John W. Irving, 67MFA, may be one of the university's best-known alumni, having achieved this distinction as a highly acclaimed writer of novels and screenplays. For the University of Iowa to applaud a writer is not unusual, but to recognize a writer who is also both a wrestler and dyslexic is unusual indeed.
Irving came to the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in 1965, where he worked closely with author and teacher Kurt Vonnegut. To this day, Vonnegut remains a very close friend.
Irving s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1968 and was followed in 1972 by The Water Method Man, much of which is set in Iowa City. It was while Irving was a teacher at the Writers Workshop, from 1972 to 1975, that he wrote his third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage.
He moved back to New England in 1975, and in 1978 he published The World According to Garp. Although his earlier novels had received critical acclaim, Garp was a huge success both critically and commercially and was later made into a film starring Glenn Close and Robin Williams.
His subsequent novels include The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), The Cider House Rules (1985), A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), A Son of the Circus (1994), and The Fourth Hand (2001). Other books include Trying to Save Piggy Sneed (1996); The Imaginary Girlfriend (1997); and My Movie Business (1999), documenting the struggles Irving faced in adapting The Cider House Rules into a film. This summer, Random House will release Irvings latest novel, Until I Find You.
Among other honors, John Irving has won the OHenry Award and the National Book Award. He has received grants and fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1992, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame; his screenplay for The Cider House Rules won an Oscar in 2000; and he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001.
Reluctant to give up his IBM Selectric typewriter, Irving also writes in longhand in prose inspired by Charles Dickens. He sets a goal of working seven days a week, eight hours a day, to produce one substantial novel every four years. Irving has also continued wrestling and coaching.
Since spending time at Iowa as both a student and a teacher, Irving has maintained a strong interest in both the writing and the wrestling programs at the University of Iowa, and he has been enormously helpful in assisting the university in its recruiting endeavors through his enthusiasm for these programs. He continues to celebrate his Iowa connection both in his novels and with his periodic campus visits.
There are few living writers associated with the University of Iowa—or any college or university—who have earned the critical and commercial acclaim of John Irving. For this reason, he richly deserves to be recognized with this Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.
Since 1963, the University of Iowa has annually recognized accomplished alumni and friends with Distinguished Alumni Awards. Awards are presented in seven categories: Achievement, Service, Hickerson Recognition, Faculty, Staff, Recent Graduate, and Friend of the University.