Interviews

John Updike, The Art of Fiction No. 43

Interviewed by Charles Thomas Samuels

In 1966, when John Updike was first asked to do a Paris Review interview, he refused: “Perhaps I have written fiction because everything unambiguously expressed seems somehow crass to me; and when the subject is myself, I want to jeer and weep. Also, I really don't have a great deal to tell interviewers; the little I learned about life and the art of fiction I try to express in my work.”

   The following year, a second request won acceptance, but Updike's apprehension caused further delay. Should there be a meeting followed by an exchange of written questions and answers, or should this procedure be reversed? Need there be any meeting at all? (Updike fears becoming, even for a moment, “one more gassy monologuist.”) In the end, during the summer of 1967, written questions were submitted to him, and afterward, he was interviewed on Martha's Vineyard, where he and his family take their vacation.

   A first view of Updike revealed a jauntiness of manner surprising in a writer of such craft and sensibility. After barreling down Edgartown's narrow main street, the author appeared from his beat-up Corvair—a barefoot, tousle-haired young man dressed in khaki Bermudas and a sweatshirt.

   Updike is a fluent talker, but obviously not a man who expects talk to bridge the distance between others and his inner life. Therefore, the final stage of this interview was his revision of the spoken comments to bring them into line with the style of his written answers. The result is a fabricated interview—in its modest way, a work of art, and thus appropriate to a man who believes that only art can track the nuances of experience.

 

INTERVIEWER

You've treated your early years fictionally and have discussed them in interviews, but you haven't said much about your time at Harvard. I wonder what effect you think it had.

JOHN UPDIKE

My time at Harvard, once I got by the compression bends of the freshman year, was idyllic enough, and as they say, successful; but I felt toward those years, while they were happening, the resentment a caterpillar must feel while his somatic cells are shifting all around to make him a butterfly. I remember the glow of the Fogg Museum windows, and my wife-to-be pushing her singing bicycle through the snowy Yard, and the smell of wet old magazines that arose from the cellar of the Lampoon and hit your nostrils when you entered the narthex, and numerous pleasant revelations in classrooms—all of it haunted, though, by knowledge of the many others who had passed this way, and felt the venerable glory of it all a shade keener than I, and written sufficiently about it. All that I seem able to preserve of the Harvard experience is in one short story, “The Christian Roommates.” There was another, “Homage to Paul Klee,” that has been printed in The Liberal Context but not in a book. Foxy Whitman, in Couples, remembers some of the things I do. Like me, she feels obscurely hoodwinked, pacified, by the process of becoming nice. I distrust, perhaps, hallowed, very okay places. Harvard has enough panegyrists without me.

INTERVIEWER

Did you learn much writing for the Lampoon?

UPDIKE

The Lampoon was very kind to me. I was given, beside the snug pleasures of club solidarity, carte blanche as far as the magazine went—I began as a cartoonist, did a lot of light verse, and more and more prose. There was always lots of space to fill. Also, I do have a romantic weakness for gags—we called ourselves, the term itself a gag, gagsters. My own speciality was Chinese jokes. A little birthday party, and the children singing to the blushing center of attention, “Happy Birthday, Tu Yu.” Or coolies listening to an agitator and asking each other, “Why shouldn't we work for coolie wages?” Or—another cartoon—a fairy princess in a tower, her hair hanging to the ground and labeled Fire Exit. And I remember Bink Young, now an Episcopal priest, solemnly plotting, his tattered sneakers up on a desk, how to steal a battleship from Boston Harbor. Maybe, as an imperfectly metamorphosed caterpillar, I was grateful for the company of true butterflies.

INTERVIEWER

Have you given up drawing entirely? I noticed that your recent “Letter from Anguilla” was illustrated by you.

UPDIKE

You're nice to have noticed. For years I wanted to get a drawing into The New Yorker, and at last I did. My first ambition was to be an animator for Walt Disney. Then I wanted to be a magazine cartoonist. Newly married, I used to draw Mary and the children, and did have that year in art school, but of late I don't draw at all, don't even doodle beside the telephone. It's a loss, a sadness for me. I'm interested in concrete poetry, in some attempt to return to the manuscript page, to use the page space, and the technical possibilities. My new book, a long poem called Midpoint, tries to do something of this. Since we write for the eye, why not really write for it—give it a treat? Letters are originally little pictures, so let's combine graphic imagery, photographic imagery, with words. I mean mesh them. Saying this, I think of Pound's Chinese characters, and of course Apollinaire; and of my own poems, “Nutcracker,” with the word nut in boldface, seems to me as good as George Herbert's angel-wings.

INTERVIEWER

After graduating from Harvard, you served as a New Yorker staff writer for two years. What sort of work did you do?

UPDIKE

I was a Talk of the Town writer, which means that I both did the legwork and the finished product. An exalted position! It was playful work that opened the city to me. I was the man who went to boating or electronic exhibits in the Coliseum and tried to make impressionist poems of the objects and overheard conversations.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you quit?

UPDIKE

After two years I doubted that I was expanding the genre. When my wife and I had a second child and needed a larger apartment, the best course abruptly seemed to leave the city, and with it the job. They still keep my name on the staff sheet, and I still contribute Notes and Comments, and I take much comfort from having a kind of professional home where they consider me somehow competent. America in general doesn't expect competence from writers. Other things, yes; competence, no.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about being associated with that magazine for so many years?

UPDIKE

Very happy. From the age of twelve when my aunt gave us a subscription for Christmas, The New Yorker has seemed to me the best of possible magazines, and their acceptance of a poem and a story by me in June of 1954 remains the ecstatic breakthrough of my literary life. Their editorial care and their gratitude for a piece of work they like are incomparable. And I love the format—the signature at the end, everybody the same size, and the battered title type, evocative of the twenties and Persia and the future all at once.

INTERVIEWER

You seem to shun literary society. Why?

