Widely regarded as an American master, John Irving writes expansive, multi-layered fiction that addresses the concerns most germane to contemporary American life, including sexual politics, religious experience and the fallibility of human institutions. A consummate storyteller, his work combines comedy and tragedy to reveal the deepest truths of human experience. As prolific as he is revered, Irving has sold over 12 million books in 35 languages; his streak of international bestsellers now stretches back over four decades.
“Irving’s blend of gravity and play is unique, audacious, almost blasphemous. . . . Brilliant, funny, and consistently wise.”—The New Republic
“He is more than popular. He is a Populist, determined to keep alive the Dickensian tradition that revels in colorful set pieces…and teaches moral lessons.”—The New York Times
Irving was born in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1942. His father taught in the history department at Phillips Exeter Academy, where Irving was captain of the wrestling team. He is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied with Kurt Vonnegut. His first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1968 when he was twenty-six.
The World According to Garp, published in 1978, was Irving’s fourth novel and his first international bestseller. It was also the first of his novels to tackle themes of sexual difference and sexual intolerance, which have continued to thread his work. Garp won a National Book Award in 1980. A movie adaptation of the novel was released in 1982 and earned two Academy Award nominations.
“The World According to Garp was always a feminist novel, but in the passage of time I’ve become more of a feminist. Why? Because the inequalities and discrimination women faced in the start-up days of the women’s movement haven’t gone away”—John Irving
Sexual politics play a major role in Irving’s later novels The Cider House Rules, In One Person, and Avenue of Mysteries. These, along with A Prayer For Owen Meany, a novel that examines the consequences of the Vietnam War, are his most overtly political works.
“I’ve written with the hope that the bigotry, hatred and flat-out violence perpetrated on sexual minorities would become a relic of the past. In that sense I’ve written in protest — I’ve written protest novels.”—John Irving
In 1999, The Cider House Rules was made into a critically acclaimed film by director Lasse Hallström and won two Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay for Irving and Best Supporting Actor for Michael Caine. The film also won the Maggie Award for Irving, named after Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, in recognition of exceptional achievement in support of reproductive rights. He later wrote a book about the experience of adapting his novels for the screen, in My Movie Business.
Before the success of Garp allowed him to be a full-time writer, Irving taught at Brandeis University, Mount Holyoke College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. T.C. Boyle, Allan Gurganus and Ron Hansen were among his students at Iowa.
A coveted speaker at libraries, colleges and lecture halls, Irving often lectures or answers questions on the tradition of the 19th century novel and about his process as a writer. He also speaks frequently about his experience with film projects, the process of adaptation and the screenplay form.
Among many awards and honors, he received an O. Henry Award in 1981 for his short story “Interior Space.” In 2012 and 2013, he won Lambda Literary Awards for Bisexual Fiction for his novel In One Person, and a Bridge Builder Award for writing empathetically about the LGBTQ community. More recently, Irving received the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, at the 2018 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. In 2019 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for Literature by the National Arts Club. Irving was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992 and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001.
Irving is currently at work on his fifteenth novel, a ghost story called Darkness as a Bride. He lives in Toronto.