Inspiration for Fiction

June 15, 2017
Natalie Hulla
World-renowned American author John Irving is always insistent that his fiction does not mirror his life. As he told The New York Times in 1989, the year that his bestselling novel A Prayer for Owen Meany was published, “I am not John Wheelwright.”

But he went on to admit in the same interview, “I wouldn’t be playing fair if I did not admit to sharing some of his opinions emotionally, but the point about Johnny Wheelwright is that he has no distance; he has no perspective.”

The truth is that Irving and Owen Meany narrator Wheelwright do share biological details:

• Like Wheelwright, Irving did not know who his biological father was as a child (Irving’s parents separated before he was born). Irving, born John Wallace Blunt Jr., was adopted by his stepfather, Colin Irving, at age 6 and took his last name. “I used to tease my mother when I decided that I wanted to be a writer,” he told The Believer Logger in 2012. “I used to say, ‘Well, you know, if you don’t tell me things about who my dad was, I’m going to just make up things.’ I would never say that because I didn’t know who my father was, this made me a writer. That’s like a Disney story, or sounds like a cartoon to me. But it didn’t hurt, right? It was kind of terribly useful or constructive as a teenager to be left to my own imagination about who this guy was, because nobody would talk to me about it.” As Irving stressed in a 2012 interview with Entertainment Weekly, “… the subject of a missing parent and a child from whom something is kept secret is fascinating to me as a novelist, and I keep changing that story. I don’t make it the way it was for me, and I don’t make the mother like my mother. I don’t make the missing father the man I discovered my father was. It is an autobiographical shred, like a crumb from toast on a kitchen counter, and people seem to just gobble it up.”

• Irving grew up in Exeter, New Hampshire, the model for Wheelwright’s fictionalized hometown of Gravesend. Like Wheelwright, Irving spent his early years living in his grandmother’s house with his mother. He also attended Phillips Exeter Academy (the model for Wheelwright and Owen Meany’s prep school, Gravesend Academy). Irving’s stepfather taught at the academy, just as Wheelwright’s stepfather, Dan Needham, teaches at Gravesend.

• Owen’s diminutive size, which leads to his being passed over the heads of his fellow Sunday school class members, has roots in a memory that Irving has of a childhood acquaintance. “The origin of that Sunday school image [in A Prayer for Owen Meany] is autobiographical, in part,” he wrote in a 2012 article titled “My Favorite First Sentence,” upon the publication of In One Person, his 12th novel. “I was home for Christmas one year … I spent the better part of one night with some childhood friends. I hadn’t seen them in years. Morosely, we were remembering our friends who had been killed in Vietnam, or who had returned from the war so badly damaged that they would never recover from it … Suddenly one of my friends mentioned a name that drew a blank with me … I didn’t remember him. Then another of my friends reminded me that, in Sunday school, we used to lift up this little boy; he was our age, about 8 or 9, but he was so tiny that we could pass him back and forth over our heads. It enraged him, which was why we did it. It might even have been my idea.”

• Irving avoided the Vietnam War’s military draft, but not as an ideological statement by fleeing to Canada. Irving married and had a child while still in college, going from a student deferment to a father deferment due to an executive order issued in 1963 by President Kennedy. “I would have gone,” he wrote in “My Favorite First Sentence.” “Not because I believed in the war — on more than one occasion, I demonstrated against it. And not because I felt an obligation to my country — not then, not in the case of that war. But I could have gone to Vietnam for worse reasons — namely, because I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I was curious to see and be in a war.” Like Wheelwright, Irving does now live in Toronto, Canada, but for a different reason — his second wife is Canadian.

• Both Wheelwright and Irving became teachers. Irving became an assistant professor of English at Mount Holyoke College; he didn’t become a full-time novelist until after the success of his fourth book, The World According to Garp. Wheelwright is an English teacher at a private girls’ school in Toronto.

Despite these many parallels, Irving told Entertainment Weekly that those “crumbs” are just that. “I don’t think that I’ve had a very interesting life, and I feel that is a great liberation. That gives me great freedom as a fiction writer. Nothing that happened holds any special tyranny over me. If I think something that happened to me is interesting enough to use as fiction, all that means is I can make it better.”

As he said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s As It Happens program in 2015, “Real life in comparison to good fiction is sloppy and incomplete.”

To learn more about the Playhouse production of A Prayer for Owen Meany, visit the production detail page.