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How novelist John Irving picked his literary heroes


John Irving, whose new book “Avenue of Mysteries” comes out this week, has always considered himself old-fashioned.

Irving began reading 19th-century novelists, including Charles Dickens and Herman Melville, as a teenager, he told the NewsHour’s chief arts and culture correspondent Jeffrey Brown. Those authors formed his idea of what it meant to be a novelist.

“If I’d not read them at an impressionable age – 15, 16 – I’m not so sure I would have felt the conviction as young as I did that I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to be a novelist like that,” he said. “In other words, I was already kind of old-fashioned before I had written the first word.”

“Avenue of Mysteries” follows the story of the a fiction writer named Juan Diego throughout his life, from his childhood as an orphan working in an Oaxacan dump, to an adolescence spent teaching himself to read, to adulthood. The book introduces a mix of vivid characters into a narrative that combines realism and magic, Irving said.

Irving said he is conscious of distinguishing his own voice from his idols. “My heroes were so long-dead,” he said. “In retrospect, I can see that I was fortunate because there’s no danger imitating a writer from another century. The language has changed. I couldn’t sound like Melville or Dickens if I tried. If you model yourself too closely, if your literary heroes are too close to your own generation and your own time, there is the danger that you will sound like an imitator.”

For more on Irving’s work, watch his full conversation with Jeffrey Brown.

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