The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

John Irving reflects on Iowa City, shares snippet of unpublished novel during visit

Irving spoke with Iowa Writers’ Workshop program director Lan Samantha Chang as part of Hancher’s Infinite Dream Festival.
Emily Nyberg
American author John Irving interviews with The Daily Iowan at the Presidents Residence at the University of Iowa on Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. Irving spoke about his time at the University of Iowa as a wrestler and in the Writers Workshop, as well as the role Iowa has played in his writing. He will be speaking to a sold out crowd at Hancher Auditorium on Friday.

Literary icon John Irving returned to Iowa City’s writing community on Friday, where he was welcomed by a sold-out Hancher audience. 

At 81 years old, Irving still has several novels left to write. He said he saved the shorter and easier ones for later in life.

During the Hancher appearance, in conversation with Iowa Writers’ Workshop program director Lan Samantha Chang, Irving said he has written 14 chapters of his in-progress novel “Honor’s Child.” 

“Given my always pessimistic inclination to tell you a story that’s more painful than happy,” he joked to the audience. “I have in this case tried to imagine an orphan who is virtually unadoptable baggage.”

The novel is the first time Irving is reviving characters from a previous novel. Three characters – Dr. Larche, Nurse Edna, and Nurse Angela, from “The Cider House Rules” will appear in his upcoming book. 

Irving has published 15 novels. He is a best-selling author and winner of the 1999 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Cider House Rules.” He was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1965 to 1967, where he was a student of Kurt Vonnegut. Irving then taught at the workshop from 1972 to 1975. “As a student, to have Kurt Vonnegut as the first reader of my first novel was a gift I could not have imagined and I felt very well supported here as a student,” Irving said in an interview with The Daily Iowan ahead of his Hancher appearance. 

Irving recounted stories of his Iowa City days to the audience on Friday, including a physical altercation at the bar Dave’s Fox Head Tavern on East Market Street in Iowa City in defense of Vonnegut. 

As a student, his personal life was different from many of his peers; Irving started a family as an undergraduate student. He attended undergraduate school at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of New Hampshire and went on a study abroad trip to Vienna, Austria. 

“You’re not supposed to make a junior year abroad turn into getting married and having a child,” Irving said. “So it was a very busy junior year abroad, not exactly as a junior year abroad is generally intended. Here I thought I was only going to learn a foreign language.”

When he came to Iowa City, he appreciated that two of his passions — wrestling and literature —- were celebrated in the town. 

“It was always an added happiness for me to be in a place that loved writing but also a place where wrestling was so central and so important,” he said. “That hadn’t happened before and it didn’t ever happen anywhere else.”

Irving competed as a wrestler for 20 years and coached wrestling until he was 47 years old. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992 and is a friend of Olympic gold medalist and former Iowa Wrestling Head Coach Dan Gable. Several of his novels – such as “The Imaginary Girlfriend” and “The World According to Garp”– include wrestling in the plot. 

His first majorly successful novel was “The World According to Garp,” his fourth novel. 

“I was teaching English and coaching wrestling and assumed I always would be. And looking for time to write where I could find it and never having enough,” Irving said. “So that when it happened, that I could do what I wanted to do full time, I not only I think really appreciate it, but by then I knew how to use it and so that worked out well.”

His most recent book, “The Last Chairlift,” published in 2022, is a 900-page story about a straight man in a family full of LGBTQ+ people. It takes place over 80 years, covering the life and death of several characters. 

“[It was] intentional to not only make my straight male narrator the only straight person in an all-queer family, but it is also clear that he’s the most badly behaved sexually and that everyone else in his family is better behaved sexually than he is,” he said. “They’re also smarter than he is. They’re also more loving than he is.” 

He grew up with a mother who was an abortion-rights advocate, and two younger boy-girl-twin siblings who were both gay. 

“Being an ally to people who were treated as sexual outliers just became a natural thing to be,” he told the audience at Hancher. 

Irving, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada who resides in Toronto, said the United States has regressed on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. He has long written about topics such as abortion and included transgender characters in his work, but he said he has received criticism for writing about these topics. 

“I occasionally hear complaining about how repetitive the sexual politics in my novels are, and I would make the point that if only the country I came from would stop being backward, or going backward in the area of women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights, maybe I’d move on and write about something else,” he said. 

Since his teenage years, Irving has been inspired by 19th-century authors including Charles Dickens and Herman Melville. 

“I felt by the reaction of my friends – the few of them who read novels at all – that I was doomed to obscurity because I have attached myself to a role model who was already more than a century out of date,” he said. “But I have not regretted that.” 

While in Iowa City, Irving met with students in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; while he is happy to talk about his methods such as always knowing a novel’s end before he starts writing, Irving explained he doesn’t want to be prescriptive to other writers. 

“You have to find your own way as a writer, you can’t do it someone else’s way,” he said. “You have to follow your own instincts.” 

More to Discover
About the Contributors
Natalie Dunlap
Natalie Dunlap, Assistant Digital Editor
Natalie Dunlap is the Assistant Digital Editor at The Daily Iowan. She is the host and producer of the Above the Fold news podcast. She has previously worked as a news reporter, news editor, politics reporter, politics editor, and digital producer for the DI. She is a senior majoring in journalism and minoring in English and gender, women's, and sexuality studies. In her free time, she enjoys crocheting while listening to pop culture podcasts.
Emily Nyberg
Emily Nyberg, Visual Editor
Emily Nyberg is a second-year student at the University of Iowa double majoring in Journalism and Cinematic arts. Prior to her role as a Visual Editor, Emily was a Photojournalist, and a News Reporter covering higher education.