Revisiting John Updike's 'Fresh Air' Interviews

Mar 16, 2012
Originally published on March 16, 2012 11:47 am

These interviews were originally broadcast on March 17, 1988, March 16, 1989, and Oct. 14, 1997. You can listen to the original broadcasts in their entirety here.

John Updike would have turned 80 on March 18, 2012. To celebrate the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Random House is re-releasing some of his most recognizable works, including the Rabbit series. The publisher is also releasing e-book editions of Updike's entire back catalog, along with a posthumous essay collection, "Higher Gossip," which will appear in paperback for the first time.

Updike appeared on Fresh Air several times over the years. On Friday's show, excerpts from several of those interviews will be played.

Over his decades-long career, Updike authored more than 25 novels and over a dozen short story collections, as well as poems, essays and a memoir.

Updike won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1982 for his novel Rabbit is Rich and another Pulitzer in 1991 for Rabbit at Rest. He also received the National Book Award in 1964 for his novel The Centaur, which follows a depressed school teacher and his anxious son in rural Pennsylvania.

In 1998, Updike was awarded the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a lifetime achievement award issued by the National Book Awards. He died of lung cancer on January 27, 2009. He was 76.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross. One of our greatest writers, John Updike, would have been 80 on Sunday, March 18. To commemorate his birthday, some of his most popular works, including the Rabbit series, are being republished.

In addition, the entire backlist of his work at Random House is being released in eBook editions, and a posthumous essay collection, "Higher Gossip," will be published in paperback. Updike wrote over 60 books and won every big literary award with the exception of the Nobel Prize. His best-known novels include "Rabbit Run," "Bech, a Book" and "The Witches of Eastwick." He also was an important literary critic, short story writer and an essayist on subjects ranging from golf and art to chores and the minutia of life.

We're going to hear excerpts of two of his FRESH AIR interviews, starting with Terry's first interview with him, recorded in 1988.


You grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where I'm sure there wasn't a big writers' community.


JOHN UPDIKE: To say the least.

GROSS: Did writers seem somewhat magical to you growing up away from writers and away from the publishing world?

UPDIKE: Yes, the whole world seemed magical. There was, however, my mother who was trying to be a writer. So that the basic tools of writing - that is the typewriter and the paper and the manila envelopes were - all in the house, and I used to watch her type and used to watch her send the things off and hope for the best.

And eventually she did get published, although perhaps never as much as her gifts deserved. So that there was my mother. There was some literary activity in the nearby city of Reading, and we're talking about an eastern area, basically, which was only a train ride from New York City. So, although it seemed quite magical and distant, it was not as distant and magical as it might have seemed to a boy, say, from Alaska or Nevada.

GROSS: In the mid '60s, you said that your subject was the American Protestant small town middle class and that middles really interested you. Do you think that's changed much since then?

UPDIKE: Well, like many things that you've said and had quoted back at you, you sort of wish - you wish to move on in a way, and I wouldn't quite phrase it that way, but as a matter of fact, yes, I do still live in a smallish town, and I do still seem to write about people who are somewhat in the middle.

But I don't feel it as a cause quite the way I did. I write about, more or less, everything I can think of, that is I stretch my imagination as far as it'll go. I am kind of stuck in the middle as far as my life goes, and hence my imagination tends to zero in on things which are indeed in the middle. That is, I don't write about the very rich, who I scarcely know, or the very poor who I don't know very well either.

GROSS: You know, most of your novels have been about people from the middle class, but I think there's something in your life that you've never done in a way that's always a part of the middle class, and that is reporting to work, reporting for a job.

You worked at the New Yorker for a couple of years back in the mid-'50s, but you've been a writer all your life and have been able to make a living from it, which meant that, you know, you never had to go to work.


UPDIKE: I've never...

GROSS: Out at a job, out at an office or a plant or something like that.

UPDIKE: No, no exactly so, and I think it's an area of American experience which most people have and which I have, by my own early and lucky success, have somewhat skipped. And I'm sorry, in a way, you know. I'm sorry I did not, unlike Joseph Conrad, ship out and be a marine captain for many years because it gave him a lot of things to write about. He never was in danger of running out of material.

