John Winslow Irving (born March 2, 1942) is an American novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter (for The Cider House Rules, based on his novel of the same name).
John Irving was born John Wallace Blunt, Jr in Exeter, New Hampshire, in unusual circumstances that have since fueled the plots and themes of several of his novels: his mother Helen, a descendant of the Winslows, one of New England's oldest and most distinguished families, divorced Irving's biological father when he was two years old. The family maintained a strict silence regarding his natural father. Helen Winslow later married Colin F.N. Irving, a teacher at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy when Irving was six years old. John Wallace Blunt, Jr became John Winslow Irving, taking his adoptive father's name. Until the mid 2000s, he never sought the identity of his biological father- "I already have a father," he said. In 2001 he discovered he had a half brother from his biological father's second marriage.
Irving attended Exeter, where he was a mediocre student due to then-undiagnosed dyslexia, but was an outstanding wrestler. The trials of pre-sexual revolution single-motherhood, wrestling, and New England academic life feature prominently in Irving's novels, particularly A Prayer For Owen Meany. The primary settings for both novels are based on Phillips Exeter Academy.
Irving was sexually abused at age 11 by an older woman. This event inspired his 2005 novel Until I Find You.
While a student at Exeter, Irving was mentored by famed Presbyterian theologian and novelist Frederick Buechner and writing teacher George Bennett, who later helped Irving gain admission to the Iowa Writer's Workshop, America's most elite graduate writing program, then the only one of its kind. Irving briefly studied at the University of Pittsburgh and eventually graduated from the University of New Hampshire. At Iowa, Irving studied alongside future award-winning novelists Gail Godwin, John Casey, and Donald Hendrie, Jr., among others. He was mentored there by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
While on foreign study in Vienna, Austria, Irving met his first wife, Shyla Leary, an art student. They married after Shyla became unexpectedly pregnant, and eventually had two sons before divorcing in the mid-1980s. Irving subsequently wed his agent, Janet Turnbull, with whom he has a third son.
Irving's career began at the age of 26 with the publication of his first novel, The 158-Pound Marriage, were similarly received. At around this time, in 1975, Irving accepted a position as Assistant Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College.
Frustrated at the lack of promotion his novels were garnering from his first publisher, Random House, Irving chose to offer his fourth novel, The Cider House Rules as a train station agent.
The importance of Garp
Garp transformed Irving from an obscure, academic literary writer to a household name, guaranteeing bestseller status for all of his subsequent books. He followed "Garp" with The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), which was poorly received by critics but sold well and, like Garp, was quickly made into a film, this time directed by Tony Richardson and starring Jodie Foster, Rob Lowe, and Beau Bridges.
In 1985 he published The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the work of Dickens. For the first time, Irving examined the consequences of the Vietnam War- particularly mandatory conscription, which Irving avoided since he was already a married father and a teacher when the draft was instituted. Owen Meany became Irving's bestselling book since Garp, and is now a frequent feature on high school English reading lists.
Irving returned to Random House for his next book, Until I Find You was released on July 12, 2005.
On June 28, 2005, The New York Times published an article revealing that Until I Find You contains two specifically personal elements about his life that he has never before discussed publicly: his sexual abuse, at age 11, by an older woman, and the recent entrance in his life of his biological father's family.
In 1999, after nearly ten years in development, Irving's screenplay for The Cider House Rules was made into a film directed by Lasse Hallstrom and starring Michael Caine, Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, and Delroy Lindo. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and earned Irving an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Michael Caine won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Dr. Larch.
Since the publication of "Garp" made him independently wealthy, Irving has been able to concentrate solely on fiction writing as a vocation, sporadically accepting short-term teaching positions (including one at his graduate school alma mater, the Iowa Writer's Workshop) and serving as an assistant coach on his sons' high school wrestling teams. In addition to his novels, he has also published A Widow For One Year was adapted into The Door in the Floor, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger.
Irving's literary stature is a subject of some debate. Advocates consider him the heir to Charles Dickens, a populist who uses eccentric characters and heavy doses of comedy and pathos to gain an audience for his politically liberal social perspectives. Detractors dismiss him as an author of crude sex comedies that exploit melodramatic circumstances to manipulate readers. Both perspectives have credence: Irving's body of work is uneven, and his meandering plots and relatively plain prose style do not compare well with the work of such praised contemporaries as Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, and Joan Didion; Irving, on the other hand, enjoys a wider audience than all of those novelists combined-particularly among younger readers-and is frequently cited by younger literary writers as a major influence. Arguments about Irving's merit tend to reflect the division between those who see literature's primary value as aesthetic and those who believe that for a work to be great it must influence culture writ large. Regardless of the differing opinions on the critical merit of his work, Irving is guaranteed to be one of the few American novelists of his era who will be read and discussed for many years to come.