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The Imaginary Girlfriend

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The Imaginary Girlfriend is a candid memoir of the writers and wrestlers who played a role in John Irving's development as a novelist and as a wrestler. It also portrays a father's dedication - Irving coached his two sons to championship titles. It is an illuminating, concise work, a literary treasure.

"A masterpiece-- The generosity of spirit that marks his fiction leaks into his memoir in tender and surprising ways." -Edmonton Journal

"An infectious read. I couldn't put it down once I started reading--for its ...

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The Imaginary Girlfriend

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The Imaginary Girlfriend is a candid memoir of the writers and wrestlers who played a role in John Irving's development as a novelist and as a wrestler. It also portrays a father's dedication - Irving coached his two sons to championship titles. It is an illuminating, concise work, a literary treasure.

"A masterpiece-- The generosity of spirit that marks his fiction leaks into his memoir in tender and surprising ways." -Edmonton Journal

"An infectious read. I couldn't put it down once I started reading--for its emotional honesty, self-deprecating candor and, perhaps, most inviting of all, the lucidness of the prose.... The Imaginary Girlfriend confirms that he has much to share with aspiring writers, not to mention lovers of good writing." -Kitchener-Waterloo Record

"Heartfelt and revealing." -Montreal Gazette

"An entertaining glimpse into one of America's most complex novelists." -Toronto Sun

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A masterpiece... The generosity of spirit that marks his fiction leaks into his memoir in tender and surprising ways."
Edmonton Journal

"An infectious read. I couldn't put it down once I started reading — for its emotional honesty, self-deprecating candor and, perhaps, most inviting of all, the lucidness of the prose.... The Imaginary Girlfriend confirms that he has much to share with aspiring writers, not to mention lovers of good writing."
Kitchener-Waterloo Record

"Heartfelt and revealing."
Montreal Gazette

"An entertaining glimpse into one of America's most complex novelists."
Toronto Sun

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345458261
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/3/2002
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 328,624
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 0.53 (d)

Meet the Author

John Irving published his first novel at the age of twenty-six. He has received awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation; he has won an O. Henry Award, a National Book Award, and an Academy Award. Mr. Irving lives with his family in Toronto and Vermont.


It was as a struggling, withdrawn student at Phillips Exeter, the New Hampshire prep school where his stepfather taught Russian history, that John Irving discovered the two great loves of his life: writing and wrestling. Modestly, he attributes his success in both endeavors to dogged perseverance. "My life in wrestling was one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline," he confessed in his 1996 mini-memoir The Imaginary Girlfriend. "I believe that my life as a writer consists of one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline, too."

Certainly, patience and stamina have served Irving well -- in both wrestling (he competed until he was 34, coached well into his 40s, and was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992) and writing. His first book, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1968 to respectable reviews but sold poorly. Over the course of the next ten years, he wrote two more unsuccessful novels (The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage).

Then, in 1978, Irving hit the jackpot with The World According to Garp, a freewheeling comic saga incorporating motifs he would revisit many times over -- feminism, adultery, violence, grotesquerie, and an overriding sense of impending doom. Garp received a National Book Award nomination and became an instant cult classic. It also paved the way for a string of bestsellers, including The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, and The Fourth Hand, to name a few.

While none of his novels are strictly autobiographical, Irving has never denied that certain elements from his life have seeped into his books, most notably the pervading "presence" of his biological father, John Wallace Blunt, a man Irving never knew. Raised by his mother and a stepfather he loved dearly, Irving had denied for years any curiosity about his absent parent, but the figure of the missing father haunted his writing like a specter. In 2005, he laid the ghost to rest with the publication of Until I Find You, a searing story that took shape slowly and painfully over the better part of a decade. Writing the novel also allowed the author to wrestle with a closely guarded secret from his past -- just like the novel's protagonist Jack Burns, Irving was sexually abused as a preteen by an older woman. In an eerily timed coincidence, while he was crafting the novel, Irving was contacted by a man named Chris Blunt, who identified himself as the son of Irving's biological father. Twenty years younger than Irving, his half-brother told Irving that their father had died in 1995. Although Irving was devastated by the experience, he now feels as if he is able to turn the page and move on.

In addition to his novels, Irving has also written a collection of short stories and essays (1995's Trying to Save Piggy Sneed) and several screenplays, including his Oscar-winning adaptation of The Cider House Rules. He chronicled the experience of bringing his novel to the screen in the 1999 memoir My Movie Business.

Good To Know

  • Irving struggled in school with a learning disability that was probably undiagnosed dyslexia. Today, he considers it something of a blessing. Forced to read slowly, he savored each word and literally fell in love with language and literature.

  • In a 2001 interview with the now-defunct Book magazine, Irving confessed, "The characters in my novels, from the very first one, are always on some quixotic effort of attempting to control something that is uncontrollable -- some element of the world that is essentially random and out of control."

  • Although the results have been mixed at best, film versions have been made of several Irving novels, including The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, and The Cider House Rules, which won for Irving a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. In addition, the movie Simon Birch was loosely based on A Prayer for Owen Meaney, and the first third of Irving's novel A Widow for One Year became the acclaimed film The Door in the Floor.