UPDIKE

I don't, do I? Here I am, talking to you. In leaving New York in 1957, I did leave without regret the literary demimonde of agents and would-be's and with-it nonparticipants; this world seemed unnutritious and interfering. Hemingway described literary New York as a bottle full of tapeworms trying to feed on each other. When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy finding them, and having them speak to him. The reviews, the stacks in Brentano's, are just hurdles to get over, to place the books on that shelf. Anyway, in 1957, I was full of a Pennsylvania thing I wanted to say, and Ipswich gave me the space in which to say it, and in which to live modestly, raise my children, and have friends on the basis of what I did in person rather than what I did in print.

INTERVIEWER

Do your neighbors—present in Ipswich, past in Shillington—get upset when they fancy they've found themselves in your pages?

UPDIKE

I would say not. I count on people to know the difference between flesh and paper, and generally they do. In Shillington I was long away from the town, and there is a greater element of distortion or suppression than may appear; there are rather few characters in those Olinger stories that could even remotely take offense. Ipswich I've not written too much about. Somewhat of the marsh geography peeps through in Couples, but the couples themselves are more or less adults who could be encountered anywhere in the East. The town, although it was a little startled at first by the book, was reassured, I think, by reading it. The week after its publication, when the Boston papers were whooping it up in high tabloid style, and the Atlantic ran a banshee cry of indignation from Diana Trilling, people like the gas-station attendant and a strange woman on the golf course would stop me and say something soothing, complimentary. I work downtown, above a restaurant, and can be seen plodding up to my office most mornings, and I think Ipswich pretty much feels sorry for me, trying to make a living at such a plainly unprofitable chore. Also, I do participate in local affairs—I'm on the Congregational church building committee and the Democratic town committee, and while the Couples fuss was in progress, capped by that snaggle-toothed cover on Time, I was writing a pageant for our Seventeenth-century Day. Both towns in my mind are not so much themselves as places I've happened to be in when I was a child and then an adult. The difference between Olinger and Tarbox is much more the difference between childhood and adulthood than the difference between two geographical locations. They are stages on my pilgrim's progress, not spots on the map.

INTERVIEWER

What about your parents? They seem to appear often in your work. Have their reactions to earlier versions had an effect on later ones?

UPDIKE

My parents should not be held to the letter of any of the fictional fathers and mothers. But I don't mind admitting that George Caldwell was assembled from certain vivid gestures and plights characteristic of Wesley Updike; once, returning to Plowville after The Centaur came out, I was upbraided by a Sunday-school pupil of my father's for my outrageous portrait, and my father, with typical sanctity, interceded, saying, “No, it's the truth. The kid got me right.” My mother, a different style of saint, is an ideal reader, and an ideally permissive writer's mother. They both have a rather un-middle-class appetite for the jubilant horrible truth, and after filling my childhood with warmth and color, they have let me make my adult way without interference and been never other than encouraging, even when old wounds were my topic, and a child's vision of things has been lent the undue authority of print. I have written free from any fear of forfeiting their love.

INTERVIEWER

Most of your work takes place in a common locale: Olinger. So it was interesting to see you say farewell to that world in your preface to the Olinger Stories. Yet in the following year you published Of the Farm. Why do you feel so drawn to this material?

UPDIKE

But Of the Farm was about Firetown; they only visit the Olinger supermarket. I am drawn to southeastern Pennsylvania because I know how things happen there, or at least how they used to happen. Once you have in your bones the fundamental feasibilities of a place, you can imagine there freely.

INTERVIEWER

That's not what I mean. What I meant to ask is not why you keep writing about Olinger per se, but why you write so much about what most people take to be your own adolescence and family. Numerous critics, for example, have pointed to similarities between Of the Farm, The Centaur, and stories like “My Grandmother's Thimble.” “Flight,” for example, seems an earlier version of Of the Farm.

UPDIKE

 I suppose there's no avoiding it—my adolescence seemed interesting to me. In a sense my mother and father, considerable actors both, were dramatizing my youth as I was having it so that I arrived as an adult with some burden of material already half formed. There is, true, a submerged thread connecting certain of the fictions, and I guess the submerged thread is the autobiography. That is, in Of the Farm, although the last name is not the name of the people in The Centaur, the geography is not appreciably changed, and the man in each case is called George. Of the Farm was in part a look at the world of The Centaur after the centaur had indeed died. By the way, I must repeat that I didn't mean Caldwell to die in The Centaur; he dies in the sense of living, of going back to work, of being a shelter for his son. But by the time Joey Robinson is thirty-five, his father is dead. Also, there's the curious touch of the Running Horse River in Rabbit, Run which returns in the Alton of The Centaur. And somehow that Running Horse bridges both the books, connects them. When I was little, I used to draw disparate objects on a piece of paper—toasters, baseballs, flowers, whatnot—and connect them with lines. But every story, really, is a fresh start for me, and these little connections—recurrences of names, or the way, say, that Piet Hanema's insomnia takes him back into the same high school that John Nordholm, and David Kern, and Allen Dow sat in—are in there as a kind of running, oblique coherence. Once I've coined a name, by the way, I feel utterly hidden behind that mask, and what I remember and what I imagine become indistinguishable. I feel no obligation to the remembered past; what I create on paper must, and for me does, soar free of whatever the facts were. Do I make any sense?

INTERVIEWER

Some.

