John Irving

John Irving Biography

Educator, Author (1942–)
Award-winning, bestselling American novelist John Irving is known for The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp.


Born on March 2, 1942 in Exeter, New Hampshire, John Irving pursued wrestling and worked as a teacher before shooting to fame with his best-selling 1978 novel, The World According to Garp, which won the National Book Award. For his 1985 novel The Cider House Rules, he also wrote the screenplay adaption, winning an Oscar for his efforts. He has written many other novels, including A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Fourth Hand, as well as two memoirs.

Wrestler and Writer

Born on March 2, 1942 in Exeter, New Hampshire, John Irving was born John Wallace Blunt Jr., after his biological father. His name was legally changed when he was six years old, as he was raised by his biological mother and stepfather, Colin Irving, who was a Russian history teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy. Irving attended Exeter as well, and during his teens took up wrestling, in which he would compete for 20 years. When he was 15, Irving read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, which had a profound effect on his life and inspired much of his future writing.

Irving studied as an undergrad at the University of New Hampshire, and went on to earn an Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Iowa, studying fiction and graduating in 1967. He published his first book, Setting Free the Bears, in 1968, and taught at the University of Iowa and Mount Holyoke through the '70s, while continuing to write and publish novels including The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage.

Irving hit it big when his fourth novel, The World According to Garp, was released in 1978; it reigned on the bestsellers lists for several months and won the National Book Award in 1980. Garp was eventually adapted into a 1982 film starring Robin Williams, Glenn Close, John Lithgow and Mary Beth Hurt, with Close and Lithgow being nominated for Oscars for their performances. Irving followed that up with The Hotel New Hampshire in 1981; he received an O. Henry Award for his short story, "Interior Space," the same year. In 1985, Irving's acclaimed The Cider House Rules was released. The story, which follows an orphan who never gets adopted and a doctor who oversees his maturation, became another bestseller.

Over a long period of time, Irving eventually adapted the novel into a film of the same name where he had director and casting approval. The Cider House Rules film—released in late 1999, directed by Lasse Hallström and starring Tobey Maguire, Michael Caine and Charlize Theron—became a box office hit and earned seven Academy Award nominations. Caine won an Oscar for best supporting actor and Irving for best adapted screenplay. Irving captured his time as a Hollywood writer in his memoir My Movie Business, which was published in 2000.

During the Cider House film journey, Irving continued to write. In the late '80s and '90s, he released three novels, A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Son of the Circus and A Widow for One Year, as well as a memoir, The Imaginary Girlfriend. Owen Meany went on to become yet another adaptation for the big screen, a film titled Simon Birch, starring Ashley Judd and Ian Michael Smith. Irving was also inducted in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992.

As the calendar turned to the new millennium, Irving continued his prolific literary craft with novels that included The Fourth Hand, Until I Find You, Last Night in Twisted River and the children's book, A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound. In 2012, Irving published his 13th novel, In One Person, which follows a narrator's erotic exploits and yearnings from youth to adulthood. Many critics have praised his latest effort, Avenue of Mysteries (2015), as a welcome return to the themes that first made him such a beloved author. To promote his latest work, Irving has made appearances around the world.

Literary Themes

Irving's novels often deal with controversial subject matter in a way that's been heralded as quirky, humorous and brave. He has dealt with the issue of married couples swapping partners, parental loss, feminism, childhood abuse, and both open bisexuality and repressed homosexuality in narratives that explore conventionality and challenge tradition.

Elements of Irving's own life—including his wrestling career, absentee father and own sexual fantasies as a young man—have inspired much of his writing, though the author says that he prefers to rely on an open imagination as the springboard for ideas rather than strict autobiography. Irving also constructs his stories aware of what his endings will be; hence, he is able to play with foreshadowing in a directed way. Critics have had a range of responses to his work, with some titles, such as Garp, being more favored than others.

Irving has been married twice. He wed his literary agent, Janet Turnbull, in 1987. He and his first wife, Sheila Leary, have two sons, Colin and Brendan. He and Janet have one son, Everett.

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