A Novel in a Single Breath

Question: How often do you rewrite your books?

John Irving: Well, in the case of a book that was in the back of my mind for as long as this one, twenty years, and yet I didn't write that last sentence until January, 2005, from the moment I got that last sentence and I began that road map we've talked about, and from the moment I started writing the actual novel, August of that same year, 2005, the writing of the first draft was rather quickly forthcoming. For me, very quickly, unusually quickly. But certainly more of my years as a writer are always spent rewriting than they are writing first drafts. Because I never begin a first draft until there is a plot, until I do know what happens to all of the characters, you might understand why those first drafts are pretty quickly forthcoming, but the rewriting process slows me down and I like everything about the writing process that compels me to slow down, to keep it slow. I write all my first drafts in long hand because you can only write so fast in longhand. And on a keyboard, you can cover too much ground in too fast a time, right? And I like to keep it slow, especially in that first draft stage.

And the longer the book you write, the more times you must pass through it because writer's voices change within a four, five year period of time, you're actually liking a different kind of sentence five years down the road, than you were four years ago. And one of the tasks of revising a novel of any length is to go back and make the whole thing sound as if it were spoken in one breath, as if your sentence style, your preference for the semicolon or the parentheses or the dash, just was constant, and you got to make it look that way, even though it wasn't spoken in one breath, it was spoken in very halting little bits, it's supposed to sound like it's coming right off the top of your head.

Recorded on: October 30, 2009

For John Irving, whose sprawling novels can take years to complete, one of the most significant challenges of writing is creating the sense that the words on the page are fresh from his mind.

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