You probably think you already know John Irving. You might even feel you’ve contributed to his success if you’ve read nearly everything he’s written. But another side to the popular author is surfacing – one you might not be familiar with – one that’s far removed from any image you might have of a man dreaming up plots while gazing at the waterfront view from a Muskoka home. And that unfamiliar Irving comes full force with his new novel Last Night in Twisted River.

Irving is older now but has lost none of the appeal that once inspired women to show up at his readings and toss underwear on the stage like he was an erudite pop star. His image transcends that of the New Hampshire scribe handsomely dressed in L.L. Bean garb, or as the troubled artist pounding out prose in a Parisian loft.

You come from an Irving novel feeling somewhat changed by the people you’ve met through his words: A little boy who mistakes a water’s undertow as an angry ankle grabbing monster called the under-toad, a woman who turns her rape into a powerful movement, a suburban transvestite whose insights confound the most ill-formed bigot, and now, in Last Night in Twisted River, a logging camp cook whose single aim in life is to see his son to independence.

Any idea of who Irving is begins with his work. His novels have turned the familiar, maybe even tiresome, Dickensian melodramas end over end by creating functional families in an entirely dysfunctional world. His characters are isolated more by the demons of others than by their own defined oddities. In The World According to Garp, Garp was a hero of calculated missteps whose eventual demise seemed more of a catalyst than a tragedy. The incestuous desires of a brother and sister in Hotel New Hampshire were more deliverance than deviance. And Dr. Larch in The Cider House Rules was more guardian than abortionist while his charge Homer, more prophet than outsider. These are the men, not literally but metaphorically, we suspect Irving could be. We might well be right.

Q: It strikes me that movies and John Irving have had a close relationship, even before you became a scriptwriter with Cider House Rules.
A: Yes and no. I have an awkward relationship with movies. I was a theatre kid. I grew up backstage in a local playhouse. I loved the theatre before I was old enough to read the kind of novels that made me want to be a writer. And I always liked – still like – the theatre better than films. But I’m a very visual novelist, and so in some cases it’s natural to want to transcribe those novels to the screen.

Q: I’ve either read or I came to my own conclusion that you were a student, for lack of a better word, of Robertson Davies, who in turn was an indirect student of Charles Dickens.
A: I don’t know if "student" is a fair word. Certainly the writers of my time who have most impressed me are those writers who seemed to me to come from a 19th-century narrative storytelling tradition. And of course it’s easy to see how Davies is Dickensian.

It was Dickens’s novels that I first read as a teenager that made me want to be a writer. The models of the form for me as a teenager were those 19th-century novels, Dickens, Hardy, but in my own country the New England novels of Melville and Hawthorne. Those were my guys, I never felt attached to modern literature and least of all contemporary literature. And so when I was first introduced to Robertson Davies and his novels, what I liked about them was what was 19th-century about them.

Q: Would you agree there are similarities between Cider House Rules and Oliver Twist?
A: Yes, I’m a little more partial to David Copperfield than I am to Oliver Twist, simply because you know – all forgiveness to my favourite writer – Oliver Twist is really what amounts to a first novel. It was Dickens’s second book but it was his first novel and there are many clunky things in the apparatus of that novel that are not as good as Dickens would do with those same themes and kinds of characters in later novels. The business of Oliver’s parentage, the brother, the Monks character, there’s a lot of sort of clunky exposition in the storytelling of that novel that would disappear as Dickens became a more mature and more experienced writer.

Q: You began your literary career with a novel called Setting Free the Bears. And then later on in the book Hotel New Hampshire we had a character dressed up as a bear, and now in Last Night in Twisted River a woman is mistaken for a bear. What’s the fascination with bears?
A: I don’t know so much that it’s my fascination as it is something that readers have found fascinating, but personally I’m more interested in dogs than bears.

Q: No mythical qualities about bears leaking into your psyche?
A: Well, they are one of the few animals that human beings have to be a little wary of. They’re smarter than most other animals. They don’t see very well but they have a keener sense of smell than dogs. They’re very good swimmers. They really want as little to do with human beings, except for their food, as human beings want to do with them. And as is pointed out by one of the characters in this novel, if you behead one and skin it, its physiognomy is remarkably human.