  • One of Irving's great literary influences was Kurt Vonnegut, his teacher and mentor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The two writers remained close friends until Vonnegut's death in 2007.

  • Irving has two tattoos: a maple leaf (in honor of his Canadian wife) on his left shoulder, and the starting circle of a wrestling match on his right forearm.

  • The influence of Charles Dickens is evident in Irving's novels, sprawling epics with huge casts of colorful, eccentric characters and lots of complex plot points that crop up, disappear for hundreds of pages, then resurface unexpectedly. He writes voluminously and in great detail; he refuses to use a computer; and he begins at the end, writing the last sentence of each novel first. He describes himself as a craftsman and claims that he owes his success more to rewrites, ruthless editing, and infinite patience than to artistic genius.

  • Read More Show Less
      1. Also Known As:
        John Wallace Blunt, Jr.
      2. Hometown:
      1. Date of Birth:
        March 2, 1942
      2. Place of Birth:
        Exeter, New Hampshire
      1. Education:
        B.A., University of New Hampshire, 1965; also studied at University of Vienna; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1967

    Read an Excerpt

    Faculty Brat

    In my prep-school days, at Exeter, Creative Writing wasn’t taught — the essay was all-important there — but in my years at the academy I nevertheless wrote more short stories than anything else; I showed them (out of class) to George Bennett, my best friend’s father. The late Mr. Bennett was then Chairman of the English Department; he was my first critic and encourager — I needed his help. Because I failed both Latin and math, I was required to remain at the academy for an unprecedented fifth year; yet I qualified for a course called English 4W — the “W” stood for Writing of the kind I wanted to do — and in this selective gathering I was urged to be Creative, which I rarely managed to be.

    In my memory, which is subject to doubt, the star author and most outspoken critic in English 4W was my wrestling teammate Chuck Krulak, who was also known as “Brute” and who would become General Charles C. Krulak — the Commandant of the Marine Corps and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No less a presence, and as sarcastic a critic as the future General Krulak, was my classmate in English 5, the future writer G.W.S. Trow; he was just plain George then, but he was as sharp as a ferret — I feared his bite. It was only recently, when I was speaking with George, that he surprised me by saying he’d been deeply unhappy at Exeter; George had always struck me as being too confident to be unhappy — whereas my own state of mind at the time was one of perpetual embarrassment.

    I could never have qualified for Exeter through normal admissions procedures; I was a weak student — as it turned out, I was dyslexic, but no one knew this at the time. Nevertheless, I was automatically admitted to the academy in the category of faculty child. My father taught in the History Department; he’d majored in Slavic Languages and Literature at Harvard — he was the first to teach Russian History at Exeter. I initiated a heightened level of intrafamily awkwardness by enrolling in his Russian History course. Dad rewarded me with a C1.

    To say that Exeter was hard for me is an understatement. I was the only student in my Genetics class who failed to control his fruit-fly experiment. The red eyes and the white eyes were interbreeding so rapidly that I lost track of the generations; I attempted to dispose of the evidence in the drinking fountain outside the lab — not knowing that fruit flies could live (and breed) for days in the water pipes. When the unusable drinking fountain was declared “contaminated” — it was literally crawling with wet fruit flies — I crawled forth and made my confession.

    I was forgiven by Mr. Mayo-Smith, the biologist who taught Genetics, because I was the only townie (a resident of Exeter) in any of his classes who owned a gun; the biologist needed me — more specifically, he needed my gun. Boarding students, quite understandably, were not allowed firearms. But as a New Hampshire native — “Live Free or Die,” as the license plates say — I had an arsenal of weapons at my disposal; the biologist used me as the marksman who provided his Introductory Biology class with pigeons. I used to shoot them off the roof of the biologist’s barn. Fortunately, Mr. Mayo-Smith lived some distance from town.

    Yet even in my capacity as Mr. Mayo-Smith’s marksman, I was a failure. He wanted the pigeons killed immediately after they’d eaten; that way the students who dissected them could examine the food contained in their crops. And so I allowed the pigeons to feed in the biologist’s cornfield. When I flushed them from the field, they were so stupid: they always flew to the roof of his barn. It was a slate roof; when I picked them off — I used a 4X scope and a .22 long-rifle bullet, being careful not to shoot them in their crops — they slid down one side of the roof or the other. One day, I shot a hole in the roof; after that, Mr. Mayo-Smith never let me forget how his barn leaked. The fruit flies in the drinking fountain were the school’s problem, but I had shot the biologist’s very own barn — “Personal property, and all that that entails,” as my father was fond of saying in Russian History.

    Shooting a hole in Mr. Mayo-Smith’s barn was less humiliating than the years I spent in Language Therapy. At Exeter, poor spelling was unknown — I mean that little was known about it. It was my dyslexia, of course, but — because that diagnosis wasn’t available in the late 1950s and early ’60s — bad spelling like mine was considered a psychological problem by the language therapist who evaluated my mysterious case. (The handicap of a language disability did not make my struggles at the academy any easier.) When the repeated courses of Language Therapy were judged to have had no discernible influence on my ability to recognize the difference between “allegory” and “allergy,” I was turned over to the school psychiatrist.