UPDIKE

In others words, I disavow any essential connection between my life and whatever I write. I think it's a morbid and inappropriate area of concern, though natural enough—a lot of morbid concerns are natural. But the work, the words on the paper, must stand apart from our living presences; we sit down at the desk and become nothing but the excuse for these husks we cast off. But apart from the somewhat teasing little connections, there is in these three novels and the short stories of Pigeon Feathers a central image of flight or escape or loss, the way we flee from the past, a sense of guilt which I tried to express in the story, the triptych with the long title, “The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother's Thimble, and Fanning Island,” wherein the narrator becomes a Polynesian pushing off into a void. The sense that in time as well as space we leave people as if by volition and thereby incur guilt and thereby owe them, the dead, the forsaken, at least the homage of rendering them. The trauma or message that I acquired in Olinger had to do with suppressed pain, with the amount of sacrifice I suppose that middle-class life demands, and by that I guess I mean civilized life. The father, whatever his name, is sacrificing freedom of motion, and the mother is sacrificing in a way—oh, sexual richness, I guess; they're all stuck, and when I think back over these stories (and you know, they are dear to me and if I had to give anybody one book of me it would be the Vintage Olinger Stories), I think especially of that moment in “Flight” when the boy, chafing to escape, fresh from his encounter with Molly Bingaman and a bit more of a man but not enough quite, finds the mother lying there buried in her own peculiar messages from far away, the New Orleans jazz, and then the grandfather's voice comes tumbling down the stairs singing, “There is a happy land far far away.” This is the way it was, is. There has never been anything in my life quite as compressed, simultaneously as communicative to me of my own power and worth and of the irremediable grief in just living, in just going on.

I really don't think I'm alone among writers in caring about what they experienced in the first eighteen years of their life. Hemingway cherished the Michigan stories out of proportion, I would think, to their merit. Look at Twain. Look at Joyce. Nothing that happens to us after twenty is as free from self-consciousness because by then we have the vocation to write. Writers' lives break into two halves. At the point where you get your writerly vocation you diminish your receptivity to experience. Being able to write becomes a kind of shield, a way of hiding, a way of too instantly transforming pain into honey—whereas when you're young, you're so impotent you cannot help but strive and observe and feel.

INTERVIEWER

How does Mrs. Updike react to your work? Time quotes you as having said she never entirely approves of your novels.

UPDIKE

Mary is a pricelessly sensitive reader. She is really always right, and if I sometimes, notably in the novels, persevere without her unqualified blessing, it is because somebody in me—the gagster, the fanatic, the boor—must be allowed to have his say. I usually don't show her anything until I am finished, or stuck. I never disregard her remarks, and she is tactful in advancing them.

INTERVIEWER

In your review of James Agee's Letters to Father Flye, you defend professionalism. Even so, are you bothered by having to write for a living?

UPDIKE

No, I always wanted to draw or write for a living. Teaching, the customary alternative, seemed truly depleting and corrupting. I have been able to support myself by and large with the more respectable forms—poetry, short stories, novels—but what journalism I have done has been useful. I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles if I had to. The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me; the technical aspects of bookmaking, from type font to binding glue, interest me. The distinction between a thing well done and a thing done ill obtains everywhere—in all circles of Paradise and Inferno.

INTERVIEWER

You write a fair amount of literary criticism. Why?

UPDIKE

I do it (a) when some author, like Spark or Borges, excites me and I want to share the good news, (b) when I want to write an essay, as on romantic love, or Barth's theology, (c) when I feel ignorant of something, like modern French fiction, and accepting a review assignment will compel me to read and learn.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find it helpful in your fiction?

UPDIKE

I think it good for an author, baffled by obtuse reviews of himself, to discover what a recalcitrant art reviewing is, how hard it is to keep the plot straight in summary, let alone to sort out one's honest responses. But reviewing should not become a habit. It encourages a writer to think of himself as a pundit, of fiction as a collective enterprise and species of expertise, and of the imagination as a cerebral and social activity—all pernicious illusions.

INTERVIEWER

I'd like to ask a bit about your work habits if I may. What sort of schedule do you follow?

UPDIKE

I write every weekday morning. I try to vary what I am doing, and my verse, or poetry, is a help here. Embarked on a long project, I try to stay with it even on dull days. For every novel, however, that I have published, there has been one unfinished or scrapped. Some short stories—I think offhand of “Lifeguard,” “The Taste of Metal,” “My Grandmother's Thimble”—are fragments salvaged and reshaped. Most came right the first time—rode on their own melting, as Frost said of his poems. If there is no melting, if the story keeps sticking, better stop and look around. In the execution there has to be a “happiness” that can't be willed or foreordained. It has to sing, click, something. I try instantly to set in motion a certain forward tilt of suspense or curiosity, and at the end of the story or novel to rectify the tilt, to complete the motion.

INTERVIEWER

When your workday is through, are you able to leave it behind or does your writing haunt your afternoons and echo your experience?

UPDIKE

Well, I think the subconscious picks at it, and occasionally a worrisome sentence or image will straighten itself out, and then you make a note of it. If I'm stuck, I try to get myself unstuck before I sit down again because moving through the day surrounded by people and music and air it is easier to make major motions in your mind than it is sitting at the typewriter in a slightly claustrophobic room. It's hard to hold a manuscript in your mind, of course. You get down to the desk and discover that the solution you had arrived at while having insomnia doesn't really fit. I guess I'm never unconscious of myself as a writer and of my present project. A few places are specially conducive to inspiration—automobiles, church—private places. I plotted Couples almost entirely in church—little shivers and urgencies I would note down on the program and carry down to the office Monday.

INTERVIEWER

Well, you're not only a writer but a famous one. Are you experiencing any disadvantages in being famous?

UPDIKE

I'm interviewed too much. I fight them off, but even one is too many. However hard you try to be honest or full, they are intrinsically phony. There is something terribly wrong about committing myself to this machine and to your version of what you get out of the machine—you may be deaf for all I know, and the machine may be faulty. All the stuff comes out attached to my name, and it's not really me at all. My relationship to you and my linear way of coping out loud are distortive. In any interview, you do say more or less than you mean. You leave the proper ground of your strength and become one more gassy monologuist. Unlike Mailer and Bellow, I don't have much itch to pronounce on great matters, to reform the country, to get elected Mayor of New York, or minister to the world with laughter like the hero of The Last Analysis. My life is, in a sense, trash, my life is only that of which the residue is my writing. The person who appears on the cover of Time or whose monologue will be printed in The Paris Review is neither the me who exists physically and socially or the me who signs the fiction and poetry. That is, everything is infinitely fine, and any opinion is somehow coarser than the texture of the real thing.