Q: It’s interesting what you say about bears wanting less to do with humans than humans wanting to do with bears. I think that about some of your characters. They’re incredibly likable; they’re incredibly centred, tortured or damaged in some way. But they are characters that people have strong feelings about. They are either immensely loved or hated, there’s no in-betweens. Homer in Cider House Rules is one, and definitely Dominique in Twisted River would be another.
A: I like relationships that are extreme. Like The Cider House Rules, there is a very strong father-son relationship in Last Night in Twisted River. In Twisted River, it’s an actual father and son. But I always felt that the relationship between the old orphanage physician, Dr. Larch, in The Cider House Rules and with his unadoptable orphan, Homer Wells, was more like a father-son relationship than most father-son relationships actually are – right down to there being a conflict between them.

Q: Is the author of the book always the right choice to be the author of the film?
A: I don’t think so. I don’t know that adapting a novel to a film is something everyone can do or should do. I’ve never felt, in the case of my own novels, that if a film is never made from a novel that that’s essentially any shame to the novel or that the novel is therefore incomplete.

Most of the time I’m not interested in the case of my own books. Most of the time I don’t see them as films and I don’t want to be the designated adapter or screenwriter. And the reason for that is very simple: novels do the passage of time exceedingly well. I can create a 12-year-old, as I do in Twisted River, and that character is the same character 15, 20, 30, 50 years later. The reader never loses sight of the child when he or she is reading about the adult character.

Movies don’t do that so well. Once you have to change actors in the course of the character growing older, the audience’s emotional identification goes, understandably, to the actor. So I have never wanted to be a part of those films adapted from my books or a part of any film where you need more than three or four actors to play the same character. It doesn’t interest me.

I’ve said no many more times than I’ve said yes to the issue of adapting a film. But in Cider House’s case, although the novel takes place over a 15-year period of time, I saw from the very beginning how I could lose the passage of time from the story without essentially losing what happens in the relationship between Dr. Larch and that orphan, Homer Wells. The film takes place over less than a year-and-a-half’s time. And that truncation was easily doable.

The only two of my 12 novels that I am currently working on adaptations for the film are A Son of the Circus and The Fourth Hand. And those are two of the 12 novels in which the passage of time really isn’t central. Therefore, it’s not a factor.

Q: The Door in the Floor could have been that too.
A: Well, The Door in the Floor was not my idea as a film but the idea of its writer-director Todd Williams, who came to me and said, “I see how to make A Widow for One Year as a film, if you’ll let me make only the first third of the story."

"Imagine a play in three acts," he said. "I want to make act one and let it end there." In which case, the ages of the characters never change. The passage of time is eliminated from the story ... And I especially liked his idea because that leaves the next two thirds of the novel untouched. Someone could actually go and see the film, The Door in the Floor, and then go home and go almost immediately to part two of the novel and continue the story.

All that was necessary for us to do was to find a substitute title since the widow of the title A Widow for One Year is, at the end of A Door in the Floor, still a four-year-old girl. Too young to be a widow [laughs]. So we had to find another chapter title in that novel and make it the title of that film. That wasn’t hard. I think it took us about 10 minutes. We just looked at the table of contents and I said, “Well, what about that one?”

Q: Families are incredibly important in your stories. In some cases the history of our families or the families in your books come from other characters and not the blood relatives. Does that make the stories richer? Can myth and fable be more important than reality?
A: I think what makes a family in a story is not necessarily a biological connection so much as it is a relationship, however much based on love or need or affection it is. There’s also an element that’s missing or there’s an element in which someone hasn’t been told everything. There’s something that’s been withheld from a child. That’s often a case in a novel of mine – that what a child imagines is the story of his life isn’t quite what it was. There’s something he hasn’t been told, something that conceivably he’s not old enough to hear or is simply unseemly for him to know at any age.

There’s a missing element when Ruth Cole is a child. She knows she had two brothers, she knows they’re dead but what she can’t imagine is how the death of those boys has affected the relationship between her mother and father. She can only see that it’s not very good. She can only see that some damage has been done, but she can’t imagine herself all the way back to what that relationship might have been before those boys were lost.

Q: You describe the orphanage in great detail in Cider House Rules, and it is certainly described again by Lasse Hallstrom’s camera in the film. How important is the orphanage to the story? Is the building itself a character?
A: I think so. There are some novels that have more landscape or sort of physical detail in them than others.

