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How John Updike Turned Everything in His Life to His Advantage in Fiction

Illustration by Alexandra Compain-Tissier

In the late spring of 1983, when John Updike’s reputation as a writer had reached a pinnacle with Rabbit Is Rich (which won all three major book awards and earned him a second Time cover), a journalist named William Ecenbarger pitched an idea to the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday magazine. The reporter wanted to write about the relationship between Updike’s fiction and the geography of Berks County, Pennsylvania—what Updike called, with possessive emphasis, “my home turf.” Ecenbarger planned to visit the city of Reading, where Updike was born; Shillington, the small town on the outskirts of Reading where he lived until he was 13; and Plowville, 11 miles into the countryside, where he languished in frustrated rural isolation until he left for college. From these three places Updike had drawn the material that launched his career: Plowville became Firetown, and Reading became Alton (or Brewer in the Rabbit tetralogy), and beloved, small-town Shillington was reborn as Olinger, with a long O and a hard g, as in “Oh, linger.”

Given a green light by his editor, Ecenbarger dutifully sent an interview request to Updike’s publisher. No reply was forthcoming, but then Ecenbarger hadn’t expected one. Thanks to a series of uncompromising pronouncements on the subject—“I really think being interviewed a great waste of time and energy, with results that generally leave you feeling embarrassed, or at least that you should clean your fingernails,” he later said—Updike had gained an unwarranted reputation for being media-shy. Undaunted, Ecenbarger drove down to Shillington to have a poke around and do some research in the town’s public library. No sooner had he begun quizzing the reference librarian about the famous local author than he felt an insistent tug at his sleeve. An elderly lady was at his elbow, peering at him through large tortoiseshell glasses. “I know all about him,” she said simply. “He’s my son.”

Ecenbarger took Linda Updike to lunch at a nearby restaurant. She, in turn, took him out to Plowville and showed him around the small sandstone farmhouse familiar to all devoted Updike readers. The key sights in the cramped interior were young John’s narrow bedroom at the top of the stairs and, downstairs, long white shelves. “He told me when he left for Harvard,” she said, “that he was going to fill those shelves. There’s only room for one or two more.” (By 1983, Updike had published 23 volumes; there were 40 more yet to come in his lifetime.) She showed him the big, well-built barn made famous by “Pigeon Feathers.” A soft-spoken, intelligent woman, she was a little garrulous, Ecenbarger remembers, manifestly proud of her son, and happy to claim some credit for having nurtured his talent. Excited by what he’d found, Ecenbarger went home and began to write the article.

Four days later, he received a phone call from Mrs. Updike. “Chonny will be here tomorrow,” she said. “He’s coming to put in my screens. He does it every year. Why don’t you stop by?”

Needing no further encouragement, Ecenbarger presented himself at the farmhouse the next morning, delighted at his luck in getting an interview. Mrs. Updike greeted him warmly, but warned him that her son, still upstairs, was a bit grumpy. “He often gets that way when he visits,” she confided.

Ecenbarger waited inside while Mrs. Updike went out to fill a bird feeder. He was examining the long bookcase crammed with the Updike oeuvre when the author himself appeared, wearing a navy wool watch cap that he removed after poking his head out the kitchen door to test the morning temperature. “Let’s go,” he said. “I have a lot of other things to do today.” Ecenbarger had the distinct impression that the celebrated author was doing his best not to vent his irritation at having an impromptu interview thrust upon him by his mother.

“I’ll drive so you can take notes,” Updike suggested as they left the house, “but I want to drive your car.” Opening the door of Ecenbarger’s Volkswagen, he added, “I’ve never driven a Rabbit before.” That glint of humor set the tone for things to come: Reluctant at first, Updike soon warmed up, teased by nostalgia into what became a marathon round of autobiographical tourism. All day long the two men drove around the county. In West Reading they passed the municipal hospital where Updike was born on March 18, 1932; in Shillington they parked in front of 117 Philadelphia Avenue, the white brick house where he grew up, an only child coddled by his parents and maternal grandparents; and finally they returned to Plowville, to the 80-acre farm where he endured his lonely adolescence. Ecenbarger’s article, “Updike Is Home,” is illustrated with a photograph of a smiling Updike in front of the farmhouse, one hand in the front pocket of his tan corduroys, the other cupped on the back of his neck. It’s a coy, boyish pose, almost elfin; the 51-year-old author looks like a sly kid. His mother hovers in the background, a ghostly gray presence in the doorway of the house.

It was only six weeks after their tour of Berks County that Ecenbarger realized the transaction had been mutually beneficial. The reporter filed one version of the story, and the fiction writer filed another: John Updike’s “One More Interview” appeared in The New Yorker on July 4, 1983; it’s about an unnamed actor who agrees, reluctantly, to drive around his hometown in the company of a journalist (“It would provide, you know … an angle”). Gradually the actor’s resistance (“I can’t stand interviews”) melts away as the trickle of memories swells to a flood. Even as the reporter’s interest wanes (“I think maybe I’ve seen enough. This is only for a sidebar, you know”), the actor finds he can’t let go of this opportunity to revisit his small-town boyhood, to dream of his first love and his vanished, teenage self (“he wanted to cruise forever through this half of town”).

