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BookBuffet Attends John Irving


I am seated mid-sanctuary in a pew of the packed St. Andrews-Wesley Cathedral in Vancouver, awaiting the arrival of John Irving.  The vaulted room, with its stained glass windows and carved stone-relief, is a-buzz with the conversations of people waiting to see this American Literary Icon, and to hear him speak about his most autobiographical novel to date, Until I Find You (Random House 2005).


September 02, 2005

Having contacted Random House earlier to request an interview, his publicist stands firm; “Vancouver is John’s last stop on the book tour, and he will be anxious to get home. He is flying in from San Francisco shortly before his appearance in Vancouver, and not taking any interviews or even staying overnight. He leaves for home right after.” Irving’s largess is understood. He is regarded as the Dickens of America. 


After the initial introduction by Vancouver Writer’s Festival organizer Alma Lee, and adjustments to the sound system, John steps up to the lectern.  He is wearing his signature collared short sleeved, oxford cloth shirt; open to reveal just enough of his chest hair and wrestler’s physique to put the ladies in the front row in a trance. “Can you hear me?” are his first words, loud and clear.


His thick sprung hair has more than a trace of grey and is receding with the years – John is 63. After surveying the audience and then making the comment, “They didn’t tell me this was going to be in a church – please forgive me God, ” he adds, glancing upward. He proceeds to look at his watch, take a drink of water, and speak more candidly; more personally, more self-assured and un-apologetically, than I think anyone was prepared for. 


John appreciates his readers.  He has had some nasty, critical reviews for this book, and his response is, “Most readers, if they don’t like a book just put it down and move on.  Not critics, who feel some compulsion to pick your writing apart, complain about bits like "all the penis-holding", and well [he pauses] maybe they didn’t get enough of that themselves,” to which the audience breaks into laughter.  We love you John; we accept you John all 800 seem to say. 


But the truth, as we find out over the ensuing hour and fifteen minutes, is that John Irving has had an unusual life, and never was a truer statement uttered than, “To know an author, is to know his work.” His intensity and dedication to his craft is palpable.  He worries about time, that’s why he writes 7-8 hours a day, 7 days a week.  He felt he had to write his Opus now, because if he waited, he may not be able to do it justice.


"One of my favorite authors is Charles Dickens" - JI

In fact, Until I Find You is Irving’s David Copperfield. He first read Dickens at the age of 13 and decided immediately that he would become a writer. Now his youngest son by his second marriage is also 13; they are reading Oliver Twist together as it is on his son’s summer reading list, and John calls every night to “check-up on his progress,” and to discuss each chapter while he’s away from home on this book tour. 


He says his son has a vivid imagination and has decided that a property they own is haunted.  His son has stayed up with a video camera to try to catch the poltergeist on film in the middle of the night.  One morning after unrelenting questions about the supernatural, John told his son to “Call Stephen King.” It turns out that the king of pulp horror is a good friend of John Irving's, and the two meet frequently for coffee, which he reports most people are startled by seeing them together.


Writing Habits

Believe it or not, Irving starts all his books at the ending. (He struggled academicaly in Exeter with undiagnosed dyslexia.) "I build my novels from back to front," he says. He imagines the whole book from the final paragraph to the first chapter—in his head, and then sets out to write the ending on paper.  If he doesn’t like the ending—he doesn’t write the book.


“I collect beginnings and endings.”  Once he’s got the ending, he takes his first draft and tapes it to a clipboard.  Then he writes all the endings of each chapter continuing in reverse order, and then goes back to write all the beginnings of each chapter, and finally, he fills the bits in-between.


“Nothing is chance, everything is planned. I decide exactly what I’m going to give you and when; nothing is a surprise. I’m totally anal about details–in this and every other aspect of my life; it drives my family crazy."


He writes 7-8 hours a day, seven days a week, handwriting all his first drafts. It took seven years to write, Until I Find You. So that means he must have started around August of ’98. (Cider House Rules, the movie came out in '99 and he won Best Adapted Screenplay in 2000.) In April of 2004 he decided to change the voice of Until I Find You from first person to third person – that took a whole year, and it dropped 50,000 words in the conversion, leaving a final word count of about 350,000 words, (with the good news being, he already has the voice-over written for a film adaptation.)


"But," he maintains, “a piece of literature is not incomplete if a movie is not made out of it,” and that draws wide, sustained audience applause. It took JI 10 years to complete the adaptation of Cider House Rules into a screenplay he was satisfied with, and he says he is very picky about who he gives film rights to his books, often spending considerable time with other [Door in the Floor] screenwriters to get it right. He would rather take a small piece of one of his books, and adapt that aspect into a movie, than leave a novel un-adapted for film before he dies, "because once the film has been adapted, the rights can never be given again."


Three quarters of his time is spent rewriting. He says his main characters are not overly described, but his lesser characters are described in great detail. His themes are about people missing pieces, (literally and psychologically) and trying to decide how to handle this. There is recurring sexual abuse, and relationships between young boys and older women. This older-woman-attraction, he explains, happened to him as a result of having sex with a woman in her 20's when he was only 11 years of age. (He never told a single soul about this incident until his own first son reached 11. Then when explaining the facts of life to him, he divulged this secret.) 


Other themes are: a missing parent, (John's mother, Helen Winslow - yes those Winslows - was an unwed mother until she later married Colin F.N. Irving); and making a deal with the devil, “It’s the end-note to a piece of music.”


The Story

"Until I Find You is the story of a boy who experiences many violations of his innocence, and loses his character. He is present as a child; he is absent as an adult. The story is told in five acts." - JI


Audience Questions

When asked how parenthood has affected his writing he categorically says that it has. Since first becoming a father at the age of 22, he has only had two years when he has not had one or more of his offspring from both marriages living at home with him. He watches their developmental stages, and creates characters using those observations.


This question got a big laugh. “So what’s with all the penis holding?” John’s reply was that most serious writers repeat themselves, and the reason is, “they can’t help it; they can’t stop thinking about certain topics, certain themes.” His important message is that he tries to be as truthful and as emotionally accurate as possible, but not without indulging some deeply disturbing content.  "Life is disturbing; reality is disturbing." 


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