This spring, I was lucky enough to spend a few days with John Irving. He’s a man who needs no introduction. His weighty novels—The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules—are commonly and rightly considered American masterpieces. They have been translated into more than 30 languages, sold tens of millions of copies, and won too many awards to list here.
This is a year of reckoning for Irving. Three decades have passed since he appeared on the cover of this magazine. He turns 70 and celebrates his 25th wedding anniversary. Now he has a new book out, In One Person, a politically charged novel about sexual tolerance that I suspect will spur debate—in this sensitive political climate—more than any of his books since The Cider House Rules.
His last few books haven’t sold as well—and critics have accused him of writing baggy, protracted plots—but this is a slim novel, by Irving’s standards, and the sensitive portrait of Billy Abbot, the bisexual transgender narrator of the novel, should silence his critics and herald his return as a literary heavyweight.
During our time together, we spent a lot of time at the gym, racking weights, jogging the treadmill, hitting the mats, grappling, wrestling. (See TIME’s video here.) He feels as comfortable there as he does at his desk—and indeed, so often, when we got on the subject of writing, he used wrestling as a metaphor for craft and for the discipline it takes to spend all those hours hunched over the keyboard, shoving words around.
Benjamin Percy is the author of The Wilding and the story collections Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk.