John Irving, one of the world’s greatest novelists of all time, joins Zibby (who idolizes him!!) in this once-in-a-lifetime interview to discuss The Last Chairlift, a sweepingly cinematic, multigenerational ghost story about a slalom skier, her accidental pregnancy, and, years later, the son who returns to Aspen to uncover her story. After discussing this latest release, Mr. Irving describes the fascinating process behind each of his iconic books, revealing he has piles of notes waiting to be turned into novels (but refuses to start writing them until he knows exactly how they will end!). He also shares how helpful and influential his first readers (like Kurt Vonnegut!) and editors have been in his career.

You can all meet John Irving at the Santa Fe International Literary Festival on May 20th!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, John. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Last Chairlift, your latest book.

John Irving: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Zibby: It’s nice to have you. I am so grateful to the Santa Fe International Literary Festival for putting this together. I understand you’ll be speaking there on Saturday, May 20th at six thirty.

John: You probably know the details better than I do. Yes, that sounds about right.

Zibby: I’ll just put a little reminder in your phone for you, make sure you show up. How did you get involved with that festival, by the way?

John: My speakers’ agency, the Lyceum Agency, is always looking for me. I’m more inclined to accept invitations that are in the vicinity of somewhere else I’m also going or going to be so that I can — to the extent that you can arrange ahead of time, I try. I try, when I can, to accept invitations to events that are within easy striking distance of where my two children who live in the United States live. Then I can often connect to going to see them because there’s an event that’s easy to get to them from. I look for those.

Zibby: Where do they live?

John: My oldest son lives in Los Angeles. My younger son lives in Colorado. They’re both out there in the West. I try to see them equally when I can get out there.

Zibby: Next time you’re in LA, I opened a bookstore recently in Santa Monia. You can go by and check out my store.

John: I’ll be in LA, in fact, shortly before I’m in Santa Fe. Which bookstore is it in Santa Monia? I know Santa Monia pretty well.

Zibby: We just opened last month. It’s called Zibby’s Bookshop.

John: Oh, it’s .

Zibby: It’s really cute. You’re welcome to do an event there if you want. See, you can just have your speakers’ bureau — . You don’t have to do anything. I’m kidding. You can just go look around and enjoy yourself.

John: I certainly will come look around because I know Santa Monia pretty well.

Zibby: It’s on Montana and 11th, if that means anything.

John: I know where Montana is. I have a vague idea where 11th is.

Zibby: Anyway, in your wanderings. So that’s how you got to the Santa Fe International Literary Festival, which should be amazing. Now I feel like I have to go. I’ve never actually been to Santa Fe, so there you go. The Last Chairlift. This is called “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” this podcast, and this is not helping matters with the length of this book, I have to tell you. Tell listeners about why you wrote this book. Why now?

John: I’ve often likened my unwritten novels, the ones I’m waiting to write, the ones I’ve gathered notes for and know quite a bit about but I’m not quite ready to begin them, I often think of those unwritten novels as boxcars in a train station. When I’m writing a novel, I try not to think of what the next novel is going to be. I’m certainly aware of the notes that have been accumulating for this story or that story. It’s common for me that a novel will gather notes before it’s written for a longer time than it will take me to write it. The notes for those trains in the station have been accumulating for at least five or six or more years before I say, okay, I’ll take that one next. I used to choose which one it was, the that one next, solely on the basis of how much I knew about the ending, not just the last line, which everyone has heard too many times and makes too much of. I mean much more than a last line. I mean the last eight or ten pages. I mean the whole ending. The more solidly I feel committed to the ending of a book is likely to make me choose that one, even if there are novels that have been gathering notes for twice as long. Last Night in Twisted River was the longest. It existed in a pile of notes with a story outline, with character descriptions for twenty years before I said, okay, you’re next. That’s unusual. What’s more usual is five to eight years. A novel almost always has been waiting that long before I say, okay, you’re the next one. As I’ve gotten older, there’s another factor that’s come into the decision of, which one is next? I’ve been consciously, over the last eight or ten years, trying to choose what looks like the hardest one or the longest one. Hardest and longest, they don’t always go together. By hardest, I also include not just the number of characters, the passage of time, all of which contribute to how long a story will be, but hard can also mean, how much do I have to learn outside my own experience before I can even start?

