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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist John Updike


This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective featuring interviews from our first couple of years as an NPR show. I did many interviews with John Updike over the years, and I think my favorite is probably the one we're about to hear, recorded in 1989 after the publication of his memoir, "Self-Consciousness," about all the things that made him self-conscious, including his stutter and the skin condition psoriasis.

Updike, who died in 2009, was one of the most celebrated writers of his generation best known for his series of novels about the character Rabbit Angstrom, his stories about the character Henry Bech and his novel "The Witches Of Eastwick." He also wrote for The New Yorker. He won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. But he tried to keep a relatively low public profile and was reticent to reveal much about his personal life to his readers until he wrote his memoir. In the opening paragraph, he explained why he uncharacteristically chose himself as the subject of a book.


JOHN UPDIKE: (Reading) Shortly before the first of these personal essays was composed, but several years after the soft, spring night in Shillington that it describes, I was told, perhaps in jest, of someone wanting to write my biography - to take my life, my load of ore and heap of memories, from me. The idea seemed so repulsive that I was stimulated to put down, always with some natural hesitation and distaste, these elements of an autobiography. They record what seems to me important about my own life, and try to treat this life - this massive datum which happens to be mine - as a specimen life - representative, in its odd uniqueness, of all the oddly unique lives in this world. A mode of impersonal egoism was my aim - an attempt to touch honestly upon the central veins with a scientific dispassion and curiosity.

GROSS: Can you explain that fear of somebody taking your memories from you to write a biography?

UPDIKE: Well, a writer's life isn't quite like a statesman's life, you know? It's what you write out of. And I just didn't want to be and don't want to be intruded upon in that way. So as a defense against intrusion, I decided to invade my own privacy with these essays.

GROSS: (Laughter).

UPDIKE: At least I would know how to do it and would do it with good taste - and delicately. And I'd know where to go. It all - and if my life is of any intrinsic interest, and I'm not sure it is of much, I'm the one who's lived it, and the kind of things that I write about in this book are certainly things that a biographer would not fasten upon.

GROSS: Well, the poetic device you seem to use is your body. The revelations in the central part of - no, in the middle part of your memoirs come not from your career as a writer, but from your body - from physical ailments, from psoriasis, from a stutter, from asthma.

UPDIKE: Yes, well, they've what seemed as - come to my attention, of - those moments of discomfort. And remember, the title of the book is "Self-Consciousness," so I fastened upon those things which either made me self-conscious, like the psoriasis, or which showed self-consciousness, like the stuttering. And the religious aspect of it, again, has to do with the question of a self at all.

Why do we seem to have selves that we prize greatly? Do computers, with almost as much circuitry now as human brains - do computers have selves? Are computers self-conscious? Is a wasp self-conscious? I think not. It's a kind of civically human thing, which I was interested in exploring via my own poor little set of facts.

GROSS: You first got psoriasis in kindergarten in 1938. Did people in the literary world know that you had a skin problem before you wrote about it?

UPDIKE: I don't know. I'm - suppose some did. I wrote a kind of amusing - I've always thought - short story called "Journal Of A Leper" - or "From The Journal Of A Leper," which is about psoriasis and which is much-quoted in medical texts of a certain kind. Psoriasis is rather rarely written about. We're all shy about it, those of us who have it and wish we didn't, and don't want to talk about it much.

So it took a long time for me to confess to it. I feel it's some - you know, it's the sin of some kind. It's a dermal sin. And it took me a long time to believe that it wasn't really my fault, and I could talk about it more or less freely. No, I don't think it was commonly known. I'm told it doesn't really much show. And the discomfort has mostly been self-produced, rather than other-people-produced.

GROSS: Well, were you worried about calling attention to it, though?

UPDIKE: No, not really. A writer is somebody who tries to tell the truth, right? And your value to your society is a certain willingness to risk being honest. And so to be honest about this was part of the general job, as I see it.

GROSS: Well, I think you've found a lot of universals in the particulars of your experience with psoriasis. And I'd like to ask you to read an excerpt of your chapter on psoriasis. And my guest is John Updike, and this is a reading from his new book "Self-Consciousness."

