An earnest but dejected young man crosses paths with two professors who share his passion for writing. His life changes course, leading to an improbably happy ending. The true story of . . .

Becoming John Irving

A John Irving conversation unfolds like a John Irving novel. The sentences begin, dense with clauses, bristling with specific detail. Merrily they traverse the tangled undergrowth between subject and verb, meandering past, around, never quite to the point. Tagging along breathlessly, the reader or listener starts to wonder: Where in this labyrinth is our hero? Has he lost the plot? What are all these random people and places doing in the story?

To follow an Irving narrative requires suspension not just of disbelief but of distrust. Gradually you squelch your impatience and sink into the couch cushions, trusting that somewhere on this ship, no matter how apparently aimless its course, stands a master navigator who knows exactly where he's going. He knows because he writes the last sentence of each novel first. Not just an idea of the last sentence, but the actual sentence, complete with characters named and conflicts resolved. He sends the sentence on a postcard to selected friends, who file it away and then, years later when the book comes out, check to discover that the ending has not altered by so much as a semicolon.

Irving even wrote the ending of this story, more or less. In the computerless office of his spectacular mountainside home in Vermont, he turned to the electric typewriter, and he typed . . . . Well, we'll get there. Trust me. In the meantime, join Irving as he narrates a journey of transformation that begins one long-ago sophomore year. As he tells the tale, nothing that's happened since—the 11 novels, the five movies, the deep connection to Europe, the Academy Award for Cider House Rules—might have happened at all if he had not, at a low point in his young life, transferred to UNH.

Father and author John Irving '65 at home with Everett, then 9, in a 2001 photo.

In 1962, the man who knows exactly where he's going was the boy who hadn't a clue. When he slunk into Durham that fall, Irving saw himself as a failure. It had taken him five years to get through Phillips Exeter Academy —where he'd been accepted in the first place, he says, only because his father (a key word in his story) taught there. Today, Irving knows he is dyslexic. Back then, all he knew was this: "I'm not good enough." In a world of prep school privilege where his classmates seemed to handle life with ease, Irving was the faculty brat who struggled with schoolwork. "Every year at Exeter," he says, "was just getting your head kicked in."

Only on the wrestling mat did he triumph. Call it love or obsession, Irving's lifetime relationship with wrestling began at Exeter. Unsure of himself as a student, he found his identity as a competitor, "a tough guy if not a very smart one." So when it came time for college, he looked for a place where toughness would count. He enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, which had one of the top wrestling programs in the country. Instantly, the guy who hardly ever lost became the guy who hardly ever won. By the time he quit Pittsburgh after freshman year and returned to his parents' home in Exeter, Irving's self-esteem had sunk lower than the tires of his Volkswagen Beetle. He and the car puttered off to UNH, which Irving saw the way Robert Frost saw home: It's the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

In the gym of his Dorset, Vt., house in 1994.

He didn't feel lucky, but he was. Because dyslexia forced him to read slowly, he'd had plenty of time to fall in love with language and literature. Because he doubted he could learn the material required for most professions, he'd started focusing on writing, and a friend's father had told him he had promise. Irving saw himself as not particularly talented at either wrestling or writing, but he believed what his wrestling coach had told him: Talent is overrated. He determined to compensate for his lack of natural gifts simply by working harder than anyone else.

In Durham, Irving met another newcomer to campus, instructor (and later professor) John Yount, who introduced him to another writer, professor Tom Williams. For Jack Burns, the main character of Irving's 2005 novel Until I Find You, UNH is an airport layover, a forgettable stop on his journey elsewhere. For Irving, UNH was less layover than launchpad. He continued wrestling, helping to coach his old team at Exeter, but it was in Durham where he found his last sentence. "I started wanting to be a writer at the age of 14," Irving says. "But when I finished that sophomore year at UNH, I felt that I was a writer. I had confidence in what would be the rest of my life. I can't attribute enough to what Tom Williams and John Yount did for me, and how that sophomore year at Durham just turned things around."

At home, (above, in a 2001 photo) Irving is the cook.

He's not referring to lessons about writing. In Irving's memory, all criticism from his school years survives as a single disembodied voice. "You write well," the voice would say, "but this story, as you call it, is 50 typed pages, and it's really five stories, and which one of them do you want to write?" Then, as now, Irving wrote long, like the 19th-century novelists he reveres so highly that he's named his dog Dickens. Even as a student, he loved plot and resisted pruning. He felt he was in college not to choose a story but to choose a life—and the life he wanted looked a lot like the one Yount and Williams already had.

"They were both very verbal and social men," Irving says. "They liked dinner parties. They liked conversation. They liked arguing about books and films. They invited me to their homes, and I got to see how grown-up writers lived." That theme—the boy's serpentine journey toward the events that will certify him as a grown-up—marks not just Irving's novels but his descriptions of his life. Even more than he studied writing at UNH, he studied his mentors by virtually moving in with their families.

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