After years of struggling in literary anonymity, novelist John Irving became that rare kind of writer: a creator of serious fiction whose work enjoyed both popularity and critical acclaim, and whose fame blossomed even more when his books began to be made into films -- even if the final onscreen products achieved only varying degrees of success. Born in 1942 in Exeter, NH, he attended the Phillips Exeter Academy (where his stepfather taught Russian history), a well-known New England prep school that eventually served as the model for the Steering School in The World According to Garp. While there, Irving discovered two of his great loves -- and, ultimately, literary metaphors: writing and wrestling. After graduation, he spent a year at the University of Pittsburgh before moving to Vienna, a setting that would find a place in many of his later stories. Irving traveled around Europe on a motorcycle, lived a bohemian lifestyle, and, at one point, met a man with a trained bear, an animal that would also become an important figure in a number of his tales. After returning to the U.S., Irving graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1965 and moved on to graduate school at the University of Iowa, where he studied with author Kurt Vonnegut and began work on his first novel.
Irving received his M.F.A. in 1967 and returned to New England with his wife Shyla and son Colin; Setting Free the Bears was published the following year. Although it was critically well received, it sold less than 7,000 copies. Nevertheless, the money allowed the new novelist to buy a house in Vermont, where he lived until he returned to Vienna for three years (during which time a second son, Brendan, was born). While there, he worked with director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) on a film adaptation of Setting Free the Bears. At one point set to star Orson Welles, Jon Voight, and, later, Al Pacino, the project eventually fell through. Irving returned to the States, where, in 1972, he completed work on his second novel, The Water-Method Man. Drawing heavily on his experiences of living in Vienna, being a graduate student in Iowa, and exposure to the film industry with Kershner, this book also met with good reviews, but didn't sell much better than his first work. Irving spent the next three years as writer-in-residence and visiting lecturer back at the University of Iowa and contributed pieces to various magazines, but grew restless, bored, and sick of teaching. During this dark period, he published his third novel, The 158-Pound Marriage. Although his best-reviewed work to date, it nevertheless proved to be his worst seller.