Novelist John Irving Plays Not My Job

Novelist John Irving Plays Not My Job

11:28am Feb 23, 2013
John Irving pictured in May 2006.
Cesar Rangel / AFP/Getty Images

This segment was originally broadcast on June 14, 2012.

John Irving is the author of The World According To Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules and many other works of fiction. His latest novel is called In One Person.

We've invited Irving to play a game called "The World According to Gorp." Garp is about sex, castration and bears. Gorp, on the other hand, is the mix of "good old raisins and peanuts" you eat when you're hiking.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit



Novelist John Irving, who wrote some of the most famous American novels of the late 20th century, joined us in June of 2012, along with Amy Dickinson, Maz Jobrani, and Roy Blount, Jr.

CARL KASELL: Peter asked him about some of the important themes he's known for in his work.

SAGAL: We found a chart on your Wikipedia page. I don't know if you've ever looked at it.

JOHN IRVING: That's true.

SAGAL: On the Wikipedia page, somebody has developed a chart of all of your novels and lists of themes and checkmarks for the theme.

IRVING: Oh yeah, somebody sent that to me, actually. I didn't know where it came from.

SAGAL: The themes are, and these are the ones: New England, sex workers, wrestling, Vienna, bears, deadly accidents and absent parents are on the list. We kind of imagine you there with a checklist, checking them off yourself as you went through it.

IRVING: Well, you know, that's a fair list of what I would call superficial details.

SAGAL: Yeah.


IRVING: I would say death of people you love and don't ever want to lose is probably more primary on that list.

SAGAL: Sure. Do you ever surprise yourself when you sit down to write a novel and the next thing you know another bear pops up?


IRVING: No, I don't surprise myself, because I begin with the ending of books and I know where I'm going. Which I know makes it sound terribly manipulative.

SAGAL: No, no, it's actually...

IRVING: Which it is.


SAGAL: It's interesting to me. We've read that, that you always know the last line of your novel before you start writing it.

IRVING: I didn't always know it was the last line. That is, the first four or five books, I imagined that I'd actually been forward enough to have written a first line, only to discover over time that it was, again, the last line. So it didn't become recognizable as a process until my sixth novel "The Cider House Rules," at which point I just realized well I get endings first and I should recognize that.

SAGAL: Right. We understand that you write the same way. You don't use a computer. You write either longhand or on a manual typewriter. Is that correct?

IRVING: I got rid of the manual typewriters. They were too fast.

SAGAL: Really? So now you're just writing longhand?

IRVING: I've always preferred writing in longhand. I've always written first drafts in longhand. It became so cumbersome just to try to keep enough moving parts to repair the typewriters, which had not been manufactured for 20 or 30 or 40 years that I was beginning to feel I was living in a machine shop. And I was repairing the typewriters all the time instead of writing. So I got rid of them.

SAGAL: Right. So now you just write longhand.

IRVING: It's true. There's not much that can go wrong with a pen. You just use another one.

SAGAL: I understand.


SAGAL: Well, John Irving, we have asked you here to play a game we're calling?

KASELL: The World According to Gorp.


SAGAL: Your novel, "The World According to Garp" is about sex, castration, bears. Gorp, on the other hand, is about raisins and nuts that you eat when you're hiking. We're going to ask you three questions about Gorp. Get at least two right and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners. Carl, who is author John Irving playing for?

KASELL: John Irving is playing for Jamie Mitchell and Jessica Roy from Wooster, Massachusetts.

SAGAL: So we all know what we're talking about, Gorp, right, you know the stuff, the trail mix? Ready to play?


SAGAL: Here we go.


SAGAL: I can sense your excitement. Here we go. Despite what you might have heard, Gorp is not named for the acronym "Good Old Raisins and Peanuts." Its name, say linguists, most likely comes from what?

