I was talking to John Irving the other day…
John Irving, Iowa & Writing
March 14, 2008 by Scott W. Smith
Okay, technically that’s true, but it’s not like we were hanging out talking about his writings and the finer aspects of American literature. Irving was in Iowa City this week and doing a Q&A session sponsored by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was simply one of the approximately 200 people in attendance and I got to ask him a couple questions.
After University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her screenplay Juno the school gave her a blurb on its website and they put in a link to Screenwriting from Iowa because I had written an article about her called The Juno–Iowa Connection. In that blog I went into detail on the long list of great writers who have come out of the University of Iowa.
After poking around their website I found out the Writers’ Workshop had regular readings and decided that Irving was worthy of making the 75 minute trek from Cedar Falls. Not because I’m a huge fan of his work but because of his place in American literature. I do remember discovering his writings while in college and have seen most of the movies made from his novels. Since he was a student and a professor at Iowa I thought he fit the Screenwriting from Iowa concept fairly well.
Some of his movies are The Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp, Simon Birch (A Prayer for Owen Meany) and The Cider House Rules. The later for which he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden once said of one of his players, “He may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he’s in it doesn’t take long to call roll.” With Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonagunt dying in 2007, Irving is in a class that includes just a handful of American literary giants like John Updike and Tom Wolfe.
It’s been said that film directors are either geeks or jocks. I don’t know if that’s true of writers but in Irving’s case he looks every bit the jock. Even at age 66 he looks like a wrestler to be reckoned with and has had a life long love for the sport. If you follow the American literary scene you have to agree that he is also a writer to be reckoned with. Writer Peter Matthiessen has said, “He’s probably the great storyteller of American literature today.”
Here are some notes from his Q&A that I thought you’d be interested in;
Irving was turned on to writing at a young age and after reading Dickens and thought that being a writer would be a good thing. He said that if he would have read Hemingway first instead he’d of probably have ended up doing something different. He went as far as saying he hated Hemingway’s writing which was good for a few chuckles from those gathered at the Dey House. He’s said worse things about Updike in the past. Irving is a man with opinions.
He said he never thought he could earn a living solely as a writer and in fact was a teacher through his first four books. (Before Garp made him rich and famous he had been writing for 11 years with limited success.) Though he writes his first drafts quickly he spends two-thirds of his time doing re-writing. That is when the book comes together.
He said that he enjoys the editing side of filmmaking because it closely resembles what he does in rewriting. Though he is a novelist he comes at his work with the audience in mind. “My goal is to entertain you–and break your heart.” He wants to provoke the reader.
Like many (all?) writers with Hollywood experience he’s had his share of bad experiences. But he didn’t seem bitter when he said of the film industry, “It’s not a nice business.”
I’ve been told that in the days before amateur wrestlers wore headgear protection that you could always tell a wrestler by his cauliflower ears. (Cartilage damage that permanently deforms the ear.) It’s an old school badge of honor, a source of pride. It’s a tribal thing for wrestlers. I’m not sure what the equivalent is for a Hollywood screenwriter, but I think Irving has those scars. But he’s a grappler so they don’t appear to weigh him down. He may even enjoy that aspect of the business.
Perhaps he appears more grounded because he’s a novelist that really wouldn’t have a problem walking away from Hollywood if he had to. But more likely it’s because he lives in Toronto and Vermont. and because his roots are far from Hollywood in Exeter, New Hampshire. Maybe he learned something from the stories of Faulkner and others hanging around Hollywood too long.
In his book My Movie Business Irving writes “All writers repeat themselves; repetition is the necessary concomitant of having anything worthwhile to say.” Stephan King in his book on writing says that every writer has their “little red wagon.” For King it’s the paranormal, for John Grisham it’s justice, for Pat Conroy it’s his dysfunctional family, and for Woody Allen it’s his neurotic self.
For Irving it’s themes of disturbing sexual relations, abandonment and a touch of nihilism. I think it was Proust who said that every artist paints the same picture. You may be eclectic in the books you read and movies you watch, but chances are good that there are only a couple issues or themes you care enough about to invest your time writing stories about. (If you’re unsure of the themes that move you just look at the films you watch over and over again. Something there touches a cord inside you.)
