John Irving Biography

Author and screenwriter

Born John Wallace Blunt, Jr., March 2, 1942, in Exeter, NH; son of John, Sr. (an executive recruiter and writer) and Frances Blunt; stepson of Colin F. Irving (a teacher); married Shyla Leary (a painter and photographer), August 20, 1964 (divorced, 1981); married Janet Turnbull (a literary agent), 1987; children: Colin, Brendan (from first marriage), Everett (from second marriage). Education: University of New Hampshire, B.A. (cum laude), 1965; University of Iowa, MFA, 1967; also attended University of Pittsburgh, 1961-62, and Institute of European Studies, Vienna, Austria, 1963-64.

Addresses: Office —c/o Author Mail, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.


English instructor, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, 1967-72, later an assistant professor of English; published first novel, Setting Free the Bears , 1968; appeared in film adaptation of his novel, The World According to Garp , 1982; wrote first screenplay, The Cider House Rules , adapted from his own novel, 1999, and appeared in a cameo in the film; wrote film adaptation of his novel A Widow for One Year as The Door in the Floor , 2004. Taught at Windham College and the University of Iowa. Served as writer-in-residence, University of Iowa and Brandeis University, 1978-79; also worked as a wrestling coach.

Awards: National Books Award for Fiction (Paperback) for The World According to Garp , National Book Foundation, 1980; Academy Award for best adapted

screenplay, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for The Cider House Rules , 1999; National Board of Review Award for best screenplay, National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, for The Cider House Rules , 1999; Golden Satellite Award for best motion picture screenplay (adaptation), International Press Academy, for The Cider House Rules , 1999; inductee, Wrestling Hall of Fame, National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum.


American novelist John Irving has sold millions of copies of his books around the world. They have been translated into at least 30 languages. A number of Irving's novels have been regarded as creative failures by reviewers, yet all but two have been best sellers. Critics often praise his use of language, though that element can get out of control. In his books, the plots are often complex, sometimes to the point of meandering, and feature many odd characters. Of the latter aspect, Irving told Dorman T. Shindler in Book , "The characters in my novels, from the very first one, are always on some quixotic effort of attempting to control something that is uncontrollable—some element of the world that is essentially random and out of control."

Irving did not fully know about his early life until he reached adulthood. He was born John Wallace Blunt, Jr., in 1942, in Exeter, New Hampshire. He was the son of John Blunt, Sr., and his wife, Frances, known as Frankie. His father was a soldier during World War II who ended his marriage two years after Irving was born. Though he requested visitation and wanted to get to know his son, Irving's mother would not allow him to ever see their son. Irving grew up knowing nothing about his biological father.

As a young child, Irving was raised by his mother and grandmother in his grandmother's home in Exeter. When he was about six years old, his mother married Colin F. Irving. Her new husband gave his name to his new wife's son. John Wallace Blunt, Jr., was now known as John Winslow Irving. Colin Irving was a history teacher at a well-known prep school, Phillips Exeter Academy.

Despite his dyslexia, Irving liked to read. Wrestling became another passion. He received his education at Phillips Exeter Academy where he was better at wrestling than at school because of his then-undiagnosed dyslexia. Irving also had a very religious upbringing which later played a role in some of his novels.

After graduating from prep school, Irving entered the University of Pittsburgh. He went there primarily because of the school's wrestling team, but only stayed for one year. Irving transferred to the University of New Hampshire and continued to wrestle. While a student there, he won a grant to study at the Institute of European Studies for year, 1963 to 1964. In 1964, Irving married his first wife, a painter and photographer named Shyla Leary, whom he met while studying abroad. Leary had become pregnant with the couple's first child, Colin. They later had a second son named Brendan.

Irving graduated cum laude from the University of New Hampshire in 1965 and then entered the prestigious MFA creative writing program at the University of Iowa. This program has produced a number of well-known novelists, including Kurt Vonnegut. When Irving graduated from Iowa, he took an academic position while he worked on his first novels. He also continued to wrestle competitively, a sport he participated in until he was 34 years old.

