The I's Have It
At 72, John Updike Still Hasn't Run Out Of Things to Write About . . . John Updike

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2004; Page C01


The Grayed American Writer is walking . . .

No. The writer is strolling.

No. Ambling. That's the precise word. John Updike is ambling down Blossom Street in Boston. It is Patriots Day and Boston Marathon day and the banks are closed.

But the world is wide open and full of possibilities.

An amiable sun shines down. Clad in khakis, plaid sports jacket and a crayon-yellow turtleneck, Updike, arguably among the most talented living writers in the world, has a toothy smile on his red face. His hair is gray-white.

He is amused: At the past. At the present. At the country. At long races. At short stories. At human foibles of all colors.

But most of all Updike is amused at his amusement. He is endlessly fascinated by his own self, which he has explored and exploited in more than 50 books in the past 50 years.

His latest is a collection, "The Early Stories: 1953-1975." For this, he'll receive the $15,000 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction on Saturday at a fancy dinner at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.

Though he's 72, this is not a lifetime achievement award. He still has books to write. As long as he is walking and smiling and breathing, as long as he has eyes and skin and teeth, he will have something to write about. He's a marathoner.

As he takes a seat in Foster's, a bar and cafe on the first floor of the Holiday Inn Government Center, he drops a brown folder onto the nearby windowsill. Its innards are a secret he will later reveal, he says. Surely it's something he's written. Surely it's something about himself.

The eyes are hazel. And pale. And watery today. He's just come from the eye doctor. He goes to doctors often.

"I have so-called little lesions under my eyes," he says. Pre-cancerous, he adds.

And he has extremely bushy white eyebrows. The bristles poke into his eyes.

It is because he sees so well that he writes so beautifully. He began as a draftsman, sending cartoons to the New Yorker before sending short stories. "I had aspirations to be a comics artist," he says.

He still writes occasional pieces of art criticism and plans to publish a collection of them next year.

He rises from the table and steps into the hotel foyer. On the wall are large pastel prints by Thomas Kinkade -- schlocky cityscapes of New York and San Francisco.

Updike has never heard of Kinkade, the most popular artist in America and the prime mover in a $2 billion-a-year enterprise. "The paintings," Updike observes, with amusement, "have a creepy, old-fashioned feeling."

He writes in the colors and light of a painter. This is from a strange little sketch called "Leaves" in the new collection:

"The grape leaves where they are not in each other's shadows are golden. Flat leaves, they take the sun flatly, and turn the absolute light, sum of the spectrum and source of all life, into the crayon yellow with which children render it. Here and there, wilt transmutes this lent radiance into a glowing orange, and the green of the still-tender leaves -- for green persists long into autumn, if we look -- strains from the sunlight a fine-veined chartreuse."

"Writing is a way of taming the world," he says, "turning the inchoate, often embarrassing stream into a package." It's a construct that enables him to remain amused, and amazed. Putting the world on the page has made a good living for him and for countless professors around the world who teach his books.

He adds that writing "does make the world realer to me."

In an interview with Roger Mudd that aired recently on the History Channel, Updike says: "I never thought of myself as a rapid writer. Just sort of steady." For decades he has worked three hours a day six days a week. He never writes on Sundays.

Writing, he says, "is a matter of patience."

And "a way to get your self on paper."

An only child, and a stutterer, Updike began to express himself in stories on his mother's typewriter when he was 11. He grew up in Shillington, Pa., which is an hour or so northwest of Philadelphia. His father was a teacher. His mother worked in a department store.

After graduating from Harvard University in 1954, he accepted a fellowship to the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. While there, the New Yorker offered him a slot as a staff writer. He moved with his wife, Mary, to Manhattan. They stayed in New York less than two years, then moved to Ipswich, just north of Boston. They have four grown children.

He has won a couple of National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. He is perhaps most renowned for his series of novels about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. In the first one, "Rabbit, Run," Angstrom is a former athlete and a young husband who feels trapped in his marriage and his dead-end life. He goes out for cigarettes one night and keeps going. Updike follows Angstrom's search for meaning in several subsequent novels.

Updike admits that if you take Rabbit out of his oeuvre, he would have few literary prizes and less praise.

Updike's books are seldom bestsellers. He has a core audience and he expects to sell 30,000 or so copies of a new novel. His books do not translate well into movies. Only two -- "Rabbit, Run" and "The Witches of Eastwick" -- have made it to the big screen. He feels that both failed, for different reasons. The first, which starred James Caan, was faithful to the novel but not widely seen. The second, which starred Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, Cher and Jack Nicholson, was more popular but wound up being "silly."

