Meeting John Irving

The following occurred between Wednesday, May 9, 2012 and Sunday May 13, 2012.

Last weekend I had an amazing and unbelievable experience. I met with John Irving—here is how it happened.

Wednesday, May 9 was an average day—I was at work sitting at my desk and working on the same things I normally do; drinking the same beverage I do; seeing the same buildings outside of my window that I see every day. I then received a message from my coworker Blava Mac who sent me a URL to a writing contest from The Paris Review:

As fans of John Irving know, interviews with the legendary writer are rare indeed. So the chance to see Irving interviewed live don’t come around every day. But this Friday, he’ll sit down for an hour-long radio chat with Ron Bennington, and you could be in the audience. (Provided you can get to Manhattan!)

Complete collection of John Irving books

Complete collection of John Irving books

This piqued my curiosity as I am an avid John Irving reader and fan. In fact, to say that he is my ‘favorite author’ would actually be an understatement in that he’s the only living author that I currently read. The writing portion of the contest consisted of submitting a short ‘hypothetical book-jacket copy’ for a future yet unwritten John Irving novel, while incorporating many of the “Irving themes” that would distinguish the work as reminiscent of his distinctive style. Having read every word John Irving has written, I knew that writing this piece of fiction was something I could do well, as I am well-aware of his “oeuvre.”

The winning entry would be subjectively chosen by The Paris Review staff from the contributions emailed to the website. I’m certain, contrary to what my friends and family suggest, that John Irving did not help with the selection nor have any knowledge of the contest—more on why I believe this, later.

I went home that night with a decent idea regarding the theme on which I would write; namely, sex addiction, self-hatred, running away, and New England. The contest asked for no more than five sentences—I ended with six. I was proud of my short yet plenary composition and Wednesday, May 9 at 9:57 PM, I emailed The Paris Review with my contest submission.

Ladies, Gentlemen, and Bears: We Have a Winner!

According to the contest website, the entries had to be submitted “by noon EST, Thursday, May 10.” I figured that the winner would be announced on the website shortly after that time, which was 9 AM Pacific Time (my time zone). Sometime around 10 AM, I F5-refreshed my browser but alas, no announcement.

I had my normal lunch and continued to work through the day. Then, the familiar sound of my iPhone’s email notification rang albeit this time in quick succession; I was alerted to several unread emails. I glanced at the screen and read the partial messages that displayed on the lock screen–the sender was—I leaned forward and sat upright in my chair and my heart started slamming inside my chest. I didn’t even unlock my phone to read the email and instead clicked the contest website tab in my web browser and jammed the F5 key…

I read the page perched at the edge of my chair, my heart still pounding, and whispering to myself “no way…no way…” The time was roughly 2:16 PM.

All contributors to our John Irving hypothetical-jacket-copy contest: Bravo! We asked you to incorporate the recurring themes of Irving’s oeuvre into a few sentences, and you ran with it. We laughed, we cried, we cringed. This was not an easy decision. But there was one entry that stood out. And that entry was the work of one Fer O’Neil. The winning entry…

Of course, I didn’t need to read “the winning entry,” because I wrote it. “I am Fer O’Neil!” I thought—and I’m going to meet John Irving. Below is the hypothetical John Irving jacket copy that I wrote:

Phillip is a forty-two-year-old virgin who believes that he would become a sex-addicted pedophile once he experienced his first sexual sensation. Hating himself for that slippery slope, he devotes his life to helping restore nineteenth-century houses as an antique bullion maker. Working on the Hilton Road house south of Augusta, Maine, Phillip befriends the abused daughter of his employer. Forced to flee by duty of circumstance, for the next twenty years they live together an unlikely life. Can the dysfunctions that debilitate be the very things that save us? Or are the centrifugal forces that bind us together ultimately what will tear us apart?

To live or not to live; the importance of commas

The contest prize was to “Win Two Tickets to See John Irving, Live”. One could read this by pronouncing the final word “Live” as the verb and not the adjective. To me, this contest meant to see John Irving, and to live. Of course, the comma in the title is essential and otherwise it could read, “to See John Irving Live”, which may suggest that he is being saved from death as witnessed by an audience.

I text messaged my friends who fortunately live in Manhattan and told them I was coming while I concurrently searched for flights leaving that night, Thursday. I found a direct flight from San Diego to JFK but it departed at 9 PM—the current time was 3:30 PM—and I was in downtown San Diego without a car! I had to get home, pack, and make it back to the airport by 8 PM. I purchased the ticket anyway, before confirming I could either make the flight or have a place to stay on arriving in New York City. I told my coworkers I would see them Monday, grabbed my stuff, and ran to the train station.

2,860 miles from San Diego to New York City

The “sun shone gaily,” though not ornamentally nor through dirt or obscurity—it was a beautiful morning and the short nap on the flight energized me for the day. Albeit, it was 2 AM jet-lag-time back home—but I felt invigorated by the adventure and I hopefully hailed a cab into the heart of NYC.

The interview with John Irving was scheduled for 4:30 PM but I had to arrive at the Sirius XM Radio station by 3:45 PM. This meant that I had about 9 hours to fill. My friends’ apartment is located conveniently in Manhattan and I was excited to get to see them on this short trip as well. However, not surprisingly, they both had to leave for work shortly after I arrived and so I was left to my own devices at their apartment and in NYC until the interview.

