ACADEMY OF ACHIEVEMENT: You've said that you read a lot on the farm.
JOHN UPDIKE: Yes, of course. I had read somewhat before. I was an only child after all and only children tend to read.
My mother was a keen reader. My grandfather was a Bible and newspaper reader, so I saw a lot of reading around me. It's a world that a child can control.
There were things called Big Little Books then, which were essentially bound comic strips with one panel opposite a page of text, and it was an easy way to read, so I read a lot of those.
Then I graduated to mystery novels, some science fiction, the New Yorker humor.He may have been a farm kid, but Updike's reading wasn't confined exclusively to The Old Farmer's Almanac:
ACADEMY OF ACHIEVEMENT: Who were your favorite authors?
UPDIKE: I loved Agatha Christie, of course. And also, an American team called Ellery Queen. I read a lot of Ellery Queen. Erle Stanley Gardner. I must have read 40 books by Erle Stanley Gardner before I was 15 or so.
So, I got the reading habit, and I slightly branched out, you know, and challenged myself.
I remember at the age of 15 going into the library and pulling down The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot and reading it because I had heard that this was a modern masterpiece.
So, it was random reading, but maybe that's the best kind in a way. It's not forced on you and you get these glimpses, you know, of a wonderful world of books.
In Reading [Pennsylvania] there was a lovely Carnegie-endowed library with walls of books, and I remember I read through a whole shelf of P. G. Wodehouse.
Again my taste was to humor, I think, and it's odd that I didn't become a humorist really, although — just some humor perhaps in my work — but my first ambition as a writer was to become a humorous writer, to be like Thurber and Benchley and the lighter E. B. White, you know, to make people laugh. I thought that was a harmless thing to do. A thing that society never could have too much of, laughter.Neverthless, Updike's fiction can be classed as realism — or as much realism as one should look for in fiction:
ACADEMY OF ACHIEVEMENT: It's striking that the books you first gravitated to were mysteries and crime stories, and yet the books that you became well-known for are about the everyday life of ordinary people in ordinary places.
UPDIKE: It is odd. I love mystery novels and I've tried to write them.
When I was in my teens I began to write a mystery novel and tried to figure out how to plot it. You sort of plot it backwards, you know. You know who did it and then you try to hide that, and I couldn't really do it. I'm not saying I couldn't do it if a gun was put to my head, but it felt unnatural and felt like a very minor kind of witnessing.
In other words, I was willing to be entertained by others, but I didn't want to write entertainments myself. I wanted to write books that told everything I knew, that were fully about life in my tame band of it.
So quite early I began to try to become a serious writer.
It's a little puzzling. I've written some science fiction. That may not be well-known, but a couple of my novels are located in a hypothetical future.
There is something about it that frees you up in a way. Your attempt is always to write about the world you know, but also to somehow get out of it, if only by a little jump or a trick. Something must be different so that your imagination is really engaged. You're not just spilling your life, but you're to some extent inventing another life.
ACADEMY OF ACHIEVEMENT: A lot of us readers feel honored by your paying so much attention to the likes of us, not great adventures but everyday people.
UPDIKE: Well, in a democracy in the 20th and 21st Century, if you can't base your fiction upon ordinary people and the issues that engage them, then you are reduced to writing about spectacular unreal people. You know, James Bond or something, and you cook up adventures.
The trick about fiction, as I see it, is to make an unadventurous circumstance seem adventurous, to make it excite the reader, either with its truth or with the fact that there's always a little more that goes on, and there's multiple levels of reality.
As we walk through even a boring day, we see an awful lot and feel an awful lot. To try to say some of that seems more worthy than cooking up thrillers.. . . which is debatable, to say the least, but, agree or disagree, you can purchase Updike's nonfiction collection Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism HERE.