I find it hard to have opinions. Theologically, I favor Karl Barth; politically, I favor the Democrats. But I treasure a remark John Cage made, that not judgingness but openness and curiosity are our proper business. To speak on matters where you're ignorant dulls the voice for speaking on matters where you do know something.

INTERVIEWER

One of the things I've always thought would be difficult for famous writers is being constantly sent manuscripts by aspiring amateurs. Do you experience this, and if so, how do you treat them?

UPDIKE

I tend to lose them. The manuscripts. I remember myself as an aspiring writer, and you know, I never did this. I assumed that published writers had worked at it until they became worth publishing, and I assumed that that's the only way to do it, and I'm a little puzzled by young men who write me charming letters suggesting that I conduct an impromptu writing course. Evidently, I've become part of the Establishment that's expected to serve youth—like college presidents and the police. I'm still trying to educate myself. I want to read only what will help me unpack my own bag.

INTERVIEWER

While we're on the subject of your public role, I wonder how you react to the growing use of your fiction in college courses.

UPDIKE

Oh, is it? Do they use it?

INTERVIEWER

I use it a great deal. What do you think about it, as a writer? Do you think that it's going to interfere with the reader's comprehension or feeling for your work. I mean, do you go along with Trilling's idea, for example, that modern literature is somehow diluted by appearing in the social context of the classroom, or are you not concerned about this?

UPDIKE

No. Looking back on my own college experience, the college course is just a way of delivering you to the books, and once you're delivered, the writer-reader relationship is there. I read Dostoyevsky for a college course and wept.

If what you say is true, I'm delighted. I do think it difficult to teach, as is done so much now, courses in truly contemporary writing. (At Oxford, they used to stop with Tennyson.) Of course, maybe I'm not so contemporary anymore; maybe I'm sort of like Eisenhower or—

INTERVIEWER

You're over thirty—you're over the hill.

UPDIKE

Don't laugh—most American writers are over the hill by thirty. Maybe I'm like Sherman Adams and Fats Domino and other, you know, semi-remote figures who have acquired a certain historical interest. We're anxious in America to package our things quickly, and the writer can become a package before he's ready to have the coffin lid nailed down.

INTERVIEWER

Well, let's think of another package now—not the package by time but by country. Are you conscious of belonging to a definable American literary tradition? Would you describe yourself as part of an American tradition?

UPDIKE

I must be. I've hardly ever been out of the country.

INTERVIEWER

Specifically, do you feel that you've learned important things or felt spiritual affinities with classic American writers such as Hawthorne, Melville, James, people of this sort?

UPDIKE

I love Melville and like James, but I tend to learn more from Europeans because I think they have strengths that reach back past Puritanism, that don't equate truth with intuition—

INTERVIEWER

In other words, you want to be nourished by the thing that you don't feel is inherently your tradition.

UPDIKE

Right. I'm not saying I can write like Melville or James, but that the kind of passion and bias that they show is already in my bones. I don't think you need to keep rehearsing your instincts. Far better to seek out models of what you can't do. American fiction is notoriously thin on women, and I have attempted a number of portraits of women, and we may have reached that point of civilization, or decadence, where we can look at women. I'm not sure Mark Twain was able to.

INTERVIEWER

Let's get into your work now. In an interview you gave Life you expressed some regret at the “yes, but” attitude critics have taken toward it. Did the common complaint that you had ducked large subjects lead to the writing of Couples?

UPDIKE

No, I meant my work says, “Yes, but.” Yes, in Rabbit, Run, to our inner urgent whispers, but—the social fabric collapses murderously. Yes, in The Centaur, to self-sacrifice and duty, but—what of a man's private agony and dwindling? No, in The Poorhouse Fair, to social homogenization and loss of faith, but—listen to the voices, the joy of persistent existence. No, in Couples, to a religious community founded on physical and psychical interpenetration, but—what else shall we do, as God destroys our churches? I cannot greatly care what critics say of my work; if it is good, it will come to the surface in a generation or two and float, and if not, it will sink, having in the meantime provided me with a living, the opportunities of leisure, and a craftsman's intimate satisfactions. I wrote Couples because the rhythm of my life and my oeuvre demanded it, not to placate hallucinatory critical voices.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by attributing the setting up of religious communities in Couples to God's destruction of our churches?

UPDIKE

I guess the noun “God” reappears in two totally different senses, the god in the first instance being the god worshiped within this nice white church, the more or less watered-down Puritan god; and then god in the second sense means ultimate power. I've never really understood theologies which would absolve God of earthquakes and typhoons, of children starving. A god who is not God the Creator is not very real to me, so that, yes, it certainly is God who throws the lightning bolt, and this God is above the nice god, above the god we can worship and empathize with. I guess I'm saying there's a fierce God above the kind God, and he's the one Piet believes in. At any rate, when the church is burned, Piet is relieved of morality and can choose Foxy—or can accept the choice made for him by Foxy and Angela operating in unison—can move out of the paralysis of guilt into what after all is a kind of freedom. He divorces the supernatural to marry the natural. I wanted the loss of Angela to be felt as a real loss—Angela is nicer than Foxy—nevertheless it is Foxy that he most deeply wants, it is Foxy who in some obscure way was turned on the lathe for him. So that the book does have a happy ending. There's also a way, though, I should say (speaking of “yes, but”) in which, with the destruction of the church, with the removal of his guilt, he becomes insignificant. He becomes merely a name in the last paragraph: he becomes a satisfied person and in a sense dies. In other words, a person who has what he wants, a satisfied person, a content person, ceases to be a person. Unfallen Adam is an ape. Yes, I guess I do feel that. I feel that to be a person is to be in a situation of tension, is to be in a dialectical situation. A truly adjusted person is not a person at all—just an animal with clothes on or a statistic. So that it's a happy ending, with this “but” at the end.

