Author John Irving’s novel about a boy with a “wrecked voice” who believes he’s an instrument of God is a staple on high school summer reading lists. Here are a few things you might not have known about it. (Spoilers for the novel below.)
1. The first sentence of A Prayer for Owen Meany is John Irving’s favorite.
Irving always writes the ends of his novels first, and Owen Meany was no different: He wrote the penultimate paragraph of the novel first, and added the last paragraph two days later. “I never write the first sentence until I know all the important things that happen in the story, especially—and I mean exactly—what happens at the end of the novel,” he wrote after the book was published [PDF]. “If I haven’t already written the ending—and I mean more than a rough draft—I can’t write the first sentence.”
In the case of Owen Meany, Irving didn't write the first sentence (“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany”) until at least a year later. “I may one day write a better first sentence to a novel than that of A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I doubt it," Irving wrote. “What makes the first sentence of A Prayer for Owen Meany such a good one is that the whole novel is contained in it.”
2. John Irving based Owen Meany on a childhood friend.
The author was home in Exeter, New Hampshire, for Christmas in the early ‘80s, where he and his childhood friends were discussing other friends who had gone to Vietnam and never come back, or who had come back but were messed up from the experience. “Suddenly one of my friends mentioned a name that drew a blank with me—a Russell somebody,” Irving wrote. “Then another one of my friends reminded me that, in Sunday School, we used to lift up this little boy; he was our age, about eight or nine, but he was so tiny that we could pass him back and forth over our heads.”
That jogged Irving’s memory. Russell had moved away before they had become teenagers, and had been killed in Vietnam. “I was amazed,” Irving writes. “I said one of the stupidest things I’ve ever said. ‘But he was too small to go to Vietnam!’ My friends looked at me with pity and concern. ‘Johnny,’ one of them said, ‘I presume he grew.’ That night I lay awake in bed, pondering the ‘What if...’ that is the beginning of every novel for me. What if he didn’t grow? I was thinking.” Irving would later incorporate the memory of passing Russell over the heads of kids in Sunday School into a scene in Owen Meany.
3. A Prayer for Owen Meany is full of homages to other novels.
In the novel, Johnny’s mother is killed by a baseball hit by Owen Meany—which, Irving said in an interview with the Denver Post, is an homage to the Robertson Davies novel Fifth Business, in which the protagonist’s mom is hit by a snowball. “I love that novel,” Irving said. “And Owen Meany has the same initials as Oskar Matzerath—the hero of Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum.” (And, like Irving’s Meany, Oskar Matzerath refuses to grow.) “Many writers become writers because of something they read,” he told the Post. “Homage is simply recognizing and acknowledging your ancestors.”
4. Hester in A Prayer for Owen Meany is similar to another of Irving’s characters.
If Johnny’s abrasive cousin Hester in Owen Meany sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve read Irving’s 1985 novel The Cider House Rules. “Certain minor characters repeat themselves,” Irving told Readers Read in 2005. “Melony in Cider House is reborn as Hester in A Prayer for Owen Meany, and they are both reborn and enlarged upon in the character of Emma in Until I Find You.”
5. John Irving plagiarized himself in A Prayer for Owen Meany.
“The physical description of Owen Meany who is first described as looking embryonic, not yet born, was a passage I lifted from the physical description of the orphan Fuzzy Stone who dies of respiratory failure in The Cider House Rules, the novel before I wrote, A Prayer for Owen Meany,” Irving said at a 2006 charity event with Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. “I am unaware if it's possible to get in trouble for plagiarizing yourself but I did. If you look at the physical description of Fuzzy Stone and the physical description of Owen Meany, they're almost word for word the same.”
6. John Irving did his research before writing A Prayer for Owen Meany.
In an interview with Powells, Irving said he looked into both the quarry business and being a body escort to write Owen Meany. “I feel I have to be the dutiful journalist,” he said. “I have to put myself in the hands of someone whose life that is and learn it. You just have to know that stuff or you shouldn't write about it.”
7. Owen Meany’s voice is probably caused by “Singers’ Polyps.”
The author writes Owen’s weird “wrecked voice” in all caps. When asked to describe what the voice sounds like to him, Irving told the Denver Post that “There's gravel damage, rock dust, granite quarry residue, in Owen's throat; he probably has what they call ‘singers' polyps.’ It is a damaged-sounding voice; it has to strain. It's always a little harsh-sounding—never soft. It's irritating to listen to—like the effect of those capital letters, I thought. It's an insistent voice—one that demands to be heard.” Another important reason it was necessary: In the novel's climactic scene, where he saves a group of Vietnamese children at an airport from the grenade-wielding half-brother of a dead soldier, “Owen has to have a voice the Vietnamese children will pay attention to, which is why he also has to be small,” Irving said.
8. A Prayer for Owen Meany is partially a commentary on Americans’ obsession with sports.
Johnny’s mother is killed by a baseball, hit by Owen; his dog is killed when he’s hit by a truck chasing a football; and Owen dies after lobbing a grenade out a bathroom window—a move he and Johnny had perfected by practicing basketball dunking for years. “I think sports are altogether too important to American society,” Irving, a former wrestler, told the Denver Post:
“We certainly celebrate sports, and sports heroes, more than we honor the arts, or any number of intellectual achievements. We are a sports culture. … This is a novel about the damage Americans do to themselves; sports are a part of that damage. If world news were covered as extensively, and in such detail, as the ceaseless March Madness over college basketball, wouldn't Americans be better informed about the world, and our place in it, than we are? … It's not literally, of course, that sports are killing us; but what we pay intense attention to it, and what we ignore is surely doing us some harm. And, as a former wrestler who is bored to tears by basketball, I thought: What possibly good reason can there be for insanely practicing sinking a basketball when you're Owen Meany's size? Well, how about saving the lives of children? In my view, there's no other good reason for it!”
