By Edward McAllister
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Backstage, renowned novelist John Irving tells a story about the 300-pound (165-kg) man he found in the sauna at his New York hotel that morning.
The portly man was lying perfectly still when Irving found him. Upon cautious approach, fearing the worst, he was shocked and relieved to hear the man break suddenly into a loud snore.
"I thought he was dead!" Irving said, laughing.
It was a snippet of pure Irving storytelling -- absurd, funny, preoccupied with death -- and typical of a writer whose trick over a 40-year career has been to mold real life into classic fiction.
His 12th novel, "Last Night in Twisted River," follows a father and son running from the law across America. The lead character, Danny, accidentally kills his dad's lover with a frying pan, thinking she's a bear. The pair set off on a 50-year journey that takes them from New Hampshire to Iowa, Vermont, and eventually Ontario in 2005.
"This novel has been in the back of my mind longer than any other novel of mine; 20 years, maybe more," Irving said in an interview ahead of a book talk in New York.
As in many of his novels, he takes autobiography and warps it to fit the page. Danny grows up to be a novelist whose writing process is remarkably like Irving's. Danny, as Irving has done for each of his 12 novels, begins his books with the last sentence and maps his way back to the beginning.
"What I describe as Danny's process is very faithful to what I have done," Irving said. "Twelve novels, 12 last sentences that came first. Not even the punctuation of one of those sentences has ever changed."
Short and stocky, Irving looks more like a wrestler than a writer. Though he once lived in New York, he now resides in Vermont.
Using real life as a source for fiction has been a little like therapy for Irving. As a boy not yet in his teens, Irving was sexually initiated by a woman friend in her 20s. In his 2005 novel "Until I Find You" Irving tells the tale of Jack Burns, a young boy who is molested by a series of older women.
Similarly, the absence of his biological father when he grew up recurs as a theme in his novels, most famously in "The World According to Garp," the book that brought Irving to the world's attention.
"I don't think you can manipulate those things that hurt you until you are standing far enough apart from them to be able to say, 'That doesn't hurt me as much as it used to, that barely hurts at all.'"
As in his books, Irving swings with impressive ease from funny to serious. On the subject of writing, he is chatty, open, but his face darkens and his sentences shorten when steered toward politics or the state of the United States.
He describes the 2004 re-election of George Bush as a "staggering indictment of the stupidity of this county."
He has an icy relationship with his homeland, unhappy with its behavior overseas, from Vietnam to Iraq. But he has chosen to stay.
"There is no place that you belong less than where you are from -- I feel that way," Irving said. "You may have issues with your country, but how can you do a good job with that if you're not there."
This friction has made Irving one of America's greatest and most-loved writers. He may not feel like he belongs, but on a rainy October night in Manhattan, the line of fans to hear him speak about his new book snaked round the block.