A: An Old English word meaning, to gobble or eat greedily? B: A 19th century product called Emmanuel Gorp's Nutritious Legume Mixture? C: It's onamonaepaic, named for the noise people make when eating it, gorp, gorp gorp, gorp, gorp, gorp, gorp?

IRVING: You're serious aren't you?


SAGAL: Serious as the tomb, sir.

IRVING: I guess I'd go with A.

SAGAL: You're going to go with the Old English word meaning to gobble or eat greedily?

IRVING: Well it just is probably wrong, but that's my history with multiple choice.


IRVING: I wouldn't want to refute it. So even if I'm wrong, well, I used to feel this way when I did the SAT test, that I should have been right.

SAGAL: Right.


SAGAL: I hope this is a redemptive experience for you. You're correct. You are right.



SAGAL: They think it might be from the same Old English root as the word "gawp," you know, to like hang out with your mouth open.


SAGAL: Yeah, so that's right. All right, next question. It is called Gorp in America.

IRVING: You mean there's more than one question?

SAGAL: Oh yes.


SAGAL: Don't put your pencil down yet, sir. It's called Gorp in America, but in New Zealand that trail mixture is sometime called what? A: Gravel-yums? B: Schmogle? Or C: Winnawinnamuckluck?


IRVING: Oh boy.

SAGAL: Oh boy.


IRVING: Well...

SAGAL: You could Google it. Oh, I'm sorry. You just have a pad of paper.


IRVING: Yeah, but I know how to do the Google thing.

SAGAL: You do?


IRVING: Yeah, but there isn't time and I could not spell the answer which is C, and I choose C.

SAGAL: You're going to choose C: Winnawinnamuckluck?

IRVING: That one.

SAGAL: I wish. They called is Schmogle.


SAGAL: Sometimes they call it Scroggin as well. All right, this is exciting though. You have one right with one to go. If you get this correct, you win.

Gorp isn't just a snack; it was also a 1980 film "Gorp." The film was about what? A: A mountain dwelling madman who makes trail-mix out of dried people? B: A mischievous camp counselor with a mad crush on a sexy waitress played by Fran Drescher? Or C: A 13-year-old girl who adopts an alien and calls it her Galactic Origin Rascally Person?

IRVING: I'm trying to think which of these movies I would detest least.



IRVING: I think I'll go with the first one.

SAGAL: You're going to go with the mountain dwelling madman who makes trail mix out of dried people?

IRVING: Yeah, better than the Fran as a waitress person.

SAGAL: You don't buy Fran as a waitress?

IRVING: Well, you want me to guess again?


SAGAL: I do.



SAGAL: I now understand why your novels are so long. You take your time to work your way through stuff.


SAGAL: Everything happens in its own time. I admire that.

AMY DICKINSON: Who played the camp counselor in that?

SAGAL: I don't remember his - well, I'm not going to say am I?


DICKINSON: Trying to trick him. It was a trick.

SAGAL: Yeah.

IRVING: Well, I guess I would be foolish to not say that it sounds like B.


SAGAL: You would be correct.





SAGAL: "Gorp" was a low budget summer camp comedy, in which Ms Drescher played the unattainable sex object.


SAGAL: Aww. Carl, how did John Irving do on our quiz?

KASELL: John had two correct answers, Peter. So he wins for Jamie Mitchell and Jessica Roy.



SAGAL: Do you feel any better about your multiple choice?

IRVING: Does anyone lose on this show?


SAGAL: Not if I have enjoyed their books as much as I've enjoyed yours.


SAGAL: Consider it repayment, sir.

IRVING: That's very kind. Thank you.

SAGAL: John Irving's newest novel is "In One Person." It's in the bookstores now. John Irving, thank you so much for being with us. It's a pleasure to talk to you.


IRVING: Thank you.


SAGAL: Thanks to Carl Kasell. Thanks to all of our panelists and guests who you heard this week. Thanks to all of you for listening. I am Peter Sagal, and we will see you next week.


SAGAL: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station