    Did I hate the school?

    “No.” (I had grown up at the school!)

    Why did I refer to my stepfather as my “father”?

    “Because I love him and he’s the only ‘father’ I’ve ever known.”

    But why was I “defensive” on the subject of other people calling my father my stepfather?

    “Because I love him and he’s the only ‘father’ I’ve ever known — why shouldn’t I be ‘defensive’?”

    Why was I angry?

    “Because I can’t spell.”

    But why couldn’t I spell?

    “Search me.”

    Was it “difficult” having my stepfather — that is, my father — as a teacher?

    “I had my father as a teacher for one year. I’ve been at the school, and a bad speller, for five years.”

    But why was I angry?

    “Because I can’t spell — and I have to see you.”

    “We certainly are angry, aren’t we?” the psychiatrist said.

    “I certainly are,” I said. (I was trying to bring the conversation back to the subject of my language disability.)

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    Reading Group Guide

    1. How would you describe the narrative voice in The Imaginary Girlfriend? What kind of reader do you think John Irving had in mind while writing this memoir?

    2. What is the significance of the title?

    3. What kind of relationship does The Imaginary Girlfriend suggest Irving has with the past? How is his attitude toward the past conveyed in content and in tone?

    4. Considering that many of the events and people depicted in The Imaginary Girlfriend are from distant eras of Irving's life, and that he seems to have a remarkably lucid memory, why do you think he draws so much attention to the names and faces he doesn't remember?

    5. Farrokh Daruwalla, one of the central characters in Irving's A Son of the Circus, "suppose[s] that the autobiography of a novelist almost qualifie[s] as fiction — surely novelists wouldn't resist the impulse to make up their autobiographies." Do you think this assumption applies to The Imaginary Girlfriend?

    6. In the beginning of The Imaginary Girlfriend Irving writes: "When you love something, you have the capacity to bore everyone about why — it doesn't matter why." How is this distinction between love and reaons for love evident in Irving's depiction of the wrestling world? Do you think it also relates to his approach to reading?

    7. How would you characterize Irving's feelings about formal education, first as a student and later as a teacher? How do these attitudes compare to his thoughts on being in the wrestling world, as a wrestler and as a coach?

    8. Wrestling and writing are two of the passions — and disciplines — that have shaped Irving's life. How does Irving go from thinking he "could be a wrestler or a writer, but not both" to finding a way to reconcile the two activities?

    9. Irving writes, "My life in wrestling is one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline. I believe that my life as a writer consists of one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline, too." While most of us are probably very skeptical about Irving's writing being based on this proportion of talent to discipline, the concept is intriguing. How does this claim affect your understanding of Irving as a person? Does it change your perception of the writing process?

    10. John Irving's writing style is distinctive in many ways — including his "archaic" use of the semi-colon. In The Imaginary Girlfriend he also uses a large number of parentheses. How do these parenthetical remarks impact the tone of the book?

    11. In The Imaginary Girlfriend Irving reports, "Tom Williams once told me that I had a habit of attributing mythological proportions and legendary status to my characters." Do you think this appraisal of Irving's fictional characters applies to his portrayal of the people in his own life?

    12. Irving describes himself as being on the outskirts at different stages in his life — as a dyslexic "faculty child" at Exeter, as a "halfway decent" wrestler at Pittsburgh, and as a married father in graduate school at Iowa: "What I remember best about being a student at Iowa was that sense of myself as being married, and being a father. It separated me from the majority of the other students." How does this vision of himself as being somehow in the minority seem to have affected his life and his writing?

    13. Most of what we hear about Irving's family is in regard to wrestling — and yet because wrestling is clearly one of the loves of Irving's life, we get a sense of his life as a father: "Brendan, like his brother before him, had won the New England Class A title. It was the happiest night of my life." How do Irving's descriptions of sharing wrestling with his sons — from his obvious pride in their accomplishments to his interest in their changing weight classes — help give us a picture of Irving's own development?

    14. John Irving's novels are traditionally very long, both because of their rich description and their epic scope. The Imaginary Girlfriend is, by comparison, much shorter. Why do you think this is the case? How does The Imaginary Girlfriend fit into the memoir/autobiography category? How does it challenge the classification?

    15. If you have read any of John Irving's novels, did you have ideas about what The Imaginary Girlfriend — which offers a glimpse into his writing and non-writing lives — would be like? Do you see any seeds of his fictional characters, storylines or themes in The Imaginary Girlfriend?

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    Customer Reviews

    Average Rating 4
    ( 4 )
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    Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
    • Anonymous

      Posted May 19, 2003

      Great Non-Fiction

      John Irving can pretty much do it all. The Imaginary Girlfriend has the exactness of description equal to that of Tobias Wolff and the plot structure and orginization found only in Irving's (better) novels. (If you want to read Irving's non-fiction, The Imaginary Girlfriend is the book--stay away from My Movie Business!)

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted October 27, 2008

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      Posted March 10, 2011

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    • Anonymous

      Posted November 19, 2010

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