John Irving’s Twenty Year Sentence

Question: How long was “Last Night in Twisted River” in your head?

John Irving: Well, for twenty years, my wife argues more than twenty years, but I have trouble remembering more than twenty years, for twenty years at least, this story about a cook and his pre-teenage son has been in my mind. Surprisingly I knew quite a lot about this story, as long as twenty years ago, but not enough to really get started. I began and finished several novels that have been in my mind not nearly as long because in their cases, the last sentences came to me and as you probably know, I never begin a novel until I've written that last sentence. In twelve novels, not even the punctuation in those last sentences has changed and once I get that last sentence, I can manage to make a kind of road map of the story, find my way back to where I think the book should begin. That's just been my process and continues to be my process.

But in this book's case, there was something missing from what I knew and I couldn't, for the longest time, I couldn't get that ending clearly in mind, although I knew a lot about the story. I knew these two men were fugitives. I knew they would be on the run for fifty years. I knew that the story began in a kind of frontier-justice sort of place, one law, a bad cop. I knew it was close to the Canadian border. And most of all, I knew why the cook had this twelve-year-old boy, because by the end of the novel, I knew that kid would have become a writer and it would turn out that he was actually writing the very story we've been reading. That may seem like a lot to know to not get started, but I saw that there were things that had been kept from this boy that he didn't know and I didn't know what those things were.

Question: Are there other sentences in your work that seem equally important?

John Irving: Well, there are certain sentences along the way that seem pivotal, or fragments of sentences. There are certain phrases that I see as being of use somewhere in a story. Sometimes actual chapter titles, sometimes locations. It's not a very elaborate road map, it's really a bunch of Post-It notes that either are on the wall in front of me or on the desktop where I work so that I can put my finger on any one of those signposts when I feel the need to. It's basically the skeleton of the story, it's the action of the novel. When did the characters meet? Do their paths cross again? Do they live? Do they die? If they die, when, where, how? Those kinds of things.

Recorded on: October 30, 2009

For even our best writers, penning that final sentence can be a difficult and tortuous affair. For John Irving, who never begins a novel without knowing its concluding words, this sentence took two decades to come into form.

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