to be in myself. If the situation scares me, even to think about it -- well, I know that’s a good start.

In 2000, you won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for The cider house rules. Will you write another? I have four screenplays in progress. I don’t know if any of them will ever be made. It’s much easier to write a screenplay than it is to write a novel, but it’s not easy to have an intelligent film produced. The written word, and what the author wants and intends to say, is still sacred to book publishing; writers don’t matter very much to the movie business. So I put less and less time into screenplays now. I do pat my Oscar on its gleaming bald head when I leave my office at the end of a workday, and I remember that the film of The Cider House Rules was as gratifying to see made as seeing any novel of mine published.

What is one thing we would be surprised to know about John Irving? In the course of a normal workday, I spend more time with my dog than I spend with other human beings. Writing is solitary work; if you’re going to be a writer, you better like being alone. “Works of art are of an infinite solitariness,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, and he was a poet. If he thought poetry was lonely work, he should have tried being a novelist!


Editor’s Choice

 

WE DIG San Francisco, and for a brief period in junior high, we thought we could pull off the punk-rock look. (We couldn’t.) Those are only a couple of the reasons why we’re excited to check out Gimme Something Better: The Profound, Progressive, and Occasionally Pointless History of Bay Area Punk from Dead Kennedys to Green Day (Penguin, $18). The book features hundreds of firsthand accounts of the rowdy music genre’s evolution from the people who lived it, including Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, AFI’s Davey Havok, and NOFX’s Fat Mike. Another reason we’re excited is frequent American Way contributor Jack Boulware coauthored it (along with Silke Tudor). Rock on.