U.S. Author In Fighting Shape

File photo of Ethiopian Airlines jet in flight. AP GraphicsBank

It doesn't take much to get John Irving's blood up.

The U.S. novelist, who recently turned 60, has lost neither his wrestler's build nor his fighting spirit.

"People have been saying for years that the novel is dead: bulls**t!" the silver-haired author of 10 novels including 1978's "The World According to Garp," "The Cider House Rules" in 1985 and "The Hotel New Hampshire" in 1981 said on a recent visit to the Netherlands.

At a reading in Amsterdam while in Europe for the French-language launch of his new "A Fourth Hand," the author jokingly lashed out at an interruption from a mobile phone, although he also treated fans to flashes of humor.


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Amsterdam is a scene in 1998's "A Widow for One Year" and Irving, who deeply researches each of his books, visited the city to interview prostitutes and police officers while at work on the novel.

Though born in the U.S. state of New Hampshire, and with homes in nearby Vermont and Toronto in Canada, Irving is at home in Europe, where he studied as a young man.

Europe is also the setting for his upcoming "Until I Find You," in which the protagonist retraces a trip he took as a six-year-old boy to Amsterdam, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Edinburgh.

"Until I Find You" is about a son's search for his father, a church organist who abandoned the boy's mother, a tattoo artist. In researching the book, Irving had a tattoo himself -- in Amsterdam -- and learned how to tattoo.

Irving typically sells more books on this side of the Atlantic than in his homeland, saying Germany is his biggest market. "Widow for One Year," possibly because of the Amsterdam setting, sold more in the Netherlands than in the United States.

His novels intertwine the life stories of characters through scenarios which span continents and border on the bizarre -- that is until you compare them to reality, Irving says.

In "The World According to Garp," perhaps his best-known novel with more than 10 million copies in print, characters include a transsexual American football player and a feminist sect whose members cut out their tongues in sympathy with a rape victim.

The novel was turned into a film starring Robin Williams, Glenn Close and John Lithgow. "The Hotel New Hampshire" and "The Cider House Rules" were also adapted as films. "Cider House" made $90 million at the box office and earned Irving an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

To a dedicated novelist, writing for the screen can be a distraction, but Irving turned it to his advantage.

"For a number of years I was just angry at being interrupted...(but) when you come back to the novel you can enjoy the freedom. Suddenly you can do anything and it's a good feeling," he said.

Irving studied and taught at the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop under seminal American author Kurt Vonnegut. He counts literary heavyweights Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie and Gunter Grass among his friends.

It was the brooding Grass who once chided Irving, then hard at work on "The Hotel New Hampshire," that he'd lost some of the anger of his younger days.

"Oh, I think I'm angrier (now) than I was in the 'The Hotel New Hampshire' days, but I don't think I'm as angry as I was when I first met Gunter, so maybe he would still be disappointed with me," he said jokingly in an interview with Reuters.

He pulls no punches when riled, such as during the famous 1998 literary dust-up which lined Irving up with John Updike and Norman Mailer against Tom Wolfe, author of blockbusters such as "The Right Stuff" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities."

Irked by Updike's and Mailer's negative reviews for his novel "A Man in Full," Wolfe dubbed the pair "two old piles of bones." That set Irving off on an obscenity-laced tirade on a Canadian television program.

Nearly four years later, Irving hasn't changed his opinion of Wolfe, whose essay "My Three Stooges" blasted the three for producing novels he said failed to depict modern life.

"I don't read Tom Wolfe because he writes badly," he said.

"Poor Tom brought this on himself. There are a number of writers who I don't think write very well, but I don't go out of my way to say so...but in his case, he's just been so stupidly outspoken on the subject of what other novelists should be writing about."

Irving has a string of best-sellers and a large collection of literary awards, but says he has no expectation of taking home a Nobel Prize. His screenplay Oscar was "much more my cup of tea," he said.

"I'd rather take my chances with 400 writers and 6,000 film makers than with 18 Swedes, among whom there aren't many writers."

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