John Irving still spinning fiction from real life

Wed Nov 4, 2009 1:05pm EST
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By Edward McAllister

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Backstage, renowned novelist John Irving tells a story about the 300-pound (165-kg) man he found in the sauna at his New York hotel that morning.

The portly man was lying perfectly still when Irving found him. Upon cautious approach, fearing the worst, he was shocked and relieved to hear the man break suddenly into a loud snore.

"I thought he was dead!" Irving said, laughing.

It was a snippet of pure Irving storytelling -- absurd, funny, preoccupied with death -- and typical of a writer whose trick over a 40-year career has been to mold real life into classic fiction.

His 12th novel, "Last Night in Twisted River," follows a father and son running from the law across America. The lead character, Danny, accidentally kills his dad's lover with a frying pan, thinking she's a bear. The pair set off on a 50-year journey that takes them from New Hampshire to Iowa, Vermont, and eventually Ontario in 2005.

"This novel has been in the back of my mind longer than any other novel of mine; 20 years, maybe more," Irving said in an interview ahead of a book talk in New York.

As in many of his novels, he takes autobiography and warps it to fit the page. Danny grows up to be a novelist whose writing process is remarkably like Irving's. Danny, as Irving has done for each of his 12 novels, begins his books with the last sentence and maps his way back to the beginning.

"What I describe as Danny's process is very faithful to what I have done," Irving said. "Twelve novels, 12 last sentences that came first. Not even the punctuation of one of those sentences has ever changed."   Continued...