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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 Home Page

Pulitzer Prizes

The Academy of American Poets

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John Updike
 
John Updike
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John Updike Interview (page: 3 / 7)

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction

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  John Updike

We understand you had a stuttering problem when you were young.

John Updike: I still do. Now and then it crops up, but maybe because the people I talk to are more kindly and respectful now I don't stutter.


Stuttering is kind of -- I suppose it shows basic fright. Like in the comic strips, when people begin to stutter it's because they're afraid. And also, a feeling that -- my father thought that I had too many words to get out all at once. So, I didn't speak very pleasingly, but I never stopped speaking or trying to communicate this way, and I think the stuttering has gotten better over the years. I have found having a microphone is a great help, because you don't have to force your voice out of your throat, just a little noise will work. But, it was real enough, and one of the things -- you know, you write because you don't talk very well, and maybe one of the reasons that I was determined to write was that I wasn't an orator, unlike my mother and my grandfather, who both spoke beautifully and spoke all the time. Maybe I grew up with too many voices around me, as a matter of fact.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


Did they actually speak publicly?

John Updike: My grandfather could have. He was kind of an amateur politician who never really ran for office, but he did talk, and I would hear him sitting in the living room and talking. My mother did not speak in public, but she was quite eloquent in private. My father, of course, was a school teacher, which meant he was a performer of sorts, and entertained the students to a degree. So I grew up around people who could talk.

What was the first thing you wrote that was published?

John Updike: I actually sold a few poems in my teens to marginal magazines. I remember one poem, "The Boy Who Makes the Blackboard Squeak," meaning the sort of naughty boy who makes the chalk squeak deliberately. I was paid maybe $5 or $10 for it, but my hope was to get into The New Yorker magazine, which began to come into the house when I was about 11 or 12.

I wouldn't think you could find The New Yorker very readily in Shillington.

John Updike Interview Photo
John Updike: No. The New Yorker was not a Berks County thing. There may have been a few subscribers, but the newsstands did not carry it because I used to look for it. But my aunt, who lived in Greenwich, Connecticut, and was kind of a hip lady -- she was my father's sister -- she thought that we, as a benighted provincial household, could use The New Yorker and I, in fact, did use it. I loved it. I read the cartoons, but then other things too. The whole tone of the magazine was so superior to any other slick magazine, so I was aimed at The New Yorker. My writing career really begins with the day in June of '54 when we were staying with my wife's parents in Vermont, and word came up that there was a letter from The New Yorker, and they had taken a poem, and then a little later that summer they took a story. So rightly or wrongly, I felt kind of launched as a writer, a real writer.

They hired you not long after that, didn't they?

John Updike: I was in Oxford the year after college with my then wife, who had been a Radcliffe girl. At that point she was a pregnant Radcliffe girl -- we had a little girl in April. About that same time, Katharine White and her more famous husband, E.B. White, came to visit us in our basement flat. Katharine White was the fiction editor and a woman of great power, one of the founding members of The New Yorker in '25, and indeed they offered me a job. Or maybe she just told me I could see Shawn, the editor, when I got back to the States. I did, and he offered me a job, and I worked in New York for about two years.

What had you published by then? One story and one poem?


John Updike: That semester I think I placed four or five more stories with them, as well as quite a number of light verse poems. Light verse was in its twilight, but I didn't know that so I kept scribbling the stuff and they kept running it for a while. So, I was kind of establishing myself as a dependable contributor and they were a paternalistic organization that tried to gather unto itself talented -- whatever -- writers. And it was funny to want to do that, because really about the only slot they had to offer was to write for "Talk of the Town," the front section. We moved in, a little family of three into Riverside Drive, and I began to write these stories, and discovered I could do it, and had kind of a good time doing it. You went around in New York and interviewed people who attended Coliseum shows -- kitchen appliances or whatever -- and I was very good at making something out of almost nothing. But, I thought after two years that maybe I had gone as far as I could with "The Talk of the Town" as an art form and I felt New York was a kind of unnatural place to live. I had two children at this point, and my wife didn't have too many friends and wasn't, I didn't think, very happy. Well in the '50s one didn't think too hard about whether or not your wife was happy, sad to say, but even I could see that, so I said, "Why don't we quit the job for a while." I thought they'd take me back if it didn't work out, and I'll try to freelance up in New England, so there is where we went. We moved to a small town in New England and I never had to go back because I was able to support myself.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


Did you continue working for The New Yorker long distance? Nowadays we have e-mail and other technology to commute electronically. How did you do it?

John Updike: Well, the technology then was the U.S. Mail, so everything took a day or two longer, but it was good enough. You could get from north of Boston to New York in a few hours on the train, so I used to go back and write a couple of "Talk" stories. It wasn't a clean break, but it was kind of a daring thing. I felt that I would be better off in what I thought was real America. In New York everything is stratified. The people I knew were other writers. Although it's not a major industry it was enough of a local industry that everybody was watching everybody else and I felt like I was being crowded in a way. In a small town you have good odds of being the only writer and people not really taking an interest in what you do, so you are on your own as a person, and that's how it worked out. I thought it was successful. The children were able to move out of that pressure cooker, and they went to the public schools and there were many amenities. Free parking. All that was available in a small town.

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