A look at the scripts I’ve written and the few movies I own show a fascination with the concept of restoration. (David Mamet’s The Verdict, Ben Afflack & Matt Damon’s Good Will Hunting, and Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, Gary Ross & Laura Hillenbrand‘s Seabiscuit are a few restoration movies that jump out at me as I glance over at my DVDs.)
As fallen New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer said a few days ago in his resignation speech, “I go forward with the belief, as others have said, that as human beings, our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Few of us will experience such public disgrace as being link to a sex scandal, but is anyone exempt from some level of falling and or brokenness?
“We all walk as crippled men” I once heard a Scottish preacher say drawing out the word crippled in a way that resonated with me to this day. And so Jenny in Forrest Gump throws rocks at the home she was abused in as a child and Forrest says, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.” What I call redemption, the Greeks playwrights called catharsis (cleansing).
After Irving’s Q&A session I made a quick stop at Prairie Lights Bookstore. While it doesn’t have the funky character of The Tattered Book Cover in Denver’s LoDo district or the physical size of Powell’s City of Books in Portland, the quality of books that Prairie Lights Books carries put it on a CNN list of Nine bookstores worth a tourist stop.
Last November I did a video shoot on Sproule Plaza at UC Berkeley and downtown Iowa City has that kind of feel. (Though I must say I thought it was humorous that the police at Berkeley were giving out tickets for bike riding on Sproule Plaza. Free speech may still be cherished there but riding a bike will cost you.)
I also grabbed this movie marque shot in Iowa City because when else again will I see The Who’s Tommy next to The Princess Bride? (If only it were a double feature.)
If you live in Iowa or are driving through Iowa on I-80 you owe it to yourself to make a little detour in Iowa City. Soak in the atmosphere that has produced many Pulitzer Prize winning authors and has become known as The Writing University. Below is a photo I took of the Dey House after Irving’s Q&A session. If you are interested in learning more about the MFA writing program at the University of Iowa visit the website of The Writers’ Workshop.
The last question I ask Irving was if there was any truth to his writing a screenplay on wrestler Dan Gable. High School & college wrestling is huge in Iowa and Dan Gable is the number #1 icon. Gable was an Olympic champion and coach at the University of Iowa where he won 15 national championships. His only loss in high school and college came on the last match his senior year. Irving said he was serving as producer on the film about Gable. Irving’s love for the sport can be seen by a tattoo one of his forearms. It could be mistaken for a bulls-eye or a skinny version of the Target store logo , but it is actually a wrestling mat starting circle. I’m sure that won’t be your typical sports film.
As I made the drive home after hearing Irving speak I couldn’t help but think how ironic it is that in the last eight years two University of Iowa grads have both won Academy Awards for screenplays that are essentially about unplanned pregnancies? (And I’m not sure that topic could be handled more differently than the serious Cider House and the humorous Juno.)
Producer David Puttnam, who won an Oscar award for Chariots of Fire, once wrote that “all films are propaganda.” In that all films are propagating something. So despite the old Hollywood adage “If you want to send a message use Western Union,” films again and again have messages.
Irving writes in My Movie Business, ”The Cider House Rules is a didactic novel. The nature of Dr. Larch’s (Michael Caine) argument with Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is polemical, and Larch wins the argument in the end…The Cider House Rules was not a love story, Phillip Borsos and I decided. It was a history of illegal abortion.”
He went through fifty drafts of the script to make sure his abortion rights vision was clear. He was clear enough that when Paul Newman read the script he turned down the roll of Dr. Larch and told Irving, “There are so many scenes at that incinerator (Where the aborted babies are burned). That incinerator really gets me.”
What got Juno was an pro-life advocate and school friend who told the Ellen Page character, “Your baby has fingernails.” Juno stops in her tracks and says, “My baby has fingernails?” and the story takes a different direction when she decides not to have an abortion.
Juno was actually the fourth film of ’07 (following Waitress, Bella, and Knocked Up) to feature an unplanned pregnancy and an attempt to adjust to less than ideal circumstances to bring the baby into this world. An interesting trend, don’t ya think?
I’m not sure what it all means, but I’ve said before that one of my favorite quotes is from William Romanowski; ”Movies reflect the culture they help produce.” Remember that when you’re writing.
Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith