65 Years | 65 Faces of IES Abroad – John Irving

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John Irving, Writer and Academy Award-winning Screenwriter

John Irving

Writer and Academy Award-winning Screenwriter
Vienna 1963-64

Growing up in New Hampshire, John Irving (Vienna 1963-64) always felt like he didn’t belong. It wasn’t until studying abroad in Vienna as an auslander (foreigner) that he became comfortable being an outsider. At age 26, John published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, about two Austrian students in Vienna. A professional wrestler and wrestling coach for many years, John became a full-time writer after the success of his fourth novel, The World According to Garp. In 2000, John won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules. He has had ten international bestsellers, and his novels are available in 35 languages. Today, John lives with his wife in Canada and just released his 14th novel, Avenue of Mysteries. In our interview, John shares how the death of John F. Kennedy and meeting John Steinbeck shaped his time in Vienna, and how the experience influenced his perspective on writing and the world.

IES Abroad: What led you to study abroad in Vienna?

John Irving: In retrospect, I wish I had gone to a Spanish-speaking place exclusively for that junior year abroad experience. Spanish was the language I took for three years in high school, and I already had two years of college Spanish. But I was more interested in German literature, and I had this naive idea that whatever country I went to study in I would become fluent in that language. Not so. I wanted to able to read German literature. I'm totally happy with the experience I had, but now, of course, living in North America, having one child who is fluent in Spanish, writing a novel (which I have) about a Mexican American – well, I wish were fluent in Spanish. Anyway, I said, “No, I'm going to go down the road of German and Vienna.”

Although my German became conversationally pretty good and still is useful, my German never became good enough to read all these heroes of German literature — Thomas Mann, and later, most importantly, Günter Grass. I could never have read them in their German. I remember killing myself as a student in Vienna trying to read The Tin Drum and finally giving up, having to write my dad at home and say, “Send me a copy of the book I can read in English. I'm just dying. I can't read this.” [Carrying around a copy of this book] also was a great way to meet girls. And of course, I had read it in English so I could have conversations with girls I met in Vienna and say, “Yes, of course, it’s a terrific book,” and pretend as if I knew it. It was a perfect way in. Nobody read it. In retrospect, I really wished I'd stayed with the Spanish, but it was one of those decisions you make at 18 or 19 that isn't terribly grounded in the reality of the future.

IES Abroad: How would you describe your experience abroad?

JI: What I loved about Vienna, frankly, was being alone. I've always felt like I don't belong where I'm from or where I live. So, the experience of actually leaving the U.S. for the first time (at that time, it was truly only the second or third time I'd been outside of New England), of actually being a foreigner, of actually being the foreigner, instead of it simply feeling like the years growing up in New Hampshire…I would say to myself, “Boy, do I not belong here. I don't know where I really belong. Am I really from here? I don't feel like I belong here." I feel like I'm standing at a telephoto lens at a distance looking at all these people, and I'm not one of them. I think that's the way a lot of writers feel, that they're not that close to something.

I said, "Now, there's no excuses. I don't have to be apologetic or feel that it is not my fault that I'm the foreigner or the outsider. Being the outsider is what I am.” So, suddenly the experience of being alone (or as the Germans say allein), to be all alone (ganzallein), I thought, “This kind of suits me. This is how it will always be, that you will always feel outside everything else, and people who know you or even know you a little will view you with a certain amount of distance.”

IES Abroad: How do you stay connected with the real world?

JI: If you are writing about an ob-gyn, for example, you have to know what they know. And if you're not an ob-gyn – you haven't been to medical school and you haven’t practiced obstetrical and gynecological surgery – well, you have a lot to learn. I do something else that a lot of writers don't do because I do not write solely from my own experience. I do a lot of writing outside of myself and way outside my own experience and my own country. My first novel, Setting Free the Bears, which was set in Vienna, was about two Austrian students and the history that haunted them. It was a history that was active only in their imaginations because much of it happened before they were born or while they were still too young to know. It is a historical novel about the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Vienna. Well, that wasn't the Vienna I knew. I wasn't one of those students or one of their ancestors.

From the very beginning, my instincts were never to think that my autobiographical experience, which I find kind of boring, or that anything I choose to write are details from my experience. Rather the details are always enhanced, always exaggerated, always taken to extremes – extremes that never happened in my own life. The novel I've just finished, my 14th, Avenue of Mysteries, one chapter is set almost entirely in the Philippines and in Mexico. It is about a Mexican American who was very much an outsider in the circumstances in which he grew up in the south of Mexico.

