Jeffrey Brown speaks with John Updike about his early career as an author. Updike recently published "The Early Stories: 1953-1975," an anthology of the short stories he wrote in his 20s, 30s and 40s.
DICK GORDON: I'm Dick Gordon. This is "The Connection."
JEFFREY BROWN: These days, at age 71, John Updike is treated like a literary celebrity, with awards, media attention-- here at WBUR Radio in Boston-- and adoring fans.
DICK GORDON: Donald's joining us now from Amesbury, Massachusetts. Donald, thanks for calling.
CALLER: I wanted to thank Mr. Updike for the inspiration.
JEFFREY BROWN: All fitting an acknowledged master, author of more than 50 books-- novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and more. But in 1955 issue, when the New Yorker Magazine published his first story, "Ace in the Hole," Updike was just 23 and fame was far away. He'd grown up in small-town Pennsylvania, attended Harvard, and begun his career as a freelance writer in New York.
Soon, though, he left for the suburbs of Boston, where, story by story and novel by novel, he built his reputation. A new collection of work from those first years, "The Early Stories, 1953 to 1975," has just been published. We met to talk about it at one of Updike's favorite places, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
JOHN UPDIKE: This is a nice museum. Sort of cozy... cozy antiques.
JEFFREY BROWN: John Updike, welcome.
JOHN UPDIKE: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: What did you see when you went back to look at these early stories?
JOHN UPDIKE: Well, I saw... I saw a kind of vanished world, a world of relatively simple gadgets and simple innovations, technologically, a pre- electronic world in a way, and I also... I saw a writer who was quite new to the craft, but excited by it, and sort of experimental, and there's a freshness to some of these stories that surprised me. I hadn't read them again for many years -- a kind of nearly wet-paint feeling about them that I liked. There's a shine which I enjoyed, and occasionally I tried to polish them a little bit more, but basically they're... they're bright and hopeful attempts to bottle some small portion of the truth.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is it easy for you to put yourself back to that time and remember what it was like?
JOHN UPDIKE: Fairly easy, although, of course, there's a lot you forget. But, yes, I can see myself. First, I had a little room in the house, and the children kept rattling at the door, wanting to get in and see what daddy was doing, and then I rented an office which I filled with cigarette smoke, and then when I gave up cigarettes, I filled it with cigar smoke, and in that way the years went by.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the forward, when you're describing writing short stories, you write, "My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me, to give the mundane its beautiful due." What does that mean, to give the mundane its beautiful due?
JOHN UPDIKE: You know, I worked hard at that sentence 'cause I was trying, you know, having challenged myself to say, "what did I think I was doing?", I then had to find the phrases for it. But I've always had, I think, even before I began to publish, this notion that the ordinary middle-class life was enough to write about, that there was enough drama, interest, relevance, importance, poetry in it.
JEFFREY BROWN: You didn't need grand, epic...
JOHN UPDIKE: I didn't need to write historical epics, no, or science fiction, though I read a lot of science fiction as a kid and rather liked it. But I didn't have the mentality. I also read a lot of mystery novels, and my few attempts to begin a mystery novel fell apart. So I was stuck from my own limits, really, with middle- class... middle-class life, or the mundane, let's call it, and so I was just trying to, story by story, encapsulate some aspect of life as I was experiencing it or observing it. This was a time when the American way of life was coming in for a lot of hard knocks, some of them deserved, but nevertheless I thought that somebody should be bearing witness to the kind of ordinary life that was going on. Under the revolution, under the talk of the revolution, people were living out their lives in families, by and large, growing up with their children, all that kind of thing.
JEFFREY BROWN: But how do you take the mundane, the small things, and make them into something that outsiders, we want to read about, to give them that kind of life?
JOHN UPDIKE: You try to make them entertaining, verbally entertaining for one thing. I try to write with some precision and surprisingness about details that your readers have presumably observed themselves. And with any short story you try to write first sentences that will in some way pique the readers' interest, and then a lot of middle, and then you try to write a last sentence that will in some way close the case, close the issue, resolve it all, and leave him or her with a satisfied feeling of having seen a complete picture.
JEFFREY BROWN: I like that-- a nice first sentence, a lot of middle, and a closer.
JOHN UPDIKE: Yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: Sounds pretty simple.
JOHN UPDIKE: A lot of things sound easier than they are to do, but yes, and that's a fairly, maybe crass way to put it, but remember that I was a kind of crass young writer. I was trying to support a family with writing. I didn't have a private income. I had no other profession. So I was trying to make these curious artifacts for which there would be some market, not an enormous market, but the New Yorker was a significant market, and they paid well. They paid about top dollar for fiction, a modest amount. If I named it now, I think... I think my first story sold for $550. This was in 1954, and it seemed like quite a lot of money, and I said to myself, "hey, I'm a professional writer now."
JEFFREY BROWN: One of your most famous stories is called "A&P," and speaking of mundane moments, it takes place in an A&P, a grocery, supermarket.
JOHN UPDIKE: I remember the germination of the story, or I seem to, since it's my most... best-known story. I've talked about it more than, more than the others. I had seen several girls in bathing suits cruising the aisles, and it was sufficiently startling that it stuck in my mind because although girls in bathing suits at the beach were one thing, girls in bathing suits and bare feet-- bare feet on those well-trod tiles-- all that sort of made, seemed to make a germ of the story.
And my story was simply that the girls were challenged by the manager, and the boy in the checkout slot, a 19-year-old called Sammy, witnesses this, he's offended when the manager chastises the girls for "not coming in here decent," so he says, "I quit."
The manager says, "Sammy, you don't want to do this to your mom and dad." And he says to us, "It's true I don't, but it seems to me that once you begin a gesture, it's fatal not to go through with it." So he folds up his apron and puts the bow tie down on the top of the apron, walks out the door, hoping to get some recognition for having been a knight errant.
"I look around for my girls, but they're gone, of course. There wasn't anybody but some young married screaming with her children about some candy they didn't get by the door of a powder-blue Falcon station wagon.
Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel--" that's the manager-- "I could see Lengel in my place in the second slot, checking the sheep through.
His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he had just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me from here on in."
JEFFREY BROWN: "I felt how hard the world was going to be for me from here on in" -- a kind of zinger ending, in this case a young man looking at the rest of his life with new eyes.
JOHN UPDIKE: Right, and also you get a glimpse of the adult life that he has momentarily put at risk; that is, the Lengels of the world, face grimly going through the necessary task of manning the slot that he has abandoned, and then the vision of married life, of the young mother with her squalling, greedy, candy- crazed child out on the hot parking lot.
So in a way he's saying hold off to all this, and he's in a kind of limbo. But he does feel, yes, that the world, the world does not forgive easily. It won't forgive a quitter. He has become a quitter, a quixotic quitter, you could say.
JEFFREY BROWN: These stories take you up to about your forties. Where are you now, to the extent that these stories reflect some of your early experience? What voice, what experience do you write with now?
JOHN UPDIKE: Well, I know more about what it's like to be elderly and infirm and kind of stupid, the way you get forgetful, but on the other hand I'm a littler, wiser, dare we say? The word "wisdom" has kind of faded out of our vocabulary, but yeah, I'm a little wiser.
JEFFREY BROWN: Are you a better writer now?
JOHN UPDIKE: No, I doubt it. I think I can do a few things that I couldn't do then, but I think maybe I could do a lot of things then that I can't do now.
JEFFREY BROWN: So not a better writer, but still writing.
JOHN UPDIKE: Still trying. It's become a habit, of course, and it's... there's a kind of a bliss to writing. I was aware of that just the other day. Often it feels like a job and "why am I doing this, and who cares anymore?"
There are these shelves full of Updike. I'm embarrassed to look at my own works in toto. But nevertheless there is a kind of a spiritual health in trying to express, like I said, reality. When you feel you've captured it, if only in a phrase or the correct adjective, there's something very happy-making about it, and I'd hate to give up that kind of happiness.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. "The Early Stories of John Updike." Mr. Updike, thank you very much.
JOHN UPDIKE: Thank you very much.