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Who is John Irving?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated May 23, 2024
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John Irving is a modern novelist, known for epic, sprawling works that often deal with several generations of a particular family. His work is also notable for frequent themes relating to wrestling, bears, and Vienna. Though primarily a fiction writer, he has also written several collections of autobiographical essays and a children's book.

In 1968, John Irving published his first book, Setting Free the Bears, at the age of 26. This novel and the two that followed failed to build much of a following. However, Irving's fourth novel, The World According to Garp, published in 1978, was a massive commercial success. The novel, which follows the life of a writer from birth until death, features an array of quirky, eccentric characters and plot lines, including Garp's mother, a feminist icon who conceived Garp with the help of a comatose soldier. Garp was later made into a film starring Robin Williams, Glenn Close, and John Lithgow.

John Irving's next two novels, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, were serious, yet humorous, books that dealt with the subjects of abortion and religion. John Irving adapted The Cider House Rules into a screenplay, which took ten years to complete. The film, starring Toby McGuire and Charlize Theron, was critically acclaimed, and John Irving was awarded an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. A film adaptation of Owen Meany resulted in the more saccharine Simon Birch; the name change was at the request of John Irving, who wanted no association with the final version of the film.

None of the novels that followed A Prayer for Owen Meany have received the same critical praise as John Irving's earlier work, though all have sold relatively well. In recent years, he has also written several short memoirs, including an account of writing the screenplay for The Cider House Rules.

John Irving lives in Vermont with his wife and a young son; he has two older sons from a previous marriage. He is known to be dyslexic, and serves as a high school wrestling coach in addition to his literary pursuits.

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