IES Abroad: What autobiographical details do you draw upon in your novels?

JI: Sure, there's a lot of New England in my novels. There are a lot of recognizable traces of the things that are pertinent to my life, for example, the not knowing of my biological father. But ask my mother if she were alive. She would be the first to tell you I never wrote a word about her. "Who are these mothers?!” She probably would have been angry if I had written about her, but she was vexed that I wrote about these strangers that didn’t resemble her in the slightest. I have invented a number of curious or interesting missing fathers. The most autobiographical thing about my novels is that I do write pretty consistently about what I'm afraid of, what I fear, about what I hope for –  not about what has happened to me, what never happens to me, or what I hope never happens to anyone I love. Terrible things happen in my books. Terrible things have not happened to me.

IES Abroad: Many of your books have an international aspect to them, and you have lived all around the world. Tell us about your interest in ‘the international’. 

I've always had an interest in other countries and other places, and surely the experience of living abroad for the first time, of living in a place where English was not the first language, of feeling the foreignness was an experience that I repeatedly have sought in my life. My middle son was born in Vienna some years after I was a student there. I've lived in Vienna longer at other times. I was writing the screenplay for my first novel that was never made, Setting Free the Bears, when I was living in the war archive looking at film after film after film of Hitler's election campaign and Hitler’s being embraced by the Austrian population when he first rode in the brown Mercedes into Vienna.

I live in Canada full-time because I'm married to a Canadian, and she lived in the U.S. with me for more than 28 years. So, it’s a natural thing for me to be living here. It may be perceived as political. Some people who either know me very well or not so well say, “Well, you picked a good time to leave the United States. I know what you think of the Republicans.” Don't be simplistic. I'm a U.S. citizen. I'll always be a U.S. citizen. I may some years hence be a dual citizen. I'm not making a statement. I'm an international writer. Almost half of my income is in translations. That is not usual for American writers. It is not usual for American writers to write as much outside the U.S. as I already have and repeatedly do. If almost half of my income as a writer is from translations, much more than half of my traveling as a writer for publications is to many of those translation countries. Because of my internationalism as a writer, I need to live in a place like Toronto that has a functioning international airport. I need to get places.

IES Abroad: What were the moments in Vienna that changed your life in the year 1963-64?

JI: Being in Vienna when JFK was killed and seeing the shock and love for him that the Austrians felt was profoundly moving. I remember coming into a local guesthouse/wine house where they knew me. It was a place we often went. I remember walking in there, and one of the waiters was terribly agitated and upset because on this little black and white TV with a little tiny screen by the bar, it was showing this scene of Mrs. Kennedy reaching over the back of the car pulling somebody into the car. It was all very muddled, and the waiter was very agitated. Of course, what the waiter said, I realized later from a student whose German was a little better than mine, was “I’m so sorry. Your President has been shot.” He used a colloquial word, and the word was not president. I took him to mean – this guy who knew me and knew I was American – “Student, student, I’m so sorry,” and it sounds like he said, “Your father has been shot.” I said, “What?” And this other friend who was with me whose German was very good, he said, “No. It’s not your father, its JFK.” And then it was kind of an indelible moment. Typical of me, I made that a better story in a novel, In One Person. It’s all about a bisexual boy in Vienna, not my year in Vienna. 

Another was the crossing with an American ship in the unlikely port of Vienna that took the form of the writer John Steinbeck appearing in Vienna visiting the University of Vienna. There was a class in American literature at the University that IES Abroad students could take. Steinbeck was going to visit the class, and everyone was very excited by that. A little questionnaire was passed among us about our knowledge of Steinbeck. The student who would be assigned to escort Mr. Steinbeck would be not only the student who spoke English, but who had knowledge of Steinbeck. This was shortly after the President was killed and Steinbeck had been in the Soviet Union on a so-called Kennedy goodwill tour. He was one of Kennedy's cultural ambassadors, and he had left the Soviet Union in a great huff. And rightly so, because he felt betrayed by his Russian translators and publishers who had published The Grapes of Wrath without a copyright date as a way of suggesting that the dustbowl period of time and the era in which The Grapes of Wrath was set was a present-day poverty situation in the U.S. Much to his horror, Steinbeck discovered that The Grapes of Wrath was being used as anti-American propaganda.