INTERVIEWER

I was impressed by the contrast between the presentation of oral-genital contacts in Couples and its single appearance in Rabbit, Run. Rabbit's insistence that Ruth perform the act is the cause of their breakup.

UPDIKE

No. Janice's having the baby is.

INTERVIEWER

If you say so; but I'd still like to know why an act that is treated so neutrally in the later book is so significant in the earlier one.

UPDIKE

Well, Couples, in part, is about the change in sexual deportment that has occurred since the publication of Rabbit, Run, which came out late in ’59; shortly thereafter, we had Lady Chatterley and the first Henry Miller books, and now you can't walk into a grocery store without seeing pornography on the rack. Remember Piet lying in Freddy's bed admiring Freddy's collection of Grove Press books? In Rabbit, Run what is demanded, in Couples is freely given. What else? It's a way of eating, eating the apple, of knowing. It's nostalgic for them, for Piet of Annabelle Vojt and for Foxy of the Jew. In De Rougement's book on Tristan and Iseult he speaks of the sterility of the lovers and Piet and Foxy are sterile vis-à-vis each other. Lastly, I was struck, talking to a biochemist friend of mine, how he emphasized not only the chemical composition of enzymes but their structure; it matters, among my humans, not only what they're made of but exactly how they attach to each other. So much for oral-genital contacts.

About sex in general, by all means let's have it in fiction, as detailed as needs be, but real, real in its social and psychological connections. Let's take coitus out of the closet and off the altar and put it on the continuum of human behavior. There are episodes in Henry Miller that have their human resonance; the sex in Lolita, behind the madman's cuteness, rings true; and I find the sex in D. H. Lawrence done from the woman's point of view convincing enough. In the microcosm of the individual consciousness, sexual events are huge but not all-eclipsing; let's try to give them their size.

INTERVIEWER

I'd like to move on to The Centaur now. If I'm right in regarding it as formally uncharacteristic, I wonder why you prefer it to your other novels?

UPDIKE

Well, it seems in memory my gayest and truest book; I pick it up, and read a few pages, in which Caldwell is insisting on flattering a moth-eaten bum, who is really the god Dionysus, and I begin laughing.

INTERVIEWER

What made you decide to employ a mythic parallel?

UPDIKE

I was moved, first, by the Chiron variant of the Hercules myth—one of the few classic instances of self-sacrifice, and the name oddly close to Christ. The book began as an attempt to publicize this myth. The mythology operated in a number of ways: a correlative of the enlarging effect of Peter's nostalgia, a dramatization of Caldwell's sense of exclusion and mysteriousness around him, a counterpoint of ideality to the drab real level, an excuse for a number of jokes, a serious expression of my sensation that the people we meet are guises, do conceal something mythic, perhaps prototypes or longings in our minds. We love some women more than others by predetermination, it seems to me.

INTERVIEWER

Why haven't you done more work in this mode?

UPDIKE

But I have worked elsewhere in a mythic mode. Apart from my short story about Tristan and Iseult, there is the St. Stephen story underlying The Poorhouse Fair, and Peter Rabbit under Rabbit, Run. Sometimes it is semiconscious; for example, only lately do I see that Brewer, the city of brick painted the color of flowerpots, is the flowerpot that Mr. McGregor slips over Peter Rabbit. And in Couples, Piet is not only Hanema/anima/Life, he is Lot, the man with two virgin daughters, who flees Sodom and leaves his wife behind.

INTERVIEWER

Yes, of course, the Tristan story is like The Centaur, but even if your other novels have underlying mythological or scriptural subjects, they don't obtrude as they do in The Centaur. So let me rephrase my question. Why didn't you make the parallels more obvious in the other books?

UPDIKE

Oh—I don't think basically that such parallels should be obvious. I think books should have secrets, like people do. I think they should be there as a bonus for the sensitive reader or there as a kind of subliminal quavering. I don't think that the duty of the twentieth-century fiction writer is to retell old stories only. I've often wondered what Eliot meant in his famous essay on Ulysses. Does he mean that we are ourselves so depleted of psychic energy, of spiritual and primitive force, that we can do little but retell old stories? Does he mean that human events, love, death, wandering, certain challenges overcome or certain challenges which sweep us under, have already attained classic narrative form? I don't quite know what Eliot meant. I do know that there is certainly for all of us some attraction in old stories. Mine is a generation not raised on the Bible. The Greek stories seem to be more universal coin, and they certainly have served to finance more modern creations than the Hebrew stories. (Although do read sometime Kierkegaard's splendid retelling of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trembling.) Freud, for one, named a number of states of mind after them.

I have read old sagas—Beowulf, the Mabinogion—trying to find the story in its most rudimentary form, searching for what a story is—Why did these people enjoy hearing them? Are they a kind of disguised history? Or, more likely I guess, are they ways of relieving anxiety, of transferring it outwards upon an invented tale and purging it through catharsis? In any case, I feel the need for this kind of recourse to the springs of narrative, and maybe my little buried allusions are admissions of it. It's funny, the things you don't know you're doing; I was aware of Piet as Lot and I was aware of Piet and Foxy as being somehow Tristan and Iseult, but I was not very aware of him as Don Juan. The other day I got a long, brilliant letter from a man at Wesleyan describing the book in terms of the Don Juan legend, pointing out numerous illuminating analogies. He thinks that Don Juans, historically, appear in the imperialist countries just as the tide turns: the classic Don Juan appears in Spain just as Spain has lost the Netherlands, and so Piet's activity somehow coincides with our frustration in Vietnam. All this is news to me, but, once said, it sounds right. I'll have to read the letter again. It elicited for me certain basic harmonies, certain congruences with prototypes in the Western consciousness that I'm happy to accept.

INTERVIEWER

Let's turn from myth to history. You have indicated a desire to write about President Buchanan. Yet, so far as I can see, American history is normally absent from your work.

