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From the National Book Foundation Archives
Interview with John Updike

John Updike, a two-time Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction -- for his novels The Centaur (1964) and Rabbit Is Rich (1982) -- and a six-time Finalist for the prize, is the author of 46 books of fiction, criticism, plays, essays and poetry. After graduating from high school in Shillington, Pennsylvania, he attended Harvard University on a scholarship, graduating summa cum laude in 1954. He then studied painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts at Oxford University before accepting a position at The New Yorker, which has published his work ever since.

Rabbit Is Rich is the third novel in Updike's highly acclaimed "Rabbit" tetralogy; in addition to winning the National Book Award, it earned the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics' Circle Award. Like all the "Rabbit" novels, Rabbit Is Rich reveals the novelist's abiding interest in chronicling the terrors and pleasures of sex, marriage, adultery, parenthood and religion that ordinary Americans have experienced over the past 30 years. The tetralogy is widely regarded as Updike's best work to date, since the novels provide, as Anthony Quinton noted in a London Times review, "the fullest scope to his remarkable gifts as an observer and describer. What they amount to is a social and, so to speak, emotional history of the United States."

How is it that you decided to become a writer?
My mother wanted to be a writer, and from earliest childhood on I saw her at the typewriter; and though my main passion as a child was drawing, I suppose the idea of being a writer was planted in my head.

Who are some of the writers who have shaped your voice?
Of course, everything you read of any merit at all in some way contributes to your knowledge of how to write, but my first literary passion was James Thurber. He showed me an American voice and a willingness to be funny. I think I first became aware of his work when I was around eleven, and I actually would save up pennies to go buy the new Thurber; he was my idol until about the age of eighteen or nineteen. I wrote him a fan letter at the age of twelve and he sent me a drawing, which I've carried with me, framed, everywhere I've gone since. In college there were Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, to name two, and the short stories of J.D. Salinger really opened my eyes as to how you can weave fiction out of a set of events that seem almost unconnected, or very lightly connected.

Directly out of college, in my attempt to continue my education, I began to read Proust in an English translation by Scott Moncrieff, and the length of those sentences, and the qualities of the perceptions he was searching for, the expansive, delicious lunges into philosophy, all seemed very magical to me. At about the same period I also began to read an English novelist called Henry Green, who is semi-forgotten but for me is really a master of the voice in fiction. Rabbit is Rich is a long way from those years, but the pick-and-roll of it, the quickness of it, was written with Green's touch in mind. And, of course, behind all those interior monologues stands Ulysses; the interior monlogues of both Molly and Leopold Bloom were for me a very liberating, very exciting new way to touch the texture of human experience. But Joyce is in the air you breathe, whereas Proust and Green and Salinger stick in my mind as really having moved me a step up, as it were, toward knowing how to handle my own material.

You said once, in speaking about Rabbit, Run, that you began the novel with an interest in dramatizing a kind of scared, dodgy approach to life. What was it about that approach to life that you found so compelling?
I suppose I could observe, looking around me at American society in 1959, a number of scared and dodgy men -- and I felt a certain fright and dodginess within myself. This kind of man who won't hold still, who won't make a commitment, who won't quite pull his load in society, became "Harry Angstrom." I imagined him as a former basketball player. As a high school student I saw a lot of basketball and even played a certain amount myself, so the grandeur of being a high school basketball star was very much on my mind as an observed fact of American life. You have this athletic ability, this tallness, this feeling of having been in some ways a marvelous human being up to the age of eighteen, and then everything afterwards runs downhill. In that way he accumulated characteristics -- even his nickname, "Rabbit". Rabbits are dodgy, rabbits are sexy, rabbits are nervous, rabbits like grass and vegetables. I had an image of him that was fairly accessible, and his neural responses, his conversational responses, always seemed to come very readily to me, maybe because they were in many ways quite like my own.

Perhaps I haven't read enough novels, but I can't think of one besides Rabbit is Rich that focuses on a father and son in conflict, and is told from the father's point of view.
I suppose it is fairly unusual. Most novels are told from the young man's point of view, and are written by authors who probably were that young man not too many years before, so you don't get a very empathetic view towards many fathers. You think of Kafka's father, how he dominates and haunts the Kafka fiction, but you never really get much sense of how the father felt about young Franz.

The father-and-son conflict in Rabbit is Rich just sort of flowed naturally out of "Harry's" aging. He's better with smaller children than with bigger ones. I think with bigger children you need a certain set of principles, something to hang a disciplinary system on, and he doesn't have that system. So with the twenty-two or twenty-three year-old "Nelson," "Harry" is fairly worthless; he just dimly at moments feels sorry for him, but is jealous of his girlfriend, is jealous of his youth, imagines that he enjoys a kind of freedom that he, "Harry", never had, and the rest of it. But maybe by "Nelson's" age a normal boy shouldn't be there in the house with his father. Maybe parenthood has a certain season and curve, and "Harry" has run his curve of fatherhood and feels deep down that he shouldn't have to mess anymore with this child of his. In a way, the position of the father in this conflict is more interesting since it's more ambivalent. There is love along with real animosity. You are both the rival and the protector.

