John Irving Begins with the End
I was seated in the balcony of the First Congregational Church of Christ in Downtown Portland, a little soggy because I had waited an hour in the rain to claim my seat. It was Wordstock and the chamber was buzzing after Cheryl Strayed interviewed Diana Nyad and drew a standing ovation. But I was ready for what I thought to be the main event. John Irving was being interviewed by Dave Miller of OPB’s Think Out Loud. After another ecstatic round of applause, Irving – cleanly dressed and calm, shorter than I pictured – was seated. Pleasantries were exchanged and there was a new novel to discuss, but it didn’t take long before the question came up: the art of beginning with the end.
I’ll admit, I’ve always been a sucker for a good ending. It doesn’t matter the form, I want to get to the end of a piece and feel like the journey was leading me there all along. As if it’s obvious but surprising at the same time. The last line of John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany is as close to a perfect ending that I’ve found. A line that made me cry, a line that made friends of mine cry. And it’s not the only one to make me pause and take notice. Setting Free the Bears, A Widow for One Year, The Cider House Rules, Irving’s endings have consistently lived up to that obvious-but-surprising quality I so admire.
It seems like every interview with Irving I’ve read delves into the fact that he never starts at the beginning. There are other trends as well, of course – his Dickensian style, his obsession with certain subjects – but it only seems to take a question or two before you’re learning a little more about how John Irving writes with his ending already played out.
He talked about it with NPR in 2012 after the publication of his novel In One Person, “People have commented – sometimes with irritation, sometimes nicely – on the amount of foreshadow that there is in my novel. Well, yeah, it’s not that hard to foreshadow what’s coming when you know what’s coming…I write endings first. I write last sentences – sometimes last paragraphs – first. I know where I am going. I write collision course stories.” And again with NPR in 2015 about Avenue of Mysteries, "I always know where it's going. I'm writing toward a sentence, usually to much more than a sentence, to many paragraphs, close to a last chapter — it's like a piece of music that you're writing toward: This is how it sounds when I get to the end. Because I wouldn't know how I'm supposed to sound at the beginning unless I knew how I was going to sound when I got there."
I’ve always said there’s a point in his novels where I get bored. Like an uphill climb that you’re not sure is worth it until the last stretch toward the destination begins. In 2005, Jane Harrigan wrote an article in University of New Hampshire’s magazine (Irving’s alma mater) outlining Irving’s life. In it she perfectly captures my experience of reading his work. “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.” She goes on to give an anecdote that shows just how serious Irving is about his endings. When he comes up with a last sentence, the last sentence, he sends it to a few friends. Later, when his novel is published, those same friends always find that the line hasn’t changed, “has not altered by so much as a semicolon.”
And while I don’t write 500 page novels, as a writer I can relate to Irving’s process. I too am never convinced I have something until I know where I’m going. There’s something easier about putting the pieces of how together when I know just where I’m trying to get to. Even still, it’s hard for me to imagi