Literary fiction, he tells Mudd, is a relatively new phrase. "I apparently write it," he says. "I never wanted to write it. I wanted to write fiction."

In the 1950s, "when I began this trade," he says, "the literary writers were also best-selling writers. There wasn't this gap between literary fiction and middle-class fiction."

Updike is a dinosaur. He's a throwback to another era when writers wrote and didn't teach or act in movies or star on "Hollywood Squares."

Way back then, people read Hemingway and Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. "Books meant something," he says, "when your piano teacher read Steinbeck."

He marvels that on the one hand people are reading less, but on the other they're writing more. There has been a proliferation of writing courses in colleges, he points out in the documentary. "They are like courses in basket weaving in a culture that's gone to plastics."

In separate essays, Tom Wolfe called Updike "insular, effete and irrelevant" and David Foster Wallace asked if he has "ever had one unpublished thought?"

Updike's answer to Wallace is: Yes. But, of course, there is still time.

"People may have liked me better if I had written less," says the master of over-honest introspection. Updike writes a lot -- short stories and book reviews and art criticism and novels. "I like seeing my name in print," he says.

And he enjoys the steady checks. The New Yorker sometimes rejects his work. For instance, the editors said no thanks to a 9/11 tale titled "Varieties of Religious Experience."

He sold the story to the Atlantic Monthly.

"Fiction," he says, "is part confession, part lie."

Over the years, Updike's brain has undergone a strange shift. Through constant fictional confession and the blurring of fact and myth, many of his memories have been supplanted by his memoirs. He recalls one particular trip he made to New York when he was young. His recollection is more of the story he wrote about the visit than of the visit itself. "Having written the story," he says, "totally displaces what really happened that day."

If the unexamined life is not worth living, what can you say of the over-examined life? That it's worth sharing?

He touches his splotchy skin every now and then as he talks.

"I might have drifted into some ordinary job but for the psoriasis," he says. He wrote about his chronic condition, natch, in an essay titled: "At War With My Skin."

He included the essay, natch, in his memoir "Self-Consciousness."

The skin problem made his commitment to writing "more fierce," he says, because he needed as much time as possible to sit on the beach and let the sun burn the itching away.

The focus shifts from his skin to his mouth, and he points to his eight incisors. "These are the only real teeth I have," he says. He writes about his dental health in another introspective essay, "On Not Being a Dove." I was to have a number of teeth pulled in my young manhood, as I went from high school to college and marriage and a scattering of living sites.

As in many Updike essays and short stories, what starts as a meditation on one small thing (like teeth) blooms into something larger (why he did not protest the Vietnam War).

On this Patriots Day, Updike is again thinking about war and politics. He has met President Bush. "I give him high praise for graciousness," Updike says. "Laura, too."

But, he adds, "that doesn't make me a Republican."

"Upon sober reflection at age 72," he says, "the Democratic Party is the party that tries to give losers a chance. A laissez-faire government drives a culture apart."

He says toothily, "I would like to see Kerry win."

Updike seems easy in his skin this day. He speaks of reading Proust. And James Joyce's "Dubliners," which he says is a writing course in itself.

He plays a little golf, and he has served as a marshal at a Ryder Cup match and the U.S. Open. He lives in Beverly now, with his second wife, Martha.

Through the years, Updike nearly always attended church. In his autumn, he has become a regular at St. John's Episcopal Church in Beverly Farms. "The Episcopal church is a good place for a half-assed Lutheran to settle," he says. "I need the pinch of salt that religion gives."

Writing regrets? He has a few. The original Rabbit novels, for instance, were written too fast and contained some factual errors, "like saying that a certain model car has its engine in the front when it's in the back," Updike says. He has tried to fix the errors in subsequent editions.

Mostly he is pleased with his writing life. He has another novel coming out in the fall. "I'm reading proofs now," he says. "That's what's in the brown folder."

And on this Boston Marathon day, he is thinking about the long run. He glances over his shoulder at the TV above the bar. He watches the end of the race and an interview with the winner, Timothy Cherigat of Kenya.

Now it's time for Updike to run. He reaches for the folder and tucks it under his arm. The working title of the novel is "Villages." It's a story about an aging computer programmer, he says, and about "a life's education via the towns you live in."

By education, he means a philosophical construct to help us stay amused and amazed in this strange and changing world. By towns, he means places like Shillington, Pa., Ipswich and Beverly.

And by you, he doesn't mean you, of course. He means Updike.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company