AWP Keynote: John Irving begins at the end (and answers some questions)


John Irving explicated his penchant for writing the last sentences of his novels first, then working backwards, in his often witty keynote speech at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in New York City last week.  (And yes, he has a masterful deadpan delivery.) He devoted much time to a litany of book titles and ending sentences, then chapter titles and ending sentences. Irving scholars nodded in delight; a few in audience nodded off.

Irving, who was an NBCC fiction finalist for his 1978 novel “The World According to Garp,” also spoke of the novel he is working on now. He was struck with the seminal last sentence, he said, while listening to Bob Dylan on his way to his orthopedist’s office. Once there, in great haste, he jotted the lines down on his doctor’s prescription pad. Concerned that he might be self-prescribing, she insisted upon reading it before he could tear the page off. That new novel’s title,“Last Night in Twisted River,“comes, he said, from Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” (He shared the first sentence with Critical Mass here.)

Before he began, Irving responded to a few preselected questions. Some answers:

A. Yes, I was a model in a life drawing class while in college. It is not true that I met my wife in a life drawing class.

A. This was handed to me at the gym. “If you had to choose between Mitt Romney, who would you vote for?” [Laughter from the audience] Between Mitt Romney and Anybody, I would take Anybody…with the possible exception of the guy in the office now.”

Listen to vintage Irving (when “The World According to Garp” was on the bestseller list, he previewed his next, “The Hotel New Hampshire,” at the 92nd Street Y) here.

Irving interview in UNH alumni magazine, 2005.

New York Times review of Irving’s 2005 novel “Until I Find You.”

Interview with Jon Stewart on “Until I Find You.” (Among the topics: Irving’s experience studying with Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Writers Workshop’ “what he did was save me some time; he said you do these things better than those things, why don’t you do more of the things you do well.” Priceless moment when Irving cracks up Jon S. while describing trying to Heimlich Vonnegut when he chokes at the dinner table.)