Irving spent the next five years teaching English at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. He published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears , in 1968. While the book received good reviews, it did not sell well. Irving wrote two more novels that also were ignored by the general public. The Water-Method Man , a farcical novel about sex, and The 158-Pound Marriage , were reviewed favorably by critics. Irving believed that his publisher, Random House, did not support the novels, and switched publishers.

Whether or not Irving was correct about Random House, his next novel was his breakthrough. In 1978, he published one of his best known books, The World According to Garp. This book made Irving famous and wealthy. After its publication, he left academia behind, except for stints as a writer in residence. The World According to Garp is a family saga about a single-mother nurse and her son, a wrestler named T.S. Garp. The novel is primarily set at Irving's alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy. The World According to Garp was made into a film in 1982 that was a hit at the box office and featured a performance by actor Robin Williams as Garp. Irving himself had a cameo role as a wrestling referee.

The follow-up to The World According to Garp was not as embraced by critics. Titled The Hotel New Hampshire , this tragic comedy had several story lines including one about a brother who was in love with his sister. Despite the lack of critical support, The Hotel New Hampshire sold well.

That novel was published in 1981, a year in which much changed in Irving's life. He and his first wife divorced. Around the time of the divorce, his mother gave him a packet of information about his biological father. The packet included letters and newspaper articles about his heroism as a pilot during World War II. While this information satisfied some of the questions Irving had about his father, the novelist chose not to meet the man despite several opportunities over the years. Irving regarded the man who raised him, Colin Irving, as his father.

Though Irving's personal life was tumultuous for a time, he continued to write novels that had a wide following among readers. One book that was also better received by critics was The Cider House Rules. This novel focused on an orphanage in Maine run by a Dr. Larch, who also performed abortions on the side. Larch was assisted in his medical duties by a teenaged orphan named Homer, to whom Larch wants to teach the abortion procedure, but the boy is unwilling to learn. One character in the novel, an airman, was modeled on the information Irving learned about his father.

In 1987, Irving married his literary agent, Janet Turnbell. The couple had a son together, Everett. Turnbell is Canadian, so Irving and his family began spending part of every year in that country as well as living in his primary home in Vermont and a vacation home in Long Island, New York.

For his next novel, Irving again returned to Phillips Exeter Academy. Called A Prayer for Owen Meany , the book showed how much British author Charles Dickens influenced Irving's work. A sprawling book focused around a mythical story, the novel is narrated by John Wheelwright, a student at Exeter, whose life is greatly influenced by the title character, the diminutive Owen Meany. Meany is the son of granite quarrier and believes he is a tool of God. Wheelright undergoes a religious conversion because of Owen, though he later moves to Canada to dodge the draft for the Vietnam War. A Prayer for Owen Meany was very popular, becoming Irving's biggest seller after The World According to Garp. It also became a novel that was often read in literature classes in colleges and universities.

Irving went back to Random House starting with his next long novel, 1995's A Son of the Circus. Though a number of critics did not like the book, it still sold well. One theme in the novel was how when people inadvertently offend people through their actions they unknowingly reveal a truth about themselves. Irving uses this idea for comic effect as he focuses on the life of Dr. Daruwalla, an Indian-born physician who lives in Toronto, Canada, but does not feel at home in either place. The novel primarily takes place in India where the doctor works on a means to end dwarfism and also writes scripts for Bollywood mystery films.

Irving's 1998 novel, A Widow for One Year , was better received than his previous book. Critics noted that A Widow for One Year had much in common with The World According to Garp in terms of theme and structure. Driving this novel is Marion Cole, a mother whose two sons die in a car accident. Depressed, she leaves her husband and four-year-daughter behind and disappears for 37 years. She also has an affair with a 16-year-old boy named Eddie. Much of the novel focuses on the daughter Marion left behind as she grows, marries, has a child, and becomes a widow.

