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Intersections: In the Footsteps of Charles Dickens

Author John Irving with his chocolate Labrador retriever, Dickens.
Ketzel Levine, NPR /
Author John Irving with his chocolate Labrador retriever, Dickens.

Best-selling author John Irving is a calculating writer. He knows everything that will befall his characters before he creates them on the page: This one will be addicted to ether. That one will lose a hand.

Irving enjoys overwhelming readers with information. His aim is to catapult them to a place they've never been before.

"Less is not more," Irving says. "More is more."

Irving picked up his obsession with detail from Charles Dickens, the celebrated Victorian author whose vivid tales, filled with circuitous sentences, were wordy enough to inspire a false legend that he was paid by the word.

Irving first read Dickens at age 14; within two pages of Great Expectations, he was hooked. For Intersections, a series about artists' influences, Irving talks with NPR's Ketzel Levine about Dickens.

The influence isn't difficult to spot in Irving's novels. The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany -- all are spiked with Dickensian melodrama: Complex plots and perilous encounters. Children orphaned. Lives sacrificed for the greater good.

Social and moral dilemmas lie at the heart of their work, often emphasized with a heavy hand.

"Sometimes," Irving says of Dickens, "he bangs the drum more than he writes the book."

Hollywood has appreciated the cinematic scope of both writers. Several of Irving's novels have been adapted into films, and his own screenplay for Cider House earned him an Oscar. Even in this, Irving suspects a kinship to Dickens.

"I have no doubt," he says, "that Dickens would have been a screenwriter."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ketzel Levine
NPR Senior Correspondent Ketzel Levine reports for Morning Edition.

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