I’m currently re-reading John Irving’s epic novel “Last Night in Twisted River”. Actually, I should qualify this – the previous ‘read’ was in audiobook form, a library-loaned stack of CDs that I fed eagerly into the car stereo on a road trip from Maryland to Maine and back, four years ago.
As “Last Night in Twisted River” is set at least partly in New England – as many of Irving’s stories are – it felt highly appropriate to have it as a companion on that particular journey. Regrettably, both the road trip and the library loan came to an end before I had chance to finish the book, so I don’t know how the story ends (no spoilers, please!).
The great man is one of my favourite authors ever, someone whose style of storytelling I greatly admire. My first encounter with his writing came many years ago with “The World According to Garp”, which remains my favourite novel of his. I love the way he creates a complete universe the reader can believe in and immerse themselves in, no matter how off-the-wall or larger-than-life the characters that inhabit it. I’m also always impressed by the way his stories embark on endless, breath-taking loops backwards and forwards through time, both feeding in back-story, and providing teasers of what’s to come, without either clogging up the narrative or giving too much away.
The central character of “Last Night in Twisted River”, Daniel Baciagalupo, is – like his creator – a novelist. Writing about writers – and about writing – are two of Irving’s best known tropes (along with bears and wrestling!). At the back of my copy of “Last Night in Twisted River” there’s an author’s note; a few precious pages in which Irving gives some fascinating and generous insights into his approach to the craft.
Irving is completely unapologetic about how important plot is to the way he writes, even if some consider this an old-fashioned approach. What intrigued me most is his assertion that the process of writing all of his novels has begun with the final sentence, both as a captured moment in time and a feeling. He works his way backwards from that point – ‘a kind of roadmap in reverse’ as he describes it – and until he has the ending nailed down as a reference point to work towards, he can’t begin.
Although I enjoy trying to tell stories, I must confess that the theory or the process of how it happens are not things I’ve studied in great detail. I would like them to be. And I do think about it a lot! If anything, the stories I try to tell emerge initially as incidents or happenings – pictures I get in my head of events unfolding contrary to how they perhaps should. Certainly, the characters involved are rarely if ever the starting point, even though much of the reading I have done about the business of fiction writing emphasises the importance of characters and their development. But plot, planning, the structuring of any story – let alone one of novel-length – is all stuff around which I have a lot of work to do.
I do find it very encouraging, however, to read that Irving considers the three year period it took him to write “Last Night in Twisted River” to be ‘unheard of’. Apparently, the process is usually a much longer one than this!