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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: 4 / 7)

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction

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  John Updike

There's an axiom one hears about writing: "Write what you know." Geographically, it seems, you have more or less kept to that.

John Updike Interview Photo
John Updike: I've not ventured too far from what I could verify with my own eyes. I've tried, of course, in keeping up product, to stretch and get a little out of the American middle class. I've written books about Brazil, and a novel located in Africa. But basically it's true that my own life has been my chief window for life in America, beginning with my childhood and the conflicts, the struggles, the strains that I felt in my own family.

It's striking that the books you first gravitated to were mysteries and crime stories, and yet the books that you became well-known for are about the everyday life of ordinary people in ordinary places.

John Updike: It is odd. I love mystery novels and I've tried to write them. When I was in my teens I began to write a mystery novel and tried to figure out how to plot it. You sort of plot it backwards, you know. You know who did it and then you try to hide that, and I couldn't really do it. I'm not saying I couldn't do it if a gun was put to my head, but it felt unnatural and felt like a very minor kind of witnessing. In other words, I was willing to be entertained by others, but I didn't want to write entertainments myself. I wanted to write books that told everything I knew, that were fully about life in my tame band of it. So quite early I began to try to become a serious writer. It's a little puzzling. I've written some science fiction. That may not be well-known, but a couple of my novels are located in a hypothetical future. There is something about it that frees you up in a way. Your attempt is always to write about the world you know, but also to somehow get out of it, if only by a little jump or a trick. Something must be different so that your imagination is really engaged. You're not just spilling your life, but you're to some extent inventing another life.

A lot of us readers feel honored by your paying so much attention to the likes of us, not great adventures but everyday people.

John Updike: Well, in a democracy in the 20th and 21st Century, if you can't base your fiction upon ordinary people and the issues that engage them, then you are reduced to writing about spectacular unreal people. You know, James Bond or something, and you cook up adventures. The trick about fiction, as I see it, is to make an unadventurous circumstance seem adventurous, to make it excite the reader, either with its truth or with the fact that there's always a little more that goes on, and there's multiple levels of reality. As we walk through even a boring day, we see an awful lot and feel an awful lot. To try to say some of that seems more worthy than cooking up thrillers.

You said that writing helps the world feel more real to you.

John Updike: And I think to the reader, too.

D.H. Lawrence talks about the purpose of a novel being to extend the reader's sympathy. And, it is true that upper middle class women can read happily about thugs, about coal miners, about low life, and to some extent they become better people for it because they are entering into these lives that they have never lived and wouldn't want to lead but nevertheless it is, I think, the sense of possibilities within life. The range of ways to live that in part explains a novel's value. I mean, in this day and age, so late really in the life of the genre, why do some of us keep writing them and some of us keep reading them? And I think it is, in part, because of that, that it makes you more human. It's like meeting people at a cocktail party that you had never met and wouldn't have cared to meet. You wouldn't have gone out of your way to meet, but suddenly they become real to you. You understand to some extent.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

You've also said that you write to get yourself on paper, to find out more about who you are.

John Updike: There is a certain amount of trying to be honest about what it's like to be an American male of my age and with my general outlook. So, yes, it is a path of self understanding, But...

The fiction that I'm proudest of, insofar as one can discriminate, is that where I have made some leap. I'm best known and been most rewarded really, prize-wise and praise-wise, for the Rabbit books. And Rabbit is -- he and I share roughly the same age and the same -- born in the same place, but I've long left Berks County. He stayed there, and it's a kind of me that I'm not. I never was a basketball star. I wasn't handsome the way he is, and nor did I have to undergo the temptations of being an early success that way, so that for me it was a bit of a stretch. Not an immense stretch to imagine what it's like to be Rabbit, but enough of one that it was entertaining for me to write about him, and maybe some of the self-entertainment got into the book. In other words, you can kind of walk around. I can kind of walk around Rabbit in a way it's hard to walk around, say, the autobiographical hero of some of your short stories, where it's your twin, you know, and you're attached. It's the idea of breaking that attachment, I think, that matters and where the fiction really begins to take off when you can get somebody else in your sights.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Did you think you were through with Rabbit after the first novel?

John Updike: Yeah. I didn't write that with any idea of a sequel, but the book does kind of end on a hovering note, and enough people asked me, "Well what happened?" Not too many, but a few put a bee in my bonnet. When I had run out of subjects, I thought...

"Well, why not tell what happened and bring Rabbit back." This was during the late '60s, when there was a lot of turmoil in America, and so I brought him back this time as kind of an everyman who is witnessing the pageant of protest and disturbance, distress, drug use, everything, almost everything was in that book, including the moon shot. In fact, the moon shot is kind of a central event in it, so that the Rabbit who came back the second time was a much more purposefully representative American than my initial Rabbit. He was just, you know, a high school athlete who had no where much to go after he graduated, whereas the second Rabbit was kind of a growing man trying to learn in a way. I've always seen Rabbit, and indeed Americans in general, as learners, as willing to learn. They may be slow to learn, but there is an openness to our mind set that I think enables us to overcome our mistakes or our prejudices and move forward. Certainly the world now is so much more open. I mean, it is easy to be sentimental about the '30s and '40s and the war time solidarity and all that, but there was so much racism, sexism, everything. It was a brutal world compared to the one we're trying to make now.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

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