John Irving on feeling like an outsider

The acclaimed author on writing the last sentence first, and why feeling like a foreigner is part and parcel of being a writer.
John Irving says his 14th novel, Avenue of Mysteries, was his quickest ever to write, though it sat as a screenplay for 25 years. (CBC)

It's hard to believe that an author as distinguished as John Irving could still feel like an outsider. In this in-depth conversation with The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers, Irving — who recently became a permanent resident of Canada — opens up about how feeling like a perpetual foreigner is part and parcel of being a writer.

Irving's 14th novel, Avenue of Mysteriestakes readers into the life of Juan Diego, a Mexican American author with a troubling heart condition and a traumatic past as a "dump kid" from Oaxaca.

I'm used to feeling like a foreigner, even when I lived in the United States, perhaps especially when I lived in the United States. I've never really felt that I belong where I am. But isn't that how writers are supposed to feel? Aren't we supposed to feel both microscopic and telescopic? Aren't we supposed or feel ourselves to be outsiders to whatever we're looking at? Or floating at some distance above it? Or looking at something in vastly closer scrutiny than is recommended to most people? I think the feeling of being an outsider is one that accompanies the feeling of being a novelist, or at least the kind of novelist I am, wherever I am.

I always know what's going to happen because I write my novels from back to front. There is a pre-determination or pre-destination always in my mind, fixedly, before I begin to write a novel. I always tend to give a sense of foreshadowing, foreboding, to give a little bit of what I know to one or more of my characters. I've often speculated that it would be awful, in the terrifying sense, to know or believe you know what's going to happen to you and especially people you love. If you know that, or believe you do, what might you be tempted to do? What might you risk to change that future, especially if it was what you saw as a future for someone you loved?

There's nothing I feel I need to know as solidly before I start writing as the architecture of the story, as the construction of it. It's always occurred to me that you wouldn't dream of building a house without knowing where the bathrooms are or where the kitchen is or where the staircases are. I can't begin a novel until I see how it's constructed and it isn't just the last sentence that I need to know before I presume to write the first one. With that last sentence come many of the sentences and paragraphs that surround it. I need to know, not just what happens to everyone in the story but particularly how I sound when I'm writing that ending. I need to know what voice I'm in.

John Irving's comments have been edited and condensed.