9. Like John Wheelwright, John Irving never went to Vietnam …
In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Johnny Wheelwright escapes Vietnam after Owen cuts off part of his trigger finger with a diamond wheel—but Irving didn’t qualify for service because he was a Kennedy father.
“In 1963, relatively early in the Vietnam War, President Kennedy issued an executive order saying if you were the father of a child, and that child's necessary means of support, you were not to be drafted into military service,” Irving told the Denver Post. The author got married and had a son while he was still in college, so he went from a student deferment to a Kennedy father deferment. But that didn’t make him feel lucky. “I felt disappointed. I wanted to be a writer; therefore, I wanted to see what the war was like,” he said. “Years later, of course, I realized how lucky I'd been. That child—he's in his 40s now, with children of his own—reminds me from time to time about it. Whenever we get in an argument of some kind, he says, ‘Don't forget who kept you out of Vietnam.’” The deferment ended in 1970.
10. … But John Irving insists the character isn’t autobiographical.
Still, despite the similarities between Irving and John Wheelwright—they share a similar childhood history, didn’t go to Vietnam, and both, as adults, live in Toronto—Irving emphasizes that he’s not Wheelwright. “I wouldn't be playing fair if I did not admit to sharing some of his opinions emotionally, but the point about Johnny Wheelwright is that he has no distance; he has no perspective,” Irving told the New York Times in 1989. “He is puerile. His sense of political outrage is strictly emotional.”
He doesn’t share John Wheelwright’s religious fervor, either. “I'm not religious,” he told the Denver Post. “In writing A Prayer for Owen Meany, I asked myself a fairly straightforward question—namely, what would it take to make a believer out of me? The answer is that I would have to meet someone like Owen Meany. If I'd had Johnny Wheelwright's experience in that novel, I would probably be a believer too. But I haven't had that experience—I only imagined it.”
11. A Prayer for Owen Meany could have been John Irving’s fourth number one novel.
The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, and The Cider House Rules all hit number one on the bestsellers charts—and Owen Meany, released in 1989, might have, too, if not for Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which got a sales boost thanks to the fatwa against him. “I called Salman briefly after he went into hiding back then,” Irving told Parade. “I told him congratulations, since we were one-two on bestseller lists all over the world. Rushdie laughed and came right back at me. ‘You want to switch places?’”
12. John Irving has mixed feelings about the book’s spot on high school reading lists.
Irving told Nashville Scene in an email interview in 2008 that “It's ironic to me that the three of my eleven published novels most taught in A.P. English classes in high schools, and in colleges and universities, are the same three novels that have been banned in various schools—and in some libraries. (A Prayer for Owen Meany is the most frequently taught at the high-school level; The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp get more exposure in colleges and universities.)”
He had mixed feelings about the required part, he said:
“I remember—this was mainly in high school—hating some of the novels I was required to read, though in most cases these required books introduced me to many of my favorite authors. In the area of Vermont where I live, I visit schools where my novels are taught; I've attended a fair number of A.P. English classes, just to talk to the kids and answer their questions. I'm lucky, as a writer, that I've always maintained a very young audience; that my novels are taught in courses, both in high school and at colleges and universities, helps to keep the age of my audience young. That matters more to me at sixty-six than it once did.”
13. A Prayer for Owen Meany was adapted into a movie ... sort of.
Irving, who penned the screenplay for the film adaptation of his novel The Cider House Rules over the course of 13 years—all the while writing novels—decided he was too busy and “had neither the desire nor the stamina to revisit the Vietnam years” to try to adapt a screenplay for a film version of Owen Meany. “Therefore, when Mark Steven Johnson approached me not to write a screenplay of A Prayer for Owen Meany but to allow him to write and direct the picture, I was very happy to let him try,” Irving wrote in a letter posted on Ain’t It Cool News. But he had some conditions: “I said I wanted to read the shooting script and decide at that time if I wanted them to use my title and the names of my characters. Mark agreed.”
Irving liked the script, he said, which was quite different from the novel: Everything about Vietnam had been excised and the ending was changed. “I felt it would mislead the novel's many readers to see a film of that same title which was so different from the book,” Irving said, and so he asked that the name be changed. The resulting movie, which starred Ashley Judd, Jim Carrey, and Oliver Platt, was called Simon Birch and hit theaters in 1998. “Simon Birch is really Mark Steven Johnson's story—with Owen Meany's beginning,” Irving said. “I think it was, therefore, a happy resolution for both Mark and me that he was able to make his film, which clearly was ‘suggested by’ (as credits say) A Prayer for Owen Meany, but which is clearly not A Prayer for Owen Meany.”
Afterward, rumors circulated that Irving had hated the movie. “Mark took an unfair bashing in the American press,” Irving told The Guardian. “People wrote that I hated the film and took my title away. That is untrue.” According to Irving, the book is unfilmable because “film is two-dimensional. What you see is real. To visualize Owen's miracle is to make it unbelievable. It would be like those biblical movies of the 1950s and early 1960s. When the Red Sea actually does part, the audience just doesn't believe it.” The book has since been adapted into a stage play, a college production, and a BBC radio play.
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