The Cider House Rules, for example, is considerably shorter than The Last Chairlift, shorter than A Prayer for Owen Meany, but it was one of the hardest for me. It took the longest amount of time to write, or about the longest amount of time, because there was so much I had to learn about obstetrical and gynecological surgeries before the time I was even born. It was easy to see those OBGYN procedures that were being performed the same way they always were performed, but it was not so easy to see things that had been, before World War II, performed very differently. I could only see those on microfilm. I could only see them in the company of older, retied OBGYN doctors. Science is hard for me. Never a strong subject. The medical detail, being able to put myself in the point of view of two doctors, that took a lot of learning. Similarly, a novel like Until I Find You, which is so much about the history of maritime tattooing in the Baltic, in the North Sea, I had to spend a lot of time in the Netherlands, in Northern Germany, in Sweden, Finland, Denmark. I had to go live there and spent a lot of time with tattoo artists. That was hard to calculate in terms of what it would add to the writing time of the novel. The Last Chairlift is, on the page by the word count, my longest, but it took only — I say only — six years to write. Six years is average or a little under average for me. There was nothing in it that was outside of my personal experience. There was nothing in it that I had to go and learn about. There are a lot of skiers in my family. I grew up in ski towns. I’ve lived in ski towns in the US, in Europe. I didn’t have to go anywhere.

Zibby: What about the ghosts?

John: There have been ghosts in my novels before. Like everything in my books, the ending drives where the story begins. What I know about the ending, which I know first, contributes to my later decision of where I start. It’s so important in this story, it always was to me, that Adam will get to see his mother’s ghost. That can’t come out of nowhere. In other words, there has to be a whole thread of ghost stories that lead you up to that moment in the end when Adam will see his mother again. Without the ghost, that doesn’t happen. Once again, it’s because of where I wanted Adam and his mother, Little Ray, to end. The ending was what drove all those ghosts at the beginning. The ghosts not only accumulate as the novel goes ahead, but there are more of them in the third act than there were in the second act, more of them in the second act than there were in the first act. You’re kind of set up for that last ghost by all the ghosts that go before. That’s all. I suppose the short answer to that question, where the ghosts come from, is as a nonreligious person, I think ghosts are about as far as I can credibly imagine a spiritual world. I get ghosts. As the old ski patroller says near the end of the novel, loved ones leave us, and we go on. Ghosts or no ghosts, we still see them. As I get older and as more of my childhood friends have died than are still alive, I’m certainly aware that we still see them, whether you call them ghosts or not. They still exist very strongly.

Zibby: What does that feel like to have more friends passed away than still alive? How does that feel to you?

John: In my case, weirdly, it feels like a lot of my novels. I guess it’s fair to say I’m not known for happy endings. I’m familiar with the way endings feel from having written so many endings. That’s still not the same as recognizing that you have more close, close friends and acquaintances who are dead than you have who are alive. Anyone who lives long enough gets there. That’s hardly unique to me.

Zibby: True. My grandmother would joke about it. She lived to be ninety-seven. She’s like, “All my friends are dead, so I’m going to go play bridge with the seventy-year-old young kids.” I’m like, okay.

John: As you may have read before or already know, my grandmother died one day short of her hundredth birthday. I always speculated that the hoopla that was — in her mind, it was hoopla. The hoopla that would be made had she lived to a hundred was something she probably just didn’t want to go through. She thought, no, I’m not going to give them that. I’m getting out of here before that stuff happens.

Zibby: You didn’t listen to me about the party. Goodbye.

John: She wasn’t keen about that idea. She wasn’t keen about the idea that everyone would know she was a hundred years old. It was bad enough that she was a hundred years old. That everyone knew it, she could do without that.

Zibby: I’m fascinated by this idea of your untold stories just sort of keeping you company and sitting on a shelf waiting for you. How many do you have in the que now that you haven’t written?

John: I have three now. I’ve already started a new novel. I’m eight chapters into a new novel. I’m a little ahead to where I usually am at this time having published a book last October, but I haven’t done any book touring. I’ve barely left my home in Toronto. I went one night to the United States to do Seth Meyers. That was it, one night. I’ve only been outside of Toronto twice in Canada that is for an overnight. Most unusual. I haven’t been to the UK at all. I did no traveling, virtually, for the English language editions. The translations have now begun. They’re a little slower than usual because of the length of the novel. I usually look forward to many of the European translations. I usually go there. That’s just more interesting to me than traveling in Canada or in the US and the UK. This time, because of Zoom, because of how easy it is to do everything virtually, because there are many journalists who are willing to come interview me in my workspace in Toronto, even from Europe, I either see people that way, people who come to see me, or more often, like this on a Zoom. I’ve actually had more interviews this way than I used to have when I went everywhere.

Zibby: It’s pretty efficient.

John: It’s efficient. I’m sure my publishers are at least grateful that it doesn’t cost them as much. They’re not paying the airfare. They’re not paying hotel expenses. It’s a little more artificial than being in present, but I wouldn’t be eight chapters into a new novel, usually, only this many months after I published a new one. I’d still be traveling in Europe now. I wouldn’t be here. I like that aspect of it. I always feel more natural, more myself when I am writing as opposed to when I’m talking about writing.

