July 30, 2001 12:00 PM

The sky is clear, the waters of Ontario’s Georgian Bay are calm, and John Irving, who’s taking his family for a canoe ride, is fretting. “It’s important you don’t rock the boat, Everett,” he tells his youngest son. All 9-year-old exuberance, Everett can’t help rocking. “Uh-oh,” says Irving, his brow furrowing. “Where are the life jackets? We’re drifting….”

Never mind that drifting is half the fun. The world according to Irving is an accident waiting to happen, and he rarely lets down his guard. “From the moment my first son, Colin, was born, the world became a dangerous place,” he says. “I think the anxiety of being a parent—that’s really been my sense of myself.”

Instead of crippling him, however, that fear has yielded fame and fortune. In 10 novels, most of them bestsellers, Irving, 59, has transformed his angst into art, creating universe after vivid universe where absurdity and calamity rule: from the mutilations and assassinations of The World According to Garp to the severed appendage at the center of his current bestseller, The Fourth Hand. “In my fiction the violence is capricious and random,” says Irving. “It’s an extreme vision for which I am both liked and criticized.”

And courted by that connoisseur of the extreme, Hollywood. Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire and The Cider House Rules have all been films, with the last earning Irving a screenwriting Oscar. Not that he dreams of the L.A. fast life. “To get John to go to parties, you have to twist his arm,” says Cider House producer Richard Gladstein. “He’s quite content to stay home.”

This is, in short, one very contented anxious guy. Married since 1987 to second wife Janet Turnbull, 47, a former book publisher and now his literary agent, Irving divides his time between the couple’s hilltop home in southern Vermont, a Toronto apartment and their Ontario cottage. He writes eight hours a day but always welcomes interruptions from his sons. “He puts his children first,” says Colin, 36, an actor who lives in Los Angeles and visits often (as does Brendan, 31, a Colorado ski patrolman). “I feel lucky.”

Luck didn’t always run in the Irving family. Irving never met his biological father, who split from his mother before John’s birth. Growing up in Exeter, N.H., where his stepfather, Colin, taught at exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy and his mother, Frances, worked in a hospital, John struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia. “People thought I was either lazy or slow,” he says. Wrestling, which he took up at age 14, provided a much-needed outlet. As did imagination. After school, instead of playing with friends, Irving liked to “walk around my grandmother’s garden,” he says. “There was a story in place, and I was someone else.”

He refined his storytelling skills at the University of Iowa, where he got a master’s degree in creative writing. In 1964 he married photographer Shyla Leary, now 58, whom he met in college, and became a father at age 23. Enter the angst. “I didn’t begin my first novel until Colin was born,” Irving says. “And what happens in that novel? A young man on a motorcycle hits a flatbed trailer full of beehives and is stung to death!”

Setting Free the Bears was well-reviewed but sold only modestly, as did his next two novels, so Irving made ends meet by coaching wrestling and teaching at the University of Iowa, among other schools. Then came Garp. A family saga centered on a radical feminist nurse and her illegitimate son, the 1978 novel made Irving a star. But with success came trouble. His marriage dissolved in 1981, and while he never lacked for female companionship, it wasn’t until he met Turnbull at a business dinner in ’86 that his love life turned around. Their first kiss, Irving says, “changed my life.” Turnbull’s too. “It’s almost like John’s able to articulate my brain for me,” she says. “He’s brought clarity to my life.”

Not that he’s simple to live with. “He appears to get angry a lot,” says Colin. “If he stubs his toe, he’ll yell and scream. Yet during our childhood crises, he remained remarkably calm and present.”

And then retreated to his typewriter, no doubt, to visit crises on his characters. “There’s a procedure I go through when I write,” he says. “I always try to think: Okay, this is what you think is coming. But what would be worse?”

Kim Hubbard

Natasha Stoynoff in Ontario

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