While John Irving has come to stand as the American novelist par excellence, he is not particularly into the novel—in its modern form—nor, for that matter, America. In fact, as he suggested in his new Big Think interview, the most valuable contribution to the storytelling tradition to arise from the country might just be the western movie.

Irving also discussed the thrill of beginning a new book—a challenge that never gets easier, as a blank page ignores fame and prior achievements and greets the writer like a cold stranger upon each encounter. Irving’s now well-known method for beating this has been to never start a book before knowing the final sentence, yet, in the case of his newest book, these words—though sensible—remained vague and undefined for more than two decades.

The writer also discussed how random fears and obsessions “haunt” his narratives; an inevitability, in many ways, as “obsessions, by definition, control you.” He also described why many of his recurring themes—including sex—appear as a means to subject his characters’ to the terrors of random, yet tragically consequential, fate.