Willamette University, Students at the Mill Stream

John Irving Shares the Writer's Process

John IrvingWillamette students and the community got a glimpse into the writing process of one of America's most popular and respected authors last week when John Irving visited campus.

John Irving Image Gallery

Irving, whose novels include The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules, delivered the spring Atkinson Lecture in the evening. But first he met privately with a dozen students -- a mix of English majors, writers and Irving fans -- to answer their questions about his career and methods.

Irving described himself as "a visually descriptive writer" who is inspired by 19th century authors like Charles Dickens, Herman Melville and Thomas Hardy.

When a student asked him to describe the reasoning behind the "bizarre" nature of his characters, Irving responded that one of the greatest challenges of fiction is making the reader sympathize with a character who may seem despicable.

"You have the opportunity in fiction to put someone in an awful situation and make them incredibly human in a way that does not vilify them," he said. "If you can make the reader love these people or at least pity them, that's an accomplishment."

Irving said one of his mantras is a quote from Melville: "Woe to him who seeks to please rather than appall."

"I find it less interesting to write about things that have happened to me than to write about things I'm afraid of happening to me," he said.

During his evening lecture, Irving delved further into his process for writing a novel. In a method that contrasts with many other writers, Irving begins by crafting the last sentence, then creating a "reverse road map" to lead him back to the beginning of the story.

He doesn't begin writing his first draft until he already has mapped out the plot and characters.

The students also queried Irving on his path to becoming a professional writer. Irving recently published his 12th novel, Last Night in Twisted River; he has earned an Academy Award for his screen adaptation of The Cider House Rules; and he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Irving said that writing is not a choice, but an "addiction" that he feels he cannot live without.

"You can be talented in a lot of different things, but one day you'll discover there's just something you do better than anything else, something you want to do for eight or nine hours a day," he told the students. "That's what your career is - it's the thing you just can't leave alone."