December 25, 1978 12:00 PM

It’s a matter of pride with me,” says author John Irving, “that the most interesting thing about me is my work.” That work has now propelled him at 36 into the front rank of young American novelists. After three books that won critical praise but left him virtually unknown, Irving unleashed the wildly inventive, best-selling The World According to Garp last April. It is arguably the finest piece of fiction of 1978. It is certainly the most fun to read.

Best-sellerdom is a bittersweet attainment, however. For all his newfound popularity, Irving remains, like his fictional hero, T. S. Garp, fiercely devoted to belles lettres. Garp’s biographical symmetry with Irving has been endlessly speculated upon—to the author’s dismay, because he feels it demeans his imagination. He glumly suspects he is being read by people who don’t really fathom his dark meanings, and lionized for mainly wrong reasons.

“I’m not being snobbish,” Irving insists as he watches Monday night football on TV, “but it is amazing to me that a book like mine is on the best-seller list at all. There are always a couple on the list that are serious, but the rest are crap.” As though it somehow affirms his skepticism, Irving adds, “Garp may be a success—but it’s not a success on the same scale as Scruples or some other piece of muck.”

Even so, Garp is doing very well—100,000 copies sold so far, with movie and paperback deals signed and Irving’s first three novels being refloated on this tide of acclaim. Best yet, he is now able to write full-time, liberated from the economic need to teach at Mount Holyoke.

He works these days in an open loft above the kitchen of his southern Vermont home, a remodeled barn heated by a huge wood stove sitting in the fireplace. In summer his office is a converted chicken coop behind the house. After sons Brendan and Colin have left for school, Irving switches on his electric typewriter and writes until 1 p.m. He’s already well into his next novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, due in 1980. Meanwhile his wife, Shyla, 35, paints abstracts and takes still-life color photographs in her new studio. It is one of the few luxuries the Irvings have allowed themselves post-Garp. Otherwise, life goes on much as it always did; Irving still prefers sherry (as befits a teacher of creative writing for six years) or domestic beer, but admits, “Now we serve a better wine with dinner.”

Twice a week he goes to a nearby school to wrestle with a friend, a sport he has kept at since his days at Exeter. Every day he runs up and down the hills near his home, occasionally goes skiing, sometimes drives the five hours to New York City with Shyla for dinner. It is a deliberately low-key existence. “There are very few serious writers who get this kind of popular recognition,” Irving says, “and when they do, they become either a celebrity or a hermit. Success accommodates people and allows you to become the person you want to be. If Norman Mailer becomes more of a celebrity than a writer, then that’s what he wanted to be. I was warned I’d have to decide whether I wanted to be a Mailer or a J. D. Salinger.”

For the moment, he thinks he is straddling the two worlds, but he assesses the future in the important tones of a fledgling celebrity. He says with assurance about his next book: “Even though it will be largely put down, it still will be widely read.” And of friends who seem less sympathetic now: “Every failed writer believes a successful one has sold out.”

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