UPDIKE: (Reading) Psoriasis keeps you thinking. Strategies of concealment ramify, and self-examination is endless. You are forced to the mirror again and again. Psoriasis compels narcissism, if we can suppose a Narcissus who did not like what he saw. In certain lights, your face looks passable. In slightly different, other lights, not. Shaving mirrors and rearview mirrors in automobiles are merciless, whereas the smoky mirrors in airplane bathrooms are especially flattering and soothing. One's face looks as tawny as a movie star's. Flying back from the Caribbean, I used to admire my improved looks. Years went by before I noticed that I looked equally good in the lavatory glow on the flight down. I cannot pass a reflecting surface on the street without glancing in, in hopes that I have somehow changed.

(Reading) Nature and the self, the great moieties of earthly existence, are each cloven in two by a fascinated ambivalence. One hates one's abnormal, erupting skin but is led into a brooding, solicitous attention toward it. One hates the nature that has imposed this affliction, but only this same nature can be appealed to for erasure, for cure. Only nature can forgive psoriasis. The sufferer, in his self-contempt, does not grant, to other people, this power.

GROSS: There's a sentence in there that I think, probably, a lot of people really see themselves in. And that is, I cannot pass reflecting surface in the street without glancing in, in the hopes that I have somehow changed. I really think you put your finger on something there.

UPDIKE: Well, I'm happy to hear it because I've always thought that nobody, except me, was annoyed with the way they looked, or self-conscious to this degree. But I guess we all are. It's a strange thing - isn't it? - to be born into a certain body instead of an ideal body.

And all of our faces - a - the whole idea of a face is some - slightly funny, isn't it? If you can put yourself outside of the species a moment, these faces we carry around with the holes in them, and the shining holes, and the dark holes and then the one that shows a lot of teeth - it's all odd beyond belief, really.

GROSS: Yeah, well, you feel like, well, it's my face, but my face isn't my fault (laughter).

UPDIKE: Right, it's not your fault, but it is what you're stuck with.

GROSS: Well, you seem to think that it's some of your weaknesses that have made you what you are - some of your defects, like psoriasis. You think that you became the person who you are and the writer who you are because of it.

UPDIKE: Well, I think it forced my attention away from any very public career like being an actor or a schoolteacher, which is a kind of actor and what my father did and was - that was the profession that society had more or less laid out for me. And I think my determination to avoid teaching isn't part of shyness of any kind of public performance - daily, putting yourself there, trying to look good.

So I've been extra serious about making it as a freelance writer, where I don't really have to come out of the closet, where I can do the whole thing at a distance and in a room by myself via the mails. So, yes, in that extent - also, psoriasis has made me be a little bolder than I might have ordinarily been. And it's certainly got me to the Caribbean. I've seen a lot of lovely islands that I wouldn't have seen if I didn't have psoriasis.

GROSS: You said it made you bolder. You write, only psoriasis could have taken a very average little boy - a boy who loved the average, the daily, the safely hidden - and turned him into an adaptable ruthless enough writer. Where does the ruthlessness come in?

UPDIKE: Well, I think telling the truth is kind of a ruthless act and - both in specifics since you do invade some privacies in fiction. And in the larger way, you are trying to - or I am trying to, as it were, rub humanity's face in the facts of our existence that there is much that is ignoble and desperate about being a human being. And my fiction is in part motivated by pointing these things out. So, yes, there is something ruthless and cruel, even to generate suspense as a bit of a tease, isn't it? So there's a kind of a sadistic element in the writer's attempt to keep the reader's interest.

GROSS: At the end of your chapter about your skin, it's pretty well cleared up because of some experimental treatments you were getting. Did you have any problems after writing about this? You know, a lot of people believe that psoriasis has a component of psychology behind it.

UPDIKE: It has a psychosomatic component.

GROSS: Thank you. That's the word I was looking for. So I was wondering if really thinking about it a lot and writing about it, made you any more symptomatic?

UPDIKE: I didn't have a flare. We call that a flare in the trade when the psoriasis suddenly goes bad again. And I do say in the piece that it rather resists all these treatments. When I was young, a few days in the sun would do marvels. And the older I got, the longer it took and the tougher the skin and the psoriasis became and so would the artificial light treatment, which for 10 years, gave me 10 years of feeling pretty good about my - about myself and my skin.

Now I'm on a pill, which also has done a pretty good job. So I'm not at a very dermally stressed moment in my life. And I wasn't aware of - in a way, it's a relief to have it all out there. And I put it out not to say poor old me, but lucky me. Lucky me that I had this affliction, which made me be a little original and which forced me as it were into the artist's isolation, which gave me the courage to try to be an artist.

