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He's Wrestled With Life . . .

. . . And come out on top. John Irving has another bestseller, two film scripts and 'Garp' is marking its 20th anniversary.

June 25, 1998|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Irving loves to talk. Sitting shirtless in the sun at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, the 56-year-old author takes a series of simple questions and expands on them, tossing off digressions as if conversation were a literary form in its own right.

Ask him about his experience writing screenplays, and he'll tell you what he thinks of Hollywood, and why a book is always better than a film. Mention his predilection for tragedy--his work is marked by dead children, plane crashes, bad things happening to good people--and he'll segue into a treatise on the difference between sentimentality and emotion.

Even the silver-dollar-size tattoo etched into his left shoulder, a green maple leaf bleeding to red at its edges, inspires a story about the history of tattooing, his own rotator cuff surgery and the research that went into his ninth novel, "A Widow for One Year," currently riding the bestseller charts. Listening to him, one thing becomes increasingly obvious: There's a reason why his books are so long.

These days he has a lot to talk about, beginning with the publication of "A Widow for One Year" and the Modern Library's simultaneous 20th anniversary edition of "The World According to Garp," the novel that put him on the literary map.

Then there's the six-hour-long adaptation of his novel "The Cider House Rules" (1985) that will open at the Mark Taper Forum next month; in September, a film version of the same book, with his own screenplay, is scheduled to move into production after more than a decade of false starts.

As if that weren't enough, yet another Irving novel will go before the cameras in January: "A Son of the Circus," also with an Irving script. All in all, it's a concentrated period of exposure for a writer who tends to deride such distractions of modern literary life as antithetical to the purpose he has defined for himself: working seven days a week, eight hours a day, to produce one substantial novel every four years.

"I'm certainly grateful," he says, "but I don't credit the various adaptations of my work with being that important. In fact, they've taken me away from my day job. For all the time I've put into those two screenplays, I could have written another novel. That's the line I look at, and that's the truth."

If such a statement sounds single-minded, the characterization is one Irving accepts with pride. In many ways, he says, it goes back to his years as a wrestler: A compact, muscular man, he competed until he was in his mid-30s and believes that the discipline of training was essential in enabling him to take on the long-term commitment of the literary life.

Even more influential is his history as a writer, which for more than a decade was a touch-and-go proposition at best. His second novel, "The Water-Method Man," sold fewer than 6,000 copies when it was published in 1972 and already had been remaindered by the time it was selected by the New York Times as one of the year's notable books. Until "The World According to Garp" became a bestseller, in fact, Irving supported himself and his family by coaching wrestling and teaching high school English, while squeezing in whatever writing he could.

"In those years," he recalls, "I expected that I would always teach and coach for a living. . . . I resented like hell that I could only [write] for an hour and a half or two hours a day. What kind of practice does a doctor have if he only sees patients from 8 to 9 in the morning? What kind of lawyer could you be if someone said you could only have two clients a week?"

Even 20 years later, his voice tightens when he discusses the early days of his career, his words coming out hard and sharp as little stones. Still, he admits, without the frustrations of the experience, he might never have developed the patience he feels is necessary to write.

"Garp," he explains, "was the novel in which I learned that you can never know enough about a book before you begin. 'Garp' was the fourth novel I began too soon, although I probably waited longer to begin it than I waited to begin any of the first three novels. But 'Garp' was where I learned."

Irving feels that time is the key ingredient--both the time it takes to write a novel and the passage of time within the book itself. "So much of what is emotionally felt about a novel," he says, "is felt as the effect of the passage of time. The passage of time has always been important in my novels, as it was for the novels of the 19th century."

The reference is hardly gratuitous. Since childhood, he has been inspired by the Victorian masters, whose novels merge a certain intricacy of language with a highly developed sense of plot. "The 19th century novel was the model of the form for me. A plot-driven novel, a novel that demonstrated what Lawrence called 'the interconnectedness of things.'

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