Cooking up a storm: John Irving's latest saga reveals the secrets of authors and chefs alike

John Irving, who never gives short measure, treats the readers of his 12th novel to a double master-class in the arts of writing – and of cooking. As stuffed and spiced with the pleasures of slow-roasted plot and savoury digression as any of his books, Last Night in Twisted River (Bloomsbury, £18.99) can with equal relish argue that "rewriting was writing" against the purveyors of "first-draft gibberish" and disclose the secret ingredient for perfect pizza. It's honey. "I made pizza dough for years and years, and honey was a late discovery," says the creator of generously-portioned bestsellers, whose prowess in the wrestling ring has until now overshadowed his gourmet side.

Even here, you feel that Irving loves to practice, to compete and to excel. He once met Julia Child, headmistress in culinary arts to baby-boom Americans, in a food store with high shelves in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I was reaching for a box of cereal or something, and this very tall woman came up and said, 'May I help you?'. I told her I'd read all her books and loved them. She didn't pretend to have read mine. But she said, "Oh, my husband has read all of you.' So I spontaneously invited her to dinner. It went alright."

Twisted River swarms with a record-busting profusion of lovingly described dishes, from the sweet banana bread served to hungry loggers on frozen forest mornings to the "sauce grenobloise, with brown butter and capers, for the chicken paillard" on the menu of an upscale restaurant in a Vermont town. Recipe by recipe, revelation by revelation, the barnstorming tour de force of an opening section – set amid the many perils of the New Hampshire logging camps in 1954 – gives way to an unspooling tale of family lost and found, of retribution and reparation.

Via a cousin in the logging business, Irving tracked down veterans of an almost Homeric way of life, of feats and feuds in a "world of accidents" where death stood no more then a torpedoing tree-trunk, a cracking ice-sheet or a bar-room brawl away. "These men – they didn't just survive a very rough way of life. The drinking, the diet was so self-destructive. Most of them smoked and drank themselves to death if they didn't die in the rivers." It took effort to find an old-time log-driver alive, alert and literate enough in English to read Irving's manuscript – many in New Hampshire were French-speaking Quebecois. Meanwhile, he unearthed the buried remnants of transient townships on sites where steam-powered logging engines still sit and rot deep in abandoned woods: "It is like finding the skeleton of a dinosaur."

"This novel has been in the back of my mind longer than any other I've written," Irving explains in a book-lined room of his publisher's Soho offices. Now 67, a beloved fixture of the American – and global - literary landscape over the 30 years since the success of his fourth novel, The World According to Garp, this senatorial New Englander still comes across as a singular blend of patrician and populist. He both tickles the narrative palate of saga- and suspense-lovers, and guides us gently down the paths of unaccustomed thought on civility, politics and art.

"I feel that the early stages of this book are very compelling to any reader," he indisputably claims. "And the reader who won't stay with me – whom I will lose when I become more technical about the craft of cooking or the craft of writing – well, to me that's an impatient reader, which is not my reader ever." Critics tend to reach for Dickens – an acknowleged inspiration, along with Melville, Hawthorne and Hardy – when trying to define the Irving touch. Anyone attuned to recent fiction of his own northern states might also put him on a blessed middle-ground between John Updike and Stephen King.

Twisted River cooked on a low, simmering light. "For the longest time the last sentence eluded me, but 20 years ago I imagined a novel about a cook and his young son who become fugitives; who have to run from some violent act that will follow them. And it was always in a kind of frontier town - a place where there was one law, and it was one man, who was single-minded and bad."

As camp chef Dominic Baciagalupo and his son Danny flee the fall-out from a fatal mistake in a roughneck backwater, rattling action yields to reflection on the choices, and the skills, that make or break a family, culture or community. The cook's son, who grows into the feted novelist "Danny Angel" via a career that teasingly follows Irving's own, at one point spars with a trust-fund hippie over a bad dog encountered on a jogging route. This miniature allegory prompts Danny to ask whether the cycle of wrongdoing and retribution can ever close. "Enough was never enough," broods Danny; "there would be no stopping the violence".

"Because of the violence that begets violence," Irving explains, "I had two other models in mind" beyond his 19th-century favourites. They were the Sophoclean tragedies of the Oedipus cycle (the cook, classicists will note, has a limp) "and what centuries from now may be the most indelible landmark of American culture: the Western movie. They have something in common with this novel: namely, when something awful and unnatural happens of a violent kind, there is almost the necessity there will be some kind of payback or retribution for that crime. The audience knows that when Oedipus kills his father and sleeps with his mother, nothing else can go right."

