John Irving—the prolific author of such bestsellers as The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany and, of course, The World According to Garp—is that rarest of novelists who's seen his books made into movies that, for the most part, he can be proud of. (Simon Birch, which was "inspired by" Owen Meany, notwithstanding.) The newest Irving novel to make it to the big screen is actually only part of the novel. The Door in the Floor, released last year and starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger, is based on the first section of Irving's 1998 book, A Widow for One Year. The film tells the story of a pivotal summer in the Hamptons when a famous author of children's books and his wife are forced to face the ghosts of their past—and their two dead sons—when a young man comes to work as a summer apprentice.
For any novelist who dreams of seeing her story on the silver screen someday, Irving's experience with the adaptation of The Door in the Floor is an interesting glimpse into the differences between screenwriting and novel writing. For those who don't care about landing a movie deal (one step at a time, right?), we asked Irving to talk about his unique characters, writer's block and the undercurrent of tragedy that seems to lace all his works.
You've had other people write screenplays of your novels, and you've written one yourself. Can you talk a little bit about your collaboration with writer/director Tod Williams for The Door in the Floor?
I told Tod I felt it was the most faithful translation of my work to film, including my own adaptation of The Cider House Rules. Remember, he's basing the film on only the first 183 pages of the book. For Cider House, I used the whole novel and I lost—I had to lose—so many things, including what's so important to me: the passage of time. Fifteen years pass in my novel, but only a year passes in the film. That was a harder loss to compensate for in the screenplay than the loss of any of the major or minor characters or any of the other story lines.
When I looked at Widow as a potential screenplay, I wanted nothing to do with it. Because 36 years pass in that, and I couldn't see a way to do it. But Tod's plan was so clear about doing just Act I. Not every novel is written like a play with three distinct periods of time, and each has its own sense of closure. He also didn't take a long time to turn in the first draft and, although there was a lot of work that needed to be done, he got the ending right off the bat. If you see the ending and you know what the tone of it is, then the story's like a rope pulling you to it. You've got something to go to, almost like a note of music or a distinctive sound.
You've had mixed experiences with your work being translated to the screen before. How do you protect your words?
My experiences have been mixed, but largely good. Sometimes I'll leave everything in the hands of a director I trust, as I did with George Roy Hill for The World According to Garp and Tony Richardson for The Hotel New Hampshire, and I just leave them alone. But if I'm writing the screenplay, or I'm as involved as I was as in my collaboration with Tod, certain things have to be in place. With Cider House, for example, the director (Lasse Hallstrom), the producer and I had a very Spartan letter of agreement that said in matters regarding cast, script, cut of the picture or whatever, we all had to agree before any decision was made. If one of us freaked out, the others had to calm us down and accommodate. It worked so well that it never happened, but it was a comfort to all three of us that it was there. It was a very sensible agreement, so we made the same agreement on Door in the Floor. We never had a flap, but it was a comfort that it was there.
Would you say an agreement like that actually freed you and Tod up to try different things in telling the story?
Definitely, because we didn't have to be afraid of trying something—if it doesn't work, you just go back to the original plan. We did a lot in postproduction. We'd put something in, and move stuff around, and take stuff out to see if it worked. You can't be afraid to revise. Revision is the soul of editing and, as a novelist, rewriting is three-quarters of my life. Tod had the first draft so nailed in terms of structure and the end of the story, so we had tremendous liberty and patience.
I love the editing part of the process so much that I have no patience for someone who isn't patient about it. You can always make something better. When we edited, we'd try things that were terrible, but that's how you learn. You discover things by moving them around. For example, we had questions about the accident that so dramatically changes this family: How much should the audience see, when should they see it, etc. But then, Jeff Bridges gave such a great performance telling the story of the accident, just reading it on camera, that there was some temptation not to show any of it at all. But Tod felt strongly that Marion [the wife] had been gone from the movie for so long that we needed to see her again, even if it was only in a flashback.
How do you find that balance that lets you give your characters unlikable characteristics but still make them sympathetic to readers?
The obsession of losing children has been so huge in so many of my novels that I tend to forgive human behavior. If something that awful has happened to you, then I won't judge how you behave. I just won't. One of the efforts the movie makes is to say: Don't judge these people right off the bat. Their actions aren't sympathetic, but if you withhold your judgment, I think they'll move you.
For your novels, did you ever do any research into what it's like to lose a loved one, or any investigation into children who lose a parent?
Not really. I became a different writer and the world became a different place when my first child was born. I was a really young father: I was still a student at college. And it wasn't the sudden and terrifying responsibility of being a father that scared me. It was the thought of losing that child. I'd never thought about losing anybody, especially someone who meant as much to me as that. And I became a person who was anxious and afraid, who imagined accidents happening every second. I have friends who've lost children, and I see how they ... they do the best they can, but there are some things you don't get over. There are some things that fundamentally change you forever.
In A Widow for One Year, there are so many different styles of writing on display. There's your style of writing, there's the style of two very different character authors and there's the style of Ted Cole's children's books. Can you talk about the difficulty of writing in different styles?
I was having fun with the fact that, for so many people in the literary world, the only other people they know are writers. And they talk only about other writers—how these writers aren't as good as these others, etc. Everybody in the novel ends up being some kind of writer—a damaged writer, to one degree or another, with the exception of Ruth [Marion and Ted's daughter], who's a pretty good one. I just like the idea of someone becoming a writer because of what's been taken away. Ruth not only loses her mother, but she loses the visual image of those dead brothers, whom she feels were somehow more important to her parents than she is. She becomes a writer because she had to fill in so many spaces once those people were gone.
You're one of the more prolific novelists working today and you spend years on projects, such as the screenplay to your book A Son of the Circus, that aren't even close to being done. Have you ever had writer's block?
I just don't know what that is. I really don't. If you're stuck on a chapter, write another chapter. Do something else. I think it's an excuse for something else. I never just sit there and star e at the wall. I can spend an entire day on a paragraph or half a page, but it's not because I'm daydreaming or I'm stuck. It's because something about that paragraph is bothering me. So I'm working all the time.
If that's all you get done, that's fine, as long as you've been working on it. I think a lot of so-called writer's block happens because the writer hasn't come up with an ending yet, so he doesn't know where the story's supposed to go. I believe that you can't know enough about where you're going. Not just what happens or what you think happens, but the actual sentences themselves so you have a sense of the tone. You can almost hear the music. How melancholic is it? How sad? Or how uplifting? It's not just what happens at the end of the story, but how will the reader feel? If you know psychologically and emotionally what the effect of the ending is, then you know how to get there. You know how to set the reader up.
I suppose that if you have an imagination and you make your living with it, the terrible thing is that you can't turn your imagination off like a faucet at the end of the day. It just keeps going.