I did have a number of jobs as a teenager, and I did watch my father go off to work every day. And I've lived among commuters for much of my life so I don't feel entirely locked out. But you're right, I began to write quite early and to get published early, and to some extent, it's made me an oddball and a bit to one side of the mainstream of the American experience.

GROSS: You've extolled accuracy in writing, accuracy in describing the details of objects and settings and of people and their lives. Why is that kind of detail so important?

UPDIKE: Well, I find that the main charge, let's call it, I get out of writing is when I feel I've gotten something down accurately. And the main bliss, whether I read Henry Green or Nabokov or Proust or Tolstoy, is the sense that they've described precisely a certain level of experience, whether it's a dress or a chair, how a person's face looks, that really - the literary art is a parasitic one in that its energy comes from the energy of the real and so accuracy is one way of describing the close approximation to the real that we all sort of live for.

There's other kinds of accuracy, of course. There is the larger attempt to - in the shape of your novels to give something of the texture and the ambiguity of life itself, which makes perhaps for novels that don't end as conclusively and as satisfyingly as 19th-century novels did, but I think it's our fate as 20th-century people to live with ambiguity, and so I've tried to make my books, in some sense, reflect - yeah, the ambiguity as it exists.

GROSS: Do you think that great novels have more to do with perfect pitch than they do with great stories or great themes?

UPDIKE: I think the storytelling instinct has to be part of the writer's equipment in that, in the end, the novels that we treasure as classics are those which tell a pretty solid story. And "The Scarlet Letter" and "Moby Dick" and "Huckleberry Finn," to name three American classics, all have a strong storyline that you can retain in your mind.

So I would say that this is one piece, and maybe the main piece, of the puzzle. But having the story in your mind - and I think it's the sentence-to-sentence pleasures, the little surprises of a surprising style of an acute style, and also the way things happen one after the other, that makes a book interesting to read page to page so that you try to do both things.

You try to have the page-to-page interestingness, the - that any page of a novel could be ripped out and read as kind of a poem, that plus the fact that when the book is closed, some kind of whole image will be in your mind and please you or at least, you know, that in some way some - your mind will have been changed by the book.

GROSS: You review a lot of books and you once wrote that when you review a book you should review the book and not the writer's reputation. With the reputation that you have as a great American writer, do you find that it's frequently your reputation and not your latest book that gets reviewed?

UPDIKE: I feel that less lately than formerly. I did feel as though a number of critics had appointed themselves, when they sat down with a new book of mine, to rectify what they felt to be was my inflated reputation and so that the book in hand was not really given a chance but made a kind of weapon in the general attempt to bring me down to size.

I've tried to avoid doing that to other writers. And I must say, and maybe I should knock on wood, is that the last couple books of mine have been reviewed, in, I think, a basically fair and attentive way. And all a writer can ask, really, is that the reviewer read the book and say what he thinks about it instead of trying to readjust the American literary scene by means of this book review.

GROSS: Does the critic in you ever threaten to stifle the novelist in you?

UPDIKE: Yes, all the time he threatens to do that. And I kind of sidled into reviewing. I never really set out to be a critic, and my mother didn't raise me to be a critic, but in the '60s it seemed a convenient and nice thing to do. I had a number of authors who I was enthusiastic about, and I wanted to share my enthusiasm with the reader. And so it's gone now for 30 years. But yeah, it's not good to think very critically when you're trying to write because...

GROSS: Well, I should think you'd be afraid to write.

UPDIKE: Yes, yes.


GROSS: You know, what I mean? You sit there saying, this could be better. There must be a better word than this.

UPDIKE: Any sentence could be stifled by the critic in one, if you allow him to get the upper hand. But, by in large, and keeping in mind that I am a little wary of the critic in me, I think once you start to try to put images and words of dialogue together that in some way the imaginary world takes over and mercifully shuts out all these harassing critical thoughts that you might otherwise entertain.

HOST: We're listening back to Terry's 1988 interview with the late John Updike. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


HOST: We're listening back to Terry's 1988 interview with the late writer John Updike. It was her (technical difficulty). Some of his most popular works are being republished, and most of his work is being released in the eBook format, as well.

