Inspiring Night -- John Irving Explaining his Craft

It was inspiring, almost magical, listening to John Irving explain his art, his insight into life, at Portland Art Museum. OPB hosted him with the towering church organ of the First Congregational United Church of Christ as a backdrop. John Irving’s intellect and humor eventually dwarfed the organ.

Irving shared his secret for crafting suspense into his stories. He tries to reveal just enough about the one or two big plot twists/tragedies to make them not seem hokey, but not so much that they spoil the suspense. He asks his wife to be his first reader. If she tells him something was too revealing/obvious or too hokey, to her annoyance, he gets a couple others to read it, like editors or friends. Only then, if they spontaneously say the similar things he takes a bit of foreshadowing out or adds some back in. So even the masters have trouble getting the suspense vs. hokiness balance just right. And it is possible, with hard work and “process”, to craft away the hokiness. It’s not just brilliant instinct – though of course that’s a lot of it for Irving. Suspense makes a story engaging and meaningful – the surprise, the foreshadowing. The “meaning”, depth comes from the sense that everything makes sense in the end, even in tragedy. And all of that wouldn’t be possible without the “connection” that suspense and plot twists bring. They suck you into the mind, the emotion of the voice in the novel.

And Irving’s favorite authors for authentic-feeling foreshadowing are Shakespeare and Melville. They strike the balance perfectly, as in Moby Dick with Queequeg. Queequeg is the “native”, the “cannibal”. Irving calls him a “flakey” and superstitious harpoonist. He begs and cajoles the carpenter into crafting him a coffin and once it’s built decides that he’s not going to die after all. But in the end it gets used as a “life bouy.” “And who doesn’t know that the ship is not coming home?” But we all hope that it will up until it doesn’t. And then realize that it was obvious. That was a mix of foreshadowing that is easily understood/accepted and hints so complicated that it is only obvious after the fact.

And in Shakespeare when Richard is whining about “my kingdom for a horse” and self-pitying and then in the end is feeling helpless and running away in fear, insecurity. That is an example of knowing the end and anticipating it in the voice of your character but making sure the voice evolves throughout the story and your main character grows/changes. The passage of time is the key difference between a novel and a screen play. It’s only because he was able to copress Cider House Rules into an 18 month story from 15 years that he could see that it would make a movie. Other stories, like his latest where the only recognizable characteristic of the draft dodger at the end of the novel is his limp and everything else about him has changed. Having to change actors throughout a play to show the passage of time, aging isn’t believable for Irving.

Written on November 8, 2015