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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
Profile of John Updike Biography of John Updike Interview with John Updike John Updike Photo Gallery

John Updike Interview (page: 6 / 7)

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction

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  John Updike

You've recently published early stories. How does it feel to look back on work that you've done decades ago?

John Updike Interview Photo
John Updike: Well, of course it brought back to me the life I was living at the time, and the various real people who lurk behind some of the characters, so it was a trip down memory lane for me. The only novelty really in the book was that I rearranged them thematically, so that a kind of a smuggled autobiography flows beneath the full run of the stories. I suppose a stronger writer or a more self-critical one might have made a selection, but I thought somehow the value of the book might be in doing them all. Doing all the ones that were good enough to get into print -- most of them in The New Yorker. A few The New Yorker turned down, but I thought this standard was enough for a writer to become terribly judgmental about his work. Some of the stories could stand a little improvement, which I was happy to bestow, so for me it was an exercise in rewriting to some extent. I'm glad I did it. It's sort of one of the books that's going to be too heavy to read with comfort, and I'm sorry about that. It's a heavy book but there is some kind of statement. Some kind of a new focus is being applied to these old stories just from the way they're arranged.

Do you feel that you have changed in your way of writing? You said in an interview that you thought the early Rabbit books might have been written too fast.

John Updike: I've rewritten the early books to some extent. Rabbit Run had some legal troubles. It was considered racy at the time, and so some sexually explicit bits were taken out and they were later restored, so I was happy. I put them back because the climate suddenly became, you know, "What's the fuss?" And, then again I looked at them -- I reread the whole bunch when they were put into an Everyman four-volume. So there has been some rewriting. There's a danger of an older man rewriting a younger man now. You might just throw out the baby with the bath water somehow. I didn't rewrite. I wasn't looking for trouble with the early short stories, but when you're young I think you're so surprised to find yourself writing at all that you jump on almost any word that will work. And, when you're older you sort of know there are lots of words, lots of words that you could use, and so your writing becomes a little less inspired and a little more plodding and careful. But, I did marvel at some of the phrases that the younger Updike tossed off. "I couldn't do this now," I said to myself, so I'm glad I did it when I could do it.

You were a little more devil-may-care?

John Updike: Yeah, devil-may-care, and being more fully persuaded that I had something unique to bring to these ordinary people and ordinary days to some extent. I was bringing a kind of verbal care, verbal elegance that they wouldn't otherwise get. So in a way, I felt I had a franchise to maintain, and maybe the writing is too self-cherishing in spots. You know the saying that you should write invisibly, that writing should be invisible. I think people know they're reading a book, and that this object in front of them is a page of words. What I really like in a book is the sense that the writing is itself entertaining, or interesting, or it makes you want to read a sentence twice.

What influence do you think your drawing and art abilities have had on your prose?

John Updike: I think I try harder to visualize the physical setting. The room, the dress, the face. I'm not sure I always succeed, and there's a way in which you can suffocate an image under words by putting too many. You know, you can handle, say, "a pale, young lady with arched eyebrows," but once you start going into the eyebrows hair by hair and do the earrings on top of it, you get sort of no image. You get no image, so you have to watch this tendency to over-specify. But, I think it is good to -- Conrad spoke about helping the reader, making the reader see, see, televise the word, and I think there is that in my writing. A belief that seeing is not quite all, but seeing is a lot of it, and so I hope to see it in my own mind and then to transfer it to the reader's mind as best I can. But you know, readers are different and they all have different experiences. "Bed," the word "bed" means one thing to you, another thing to me, and where I would never have read exactly the word that you would have read yourself, but nevertheless we're all in the same rough human ballpark here, and I think communication can occur.

You've reviewed many of your contemporaries. That can't have been an easy task since you must know some of these people. What do you think the reviewing has done for you?

John Updike: I didn't set out to become a reviewer much, but I did. I was a New Yorker writer and looking for any way in which I could appear in the magazine and sell, and I began to drift into reviewing by 1960, not very many at first. They had other reviewers, but as they died off, I became for a while almost the main reviewer. I did more reviews than anybody else, and you could say I was doing too many. I did try to avoid American contemporaries, many of whom, as you say, I knew, because who knows where envy or friendship enter in and distort the honesty of the book report. So, I tried to review foreign, dead or European or Latin American writers. There was a lot of ferment and magic realism. The novel in Europe was much more overtly experimental than I'm aware of it being now. So I thought there were things I could learn, just as a reader, from reading these books, so I tried to read books that would further my own education, as well as earn me the money of the book review and keep me up.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

It's very easy -- when you've written for those three or four hours -- your appetite for words is rather diminished, so it's all too easy to not read much, so the reviews did keep me reading and acquainted with trends. Trends in what do we do with this old dinosaur -- the novel. Because the novel is a very capacious plastic. It's sort of what you make it, and it's taken many forms. Ulysses is -- you can't repeat that, but that is an example of a novel that really tried to do everything. So we post-moderns are faced with this notion that maybe we're not taking it far enough. We're accepting the old conventions, quote marks and "he said, she said," when we had these experimental writers who have done so much. So anyway, it's good in a way to make yourself think about these basic issues. Why are you doing this at all? What are you bringing to it that's different? Are you just feeding the machine or are you in some way altering the machine? All these things are probably up to a point useful, but in the end you're left with your own intuitions and your own sense of -- whatever -- beauty or meaning or urgency.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

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