GROSS: You wrote a satire of the literary life called "Bech: A Book," one of your novels. And the literary figure who you write about in there is a Jewish novelist. And I wonder if you felt that when you were coming of age, that many of your peers who were coming of age as writers were Jewish?

UPDIKE: They were, and they are collectively, and one by one, the chief glory of postwar American literature. It has been a Jewish and urban - I'm a Protestant and kind of a country boy. So I did feel that occasionally I was chastised for writing out of such an unfashionable corner of the American experience. But I persevered because it was the only corner I had. And who knows what went into the creation of Henry Bech?

For one thing, a writer, especially as he ages, and if he has some success, has experiences which only a writer could have. So, it was helpful for me to invent a fictional writer, and I tried to make him as unlike myself as I could. Instead of a father of four, he's an unwed and a bachelor, and he is Jewish and urban, which is, in a way, something I would like to be.

GROSS: Jewish and urban?

UPDIKE: Yes, I think it'd be nice and kind of lively and a lot of fun as I imagined it, really, although Bech's life isn't all fun. It's been fun for me to try to imagine myself into the skin and the mind of Henry Bech.

GROSS: You feel that you missed out on something because you don't have, you know, a kind of obvious ethnic heritage. Because WASPs in this country are not assumed to have, you know, the kind of ethnic sense of past that, say, Jews do. Do you know what I'm talking about?

UPDIKE: You don't have a subject quite in the way that the Jewish writers of a certain transitional generation did, it's true. And I was raised in a town that did not have much ethnic self-awareness because, basically, it was all Protestant, all white, all gentile.

On the other hand, it was in Pennsylvania. We had a sharp sense of ourselves as Pennsylvanians, and there was a feeling that there was something here, that we did have an identity. I don't feel exactly that, you know, it's like water, it's more like milk, that is there is a color, even if it's white, and even if the milk is a little stale now in the glass.

So, you know, I think any life has in it enough material, enough points of departure, to fuel a writer's career and that we shouldn't worry about what we're not but to try to focus on what we are and what we do know.

GROSS: Your father was a math teacher in your high school, and I believe you even had classes with him. You know, most of us don't get to see - most of us as children never got to judge our fathers at the work that they did because the work that they did was far away from where we were, and what did we know about it. But all students evaluate their teachers, so you knew your father in a kind of different level, than most of us know ours.

UPDIKE: It was a strange exposure. Yeah, my father taught junior high math and I was his student for not one but three years, all those junior high years. Indeed he was my homeroom teacher for one of those years. And what can I say except that he made it kind of painless.

I was not pressured to behave better than the other children, and he somehow continued to express paternal feelings toward me when I was not in class. And luckily I was a good student and liked math, so there wasn't really any basic conflict.

But yes, it is a strange thing to see your father at work, as it were. And what I got out of it was mostly - well, two things really: a sense of pride, seeing him perform because I saw him in high school assemblies, and he was the funniest of the teachers and would say things which would make the whole auditorium roar with laughter. And I thought in my - crouching down in my seat that that's my dad and was kind of amazed.

On the other hand, I did see, especially as he got older, the real struggle that teaching is and keeping discipline and saying the same things for the 15th year in a row. And so a curious sense of his agony, that is the agony of the working teacher, was born in upon me also.

GROSS: You must have been known, at least partially in school, as your father's son, since everyone knew who he was and who you were. Was it a relief when you left home to just not be known as your father's son?

UPDIKE: I think the pressure on teachers' children, and there were a number in my class, and on ministers' children in a small town, there is a certain pressure or expectation that you would be good. And since I was basically kind of timid and good, it wasn't an inordinate pressure on me, but I both enjoyed the role, kind of. It did give me a tiny bit of celebrity in this small town. And in a way I was happy to get out of Shillington into an area where nobody knew me or my father or my grandfather.

GROSS: You know, for years I'd really hoped that I'd someday have the opportunity to do an interview with you, but I was very scared of it as well because you really dislike being interviewed, and you dislike the form. You've called interviews a form to be loathed.


GROSS: I think, of all the people I've ever met, you really have the strongest anti-interview feelings.

UPDIKE: And yet, I've given my share of interviews...

GROSS: I know, I know.