UPDIKE

Not so; quite the contrary. In each of my novels, a precise year is given and a president reigns; The Centaur is distinctly a Truman book, and Rabbit, Run an Eisenhower one. Couples could have taken place only under Kennedy; the social currents it traces are as specific to those years as flowers in a meadow are to their moment of summer. Even The Poorhouse Fair has a president, President Lowenstein, and if one is not named in Of the Farm, it may be because that book, in an odd way, also takes place in the future, though a future only a year or so in advance of the writing—a future now in the past. Hook, Caldwell, the Applesmiths, all talk about history, and the quotidian is littered with newspaper headlines, striking the consciousness of the characters obliquely and subliminally but firmly enough: Piet's first step at seducing Foxy is clearly in part motivated by the death of the Kennedy infant. And the atmosphere of fright permeating The Centaur is to an indicated extent early cold-war nerves. My fiction about the daily doings of ordinary people has more history in it than history books, just as there is more breathing history in archaeology than in a list of declared wars and changes of government.

INTERVIEWER

What about violence? Many critics complain that this is absent from your work—reprehensibly, because it is so present in the world. Why is there so little in your pages?

UPDIKE

There has been so little in my life. I have fought in no wars and engaged in few fistfights. I do not think a man pacifist in his life should pretend to violence in fiction; Nabokov's bloody deeds, for example, seem more literary than lived to me. Muriel Spark's have the quality of the assassinations we commit in our minds. Mailer's recent violence is trumpery, just like Leslie Fiedler's cry for more, more. I feel a tenderness toward my characters that forbids making violent use of them. In general, the North American continent in this century has been a place where catastrophe has held off, and likewise the lives I have witnessed have staved off real death. All my novels end with a false death, partial death. If, as may be, the holocausts at the rim of possibility do soon visit us, I am confident my capacities for expression can rise, if I live, to the occasion. In the meantime let's all of us with some access to a printing press not abuse our privilege with fashionable fantasies.

INTERVIEWER

Well, one thing I'm sure must impress everyone about your fiction: the factual accuracy. The way, for example, you can provide data for Ken Whitman's talk on photosynthesis as well as Piet's on architectural restoration. Do you actively research such material, or do you rely on what you already know?

UPDIKE

Well, a bit of both, and I'm glad you do find it convincing. I'm never sure it is. A man whose life is spent in biochemistry or in building houses, his brain is tipped in a certain way. It's terribly hard, I think, for specialists to convey to me, as I ask them more or less intelligent questions, the right nuance—it's hard for me to reconstruct in my own mind the mind of a man who has spent twenty years with his field. I think the attempt should be made, however. There is a thinness in contemporary fiction about the way the world operates, except the academic world. I do try, especially in this novel, to give characters professions. Shaw's plays have a wonderful wealth of professional types. Shaw's sense of economic process, I guess, helped him (a) to care and (b) to convey, to plunge into the mystery of being a chimney sweep or a minister. One of the minimal obligations a book has to a reader is to be factually right, as to be typographically pleasant and more or less correctly proofread. Elementary author ethics dictate that you do at least attempt to imagine technical detail as well as emotions and dialogue.

INTERVIEWER

I'd like to ask a question about The Poorhouse Fair. Many people have been bothered in that book by Conner's foolishness. He seems a bit easy as the butt of satire. Do you think there is much justification in that charge?

UPDIKE

I'd have to reread the book to know. It could be that I was too little in sympathy with what I imagine him to be standing for. Of course a writer is in no position to alter a reader's reaction. Performance is all, and if I didn't really give you flesh and blood, then nothing I can say now will substitute. But it occurs to me that Conner was a preliminary study for Caldwell in The Centaur: the bulging upper lip and a certain Irishness, a certain tenacity, a certain—they're both poor disciplinarians, I notice in thinking about them. I wasn't satirical in my purpose. I may have been negative, but satire, no. I'm not conscious of any piece of fiction of mine which has even the slightest taint of satirical attempt. You can't be satirical at the expense of fictional characters, because they're your creatures. You must only love them, and I think that once I'd set Conner in motion I did to the best of my ability try to love him and let his mind and heart beat.

INTERVIEWER

Isn't “The Doctor's Wife” an exception to your statement that you never satirize one of your characters?

UPDIKE

You think I'm satirizing the doctor's wife? I'm criticizing the doctor's wife. Yes, I do feel that in some way she is a racist, but I'm not trying, I don't think I'm trying, to make her funny because she's a racist.

INTERVIEWER

There's some satire in your poetry, isn't there? But I wonder why, with few exceptions, you only write light verse.

UPDIKE

I began with light verse, a kind of cartooning in print, and except for one stretch of a few years, in which I wrote most of the serious poems in Telephone Poles, I feel uncertain away from rhyme to which something comic adheres. Bergson's mechanical encrusted upon the organic. But the light verse poems putting into rhyme and jaunty metrics some scientific discovery have a serious point—the universe science discloses to us is farcically unrelated to what our primitive senses report—and I have, when such poems go well, a pleasure and satisfaction not lower than in any other form of literary activity.

INTERVIEWER

You've published work in all the literary forms except drama. Why haven't you worked in this form?

UPDIKE

I've never much enjoyed going to plays myself; they always seem one act too long, and I often can't hear. The last play I went to, I remember, was A Delicate Balance; I sat next to the wall, and trucks kept shifting gears on the other side of it, and I missed most of the dialogue. The unreality of painted people standing on a platform saying things they've said to each other for months is more than I can overlook. Also, I think the theater is a quicksand of money and people with push. Harold Brodkey, a splendid writer my age, disappeared for five years into a play that was never produced. From Twain and James to Faulkner and Bellow, the history of novelists as playwrights is a sad one. A novelist is no more prepared to write for the stage than a good distance runner is equipped for ballet. A play is verbal ballet, and I mean to include in that equation some strong reservations about ballet. Less than perfectly done, it's very tiresome. A play's capacity for mimesis is a fraction of a novel's. Shakespeare, and to a lesser extent Shaw, wrote their plays as “turns” and exercises for actors they knew—without Will Kempe, no Falstaff. Without this kind of intimacy, the chances of life creeping into a play are slight. On both sides of the footlights, I think the present American theater mainly an excuse for being sociable.