Over the years, Irving was not always happy with the way his novels were adapted for film. At this point in his career, he decided to take matters into his own hands. In 1999, he wrote an adaptation of his novel The Cider House Rules ; the film won several awards. Irving chronicled the experience in his book My Movie Business: A Memoir. Six years later, he adapted A Widow for One Year for film. It was titled The Door in the Floor when it was released in 2004.

Though Irving found success as a screenwriter, his primary career remained writing novels. His next book, 2001's The Fourth Hand , was significantly shorter than most of his novels, only about 300 pages long, and much less complex and more lean in its execution. While critics were often dismissive, the book still sold extremely well. It was a number-one best seller within a week of its publication. The protagonist at the center of The Fourth Hand is a well-known television reporter named Patrick Wall-ingford. He attracts women and finds it hard to say no to their advances. His numerous affairs end his marriage, but after undergoing a change, he eventually finds true love. While The Fourth Hand was a more conventional novel, it still had many of Irving's signature peculiar moments and characters, such as a man who throws dog excrement at boaters on the Charles River. Wallingford himself loses his left hand to a lion and has hand transplant surgery. He falls in love with the hand donor's widow.

Irving's personal life was again changing in this time period. In December of 2001, Irving's half-brother, Chris Blunt, contacted him. Irving learned that he had two younger half brothers and a younger half sister from his biological father's other marriages. The novelist was also informed that his father had died about five years earlier. Irving became bonded to his new family members.

Even before The Fourth Hand was published, Irving was already at work on a novel, Until I Find You , that had a number of autobiographical elements to it. In the 820-page novel, Irving focuses on Jack Burns, an actor/screenwriter who learns about what he thinks is true about his somewhat tragic past from his rather difficult tattoo artist mother, Alice. One thing that Jack remembers was being sexually molested by an older women when he was only ten years old. Irving himself admitted that this happened to him as a child. When the novelist was eleven years old, he was repeatedly molested by an older woman for a year.

Jack is unsure about what really happened to him throughout his childhood and tries to find answers as he searches for his long-lost father, who he finds in the end. In interviews upon the book's publication, Irving admitted that the situation with his biological father had greatly influenced a number of his books much more than he realized or admitted to in the past. He initially wrote Until I Find You in first person, though he later changed it to a third person perspective before publication to make it more fictionalized for him and the reader.

Of the labor involved in writing his novels, Irving commented in the New York Times , "Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truths you haven't had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary, strict toiling with the language; for me this means writing and rewriting the sentences until they sound as spontaneous as good conversation."

Selected writings


Setting Free the Bears , Random House (New York City), 1968.

The Water-Method Man , Random House, 1972.

The 158-Pound Marriage , Random House, 1974.

The World According to Garp , E. P. Dutton (New York City), 1978.

The Hotel New Hampshire , E. P. Dutton, 1981.

The Cider House Rules , Morrow (New York City), 1985.

A Prayer for Owen Meany , Morrow, 1989.

A Son of the Circus , Random House, 1995.

A Widow for One Year , Random House, 1998.

The Fourth Hand , Random House, 2001.

Until I Found You , Random House, 2005.


Trying to Save Piggy Sneed , Arcade Publishing (New York City), 1996.


My Movie Business: A Memoir , Random House, 1999.



Celebrity Biographies , Baseline II, Inc., 2005.


Book , July 2001, p. 30.

Entertainment Weekly , July 15, 2005, pp. 75-76; July 22, 2005, pp. 40-46.

Independent (London, England), August 5, 2005.

Irish Times (Dublin, Ireland) July 14, 2001, p. 64.

Maclean's , September 5, 1994, p. 54; July 23, 2001, p. 41.

New York Times , August 22, 1982, sec. 7, p. 3; April 25, 1989, p. C13; April 28, 1998, p. E1.

People , July 30, 2001, p. 95; July 25, 2005, pp. 88-90.

Publishers Weekly , February 26, 1996, p. 24; July 16, 2001, p. 77.

Time , April 3, 1989, p. 80.

Weekly Standard , August 13, 2001, p. 35.

A. Petruso

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