UPDIKE: As you may notice. And....

GROSS: Absolutely.

UPDIKE: I seem to be giving more and more, too, which just goes to show that these high principles. But I think what I was objecting to mostly when I made the remark about them being a half-form like maggots, and a form to be loathed...


UPDIKE: Is that once you've put yourself on record in an interview, and you're sort of thinking fast and saying the first thing that pops into your mind, basically, anything to fill up the air time or the reporter's time, it's a little disconcerting, when you're younger than I, to realize that these remarks which you toss off, once they're in print, have an equal weight with all the words that you've labored to polish and make come out exactly right.

So, in some sense, I do resist and resent the tendency of our age to milk people through interviews, to get them to betray or to reveal the real whoever - John Updike, let's say - when John Updike has been trying to show the real John Updike in his writing all these years. However, it's like traffic jams and flying in jet planes, it's a part of our...


UPDIKE: Part of our penance for living in the 21st century.

GROSS: Well listen, thanks for doing the interview. I have a couple of more questions for you. Do you mind if I quote you one more time?

UPDIKE: No, no, it's fun to hear it.


GROSS: You said that an artist of any sort in our society and most others is a privileged person, allowed to stand apart from some of the daily grind and supposed to be closer to the gods and to have access to the divine sources of tribal well-being. What's this, quite a responsibility. And I'm not sure if you think that's an appropriate way of seeing an artist, or if you think that's an absurd way to see artists?

UPDIKE: There's been quite a lot said by the classic modernists Wallace Stevens and James Joyce and others and Proust also about the sacred importance of the writer and about their sense that God being either dead or asleep that the writer has inherited what once was the priest's function.

And this certainly enabled the modernists, that is, this high concept of their importance to write marvelous stuff, that is to do anything well, you have to believe in it, and such a creed enabled them to believe enough to devote their lives to writing well. I don't know as I quite subscribe to this elevated notion of the writer's role.

But I think even - yes, I think people do look to us to tell the truth in a way that nobody else quite will, not politicians or ministers or sociologists. A writer's job, is to, by way of fiction, somehow describe the way we live. And to me, this seems an important task, very worth doing, and I think also, to the reading public, it seems, even though they might not articulate it, it seems to them something worth doing also.

In a way, what you are doing, is you are giving - Pascal said this somewhere - you're giving back people themselves. You are, by describing as best you can, the fantasies of your own life, you are showing other people what their lives are like. And in a way, you are giving people life, you are clarifying their life for them. And so this is not an insignificant task, is it?

GROSS: No and that's a great way of looking at it, too. Just one last thing. Did people still say run Rabbit run when they see you?


UPDIKE: A little less than they used. And it was mostly in Pennsylvania that people used to say run Rabbit run at me. I guess though, he is my most famous character, and I meet people now and then who ask about the fourth book, if any, and say how much it's meant to them, that Rabbit has been their life. They are Rabbit, they tell me. They don't look like Rabbit, but that's what they say.

So I've kind of become a little more mellow toward me and Harry Angstrom, and, you know, I don't mind people saying that or whatever. It's funny, you know, as a child you sort of hope for, what, fame of a kind. And when you get it, you find that it has its thorny side as well as its roses. But I think, you know, thorns and roses go together, and so you must take the sour with the sweet.

HOST: John Updike speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. He died in 2009. Some of his most popular works are being republished. We'll hear an excerpt of Terry's 1997 interview with Updike, taped before a live audience, in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

We are commemorating the birthday of John Updike, who would've been 80 this Sunday, and we're not alone. To mark the occasion, his most popular books, including the "Rabbit" series, are being republished and Random House is releasing his entire backlist in eBook form.

Today, we're featuring excerpts of Terry's interviews with John Updike. This next interview was recorded in 1997 before a live audience at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

GROSS: Now "Rabbit," the first "Rabbit" novel was published I think in 1960, about three years after Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." Now, in the beginning of the "Rabbit" novel, Rabbit leaves his wife. He's really restless. He's really unhappy, frustrated, and he takes off in his car and he drives south. He has no idea where the hell he's going. And so he can't tell if he's gotten there yet, because he has no destination. And he ends up just turning around and going back home. It's a really interesting counterpoint to "On the Road," which is about the fun and the adventure and the excitement of being on the road. This was about the not being able to go any place, not being able to really get away.

