John Irving calls the novel of the nineteenth century “the model of the form”; his work is a throwback to the plotted, character-driven novels of that time. “I read Dickens when I was a teenager,” Irving says. “It was Great Expectations that made me want to be a novelist.”
“It is impossible to imagine the American—or international—literary landscape without John Irving…. He has sold tens of millions of copies of his books, books that have earned descriptions like epic and extraordinary and controversial and sexually brave. And yet, unlike so many writers in the contemporary canon, he manages to write books that are both critically acclaimed and beloved for their sheer readability. He is as close as one gets to a contemporary Dickens in the scope of his celebrity and the level of his achievement.” —TIME
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. A member of the wrestling team at the University of Pittsburgh, he competed as a wrestler for twenty years and coached wrestling until he was forty-seven. Irving has a BA from theUniversity of New Hampshire and an MFA from 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 explore 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 half my novels with the hope that the bigotry, hatred and flat-out violence perpetrated on sexual minorities would become a relic of the past. In as many as six or seven novels 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, named after Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, in recognition of exceptional achievement in support of reproductive rights.
Before the success of Garp allowed him to be a full-time writer, Irving taught English and Creative Writing at various colleges and universities. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, T.C. Boyle, Allan Gurganus and Ron Hansen were among his students.
A coveted speaker, 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. He is comfortable being onstage by himself and with the format of an onstage interview.
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 with great empathy 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 finishing his fifteenth novel, a ghost story called Darkness as a Bride. A dual citizen, of Canada and the U.S., he lives in Toronto.here.