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If you like John Updike's story, you might also like:
Louise Glück,
Nadine Gordimer,
John Grisham,
Norman Mailer,
W.S. Merwin,
James Michener,
Joyce Carol Oates
and Carol Shields

John Updike can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

John Updike's recommended reading: The Waste Land

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John Updike
 
John Updike
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John Updike Interview

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction

June 12, 2004
Chicago, Illinois

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  John Updike

What was it like being an only child and living with your grandparents and your parents?


John Updike: My mother's parents had the house and my father had the earning ability, such as it was, so they combined forces about the time I was born in '32. It was the Depression, and my grandfather had been a man of some means. He had retired from farming, bought some securities and then the securities let him down. So, I was born into a fairly dire situation, and I think one of the reasons that I never had any siblings was that it was economically pinched and my father didn't feel entitled to invite any more people into the world. But, for the one that did get through, me, there was kind of bliss. Actually, I had all this adult attention and whatever adult energy was there was focused on me. My grandparents were old country folk and would speak Pennsylvania Dutch between themselves, although my grandfather spoke a rather elegant English. But yeah, they moderated the effect of my parents. So, instead of an Oedipal triangle, I had a kind of pentagon, which in a way is better, so it was nice.


John Updike Interview Photo
My mother was unusual in that generation in that she had a master's degree. She had gotten one at Cornell and was hoping to become a writer or something artistic, but instead she took a job selling drapes in the local department store. She did that for a couple of years. I remember the department store with my mother behind the drapes counter as kind of a romantic place. There's all these goods and smells of a department store, and escalators, which were a novelty then. But when my father got a job teaching, she became a housewife and stayed a housewife.

It was nice. I can't complain. It was a fairly crowded neighborhood so there were lots of other children. Mostly girls as it turned out, so that I really only had one boy playmate, but the town itself was small and compact. The kind of town you can ride from one end to the other on a bike without too much danger or pumping.

You're talking about Shillington?

John Updike: Shillington, Pennsylvania. It was a suburb of Reading, which is the metropolis. Kind of a beautiful city actually, Reading. Most people have not been there and I don't urge you to go, but it is kind of wonderful. It has a pagoda on a mountain. It's Mt. Penn, and there's a Pagoda built by some eccentric playboy in the '20s. It has its scenic delights. I always loved Reading, and when I came to write Rabbit Run I had the prior joy of trying to imagine what it would be like to be in Reading. So yes, this was my horizon. Shillington first, Reading half way on the horizon, and on the extreme horizon Philadelphia, where we went maybe two or three times a year.

The move from Shillington to Plowville at 13 must have been somewhat traumatic.


John Updike: I think any move annoys a child a great deal. All a child asks is that the world hold still while he or she grows up, and many of us don't get that wish. I was happy in Shillington and I was a school teacher's son. I had a slight presence. I wasn't especially popular or athletic or anything, but I was smart -- "schmart" as they used to say. And so, I was -- it was fine in Shillington and I kind of knew the ropes but my mother wanted to get back to the soil and back to her own roots, which were at this farm. It wasn't the most traumatic thing, like moving to Los Angeles when you're living in the Bronx. That would be traumatic. But no, I continued to go to the same school with my father. I became a commuter. He and I became joint commuters and in a way I saw a lot more of my father than most boys, American boys do, so that was good. He and I went back and forth together and had adventures. I have written about this in a number of places but a novel called The Centaur is my main monument to those days with my father, struggling for the dollar and cars to keep breaking down and the snow storms to keep coming under your wheels. But, it was beautiful because I saw what it was like to be an American man. I saw that it's a struggle, not easy to be an American man.


You've said that you read a lot on the farm.

John Updike: Yes, of course. I had read somewhat before. I was an only child after all and only children tend to read. My mother was a keen reader. My grandfather was a Bible and newspaper reader, so I saw a lot of reading around me. It's a world that a child can control. There were things called Big Little Books then, which were essentially bound comic strips with one panel opposite a page of text, and it was an easy way to read, so I read a lot of those. Then I graduated to mystery novels, some science fiction, the New Yorker humor.

Who were your favorite authors?


John Updike: I loved Agatha Christie, of course. And also, an American team called Ellery Queen. I read a lot of Ellery Queen. Erle Stanley Gardner. I must have read 40 books by Erle Stanley Gardner before I was 15 or so. So, I got the reading habit, and I slightly branched out, you know, and challenged myself. I remember at the age of 15 going into the library and pulling down The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and reading it because I had heard that this was a modern masterpiece. So, it was random reading, but maybe that's the best kind in a way. It's not forced on you and you get these glimpses, you know, of a wonderful world of books. In Reading there was a lovely Carnegie-endowed library with walls of books, and I remember I read through a whole shelf of P.G. Wodehouse. Again my taste was to humor, I think, and it's odd that I didn't become a humorist really, although -- just some humor perhaps in my work -- but my first ambition as a writer was to become a humorous writer, to be like Thurber and Benchley and the lighter E.B. White, you know, to make people laugh. I thought that was a harmless thing to do. A thing that society never could have too much of, laughter. Anyway, I did a lot of reading. I remember I used to lie on this old sofa with a box of raisins, and I'd read as many as two books in one afternoon and eat maybe -- I hope not the whole box -- but a fair amount of the box of raisins. That was my diet for a while.

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