Your interest in genetics is also pretty unusual, I think.
My mother, and her father also, were much interested in family resemblances, and maybe that's what planted this particular theme in my head. One of the things I was trying to show was the power of genes. That is, "Nelson" is in many ways his father's son, but he is also his mother's son, and "Harry is very aware of that, too. He looks at Nelson's hands and sees those little Springer hands. "Nelson" has the misfortune of being the short son of a tall father. The novel, in a way, is a study of inheritance.

By and large, it's not something you find much in novels, do you? Some of Anne Tyler's books attempt to treat families as entities as well as collections of individuals -- Searching For Caleb, for instance. For the younger writers now the nuclear family has become really nuclear. It's you and Mom and maybe Dad, although often he's absent, and you get the feeling of a very narrow focus as far as your own identity goes; whereas in the traditional, stable, small-town setting that I grew up in, you were very aware of your ancestors going back at least to the great-grandfather's generation, and even further, I suppose, if you were an aristocrat.

How does the structure of the novel reflect the action of Rabbit Is Rich?
I think the structure of the novel really hinges on the introduction of strangers into the household. "Nelson" comes home and brings "Melanie", disturbing the little social order there; but then "Melanie" turns out to be just the precursor of "Pru", and her introduction creates a whole new order. The action of the book coincides with "Pru's" pregnancy; that is, all these quarrels and events and conversations are engraved upon the surface of her swelling belly. The book is about the arrival of yet another "Angstrom" -- the little granddaughter who is finally going to compensate for the death of "Harry's" daughter twenty years before. "Harry" is becoming a grandfather, whether he knows it or not, throughout the book. It's a step up, out of the middle range of human experience, into the endgame. When you become a grandparent you're usually the next to go; there's nothing beyond grandparenthood but death, as he senses in the end of the novel.

It's a funny thing: in planning the book, and making this one of the central actions, I kind of thought I would have become a grandfather by that point. But although I had four children, none of them had produced a grandchild, so I had to make it all up. Now I am a grandfather of five, but all boys, and none as old as Judy.

How similar is the real thing to what you imagined?
There's imagination and there's reality, and they're not the same. They're not even in the same ballpark, in a funny way. Although you borrow constantly from real life, in the end what the reader wants, and what you should try to provide, is experience stripped of confusion. Life comes to us full of clutter; every moment is, in a sense, overloaded, and in fiction you try, without totally abandoning that sensation of overload, to hew out actual entities which have shape and flow.

So it might have been less help than you would think to have been a grandparent then. Indeed, it was a help not to have had any of the experiences in this book, really; it is purer that way. "Harry" and I began on the same piece of turf and have much of the same basic equipment as other American Protestant white men, but beyond that we kind of diverged. And yet, if I may say so, for me he continued to live. Each book seems easier when it's over with than it did at the time, but there was a kind of ease always that I associate with the books about "Rabbit". From the title of Rabbit is Rich" on there seemed to be a luxuriance; the details were abundant and coming, and I almost had to stop the book, or it would have gone on forever.

What place does Rabbit is Rich have in your writing life?
It did some nice things for me. After a long period of prizelessness, winning the National Book Award and the other major fiction prizes of the year felt like a step up in my position as an American writer. I felt that not only was I being given a prize, but that a prize was being given to the idea of trying to write a novel about a more-or-less average person in a more-or-less average household. hat vindicated one of my articles of faith since my beginnings as a writer: that mundane daily life in peacetime is interesting enough to serve as the stuff of fiction.

Readers who want learn more abut John Updike are encouraged to seek out some of the books that shaped his writing life:
My Life and Hard Times; Fables for Our Time; The Thurber Carnival, James Thurber
Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger
Living; Partygoing; Loving; Concluding, Henry Green
Remembrance of Things Past, especially Swann's Way and Within A Budding Grove, Marcel Proust

Books by John Updike:
The Afterlife (1994)
Brazil (1994)
Collected Poems: 1953-1993 (1993)
Memories of the Ford Administration (1992)
Odd Jobs (1991)
Rabbit at Rest (1990)
Just Looking (1989)
Self-Consciousness (1989)
S. (1988)
Trust Me (1987)
Roger's Version (1986)
Facing Nature (1985)
The Witches of Eastwick (1984)
Hugging the Shore (1983)
Bech is Back (1982)
Rabbit is Rich (1981)
Problems (1979)
Too Far to Go (1979)
The Coup (1978)
The Poorhouse Fair (1977)
Tossing and Turning (1977)
Marry Me (1976)
A Month of Sundays (1975)
Picked-Up Pieces (1975)
Buchanan Dying (1974)
Museums and Women (1972)
Rabbit Redux (1971)
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bottom's Dream (1969)
Midpoint (1969)
Couples (1968)
The Music School (1966)
Assorted Prose (1965)
A Child's Calendar (1965)
Of The Farm (1965)
Olinger Stories (1964)
The Ring (1964)
The Centaur (1963)
Telephone Poles (1963)
The Magic Flute (1962)
Pigeon Feathers (1962)
Rabbit Run (1960)
The Poorhouse Fair (1959)
The Same Door (1959)
The Carpentered Hen (1958)

-- Interview by Diane Osen





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