GROSS: We're listening to my 1989 interview with John Updike, recorded after the publication of his memoir "Self-Consciousness." We'll hear more after a break as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective and continue my 1989 interview with John Updike, recorded after the publication of his memoir "Self-Consciousness" in which he wrote about the things that made him self-conscious and uncomfortable.


GROSS: You also devote a chapter in the memoir to the stutter that you had. And you say in it that, you know, with the stutter and the psoriasis, when people wouldn't acknowledge it, when they wouldn't mention it to you, you'd wonder, is this invisible to other people?

UPDIKE: Well, you don't know how bad you look or sound to other people. And there's always the hope that in fact you look and sound fine. I have rarely - the stutter comes and goes and when it does come is embarrassing to me. My wife tells me it's charming. But I've never found other stuttering people especially charming. So I kind of take that with a grain of salt.

But, yes, I guess there is the hope that if at least it might be noticed, but not written about. And it was this article written by a reporter for The Jerusalem Post that came right out and talked about my stutter. I was uneasy in that situation. I think I was tired from jetlag. And I didn't quite - I was cast into a role where I felt uneasy. And as I say in that piece, I think that's when I began to stutter - is when I feel somehow mistaken or uneasy in the role I'm performing.

GROSS: You say something that I think, again, a lot of us will have experienced that when you take something that's supposed to be unconscious, like the act of speaking - you know, moving your tongue around to form vowels - and it suddenly becomes a conscious act, you lose yourself. You lose it. It's like when you think about walking with grace, you walk really stiffly. When you think about breathing, you become really conscious of every breath that you take. And it becomes a belabored act instead of an unconscious one.

UPDIKE: It's quite true. And speaking, you think of the number of muscular motions that your tongue is making just to form the sentence you so gracefully uttered. It's amazing it works as well as it does.

GROSS: You know, the last time we did an interview on FRESH AIR, we talked a little bit about why you dislike being interviewed and about how you distrust the kind of public self that writers are sometimes forced to cultivate. In reading your memoir, I, of course, started to think that other reasons had to do (laughter) with, perhaps, fear of stuttering with fear that skin would be broken out.

UPDIKE: Yes, both.

GROSS: OK (laughter).

UPDIKE: Both are true. And it was a great relief. When I first began to go on television years ago, I was delighted to find that you got a coat of makeup. And I always felt immensely happier once I was made up. And I would wear it all day long until it wore off. So that - yes.

On the other hand, having that anxiety about how you look or whether you're going to stutter or not relieves you of other anxieties. And the truth seems to be that I'm a fairly garrulous performer once I'm launched in that direction.

GROSS: There's one last reading that I want to get in. And this is from a section toward the end of your memoir. It's in part about the fears that you - one experiences at night and you writing about them during the day.

UPDIKE: Yeah. It's about writing as a release - isn't it? - as a kind of self therapy. I do think that writers who have, you know, any kind of social sanction for their activity are one up because when you write about something in a strange way, you become lightened of it. Let me read this paragraph.

(Reading) So writing is my sole remaining vice. It is an addiction, an illusory release, a presumptuous taming of reality, a way of expressing lightly the unbearable. That we age and leave behind this litter of dead, unrecoverable selves is both unbearable and the commonest thing in the world. It happens to everybody. In the morning light, one can write breezily, without the slightest acceleration of one's pulse, about what one cannot contemplate in the dark without turning, in panic, to God. In the dark, one truly feels that immense sliding, that turning of the vast earth into darkness and eternal cold, taking with it all the furniture, and scenery, and the bright distractions and warm touches of our lives. Even the barest earthly facts are unbearably heavy - weighted, as they are, with our personal death. Writing, in making the world light - in codifying, distorting, prettifying or verbalizing it - approaches blasphemy.

GROSS: Do you feel, ever, that it's your demons that keep you writing, even though you'd like to talk of yourself, about writing, about average things, about the little corners, about the domestic news?

UPDIKE: I think there's something demonic in the complete writer, yes. I think that an ideally nice person would probably not become a writer. I try to write pleasantly - fairly - fairly, more than pleasantly. I feel there is much in life that is frightening and unpleasant, and that we are, among other things, cruel beings. All of these - all of the shadow side of one's self-knowledge, of course, goes into writing, and in a way, energizes it. It gives you the energy to undertake this fantastic activity every morning.

GROSS: John Updike - recorded after the publication of his memoir "Self-Consciousness" in 1989. Updike died 20 years later at the age of 76. After a break, we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective with a 1988 interview with Tobe Hooper, who wrote and directed "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." He died last week. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOMEZ SONG "BUENA VISTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.