And I'm wondering if you ever felt that you were missing out on this adventure that other people in your - other writers of your generation were having, the sense that the road is filled with mystical adventures, and lots of sex and drugs and freedom and exciting things to write about. And at the same time too, they were writing about the stuff in this kind of jazz improvisation kind of way, and you were creating this beautifully crafted intricate prose - also a direct counterpoint to what the beat writers of your generation were doing.

UPDIKE: They didn't feel like my generation, they felt like a slightly older generation. I was sort of jealous of Kerouac. I did think he was having more fun than I.


UPDIKE: And I resented the book to the extent that I didn't read it for years after it came out.


UPDIKE: But my Pennsylvania, small-town farm boy mentality argued against this vision of being on the road, it seemed to me we all couldn't be on the road all the time.


UPDIKE: Nothing would get done.


UPDIKE: And the reality surely was is that we're all a party, one way or another, to a social contract, and when one unit in the social web takes off, there are tugs and breaks he leaves behind him. So, that "Rabbit Run" was, in some sense, kind of an anti-on the road. Yes, he breaks away, and there is that within us which cries out for freedom, more freedom, utter freedom, which rebels against the constraints.

Rabbit is faced with a alcoholic and pregnant wife and a dead-end job of no great charm, a glorious past as a high school athletic hero, and a general sense of being caught. He is a caught rabbit, a rabbit in a trap. So, he, yes, breaks out, but then I thought it was more realistic to think that such a person would then have nowhere to go, get lost on the road after the one glorious burst of freedom and return, return to where he came from, which is what he does.

GROSS: Well, when we're writing about the middle-class, the middle-class went crazy. I mean, this was a period when marriages were breaking up, people in the middle-class, when in another era, might have had a very stable nuclear family, they were doing drugs and drinking a lot – and not all of them, but some of them, and some of them whom you wrote about. You know, marriages were breaking up, new relationships were forming, there were affairs on the side. Was this a very interesting time to be writing about the middle-class?

UPDIKE: It turned out to be...


UPDIKE: I didn't plan these events.


UPDIKE: I was, like many in the '50s, I married young. It was really the most feasible way of getting a woman to go to bed with you...


UPDIKE: ...was to marry her. And the Eisenhower - the Eisenhower - what is the word, not mystique but the mood was certainly to create little nuclear households of happy children and humming appliances and a collie dog in the station wagon. And I acquired all that - all that, even - not the collie, but it was a golden retriever.


UPDIKE: Which seemed close enough. And then, as Terry says, the revolution of the 60's. That world really came apart, not in 1960, I think, but in 1963 when we woke up and were told that John Kennedy - or we didn't wake up, we learned it in the middle of the day - when John Kennedy was shot, somehow that let loose a lot of demons and the discontent that the '50s conformity had imperfectly masked, really let loose. But, yes, it turned - so I wrote anyway.

Yeah, I wrote couples, basically, trying to describe this phenomenon of a generation for which the various faiths, patriotic and religious, had faded. And for whom, unlike today, to whom their professions offered no real deep diversion, they went - the men went and did jobs, but they only worked nine to five. There wasn't this passionate fright to work endless hours that there is now. Jobs were, by no means, as consuming. You kind of did them on the side, almost like your private functions. One of them was to have a job...


UPDIKE: But, your real life was the social life, was the parties where you'd take your wife and look at the other wives. I mean it was a...


UPDIKE: It was a world in which - and my theory was at the time - people tried, in the absence of another compelling religion, to make a religion of each other, a kind of a cult intermingling. It was the heyday of the Julia Child dinner party. It was the heyday of the Sunday afternoon volleyball game. It was a lot of rubbing elbows, my father used to call it.

GROSS: You write in your memoir: My success was based, I felt, on a certain calculated modesty, on my cultivated fondness for exploring corners, the space beneath the Shillington dining table, where the nap of the rug was still thick, the back stairs where the vacuum cleaner and rubber goulashes lived. I had left the heavily trafficked literary turfs to others and stayed in my corner of New England to give its domestic news.

