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Author John Irving still wrestling with his writing
By Kyle Klingman
On rare occasions an interview should be published in its entirety. The following interview is with world-renown author John Irving.
Irving has written 15 books: 12 novels and three memoirs. Five of his books have been made into films and he won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Cider House Rules” in 2000.
In 1992, Irving received the Outstanding American Award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla. He was the captain of his wrestling team at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and wrestled for the University of Pittsburgh.
Wrestling features prominently in many of Irving’s novels. His 1996 memoir “The Imaginary Girlfriend” is about his time in wrestling: as a wrestler, referee, coach and father.
How do you carry wrestling with you?
Wrestling is a discipline; long after you stop wrestling, you carry the discipline with you. There’s a lot of necessary repetition in wrestling; think of all the drilling. How many uncountable times do you drill an outside single-leg or a duck-under or an arm-drag or whatever your best moves are? There’s a lot of repetition in writing well, too. It’s called revision or rewriting. How many times do you reread and rewrite the same sentence, the same paragraph, the same chapter? (Too many to count — in the case of the outside single-leg and the sentence.) Doing anything well requires a lot of redoing … of doing the same small things again and again.
How do you not take the ones you love for granted?
My first son was born when I was still an undergraduate. I was 23. My youngest son went off to college this fall; I’m now 68. For 45 years, one or more of my three boys have lived in my house. They have been the most constant thing in my life — my children.
Think of how many of my novels begin in a child’s point of view, or in the POV of a teenager; my children have not only been the best way I can measure my life — they have informed the best of my fiction writing, of my imagination.
Michael McKlave, the team’s most valuable wrestler your senior year at Exeter Academy, is not pictured in the team picture from 1961. Is there a reason he was not in the picture?
Mike McClave is in the Exeter team picture of that ‘61 team. It is a clerical error that McClave is listed as “missing” from the photo. He’s in the front row — two guys to my left, or second from the right in the front row. I wrestled 133; McClave was our 137-pounder. We were frequent workout partners, and he was my best friend at Exeter—we’re still good friends.
Mike was from Montana, and a better wrestler than I was; maybe I was his match on the feet, but he was much tougher on the mat. He won the New England tournament at 137 in ‘61; I finished fourth at 133. That was the last year that there was a truly all-New England tournament, in which all the high schools and prep schools competed.
Starting in ‘62, the public schools and the private schools began to have separate tournaments. Too bad; the competition was better when we were all in it together.
You are in the center of the Exeter Academy team picture. Does that hold any special significance to you?
I’m in the center of the ‘61 team photo because I was the wrestling team captain, an honor that still means a lot to me.
Does the process of writing—and wrestling—still fascinate you?
The process is the most important, the most lasting part — of wrestling and of writing. You must love the hardest parts of any process if you want to keep improving. You can’t not love every detail of the process.
Is coaching an art? Is there an art to officiating?
Coaching is an art, or at least a craft. Not every good wrestler can be a good coach; not every good writer can be a good teacher. Coaching and teaching are different from doing.
I was certified as an official for 24 years, but I didn’t do all that much refereeing. Your first job is to anticipate an injury, or a potential injury, and prevent it from happening … not always possible.
Stalling is the problem. It’s sometimes contradictory that, as wrestlers and coaches, we have to be good at defense, and then we penalize guys who are good at protecting a lead; other times, I go crazy at a ref who is not calling a flagrant stalling tactic.
How does one compensate for limited ability?
Limited ability, limited talent, is a fact of life. Everyone who knows our sport knows that the most talented wrestlers aren’t always the ones who succeed; the same is true of writers. You have to understand your limitations.
We know that there are wrestlers who seem to always come out on top of any scramble. You should encourage those wrestlers to create scramble situations. You also know that the kids with limited athletic ability should be taught to stay out of certain scramble situations — to control as much of the pace of a match as they can.
I was a wrestler with limited athletic ability. I needed to keep the match close; I needed to control the pace — to slow everything down. I’m the opposite as a writer; I’m always speeding up the pace — I am good (as a writer) with potentially chaotic situations.
How do you stay connected to your former high school wrestling coach Ted Seabrooke even though he is not physically present?
Ted Seabrooke was a calm and steady soul. He was twice struck by lightning, when he was playing golf. I said: “You know, that’s another reason why I’m not taking up golf — not ever.”
Ted just said: “It’s always a good idea to know what’s not going to kill you. Golf had two chances to kill me. I know it’s not going to be golf that gets me.”
Did your wrestling experience extend your imagination?
Everything you love, and want to be good at, forces you to use your imagination.
What is most important?
You have to keep following through on what you start. At least you have to keep trying. I’m writing my thirteenth novel; I never begin a book unless there’s something about it that scares me, unless there’s something in it that I hope never happens to me or to anyone I love.
I also have four screenplays in varying degrees of completion or near-completion: two adaptations, two original. One of the original screenplays is one I’m writing with two other guys; it’s about the life of Dan Gable. It’s uphill work to get that film made right, but Gable is an uphill kind of man … uphill never daunted him.
I’ve known Dan a long time since right after his gold medal in Munich, when he first came to the University of Iowa. I was in Iowa City in those first three years of Gable’s time with that Hawkeye team; I was teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was there that I began writing “The World According to Garp.”
Gable was an inspiration to me. He still is. I’m not going to quit on trying to get this movie made about him. I’m going to do all I can to see that his story isn’t compromised or cheapened, either. But there’s a lot more integrity in novels than there is in films; I often think that writers are the least respected part of the movie-making process.
It is a delicate balance: to be aggressive about trying to steer a film you believe in into production, while at the same time trying to protect the story from those crass and hyperbolic hacks who want to traduce a moving and meaningful story and give the world “Rocky X” — or are we up to “Rocky XX”? I can’t remember how many “Rocky” movies we’ve had.
I just keep telling Dan: “We’re not making a sports movie.”