John Irving

Active - 1982 - 2012  |   Born - Mar 2, 1942   |   Genres - Comedy Drama, Drama

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Biography by Steve Jones

After years of struggling in literary anonymity, novelist John Irving became that rare kind of writer: a creator of serious fiction whose work enjoyed both popularity and critical acclaim, and whose fame blossomed even more when his books began to be made into films -- even if the final onscreen products achieved only varying degrees of success. Born in 1942 in Exeter, NH, he attended the Phillips Exeter Academy (where his stepfather taught Russian history), a well-known New England prep school that eventually served as the model for the Steering School in The World According to Garp. While there, Irving discovered two of his great loves -- and, ultimately, literary metaphors: writing and wrestling. After graduation, he spent a year at the University of Pittsburgh before moving to Vienna, a setting that would find a place in many of his later stories. Irving traveled around Europe on a motorcycle, lived a bohemian lifestyle, and, at one point, met a man with a trained bear, an animal that would also become an important figure in a number of his tales. After returning to the U.S., Irving graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1965 and moved on to graduate school at the University of Iowa, where he studied with author Kurt Vonnegut and began work on his first novel.

Irving received his M.F.A. in 1967 and returned to New England with his wife Shyla and son Colin; Setting Free the Bears was published the following year. Although it was critically well received, it sold less than 7,000 copies. Nevertheless, the money allowed the new novelist to buy a house in Vermont, where he lived until he returned to Vienna for three years (during which time a second son, Brendan, was born). While there, he worked with director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) on a film adaptation of Setting Free the Bears. At one point set to star Orson Welles, Jon Voight, and, later, Al Pacino, the project eventually fell through. Irving returned to the States, where, in 1972, he completed work on his second novel, The Water-Method Man. Drawing heavily on his experiences of living in Vienna, being a graduate student in Iowa, and exposure to the film industry with Kershner, this book also met with good reviews, but didn't sell much better than his first work. Irving spent the next three years as writer-in-residence and visiting lecturer back at the University of Iowa and contributed pieces to various magazines, but grew restless, bored, and sick of teaching. During this dark period, he published his third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage. Although his best-reviewed work to date, it nevertheless proved to be his worst seller.

Tired of Iowa, Irving moved back to New England in 1975, continued to teach, and signed with a new publisher, E.P. Dutton; the first book he published with that company would change his life forever. In 1978, The World According to Garp became a huge commercial and critical success (selling more than 100,000 copies in hardcover), and Irving was suddenly both a famous, respected literary figure and a best-selling author. Garp was later made into a feature film starring Robin Williams and Glenn Close, both relative-newcomers at the time. Released in 1982, the movie by George Roy Hill (who also made Slaughterhouse Five from Vonnegut's novel -- another difficult adaptation) was received well. The book's success and Irving's new celebrity status had also allowed him to retire from teaching and devote his time to writing. His next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, was published in 1981 and had an initial printing of 150,000 copies. Unlike Garp, however, the film adaptation on this book, Irving's fifth, was a star-studded affair. Featuring Jodie Foster, Beau Bridges, Rob Lowe, and Nastassja Kinski (who spends most of the film in a bear suit), the The Hotel New Hampshire film in 1984 was also a disaster -- even Irving gingerly distanced himself from it -- and left many of the author's fans wondering how such an awful film could have been made from such a wonderfully rich novel. In fact, as his books and stories became longer, more complex, and less frequent (Irving was slowly becoming known as something of a modern Charles Dickens), it was obvious that his stories, with their intricately woven plots, seemingly endless subplots, and detailed character development, just did not translate well to the big screen. Indeed, it would be 14 years until another movie was made from his work.

While continuing to work on books, Irving spent more than a decade trying to develop more screenplays -- most notably of his 1985 novel The Cider House Rules -- and his struggles with this project, in particular, and the film industry, in general (dating back to developing a script for Setting Free the Bears), was documented in a 1999 memoir, My Movie Business. Ironically, although struggling for 13 years (and with four different directors) to make a film of Cider House, it was a later book, 1989's A Prayer for Owen Meany, that served as the basis for the next Irving film, Simon Birch (1998). But, again -- in addition to being another box-office disappointment -- the general consensus was that, as with The Hotel New Hampshire, Simon Birch did not exactly live up to the novel upon which it was based.

After years of frustration, The Cider House Rules was finally filmed. Controversial and unabashedly pro-choice, the book was the author's most political to date, and when the movie (directed by Lasse Hallström [What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat]) was finally released in 1999, it was obvious that this adaptation carried more of Irving's personal stamp. Not only did he write the script (winning an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay), but he also had a small role as the grumpy, disapproving stationmaster. Starring Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, and Michael Caine, the film -- although missing several elements and characters from the novel -- was the most successful screen translation of Irving's work to date. Caine also won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal as the ether-addicted, kind-hearted Dr. Larch, who runs an orphanage and illegal abortion clinic in Maine during the first half of the 20th century.

Irving's eighth novel, A Son of the Circus, was published in 1994. Ironically, the story, set in India, began as a parallel screenplay (originally titled "Escaping Maharashtra") that was finished years before the book itself. Initially scheduled for production in 1997, and then again in 1999 -- both times starring Jeff Bridges -- the film fell through each time.

In addition to his Oscar, Irving has won an O. Henry Award, a National Book Award, and received awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1992, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001. Divorced in 1982, Irving remarried five years later to Janet Turnbull, with whom he had a third son, Everett. He published his tenth novel, The Fourth Hand, in 2001. Irving's ninth work of fiction, A Widow for One Year, was adapted into the Tod Williams 2004 film Door in the Floor -- the fifth of his books to be made into a movie.

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