Irving visits The Spence School in NYC
John Irving Speaks at Courtney Steele Lecture
by Jenna Wilbur

John Irving is considered by many to be one of the greatest American novelists of our time.  His stories constrast the ordinary elements of life with the uncommon and strange.  Author of nine novels (and counting), most of them bestsellers, he serves as a reliable source of powerful fiction and inspiration to his readers.  Among his most popular novels are A Prayer for Owen Meany, A Widow for One Year, The World According to Garp, and The Cider House Rules.  He recently completed his tenth novel called The Fourth Hand.  In addition, he has written a memoir about his career in films, entitled My Movie Business, and a short autobiography The Imaginary Girlfriend.  Mr. Irving has also delved into the world of writing for the screen.  He has written three screenplays thus far; all adaptations from his novels.  The most famous of these screenplays is his adaptation of The Cider House Rules, which won him an Academy Award for the Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2000 Academy Awards.  On Thursday, October 19th, this great author came to speak at Spence.  In preparation for his speech, the Spence School Film club held a screening of "The Cider House Rules".  It went well, and gave the students a small taste of Mr. Irving's style of storytelling.  The head of the Film Club, Jessica Nagin (12), introduced Mr. Irving on Thursday.
     During the assembly, Mr. Irving spoke vibrantly and enthusiastically about his career.  He focused on the production and release of "The Cider House Rules", and on writing screenplays.  He spoke about the differences between novels and screenplays, the adaptation process, and his involvement in the film's production.  He recalled his collaboration with director Lasse Hallstrom fondly, and said that they would be collaborating once again, but this time on an original screenplay rather than an adaptation.  At the end of his speech, Mr. Irving took time to answer questions from the audience.
     The first point that Mr. Irving conveyed is that he sees his writing as a form of storytelling.  When developing a story, he starts with a simple premise.  He asks himself:  "What if?"  For example, his main premise for
The Cider House Rules was "What if a boy is born in an orphanage and no one adopts him?  What if he develops a relationship with the head of that orphange, who has no real children of their own?"  After thinking of the premise, he develops the story.  Mr. Irving stressed that he always, always knows the ending of a story before he begins to write it.  "That way you can focus on the language more, instead of wondering about what happens," he says.  In terms of the language, Mr. Irving tries to use dialogue sparingly.  When he does include dialogue, he uses it as an indication of a character's personality, not to give the plot away.  He prefers to write narrative novels which focus on detail.
     While Mr. Irving reflects parts of his life in his novels, for the most part he denies that they are autobiographical.  "I haven't had an interesting life," he says, "but I've benefited from it.  It has forced me to imagine different lives and situations."  He feels that most young authors who write from personal experience are at a disadvantage because their experiences are only important to them.  Their stories become limited.  Mr. Irving stresses that "the most dominant autobiographical fixture" in his novels is the element of a missing parent.  In almost all of his novels, a character lacks one, or both, of his or her parents.  In
The Cider House Rules, Homer is an orphan.  In The World According to Garp, T.S. Garp's father dies before he is even born.  The list goes on.  Mr. Irving never knew his real father, but as he says, "I never lost a night's sleep because of it."  While the missing parent component appears frequently in his novels, there are other parts of his life that parallel aspects of his novels.  He grew up in New Hampshire and attended Phillips Exeter Academy.  Many of his stories take place in New Hampshire.  In both Widow and Owen Meany, characters attended the same prep school.  Mr. Irving also studied in Vienna while he was in college.  Many of his novels have essential pieces of the plot that take place in Vienna.  Mr. Irving used to coach wrestling, a sport that appears in three of his novels (he retired ten years ago).  Although he may deny it, there are similarites between his life and his character's lives that cannot be dismissed.
     Mr. Irving also spoke about the differences between screenplays and novels.  As with his novels, he tries to write screenplays that include as little dialogues as possible.  "When there's a lot of dialogue," he says, "it comes out like a cheesy horror film.  It's better to convey the information about what's going on in another way."  The written screenplay, however, contains less language:  "You describe what you see."  This is part of the reason that it takes Mr. Irving only six months to write a screenplay, and up to four years to write a novel.  "It is easier to write an original screenplay than to adapt one.  When adapting from a novel, you end up having to throw three quarters of it away.  Choosing what to throw away from a novel," he says, "is the hardest part."  Mr. Irving couldn't see how a movie would come from most of his other books, but he seemed to know that
Cider House would be one from the beginning.  "I always imagined that scene where Homer Wells steps off that train, returning to the place he said he'd never go back to, ready to perform the act he said he'd never do.  There's a lot of freight to that scene."  One of the most crucial things to focus on while adapting a novel into a screenplay is the "passage of time".  While you can make a novel as long as you want it to be, "movies do not handle the passage of time very well.  It is just as important as the main character.  You must show what time does to the character."  The span of time was a problem during the adaptation.  Even after removing whole characters from the plot, it was still too long.  In the novel, Homer waits 15 years before he returns to the orphanage.  In the movie, he is only away for 18 months.  While Mr. Irving was afraid that the returning scene wouldn't feel the same, he realized that something different was gained from the altered time frame.  The orphans would still be the same.  They would all remember Homer.  "This," he said, "was a fair exchange.  It was an emotional plus."
     Mr. Irving's basic advice for young authors is this:  "Read a lot.  If you do become a writer, the more you write, the less you read."  He said that even though he was a great reader when he was young, he reads very little now because he is writing all the time.  After he started writing screenplays, he was usually working on two things at once (a novel and a movie) which left him little time to read.  When he was younger, he was first inspired by Charles Dickens.  Dickens' "plot-driven, melodramatic novels" made him want to become a writer.  He never liked American literature, Hemmingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald.  He felt that they left the details out of their writing and never quite got to the point of what they were saying.  He was a bigger fan of 19th century European authors, and "New England" authors like Melville and Hawthorne who put everything into their writing.  He compares himself more to the 19th century writers, such as Dickens, than to other American authors in this century.  While Mr. Irving does not consider himself a contemporary writer, the world sees him as one of the best storytellers we have today.

October 19, 2000
The Spence School