Interview by John Freeman
John interviewed John Updike in New York City in spring 2002. He recorded the conversation on microcassette.
Read John’s profile of Updike in his book How to Read a Novelist.
The Animated Transcript
John Freeman is an award-winning writer and book critic who has written for numerous publications.
I was trying to get away from the hassle and the expense of the city. And if I was going to be a New York culture vulture, I shouldn’t have gotten married and had children. Basically children are very… They pin you down. And if I was going to be pinned down, if we were going to be pinned down, why not be pinned down at least somewhere where we could park the car for free and get some free air, grass and sunshine and so on. [laughter]
I didn’t know (coughs) when we moved (coughs) that I‘d be up there for the rest of my life. I thought to become a serious american writer, one ought to write a novel or two. I was a New Yorker contributor and I hadn’t written a novel, so I gave myself this sabbatical which stretched then into a lifestyle that lasted all my life.
I sat in this rented house in this north shore town and after writing a couple of short stories, which they took so I knew I wouldn’t starve… Yet… meanwhile we were getting used to the town and to country-suburban living. And bought a house. I actually begged the Guggenheim grant so I could feel I could take a break from trying to write and sell short stories. It was a mere thousand dollars in those days, but a thousand dollars went a much longer way than it does now. And, I felt, too… I’d said I was a Pennsylvanian Dutch, Dutchman and I thought if I’d taken the money I oughta write the book. So I wrote Rabbit Run. In… for much of ‘59, much of 1959… so that is how I wrote Rabbit Run.
As somebody who’s had a family of your own and has been producing an innumerable amount of work every year over 50 years, how did you strike that balance?
In those days, you know the man worked and earned the bread. And the wife took care of the children, whether it was one, or, as in my case four. After the children got to be, ah, four in number and all very young. Pretty noisy. They couldn’t help it. My wife suggested I get out of the house. For her too in a way. There is something very nice about having children in a home. They bring into it all the new things. The new gadgets. The new words. So that it’s a plus for a writer up to a point to have children around. But after awhile they do get to be distracting. So I rented a room and tried to go to work.
But I was seeing it as a job and as a livelihood. I think I was maybe the last generation that could actually try to enter the literary profession, as if it was a trade and something you did and you produced a product that was useful enough that you’d get paid for it. And now I think it’s harder. There were a lot more magazines that paid for short stories and a dollar went a long way. Well I have been re-reading my old short stories and of course the sums of money that people dealing with is laughable. Two men eating lunch in a New York restaurant for less than five dollars [laughs] I could hardly believe these figures, but there they were.
What brings you to your writing desk every morning?
To put the more fearful anxiety ridden spin on this, there is the fear that you somehow neglected to say what was really yours to say. You neglected somehow that the key thing. It’s not likely. I’ve written a lot. I must have somewhere touched on almost every aspect of my life and experience. Nevertheless there’s this haunting fear that maybe the thing you left out is finally going to be captured. [laughs]