I think there is a reason why everything is so intensely visualized in my writing. I’ve heard my writing described by younger book reviewers as being “cinematic” since the "cinematic" word is the word we use for visual writing nowadays. But actually, I didn’t learn it from the movies; I learned it from those same 19th-century English and New England novels, where the writing was always intensely visual. Hardy is a very visual writer; Dickens is an extremely visual writer. It was writing like that that made me want to write that way, to sort of visualize everything. The detail is one of the things that interested me in storytelling as much as plot.

And detail is one of the things that movies really do well. They make those details so vivid, so memorable, and we can blow them up to the size, you know, where one finger is taller than a man. So we can magnify detail on the screen that would be hard to see or hard to see in a natural way when we merely write about it.

Q: Early in my life, I spent a couple of days in the last orphanage in Canada, in Guelph. I was quickly adopted but I remember loving this room full of kids, toys everywhere, a staircase with kids and toys all over it, and I even remember a nurse or two walking around. Have I, and others, idealized and romanticized orphanages, or did I truly miss out on a really great opportunity by being adopted?
A: Well, you know, one of the details that gets left out of the picture is the story of what happens to the orphan who doesn’t get adopted. And that was my earliest discovery when I was still doing research for the novel of The Cider House Rules...

Quite by accident, I came upon a photograph from a place called the New England Home for Little Wanderers – terrible name, or a kind of sentimentalized name – but it was at the time a rather famous place. It was a photograph and there were a couple of nurses and an old man who looked like a doctor (I don’t know if he was), and these, an array of orphans – some infants, unrecognizable in the older orphan’s arms or in the nurse’s arms, but mostly kids between the age of sort of preteen or young teen to five and six. Just a portrait.

And later in the day, hours later, I was thumbing through some other records and there was a photograph, some years later. There were the old nurses looking a little older, looking a little more tired out. There was the old fellow I took for the physician. But what shocked me most of all was there were most of the same orphans, seven, eight years later.

I recognized them, I thought, "Oh, nobody took him, nobody took her, nobody took him." And in all the records I read of lives in those orphanage facilities, I didn’t read accounts of people who were mistreated there, who were ever abused there. They loved the people who ran those places and they loved the fellow orphans who they were in association with. But I never read a good story about what happened to those people at the end of the period of being an orphan in an orphanage facility.

Q: And it plays into the mythological abandonment issue that everybody seems to think. Superman was an orphan. Batman was an orphan.
A: Oliver Twist. David Copperfield. Sure, sure.

Q: And now another name, Angel in Twisted River, who we meet at the moment he becomes an angel. We meet him at his death.
A: That’s correct.

Q: How important are these names not just as a way for the reader to identify the characters but also as a way to give insight to the characters?
A: Well, I remember being named for my biological father, whom I never knew and whom no one in my family would ever tell me very much about. But I knew what his name was because I had it.

I was born John Wallace Blunt Jr., so I knew who my dad was, but no one would talk about him, which led me naturally to believe that they must have been protecting me from who he was. He must have been some kind of monster, otherwise why wouldn’t they just say, “Well, he was this kind of a guy and the marriage didn’t work out” and blah blah blah. But no, he was gone and there was no discussion of who he was or what kind of guy he was or what went wrong between my mother and him or what went right. Nothing. A closed door.

And you do two things, I think, as a child when a door to something that makes you naturally curious is repeatedly closed, and they’re both psychological things. You say, “Everything conceivably wrong with me must be because of him. He must have been that way. This must be some gene I have and he must be a scary guy because no one will really talk to me about what he is.” And the other thing you do is you say, “Well, if these people I love won’t tell me anything about him, well then that doesn’t interest me, whoever he was I don’t care.” And I did both of those things. I said, “I don’t care who he was.”

I was aided in being able to say that by the fact that when my mother remarried when I was six. I loved my stepfather, still do. He was one of the greatest things to ever happen to me, and the first great thing he did for me was give me his name. He legally adopted me so that I became John Winslow Irving – “Winslow” being my mother’s maiden name. I was happy to be named for someone I could see and who I liked, when all those years I was named after the mystery man who I couldn’t see and I was his name exactly with a “Jr.” tacked on at the end – I didn’t like that at all.

So I think from my earliest childhood I was conscious of being given a name that struck me amiss – and happy to have been renamed when I was “legally adopted” and my name was changed to the name of my stepfather.