Zibby: When in your career did you start realizing, “Oh, okay, this is how I do thing,” versus “I wish I wrote novels faster. Why is it taking me five years to write this book”? When did you realize, “Oh, this is how long it takes to write a novel. This is what my process is”? When did you accept that it is what it is?

John: As your life or your development as a writer is evolving, at least in my case, I was unaware of its trajectory in the sense of what I understood about it or what I didn’t understand about it. For the writing of my first three novels, I thought it was odd or curious that I knew the endings before the beginnings because I didn’t know any other writers who wrote that way or had that experience. Even my first and foremost idol, Charles Dickens, didn’t write that way. Dickens was known for serializing many of his novels. Dickens didn’t need to know the end of a novel before he began it. Melville did, but I was older when I first read Melville. I was seventeen when I read Moby Dick, only fifteen when I read Great Expectations. That was the novel that made me want to be a novelist. Moby Dick, though, was the novel that showed me, oh, this is why you know everything about the ending before you begin, because your ending will be better if you do.

When I read that novel, it was unmistakable to me that — everybody reading the novel knows the ship’s a disaster. They know it’s going to go down. The captain is a lunatic. The whale is undefeatable. You know that. You’re not even halfway into the novel. Unless Ahab dies, they’re all doomed. Unless the captain washes overboard, they’re all dead, these guys. Only thing you don’t know is — it’s a first-person narrator. How’s he going to survive? The means by how Ishmael will survive is in the earliest chapters. It’s all set up. You don’t know it when you read it. When you get there, you think, oh, that’s why one of the harpooners is a cannibal from the South Seas. That’s why there’s a non-Christian on board. That’s why there’s this superstitious guy who’s a pagan, who is superstitious enough to one day believe he’s going to die and ask for a coffin and several days later change his mind and say, “Nah, I’ll use this coffin for something else. I’m not going to die.” That coffin is a life buoy. That was a lesson to me. By the time I was seventeen — I was still in high school. I not only knew I wanted to be a novelist, I knew that it would be best if I knew how everything ended before I began. Dickens was a genius. Maybe he didn’t have to know. Maybe geniuses don’t have to know how a novel ends, but I do. Even so, knowing that — my first novel was historical. Of course, I knew how it ended. It was history. It was about the . It was about the Nazi occupation of Germany and the Soviet occupation of Vienna. It was all history. My fictional story coincided with actual history. I knew how the actual history ended. My own story, I dovetailed to it.

The next two novels weren’t historical, but they still turned out to be novels for which the ending had been written first. I thought, with The World According to Garp, that all that might have changed because one of the first sentences I wrote down among my notes was, “In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” I remember putting it on a postcard and sending it to my then editor saying, “I think I have a good first sentence here.” He sent me back a postcard, which said, “Sounds like a last sentence to me.” Once again, he was right. That’s the last sentence. I kind of resisted it for a while. I tried it as a first sentence. It had no place there. I tried it as a last sentence of the first chapter. Then I thought, it’s the same as always. It’s the end of the novel. By the time Garp was behind me, the fourth novel, I had accepted that I see endings first. Therefore, knowing that and accepting it, I should choose the next novel I write on the basis of how well I know that ending. The one I have the ending more firmly rooted up here, the better it’ll be. Wait for those other novels. Wait for those endings to develop, which they do, which they always do. After this last longest one, at least I know now that the trains in the station are all shorter trains. I don’t think there’s any more long novels. I think I accomplished that mission of trying to write the hard ones or the long ones first. The Last Chairlift is long, but it wasn’t appreciably hard in the way some of my earlier novels have been hard.

Zibby: It would be funny if your next book was just a poem. You’d show them.

John: That’s highly unlikely.

Zibby: I’m just kidding. It wouldn’t be funny at all.

John: I don’t think I’m a haiku kind of guy. I’ve never written very many short stories. Even my short stories are too long. I have very scrupulously saved, among my notes, the novels that look short to me. I’ve said, oh, save that one. That’ll be easy. I think now that I’m over eighty, it’s a good thing that they’re shorter because I’m not writing any faster than I ever did. You can see the slant board over my shoulder here. I still write first drafts by hand. I do it because it does slow me down. Slowing me down is good. When I’m on the keyboard, I make lots of mistakes on a first draft. I learned that. On a little mechanical typewriter — I used to write novels on a typewriter. I learned very quickly, second or third book, I was doing a lot of rewriting. My mom taught me to type when I was twelve or thirteen. By the time I went to high school, it was a big advantage. I used to type my friends’ papers for them because I was the one who could type.