“One belongs to New York instantly…” ~Tom Wolfe

The Sirius XM Radio building is across from Rockefeller Center and I took this opportunity to go to the Observation Deck at the ‘Top of the Rock’ to see a view of New York unparallelled by any other.

The view from atop Rockefeller Center looking at the Empire State Building

I arrived at the Sirius XM Radio building at 3:45 PM and made my way up to the 36th floor.

The building that Sirius XM Radion is located

The Sirius XM Radio building

There were 20 or so other people who had tickets from other means and we were sitting outside of the glass-enclosed studio where the interview would take place. We were asked as a group whether anyone wanted to ask John Irving a question, provided there was time at the end of the interview. I was the first to throw my hand into the air.

Unfortunately, there were three of us who had prepared questions but there was only time for two. I was last and was thus unable to ask my question. I have included it below for the sake of posterity:

“Perhaps in every writer’s life there needs to be that moment when some other writer is attacked as unworthy of the job.”

~The World According to Garp

I have found this statement true personally and do find encouragement to write from that idea. However, what would you tell a reader of yours who cannot “attack” your writing as unworthy—your work is so good that it is discouraging to writers who know that they’ll never write as well as you.

There was one advantage to being one of the potential question-askers—I was able to sit in a “Reserved” seat up front, directly in front of John Irving!

Sitting across from John Irving

My view of the John Irving interview

The interview began about on time, around 4:30 PM and after some introductory questions and talk, John Irving read a passage from his new book In One Person. Here I will say that I have yet to read his new book but that I do own it—I plan to read it this summer after my summer term class is finished.

I have never heard John Irving read before and it was more than I expected. His book had colored tabs marking different passages (I assumed) and when the interviewer asked him to read a passage that introduced the main character, John Irving opened right to it. He had a soft, enunciated way of reading and you could tell that he had read that passage many times before—he knew each word intimately and added stresses to words that you wouldn’t typically think to stress when reading to yourself. This added a flavor to the words that is not reproducible.

The interview itself went by quickly and nothing else stood out as especially memorable—it was serious at times, funny, a little sad, but in the end it was a typical interview. I do remember how it ended though, because it was mildly clever, the interviewer said, ‘His new book is “In One Person,” and there is only one John Irving.’ Everyone started to clap and stood up to give an ovation as John Irving stood to receive it. Being that he and I were sitting directly across from each other, both of us standing up put us face to face which prompted John Irving to shake my hand (with the added ‘left hand on the elbow’ technique). John Irving then exited the room.

The Sirius XM Radio contact who was ‘in charge of us’ thanked us for coming and reaffirmed that John Irving would not be signing autographs. I was disappointed as I had brought two first editions to get signed, Setting Free The Bears and The Water-Method Man; I also had my well-worn mass market paperback copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany.

However, not being one to give up easily, as everyone was making their way to the elevator to leave, I went to the bathroom first—sneakily, I waited a few minutes and when I came out, John Irving and his small entourage were also headed to the elevators. Once again, I was a few feet from my favorite author, a living legend in my mind. What would I say?

John Irving was facing away from speaking with two men, I assumed to be Sirius XM Radio people and at the first respite in their conversation, I touched him on the shoulder and said “John.” He turned to face me and I introduced myself, telling him my name and that I had come out from San Diego that morning just for this experience. I began to tell him that I was the winner of The Paris Review contest but before I could finish, one of the other men he was talking with before asked him another question. He turned back to answer him and I thought that our conversation was over, that he wasn’t really interested to hear the rest of what I was saying anyway. However, when he finished he did turn back around and looked at me and said, “Yes, and?” I finished telling him about the contest and it was here that I got the distinct impression that he had no idea what I was talking about. Therefore, I’m fairly certain that he didn’t have any knowledge of the contest or my winning entry. That’s fine though, as I wasn’t writing with the belief or desire that John Irving would read it.

From then to now in a New York minute

I definitely left the Sirius XM Radio building satisfied. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I am still amazed that I was a part of it. I didn’t schedule my return flight until Sunday afternoon, which gave me Friday night and all of Saturday to see New York City and visit with my friends. I won’t detail everything I did but suffice it to say that I had an unbelievable time—this entire trip went by so fast and gave me so many fantastic memories that when I went back to work Monday morning, I was scarcely able to believe that all of these things actually happened.

My first night in New York



Filed under General

6 responses to “Meeting John Irving

  1. Meredith McMahan

    Understandably euphoric. What an experience! And I’m voyeur enough to have derived a smugness from now being entitled to tell my Book Club (eight chronically mature bright biddies) that I knew Fer when ….! Reflected glory: always better than no glory at all. I am collossally delighted for YOU. On every level of this experience.

  2. Rachel

    Wow!!! I am both overjoyed and overjealous at the same time. In a good way. 🙂 Many congrats on the win and the awesome prize! What a dream to meet an author whose work you admire and know so well.

  3. beslaw26

    Glad you enjoyed NYC

  4. You wrote a one of a kind piece that deserved to win. Great recap, too. Now, please be sure to let me know when the Paris Review runs a similar contest with Ernest Hemingway…

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