Novelist John Irving, best known for his bestseller "The World According to Garp" from 1978, spoke on Wednesday night, Nov. 11, before a packed Pritzker Auditorium downtown at Chicago's Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St. Hearing him speak was a bit like reading one of his novels: there was plenty of drama, laughter and crazy storytelling. I totally enjoyed the event. The event was set up as a conversation between Irving and Chicago writer and Columbia College creative writing professor Don DeGrazia, followed by a brief Q&A session with the audience.
As my friend Monica said as we were leaving the event, Irving really hammed it up onstage.
One thing I learned about Irving Wednesday night: he grew up around the theatre. Both of his parents, he said, were involved in the theatre. He watched "King Lear" as a child, and he said he naturally understood the play by watching it performed before him in his youth, long before he could understand Shakespeare's language.
"It was obvious to me," Irving said, "from the start of the play, that Lear was an idiot."
He did some acting as he grew older, but never was cast in the major roles he wanted. "I started writing novels," he said, "because that way, I figured out I could play all the parts."
Another thing I learned about the novelist: though he uses a computer freely, like the rest of us, to write e-mails and such, he writes his novels longhand. He said it makes the process seem more like drawing to him.
An idea for a novel can gestate in Irving's mind for decades before he sits down to actually write the book, which usually takes him a few additional years.
Irving's latest novel, published early this month by Simon & Schuster, is called "Avenue of Mysteries." As outlined by its author Wednesday night, the story involves a man named Juan Diego, his experiences as a young adolescent in Mexico, and his later experiences in Iowa and the Philippines. Diego's encounter in Mexico in 1970 with an American draft dodger from the Vietnam War seems crucial to the story.
Sounds like another good story from the pen of John Irving, who has been firing our imaginations now since the 1970's.