And then Steinbeck knew Kennedy personally, or Kennedy had appointed him personally as a cultural ambassador, so he was in an agitated state of mind. I was very excited to meet him and was appointed as his escort because I had demonstrated that I knew more about Steinbeck and had read everything by Steinbeck, more than the other students. Well, why wouldn't I be the Steinbeck authority? I was the only American in the class. Steinbeck realized I was American after about 10 minutes or so, and his wife was really nice to me, but he was pretty gruff. Understandably, the poor guy had been betrayed where he'd been, and now, he's talking very patiently to one of the nice Austrian students in this class in American literature at the University of Vienna, but as it turned out, I'm an American. So, he's angry about the fact that he'd come all this way to talk to this class, and he's talking to another American! I was totally intimidated. He was a very scary guy, and it didn’t work out very well. The things I remember were these kinds of moments of shock and horror.

IES Abroad: Were there professors in Vienna who made an impact on you?

JI: Certainly, there was one teacher at IES Abroad who was famous for the friendships he made with students. He was a demanding teacher but a wonderful teacher – Professor Mowatt. I took everything that Mowatt taught – everything, even things I had virtually no interest in. Everywhere I was a student, when I had a good teacher, I would do this. I had no interest in Greek moral philosophy – none – but Eddy Mowatt taught it so that I would be interested. We attached ourselves to Mowatt, and we listened to Mowatt about courses offered at the University. I had good advice early on that basically informed me that it didn’t really matter what your major was or what you said you were most interested in. What mattered was you went where the teachers were. So, I did that. I did that with the German courses. Everyone was pushing to get to the next level or grouping, but I found one teacher who was teaching German, and I loved her better than the other teachers, so I simply stayed with her.

I was lucky all through my school years in every year in school. I wasn’t very happy in Pittsburgh, but there was one teacher who was very good to me. I sort of hooked myself to him, and you keep contact with people like that. Professor Mowatt was the guy in Vienna, and there often wasn’t more than one. In my college years, there was one guy my sophomore year at University of New Hampshire – a writer in residence – who gave me some good advice. I almost bailed out at the last minute on going to Vienna. This is an interesting story. Like most people that age, I had sort of met somebody, and I had a crush on her. I thought, “Oh, go to Europe for a year and lose this girl. I don’t know, maybe nothing is going to come of this.” This was late. I was already at Harvard summer school taking a crash German language lab class in preparation for Vienna because I had no German. So, I wrote to the University of New Hampshire, and I said, “I can’t go to Europe. I met this girl. I really like this girl. What do I have to do to get back into the University of New Hampshire and not take a leave of absence and do my junior year at UNH instead?” I’ll never forget what he wrote. It was pivotal in my life. He said “Go to Europe! It’ll be good for your writing. Go to Europe. Melancholy is good for writers.” I thought it had a certain romance to it. I thought, “Oh, being unhappy for a year, that’s cool!” We still correspond. He’s a great guy.  

IES Abroad: Many of your novels have a refrain. What would your refrain be for your year in Vienna – to communicate to your classmates or future study abroad students?

JI: I had fun. I can’t imagine what my perspective on writing or the world would be if I hadn’t gotten so outside myself. I’m not saying this as a criticism, honestly, when I say that most American writers are not international. This is just a truthful observation. It’s not a criticism. I’m just saying that in what they write about there’s a long tradition of Americans not venturing far from home as writers. We still hear about it, too much I think, the notion of “The Great American Novel.” I say, “Why American?” I just want to write a great novel. I think it is parochial to think of the novel as necessarily elevated by having the word “American” in front of it. I don’t find that elevating. My dad, who was a huge influence on me, was a Slavic Studies major at Harvard. He brought Russian history, Russian language into Phillips Exeter Academy for the first time. It was my dad who said, “Oh, you have to read Dostoevsky, you have to read Dickens, you have to read Tolstoy.” The reason I said no, I want to go to a German speaking place was because I worshiped Thomas Mann and soon would idolize, as I still do, Günter Grass. I can’t imagine myself without that perspective. The experience of imagining the world beyond the limitations of your childhood and the part of the country you come from, I think, is pretty important.