It goes too quickly when I’m writing, when it’s a screenplay or it’s a novel, especially because it isn’t just that writing longhand is slower than a keyboard. It is. What also slows the process down is that I’m writing to be clear enough for someone else who will transcribe it. Even before I had an assistant, I usually gave my handwritten or first typed drafts to a typist. If you have to make yourself clear enough for somebody else, my handwriting is really good. My handwriting is very clear. Even my grocery lists are. My wife complains. She says, “If you didn’t write so big, if the letters weren’t so large, you wouldn’t have to give me three pages.” I said, “That’s part of it.” Eggs. Make it easy to read, right? Not surprisingly, my three children — guess what? The only one whose handwriting is legible is the writer. If you’re a writer, you write legibly even if no one but you is going to type it. You still got to be able to read it.

Zibby: When you write by hand, do the sentences, do you almost have them held in your head and then you just transcribe them? I feel like sometimes when I’m typing, I’m — not to ever compare myself to you. If I’m writing, I’m thinking as I go. I don’t have it here, and then it dumps down into the page. What is that act like for you?

John: I usually say a sentence to myself a couple of times before I write it. Another thing that’s awfully easy with handwriting, if you have different kinds of pens, different colors of ink and stuff, highlighters around, you can write something one way and then write the same sentence under it and write another sentence under it. Then the first time you read through it, you pick up a highlighter and run a line through what strikes you as the best way to do it the next time so that I or my assistant can say, oh, he likes this version better. He or she, my assistant, my assistants all know that I’m encouraging them to give me their feedback as they feel it. If some sentence that I’ve written strikes them as an ungainly duck, show me what you’d do. When I get drafts back, depending on how venturous my assistant is, I often get somebody’s variant alongside, my assistant saying, I would do it this way, or something.

It’s good to have first readers. I was also lucky as a young writer that my first experience with readers for my earliest attempts at fiction, those first experiences were really positive. The father of one of my best friends was an English teacher, was someone who, when he knew I wanted to be a writer, recommended books for me to read. He was the first person I showed a manuscript to. He was very constructive. He was very kind. I was lucky with a couple of English teachers in high school who were also close and sensitive readers. I learned to trust good readers. My first novel, Setting Free the Bears, the historical novel, it was a really good break for me that Kurt Vonnegut was my first reader of that novel because I couldn’t have had a better one. I couldn’t have had a more frank but also kindly responder to this first novel. It helped, of course, that it was a historical novel. It was set in a German-speaking country in World War II and shortly after. Because of Vonnegut’s own German background, because of his years as a POW in Dresden, I had a first reader who knew that history better than I did. My stepfather was a historian. Having him as a first reader, an early reader, not the first but maybe the second reader of that first novel, was a big help to me.

As a consequence, I think it’s made me very receptive to the editors in my life. When, because of a death, because of a change in publishers, when I’ve lost an editor and had to find another one, I also know who the good ones — I’ve had good ones. That also tells me when I don’t have a good one, when I think, okay, I got to change something. If not publishers, I got to have another editor. I know how much a good editor can do for you. When you’re starting anything, when you’re just beginning, if your first exposure with criticism is really negative, then you’re not going to listen to anybody. Then you’re going to just say, screw that. I don’t need to listen to this. This isn’t helpful. If you have some positive experiences, then you not only know when someone isn’t good and you can ignore them, because you have someone to compare them to, but you also know that good people exist and can be found. When you find them, you should listen. It’s a two-way street. If you get exposed to a good first response — by good, I mean something that benefits you, something that’s going to help you, an older writer, for example, who can say, “You know, you’re really good at this. You should do more of this. Because you’re good at it, you know you’re good at it, so don’t do too much of it,” words to that effect. That’s essentially what Vonnegut said to me.

Zibby: What did he think you were really good at?

John: Taking a small detail and building on it until it’s not so small anymore. He knew I was good at developing a narrative thread. He knew I was not so good at trusting the reader. He knew I reminded the reader of things that a halfway decent reader didn’t really need to be reminded of, or they didn’t need to be reminded of it maybe as many times as I said, well, I suppose the dumb reader got lost now, so I better say this again. I better say it a fourth time or a fifth time. Every editor I’ve ever had has found a way, gently or not so gently, in the margins, to say — my copyeditor, who has been my copyeditor now — she’s been my copyeditor since The Cider House Rules. We’ve been working together, so she knows me. I can’t get away with anything with her. She can also give me notes in a kind of shorthand that I know very well, such as writing in the margin, “Duh. The reader knows.”

Zibby: It’s all about the team. This has been so fun. Thank you so much. I know our time is up. This has been just such a treat. You were on my wish list when I started this podcast five years ago. I was like, oh, my gosh, wouldn’t that be the most amazing thing? Thanks for spending half an hour with me. Exciting about the Santa Fe International Literary Festival on May 20th at six thirty. I hope many people will come out and see you, as I’m sure they will. Thank you so much. Have a great day.

John: Thank you. You too. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.



Purchase your copy on Zibby’s bookshop and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts