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A Setting Fitting for a Master

Jeffrey Brown and John UpdikeWatching the 2003 interview I did with John Updike, who died this week, brought back very warm memories about the man and a very special day. Whenever we have the opportunity to travel and visit with writers and artists, we give much thought to the setting. Where is the appropriate place to meet? Where should we have the interview? What best fits this particular person? Usually a home or work studio makes the most sense, and that was our first thought with Updike. But he proposed as an alternative one of his favorite places in the world: Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. And that suggestion helped turn my day with Updike into one of the best I ever experienced in many years of interviewing writers and other artists.

He was exceedingly relaxed, unhurried and pleasant — that smile that came through in the interview was real. He enjoyed looking back and talking about his early years, the young writer struggling to support a family, seeing his first work in print (and being paid!), finding his way, as he said, “story by story.” The setting seemed to relax and please him immensely. He knew every corner of the museum; several times, as we waited for the cameras and lights to be set up and later, he said: “C’mon, let me show you something special.” Then I was taken on a private tour by a man who’d spent a great deal of time looking at and thinking about art — his essays and art criticism attest to his keen knowledge and curiosity.

I should also add that Updike was, of course, a celebrity at the museum — perhaps its best known “regular” — and the museum was kind enough to cordon off one of its grandest rooms for us to do our interview. There we talked, surrounded by early American paintings, and he was clearly tickled to have some of his favorite works all around, part of the whole scene.

In a very kind note to me written (on an old typewriter, by the way) after seeing our interview on television, he remembered our time together and captured it — the observant writer — with a detail, a particular painting by John Singleton Copley: “There we all were again, with ‘Watson and the Shark,’ who came through fascinatingly in the long shots.”

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Much more to come on Art Beat next week, including a conversation with Ari Folman, director of ‘Waltz with Bashir’, an animated film just nominated for an Academy Award in the foreign film category. It’s a very powerful story by an Israeli soldier looking back on his time fighting in Lebanon in 1982. Also coming soon, what we hope will be a regular new feature: a daily summary of the latest art and culture news.

As always, thanks for joining us on Art Beat and the NewsHour.