I was writing my first novel, Kurt Vonnegut was my teacher, my mentor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And I told him I felt a little uncomfortable that I was going to publish a novel as "John Irving" when it wasn’t my real name. It might be the name I liked because I loved my stepfather, but if I was going to be a writer shouldn’t I have my real name, shouldn’t I publish this novel as "John Wallace Blunt Jr."?

And Vonnegut knew how I felt about the missing father and how warmly I felt towards my stepfather, and he basically said to me, “It doesn’t matter what your name is, it matters whether the book is any good. And the book is great, feel good about that.” And, you know, “How’s it going to make your stepfather feel?” and those kinds of things. So I said, “Yeah, OK, I was happy to become ´John Irving´ at the age of six. Why should I be worried about the fact that it’s a kind of pen name?” Which it wasn’t.

But that’s just to say that the consciousness of names, beginning with my own, was something that was always with me. And it’s something I don’t take lightly or casually when it comes to naming my characters, because I’ve been pretty internally obsessed on the subject of what my name was because it changed. You see what I mean?

Q: Your life sounds like a John Irving novel.
A: [Laughs] Thankfully, no.

Q: [Laughs] You won a best screenplay Oscar for Cider House Rules. The world is happy with the film – how do you feel?
A: I’m very happy with the film. I also think that, especially from a writer’s point of view, you need to be very lucky. Nobody notices that the screenplay is any good if the performances aren’t good, if the direction isn’t good, if the camera isn’t good. If one of those other elements that any audience or any film critic notices first isn’t good, nobody is going to pay attention to the screenplay – doesn’t matter how good the screenplay is.

Cider House Rules had seven Academy Award nominations – we only won two Oscars, mine and Michael Caine for best supporting. I thought we should have won more and I thought we should have had one more nomination, actually two more nominations.

Q: How do you deal with writer´s block?
A: Well, evidently, you could tell maybe from the length of my novels I don’t really have writer´s block [laughs]. I never have had writer´s block.

In the case of every novel I’ve been writing, there have always been two or three novels that I was waiting to begin. In the case of Twisted River, those ideas were in my head for 20 years. I just didn’t begin it ahead of some novels that had been in my mind for not nearly as long a time because that last sentence wasn’t very quickly forthcoming. I had to wait for that last sentence a long time. But the rudimentary sort of bones, the skeleton of that story has actually been in my mind longer than any other novel I’ve written of the 12.

The question is always, “OK, which one, which one is ready to go? Which one is the next?” And the answer is not how long I’ve been thinking about it or even in an accumulative sense how much I know about the story, the answer is, “What’s the last sentence?” If I don’t know it, I don’t start. So I go with the one that gives me that last sentence first.

If you’d have asked me in May or June of this year what’s the next one after Last Night in Twisted River, I would have guessed on another novel. I would have picked one that has been in my mind longer, but the last sentence of the one I have already begun, my 13th novel, should be, I just got it. And so I’m already writing a 13th novel because I got the last sentence.

Q: Do you commit yourself to what that last sentence is? If you told us the last sentence – can’t do it, just in case I change my mind?
A: In the case of Twisted River, I told many people what the last sentence would be three, four, five years before that novel appeared. The reason I’m going to be a little weary about that in the case of the book I’ve just begun is that this is a first for me.

I have two last sentences – that is, I have two last sentences I like almost equally well and whichever isn’t the last sentence will probably be the last sentence of the pen alternate paragraph. They’re close to one another; they refer to the same moment in time, right? So I don’t have to alter a thing about the novel by choosing one as opposed to the other.

All they are is different in tone. One of them is a little harsh, one of them is a little derisive – the way a line of dialogue often is or can be. And the other is gentler, more lyrical and a little more melancholic. And I feel I’m in a good spot because I can choose my tone of voice. And I can be a little harsh, a little derisive with the dialogue ending in the next-to-last chapter and go with a softer line as the actual ending or vice versa.

And I don’t feel in the case of this new book that I have to pick between those two last sentences until I’m almost there. I’ve never had this much flexibility. It’s kind of driving me crazy.

Q: Too many choices.
A: It’s not a usual situation for me.

Thom Ernst is a Toronto-based film writer and critic and the producer/interviewer of TVO´s long-running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. For more from Thom, visit the Saturday Night at the Movies blog.