INTERVIEWER

But if I'm not mistaken, you once expressed a desire to write for the films and I think Rabbit, Run, in particular, is quite a cinematic novel. Do you have any such plans now?

UPDIKE

Rabbit, Run was subtitled originally, “A Movie.” The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration. The opening bit of the boys playing basketball was visualized to be taking place under the titles and credits. This doesn't mean, though, that I really wanted to write for the movies. It meant I wanted to make a movie. I could come closer by writing it in my own book than by attempting to get through to Hollywood.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think the film has much to teach the novelist?

UPDIKE

I'm not sure. I think that we live in an eye-oriented era and that both the movies and the graphic arts, the painterly arts, haunt us, haunt word people quite a lot. I've written about our jealousy in my review of Robbe-Grillet and his theories. In brief, we're jealous because the visual arts have captured all the glamorous people—the rich and the young.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think there is a possibility of the novelist feeling at a disadvantage, that the instantaneousness and completeness of the image is making him somehow have to run to catch up? Have you ever felt that?

UPDIKE

Oh, sure. I think we are covetous of the success, the breadth of appeal. A movie does not really require much work. It pours into us, it fills us like milk being poured into a glass, whereas there is some cerebral effort needed to turn a bunch of mechanical marks on a page into moving living images. So that, yes, the power of the cinema, the awful power of it, the way from moron to genius it captivates us, it hypnotizes us . . . What I don't know is how relevant attempts to imitate this instantaneity, this shuffle of images, are to the novelist's art. I think that the novel is descended from two sources, historical accounts and letters. The personal letters, the epistolary novel, the novel of Richardson, which is revived now only as a tour de force, does have this cinematic instantaneity; the time is occurring on the page. But this is a minority current in the contemporary novel; we are held captive to the novel as history, as an account of things once done. The account of things done minus the presiding, talkative, confiding, and pedagogic author may be a somewhat dead convention; that is, like anybody who takes any writing courses, I was told how stale and awful it is when authors begin to signal, as Dickens did, over the heads of the characters to the reader. Yet I feel that something has been lost with this authority, with this sense of an author as God, as a speaking God, as a chatty God, filling the universe of the book. Now we have the past tense, a kind of a noncommittal deadness: God paring his fingernails. We may be getting the worst of both worlds.

Couples was in some ways an old-fashioned novel; I found the last thirty pages—the rounding up, the administering of fortunes—curiously satisfying, pleasant. Going from character to character, I had myself the sensation of flying, of conquering space. In Rabbit, Run I liked writing in the present tense. You can move between minds, between thoughts and objects and events with a curious ease not available to the past tense. I'm not sure it's as clear to the reader as it is to the person writing, but there are kinds of poetry, kinds of music you can strike off in the present tense. I don't know why I've not done a full-length novel in it again. I began tentatively, but one page deep into the book, it seemed very natural and congenial, so much so that while doing The Centaur I was haunted by the present tense and finally wrote a whole chapter in it.

INTERVIEWER

You speak with some regret about the present authorial disinclination to signal above the heads of the characters. I am interested in your evaluation of the success of three contemporary writers who seem to me to have maintained this willingness to signal to the reader directly. The first one I'd like to mention and get your reaction to is Robert Penn Warren.

UPDIKE

I'm sorry. I don't know Penn Warren's prose well enough to comment.

INTERVIEWER

How about Barth?

UPDIKE

Barth I know imperfectly, but I have read the first two novels and parts of the last two and some of the short stories. I also know Barth personally and find him a most likable and engaging and modest man. He and I are near the same age and born not too far from each other, he in Maryland and I in southeastern Pennsylvania. His work is partly familiar and partly repellent; I feel he hit the floor of nihilism hard and returns to us covered with coal dust. We are very close to an abyss as we traverse Barth's rolling periods and curiously elevated point of view. I guess my favorite book of his is The Floating Opera, which is like The Poorhouse Fair in ending with a kind of carnival, a brainless celebration of the fact of existence. As it stands now, Barth seems to me a very strong-minded and inventive and powerful voice from another planet; there is something otherworldly about his fiction that makes it both fascinating and barren, at least for me. I'd rather visit Uranus than read through Giles Goat-Boy.

INTERVIEWER

What about Bellow?

UPDIKE

There is in Bellow a kind of little professor, a professor-elf, who keeps fluttering around the characters, and I'm not sure he's my favorite Bellow character, this voice. He's almost always there, putting exclamatory marks after sentences, making little utterances and in general inviting us to participate in moral decisions. This person—whom I take to be the author—contributes to the soft focus of Bellow's endings. The middles are so rich with detail, with charm and love of life; I think how in Henderson the Rain King he remembers rubbing oil into his pregnant wife's stomach to ease the stretch marks. It's this professor, this earnest sociological man who somehow wants us to be better than we are, who muddles the endings, not exactly happy endings, but they are endings which would point the way. He cares so—the way Bellow can conjure up a minor character and set him tumbling across the paragraph.

But the general question of authorial presence—I find it irksome when an author is there as a celebrity. In Salinger's later works and most of Mailer's work the author appears as somebody who counts, somebody who has an audience of teenagers out there waiting to hear from him. This kind of return to before Chekhov I don't find useful, although authorial invisibility is also a pose. The proper pose may be the Homeric bard's one—he is there, but unimportantly there, there by sufferance of the king.

INTERVIEWER

What about the cultivation of pretense—playing around with it. I mean, what do you think of a writer like Barthelme?

