Acclaimed author John Irving moves back to Toronto, releases epic new novel

Acclaimed novelist John Irving has a reputation as a tough interview. Preparation is needed. An interest in motorcycles or wrestling helps. Whispers of instruction from publicists with furrowed brows on the elevator ride to the novelist’s Toronto office in the Summerhill neighbourhood make the dread palpable. 

Greetings at the door by a stout and well-conditioned Irving and some chit-chat about his permanent move to Toronto and trying to sell his old home outside a ski town in Vermont help relax the mood.

Before the interview, the home was still for sale. Quite a sweet one, at that, I mention. 

“You want to buy it?” he asks, before explaining that the decision to relocate back to Toronto on a full-time basis had been a long-time coming. It is the hometown of his wife, Janet Turnbull. 

We begin at a large, circular table covered with books, including many copies of his latest. One wall is adorned with countless family photos; a corner fitness area looks well used. Soon the conversation turns to his epic and sprawling new novel, Avenue of Mysteries

When it comes to writing a novel, Irving has always taken his time, preferring to wait for the ending to be rock-solid in his mind before putting pen to paper. And, given the results, maybe we should all exercise a little more patience. 

Despite the time it takes him to complete a project, he has managed to publish 14 novels in addition to the Academy Award–winning screenplay adapted from his novel The Cider House Rules and co-write the screenplay for the international bestseller The World According to Garp

Irving’s latest was released last month, and it was a long time coming. As Irving explains, it is often years of note taking and character sketches before a story comes to life. 

“Many novels wait for years largely fully formed but missing pieces before I decide to begin to write them,” he says. “I need to be completely sure of the ending.”

It was a 20-year buildup before he even began his last novel, Last Night in Twisted River and then another few to actually complete the book. And for Avenue of Mysteries, the acclaimed novelist was a quarter-century in before he decided the story worked better as a novel.

“For more than 25 years, I’ve had the idea of a brother and a sister whose precarious existence is somewhere between the circus and the hands of the Jesuits,” he says. “And it’s changed and changed and changed again.”

The story of Juan Diego and Lupe had the novelist traipsing halfway around the world on numerous occasions, including a stint living with a circus in the north of India. He travelled along with a filmmaker, both intent on bringing the story to life on celluloid. 

“I’d always thought of it as a screenplay,” he says. “Then I thought what if we begin with the kid who left Mexico at 14 and he’s now 54, 40 years later. If the time frame is expanded 20 or 40 years later, that’s not a movie any longer, that’s a novel.”

Once Irving settled on his novelistic intent, he directed his efforts toward its completion and put the film on hold. 

Fans of Irving’s fiction will find much to appreciate in the new novel that features some fine thrashing of religion — including a scene that involves Juan Diego as a teenager apparently using a life-sized religious statue as a sort of sex doll. Ahem.

Irving, now 73, was born in New Hampshire and studied creative writing at the hands of a master at the University of Iowa. This, and some luck, helped the young scribe  launch his career. 

“I had the good luck, I guess, of writing my first novel, being in the throes of writing that first novel as a student of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. at the Iowa workshop,” he explains. 

“I had the great luck of having Kurt as a teacher, and his encouragement meant a great deal to me. He didn’t teach me to write a novel, but he gave me a lot of confidence.”

Despite the encouragement, few read that first novel, Setting Free the Bears, in 1968, or the two after that. Thankfully, Irving wasn’t a big baseball guy, focusing on strikes, because he hit upon something special with his fourth: The World According to Garp, published in 1978. 

The novel, which tells the story of a rather quirky young man named T. S. Garp and his mother, Jenny Fields, was a huge hit, an international bestseller and was eventually made into an Academy Award–nominated film starring the late, great Robin Williams. Irving even made a cameo in the film as a high school wrestling coach. 

Irving is big on the wrestling. 

Last month, Irving announced that HBO and Warner Brothers are working on a possible The World According to Garp miniseries. Garp was followed by subsequent bestsellers The Hotel New Hampshire and The Cider House Rules, and Irving was on his way to establishing himself as one of the finest writers of his generation.

John Irving will read from his new book on Dec. 7 at the Toronto Reference Library.

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