Life into Art: Novelist John Irving

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Distraction—a job, a family—is the writer's great enemy. Talent is not enough. One must have the discipline and strength of a trained bear. Says Irving: "The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn't behave that way you would never do anything."

The author's definition of a free minute covers a lot of ground. Friends note that if Irving grows abstracted in company, the chances are he is mulling a plot twist or a change in his phrasing. He is compulsive about making revisions. "I never feel something is finished, even on the galleys," he says. "By then it may be just little things, a tense, a semicolon. I make changes in the finished book. No one else will see them, but I know they are there." To Irving, the ear can be as important as the eye. Many of the alterations that are penciled into his books are put there after the public readings that he frequently gives at colleges and seminars. The first to hear a new work is usually his family.

This is the way much of The Water-Method Man (1972) and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974) were composed. The latter is a bleak tale about the complications of spouse swapping. Between teaching at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and stints at the Writers' Workshop in Iowa, Irving typed away in a small shed, the same one that overlooks the pool. There was no pool then, and the future did not seem to promise one. He now works mainly in a study above the kitchen. Weather permitting, one of his three typewriters can be found set up out of doors.

Though reviewers were usually impressed with Irving's originality and verve, the most important critic was not. Random House, his publisher, was un impressed by his sales figures. The first chapters of the author's next novel met a cool response from some house editors. There followed a familiar story: author complains that his books are not handled or promoted properly; publisher is sympathetic and hints that the writer might be happier at another house.

Irving took his unfinished manuscript to Henry Robbins at Button. Robbins, who died of a heart attack two years ago, was one of the outstanding fiction editors of his generation. The editor of Joan Didion, Wilfrid Sheed and Stanley Elkin, he responded ecstatically to the new work. Wrote Robbins in a report to his bosses: "A major novel about a wonderfully eccentric mother and son, very funny and very moving at the same time. Sure to be the 'breakthrough' book by an immensely talented novelist in his mid-30s." His faith in Irving was backed by a $20,000 advance—plus $150,000 on a next book, sight unseen.

For the first time the writer returned home to work without having to worry about money. In the spring Robbins received the following postcard: "Putney, 25 May 1977: hot weather, swimming weather, deer fly weather. Finished Lunacy and Sorrow this a.m. . . . Novel is 531 pages long, has all the ingredients of an Xrated soap opera; I hope it will cause a few smiles among the tough-minded and break a few softer hearts."

The book, its title changed to The World According to Garp, did all that. In addition it managed to churn a few stomachs and raise some blood pressures. Not everyone who read Garp responded to the novel's

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