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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

Related Links:
Updike Society
Paris Review

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John Updike
John Updike
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John Updike Interview (page: 2 / 7)

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction

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  John Updike

Were there teachers who encouraged your writing at any point?

John Updike: Yes. As a teacher's son they were friendly to me, and I had a better understanding of teachers. They weren't the enemy, as they were for so many children.

I remember one English teacher in the eighth grade, Florence Schrack, whose husband also taught at the high school. I thought what she said made sense, and she parsed sentences on the blackboard and gave me, I'd like to think, some sense of English grammar and that there is a grammar, that those commas serve a purpose and that a sentence has a logic, that you can break it down. I've tried not to forget those lessons, and to treat the English language with respect as a kind of intricate tool.

What did your dad teach?

John Updike: Math. He taught junior high math and first year algebra. I sat in his classes for three years, which is a long time to be a student of your father, but luckily I was good enough at math, and he was sort of relaxed about having his son in the class. He wasn't harder on me or kinder to me than he was to the others, so it was good. Good to see your father at work, too, in a way, isn't it? A lot of kids never know what their father does and can't understand it. It's sort of something mysterious that happens in an office in a skyscraper.

John Updike Interview Photo
I remember a little ritual when I was in the sixth or seventh or eighth grade, helping him lay out the tablets. The first day of school, the Tuesday after Labor Day, the kids would arrive and find their tablets and pencils. Somehow that little sort of ceremony I remember as very precious. But I never wanted to be a teacher, and I spent some energy trying to avoid teaching as a matter of fact.

You mean the little teaching you've done hasn't thrilled you?

John Updike: It was hard. Harvard asked me to do the creative writing course one summer, and I did it. There were some good students, and there were some students who didn't show up, and there were some indifferent students. There were 15 in all, but I found that the effect upon me was not good, because these things didn't seem that much worse than stuff I was writing at the same time. And this effort of approaching a piece of fiction as though there's something slightly wrong with it that can be fixed is maybe not the gestalt approach that a real writer ought to have. So this wanting to lift it up to one more level of readability or interest, some men and women can do it. Joyce Carol Oates seems to thrive on teaching, but for me it just made the precariousness of what I was doing all the more evident to me.

When did you first get the idea of being a writer?

John Updike: My mother had dreams of being a writer, and I used to see her type in the front room. The front room is also where I would go when I was sick, so I would sit there and watch her. Clearly she was making a heroic effort, and the things would go off in brown envelopes to New York or Philadelphia even, which had the [Saturday Evening] Post in those years, and they would come back. And so, the notion of it being something that was worth trying and could, indeed, be done with a little postage and effort stuck in my head. But my real art interest -- my real love -- was for visual art, and that was what I was better at. It was considered at first. My mother saw that I got drawing lessons and painting lessons. I took what art the high school offered. I went to Harvard still thinking of myself as some kind of potential cartoonist, and I got on the Harvard Lampoon as a cartoonist actually, not as a writer, but the writing maybe was more my cup of tea. There were some very gifted cartoonists over at the Lampoon. You wouldn't expect to find too many at Harvard, but actually they were quite good -- about three of them. And, I saw that maybe there was a ceiling to my cartooning ability, but I didn't sense the same ceiling for the writing because I had hardly given it a try. By the time I got out of Harvard I think I was determined or pretty much resolved to becoming a writer if I could.

Did you see yourself becoming a fiction writer or a nonfiction writer or both? You wrote poetry as well.

John Updike: I did write a lot of light verse, and even some verse that wasn't too light. Even I knew there was no living in being a poet, so fiction was the game. The writers I'd admired, a lot of them had written numerous essays like Robert Benchley, and I did do my share of those things when I was younger, sold a few of them. But, I found when I attempted fiction -- I took a few writing courses at Harvard -- it's like sort of a horse you don't know is there, but if you jump on the back there is something under you that begins to move and gallop. So, it's clearly a wonderful imaginary world that you enter when you begin to write fiction. So I guess my hope was to become a fiction writer. I was prepared to fail. I was prepared to not be able to get things accepted, because I saw that happen to my mother. I knew that not everybody who tried to write actually got published, and in fact that's kind of a long odds proposition, but I figured I'd give myself five years, and if I couldn't get into print in five years I should know that I didn't have what it took. But, as it turned out, I got into print pretty readily.

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 20:57 EST
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