Now, what occurs to me that domestic news has traditionally been the territory of women writers. Whereas, men traditionally wrote more about, like you were saying, adventure, war, the big issues of the day - politics or, you know, whatever. Do you feel that you brought a kind of male point of view to a territory that had, for the most part, previously been women's territory in fiction?

UPDIKE: That hadn't especially occurred to me. My concrete objective was to get enough stories in The New Yorker that I could support my own domestic scene...


UPDIKE: ...which rapidly, as I said, became four children. And The New Yorker ran, almost entirely, stories about domestic situations. So, I was just really one of the crowd. I mean, Cheever was also writing about domestic situations and in some way the home - the American home was where it was at in those years. Everybody, more or less, except for Jack Kerouac, was...


UPDIKE: And he, funnily enough, I happen to know a little bit about Kerouac because he came from Lowell, fairly near to where I live. And he kept coming back to his mother. So...


UPDIKE: Neal Cassady and Ginsberg were fine for a while, but he'd come back to Mamma Kerouac and eat her home cooking for months at a time. So, so much for you, Jack Kerouac.


GROSS: In writing about domestic life, you, of course, also wrote about sex, which is an important part of married life and domestic life. And now I have to quote Nicholson Baker, and if you haven't read his book, "U and I" -the U being for Updike and the I being for Nicholson Baker, read it. It's a memoir about Nicholson Baker's obsessive relationship, as a reader and as a writer, with John Updike. Nicholson Baker writes, Updike was the first to take the penile sensorium under the wing of elaborate metaphorical prose. And he says, Updike brought a serious, morally sensitive, National Book Award-winning prose style, to bear on the micro-mechanics of physical lovemaking.

What do you think of that?

UPDIKE: Micro-mechanics.


UPDIKE: They don't feel micro when you're doing it.


GROSS: His idea of the National Book Award-winning literary style applied to lovemaking.

UPDIKE: It's a very jaunty piece of criticism...


UPDIKE: ...and not untrue. But, I saw it - I would have seen it in slightly grander terms.


UPDIKE: Seemed to me important in writing about people to be able to describe the sexual transactions between them. It's - for many people it's the height of, what they see, of ecstasy and poetry is in their sexual encounters. And furthermore, personality - human personality does not end in the bedroom, but persists.

Not all lovemaking is alike. Anyway, it seemed a writer should clearly be free to describe it. And one didn't entirely lack models for sexual realism. Even in the late '50s and early '60s, D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was certainly around. First as a rumor and then as an actual book...


UPDIKE: ...which we could read. Certain 18th-century fiction writers described things, more of less, as they were. Somebody like - a book like "Moll Flanders." So, you know, I wasn't entirely new in this. What may have been new in what Baker highlights is that I tried to - my prose style was heavily influenced by Proust, who I read in my early twenties, and maybe I did try to bring to certain couplings a Proustian eloquence, just as I would bring that same eloquence to anything I was describing.

GROSS: You've described yourself as shy and priggish as a young man. Was it, hard being shy, to write pretty sexually explicit material?

UPDIKE: No, it's just what a shy and priggish person would do.


UPDIKE: The - writing is a kind of act of aggression, and a person who is not aggressive in his normal, may I say, intercourse with humanity might well be an aggressive writer. And it - I felt I couldn't have done it, but I had the courage of my convictions, and the conviction was that this was worth doing, and that it certainly existed, and that after Freud no one needed argue the importance of sex in our lives.

Those passages where Rabbit and Ruth explore each other, discover each other, whatever, were very crucial, I thought, to a book about a man's quest. Certainly, here was the peek of a certain kind of quest and as far as ecstasy and purity and light, he wasn't going to find it much of anywhere else. So, I thought it was very worth trying to describe that.

BIANCULLI: John Updike, interviewed by Terry Gross before a live audience at the Free Library of Philadelphia back in 1997.

To commemorate his birthday, he would have turned 80 this Sunday, his most popular books are being republished and Random House is making his entire backlist available in eBook form. Also, a new posthumous collection of his essays is being published in paperback.

Coming up, I switch to TV critic mode and review "Frozen Planet," the latest nature documentary series, coproduced by Discovery Channel and the BBC. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.