Irving's poetics of payback has an individual and a political face. In plot terms, the cook's reckless logger friend Ketchum – a stranger to "the world of rules and laws" - speaks for the frontier anarchism of America. He is, for Irving, "an amalgam of many people I have known: that radical libertarian whose solution to everything is, you bring the biggest gun. I love Ketchum as a character but I wouldn't necessarily want to live in a country that he ran."

In the novel's America – a nation Ketchum upbraids as "an empire in decline" - the "permanent damage" of Vietnam trickles its poison down the decades. "I think the country lost its moral footing, its moral confidence in that war," reflects Irving. As a "Kennedy father" in the early 1960s, saved from the battlefields by a "paternity deferment", Danny avoids the front – as did Irving. The difference is that Irving, trained as an officer cadet at university, did not at the time know that his first child would keep him from the carnage.

Neither did he want to stay at home. Irving attended a wedding in summer 1965 with a friend from school - the grandson of First World War general "Black Jack" Pershing - who would soon die in the conflict. "He was on his way to Vietnam, and I was on my way to Iowa with a wife and a child. And I remember saying goodbye, and envying him for leaving for Vietnam. He'd been John Kerry's roommate at Yale. And I remember actually feeling sorry for myself when I was told, well, you can't go to Vietnam: you're a father."

Kerry, the Democratic candidate defeated by George W Bush in the 2004 presidential race after a Republican smear campaign, now strikes Irving as "a hero twice over": first for his bravery in Vietnam, then for his protests against the war. "That young man in military fatigues testifying to Congress at the age of 27 was to me an exemplary model of doing the right thing."

Irving first travelled to Canada to meet exiled war resisters while researching A Prayer for Owen Meany. He still admires the cool "Canadian perspective" on his own country. His second wife, Janet Turnbull, was his Canadian publisher, and became his agent; they have a teenage son, Everett.

Now he divides his year between a remote island on Lake Huron, a Toronto apartment and a home eight miles from the ski resort of Dorset, Vermont – a town he values for its fine dining as much as for its slopes. "I don't want to mislead you into believing that I live in some godforsaken place where the only vegetable you can buy for weeks at a time is very old broccoli".

"On certain issues the Canadians are better informed on what the Americans are doing than the Americans," he says, but is irritated by "a kind of knee-jerk anti-Americanism which is prevalent" north of the border. Firm-spined New England liberal that he is, Irving takes care to stress that "almost as many people despised Bush from the beginning as voted for him. I don't want to put down my fellow-Americans without saying that half of us were right about this guy - but not quite enough."

Irving's novels steer a zigzagging course through those forests of imagination where history, myth and yarn merge. Looking for "John Irving" in his books has become for many readers a task as thrilling – and risky – as log-driving in the icy torrents of Twisted River. The son of a pilot he never knew, born in 1942, John Wallace Blunt became "John Irving" when his mother married a history teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. The elite school becomes Danny's alma mater, thanks to a roundabout route via a teacher in Boston's Italian district of North End, as well as his creator's.

Irving refracts his own progress through the looking-glass of fiction. With his 2005 novel Until I Find You, this interchange became more complex than ever when he unveiled details of his biological father's family and of his sexual abuse, aged 11, at the hands of a woman a decade or so older.

With Twisted River, "I've been as faithful as I can in giving Daniel Baciagalupo my process as a writer": from the Iowa writers' workshop through college teaching in New England down to that island retreat. Danny comes under the charismatic sway of Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa, just as Irving did. "Everything that Mr Vonnegut says to Danny in this novel, he actually said to me. Word for word." Sometimes parallels veer off at playful tangents. Danny's screenwriter girlfriend wins an adapted-screenplay Oscar for an abortion-themed hit. It was Irving himself who in 2000 took the statuette for scripting The Cider House Rules.

Yet this is literature, not masked memoir. Last Night in Twisted River abounds with acidic references to media numbskulls who confuse art and autobiography, assuming "real life is more important than fiction". "Much attention is paid to those small and superficial facts which characters in a novel share with the author," says Irving.

However, equally autobiographical are "things in this novel that have never happened to me but which I fear might." Above all, "that I continue to write about losing a child". He raps the polished table. "I haven't, thank God, lost one. But, as many parents do, I think about it all the time." This motif stalks the book like a starved wolf, ready to strike.

Irving always keeps one foot in the fairy-tale forest. Fate and kinship – by blood or choice – entwine as intimately in his books as they ever did in Dickens. "Family histories", he writes, "invade our most basic instincts and inform our deepest memories". And as we sweep down the river of time, loved ones can protect against the "world of accidents" in quite unforeseen ways.

"That boy is 44 with two kids of his own," says Irving, thinking of his own eldest son. "And whenever we're fooling around and having an argument about something, I've heard him say to me many times - 'Hey, don't forget who kept you out of Vietnam!'"

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...