John Irving

"It's Better to Read a Good Writer than Meet One"

Excerpts from "John Irving: By the Book," The New York Times, June 7, 2012:

Illustration by Jillian TamakiI am a slow reader; when I’m tired, I move my lips. I almost read out loud. My grandmother read to me, and my mother — and my father. My father was the best reader; he has a great voice, a teacher’s voice. Yes, I grew up around books — my grandmother’s house, where I lived as a small child, was full of books. My father was a history teacher, and he loved the Russian novels. There were always books around.


There is no one book that students of writing “should” read. With young writers, I tried to focus on the choices you make before you write a novel. The main character and the most important character are not always the same person — you have to know the difference. The first-person voice and the third-person voice each come with advantages and disadvantages; it helps me to know what the story is, and who the characters are, before I choose the point-of-view voice for the storytelling. 


There’s nothing I need or want to know from the writers I admire that isn’t in their books. It’s better to read a good writer than meet one.


There are a lot of outsiders in my novels, sexual misfits among them. The first-person narrator of “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is called (behind his back) a “non-practicing homosexual”; he doesn’t just love Owen Meany, he’s probably in love with Owen, but he’ll never come out of the closet and say so. He never has sex with anyone — man or woman. Dr. Larch, the saintly abortionist in “The Cider House Rules,” and Jenny Fields, Garp’s mother in “The World According to Garp,” have sex only once and stop for life. The narrator of “The Hotel New Hampshire” is in love with his sister. The two most heroic characters in my new novel, “In One Person,” are transgender women — not the first time I’ve written about transgender characters. I love sexual outsiders; the world is harder for them.