UPDIKE

He was an art director of some sort and, just as Kerouac's work was a kind of action writing to answer action painting, so Barthelme's short stories and the one novelette seem to me to be an attempt to bring over into prose something Pop. I think, you know, on the one hand of Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup cans and on the other of the Chinese baby food that the Seven Dwarfs in Snow White are making. Then again you do get a hard-edge writing in a way. In one of his short stories he says that the hard nut-brown word has enough aesthetic satisfaction for anybody but a fool. I also think his stories are important for what they don't say, for the things that don't happen in them, that stand revealed as clichés.

Yes—I think he's interesting, but more interesting as an operator within a cultural scene than as a—oh, as a singer to my spirit. A quaint phrase that possibly betrays me.

INTERVIEWER

What of writers who've influenced you? Salinger? Nabokov?

UPDIKE

I learned a lot from Salinger's short stories; he did remove the short narrative from the wise-guy, slice-of-life stories of the thirties and forties. Like most innovative artists, he made new room for shapelessness, for life as it is lived. I'm thinking of a story like “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” not “For Esmé,” which already shows signs of emotional overkill. Nabokov, I admire but would emulate only his high dedication to the business of making books that are not sloppy, that can be reread. I think his aesthetic models, chess puzzles and protective colorations in lepidoptera, are rather special.

INTERVIEWER

Henry Green? O’Hara?

UPDIKE

Green's tone, his touch of truth, his air of peddling nothing and knowing everything, I would gladly attain to, if I could. For sheer transparence of eye and ear he seems to me unmatched among living writers. Alas, for a decade he has refused to write, showing I suppose his ultimate allegiance to life itself. Some of O’Hara's short stories also show a very rare transparence, freshness, and unexpectedness. Good works of art direct us back outward to reality again; they illustrate, rather than ask, imitation.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned Kerouac a moment ago. How do you feel about his work?

UPDIKE

Somebody like Kerouac who writes on teletype paper as rapidly as he can once slightly alarmed me. Now I can look upon this more kindly. There may be some reason to question the whole idea of fineness and care in writing. Maybe something can get into sloppy writing that would elude careful writing. I'm not terribly careful myself, actually. I write fairly rapidly if I get going, and don't change much, and have never been one for making outlines or taking out whole paragraphs or agonizing much. If a thing goes, it goes for me, and if it doesn't go, I eventually stop and get off.

INTERVIEWER

What is it that you think gets into sloppy writing that eludes more careful prose?

UPDIKE

It comes down to what is language? Up to now, until this age of mass literacy, language has been something spoken. In utterance there's a minimum of slowness. In trying to treat words as chisel strokes, you run the risk of losing the quality of utterance, the rhythm of utterance, the happiness. A phrase out of Mark Twain—he describes a raft hitting a bridge and says that it “went all to smash and scatteration like a box of matches struck by lightning.” The beauty of “scatteration” could only have occurred to a talkative man, a man who had been brought up among people who were talking and who loved to talk himself. I'm aware myself of a certain dryness of this reservoir, this backlog of spoken talk. A Romanian once said to me that Americans are always telling stories. I'm not sure this is as true as it once was. Where we once used to spin yarns, now we sit in front of the tv and receive pictures. I'm not sure the younger generation even knows how to gossip. But, as for a writer, if he has something to tell, he should perhaps type it almost as fast as he could talk it. We must look to the organic world, not the inorganic world, for metaphors; and just as the organic world has periods of repose and periods of great speed and exercise, so I think the writer's process should be organically varied. But there's a kind of tautness that you should feel within yourself no matter how slow or fast you're spinning out the reel.

INTERVIEWER

In “The Sea's Green Sameness” you deny that characterization and psychology are primary goals of fiction. What do you think is more important?

UPDIKE

I wrote “The Sea's Green Sameness” years ago and meant, I believe, that narratives should not be primarily packages for psychological insights, though they can contain them, like raisins in buns. But the substance is the dough, which feeds the storytelling appetite, the appetite for motion, for suspense, for resolution. The author's deepest pride, as I have experienced it, is not in his incidental wisdom but in his ability to keep an organized mass of images moving forward, to feel life engendering itself under his hands. But no doubt, fiction is also a mode of spying; we read it as we look in windows or listen to gossip, to learn what other people do. Insights of all kinds are welcome; but no wisdom will substitute for an instinct for action and pattern, and a perhaps savage wish to hold, through your voice, another soul in thrall.

INTERVIEWER

In view of this and your delight in the “noncommittal luminosity of fact,” do you think you're much like the “nouvelle vague” novelists?

UPDIKE

I used to. I wrote The Poorhouse Fair as an anti-novel, and have found Nathalie Sarraute's description of the modern novelistic predicament a helpful guide. I am attracted to the cool surface of some contemporary French novels, and, like them, do want to give inanimate or vegetable presences some kind of vote in the democracy of narrative. Basically, though, I describe things not because their muteness mocks our subjectivity but because they seem to be masks for God. And I should add that there is, in fiction, an image-making function, above image-retailing. To create a coarse universal figure like Tarzan is in some ways more of an accomplishment than the novels of Henry James.

INTERVIEWER

As a technician, how unconventional would you say you were?

UPDIKE

As unconventional as I need to be. An absolute freedom exists on the blank page, so let's use it. I have from the start been wary of the fake, the automatic. I tried not to force my sense of life as many-layered and ambiguous, while keeping in mind some sense of transaction, of a bargain struck, between me and the ideal reader. Domestic fierceness within the middle class, sex and death as riddles for the thinking animal, social existence as sacrifice, unexpected pleasures and rewards, corruption as a kind of evolution—these are some of the themes. I have tried to achieve objectivity in the form of narrative. My work is meditation, not pontification, so that interviews like this one feel like a forcing of the growth, a posing. I think of my books not as sermons or directives in a war of ideas but as objects, with different shapes and textures and the mysteriousness of anything that exists. My first thought about art, as a child, was that the artist brings something into the world that didn't exist before, and that he does it without destroying something else. A kind of refutation of the conservation of matter. That still seems to me its central magic, its core of joy.


Author photograph by Michael Brennan.