Reading his New Yorker, Ecenbarger was astonished to find that he’d become muse to a great American writer. Updike had transcribed—verbatim—their exchanges, beginning with the helpful suggestion that the interviewee drive while the interviewer take notes, and extending to trivial back-and-forth unrelated to the matter at hand, such as the actor’s surmise that the “wiry” reporter (whose “exceptionally tight mouth” Updike lifted, as it were, straight from Ecenbarger’s face) had been a high-school athlete:

“Don’t be modest. You played second base, didn’t you?”
“Center field, usually.”
“Same idea …”

Other borrowed details: Just as Updike initially had trouble with the Rabbit’s manual transmission, so the actor, driving the interviewer’s car (not a Rabbit but rather “a Japanese model”), shifts “from first straight into fourth, with a fearful laboring of the engine.” Ecenbarger told Updike that the article he was writing was more about the place than the author; the actor receives the same warning, phrased the same way. Describing the mid-­century sartorial flair of the town’s richer kids, the actor spells out for the interviewer the precise word he has in mind: “there was a word then, ‘snazzy,’ s-n-a-z-z-y”; Updike remarked on an unchanged aspect of Shillington and said he found it “cheery”—whereupon he helpfully spelled out the word, “c-h-e-e-r-y.”

Updike chose to include in his tour the local lovers’ lane—“where kids came to neck,” he explained to Ecenbarger. The actor steers the interviewer to the “necking place” and is amazed to find it still there. His thoughts turn to Ermajean Willis, the girl he’d “acquired” at age 17, and he drives the few blocks to her house.

“My girlfriend used to live here,” he confesses to his interviewer.

“You had only one?”

“Well, yes.”

Ermajean is one of many fictional incarnations of Nancy Wolf (“my only girlfriend”), a girl Updike wrote about as Nora in his 1989 memoir, Self-Consciousness. Though he once insisted (unconvincingly) that the Shillington he used in his fiction was more a stage in his “pilgrim’s progress” than an actual spot on the map, his instinct was always to borrow the signature detail from the bricks and mortar of the town.

Ecenbarger was at first mildly disturbed to find that in Updike’s version, the actor doesn’t actually enjoy playing tour guide. He slips from wary impatience and annoyance into a bittersweet reverie that triggers a powerful romantic longing for a place and a time and a self forever gone. At the very end of the story, the actor reverts to a brusque comic annoyance: “Keep your pencil out. You son of a bitch, I’m going to tell you the names of every family that used to live in this block.” Ecenbarger had been under the impression that the courteous, even genial Updike had quickly forgotten his irritation, that their nostalgic excursion had given the author pleasure. But Updike took the incident, reshaped it slightly, and turned a day’s drive into a slick comic vignette with a moment or two of poignant depth. That was his job, Updike might have shrugged, a profitable trick of alchemy.

Or digestion. In a story he wrote in 1960 about his maternal grandmother, he described with a startling simile the writer’s creative process: “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.” Twenty-five years later, addressing a packed theater in Albany, Updike elaborated on his scatological theory of the creative imagination: “Freud somewhere claims that a child’s first gifts, to its parents, are its feces, whose presentation (in the appropriate receptacle) is roundly praised. And, as in this primal benefaction, the writer extrudes his daily product while sitting down, on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain. The artist who works in words and anecdotes, images and facts wants to share with us nothing less than his digested life.”

A year or so after his encounter with Bill Ecenbarger, Updike wrote an autobiographical essay about yet another tour of his old neighborhood. In “A Soft Spring Night in Shillington,” Updike voices his regret at plundering his memories, “scraps” that have been “used more than once, used to the point of vanishing … in the self-serving corruptions of fiction.” His regret, his suspicion that in his writing he’s betraying a place he loves (“a town that was also somewhat my body”), is balanced against the stubborn fact that he depends for his livelihood on the sale of his fiction—“scribbling for my life,” he calls it in another story. In his speech on creativity, he mentioned the “simultaneous sense of loss and recapture” he experienced when his memory seized upon a scene from his past he knew he could use in his fiction. This ambivalence stayed with him throughout his career, but he never gave up the habit of reusing the scraps that came his way; even the writing that isn’t nakedly autobiographical is flecked with incidents and characters drawn from life with disconcerting accuracy—a host of Ecenbargers opportunistically fictionalized.

No one was spared: not his parents, not his two wives, not his four children—as he conceded in Self-Consciousness, he exempted himself from “normal intra-familial courtesy.” Or, more bluntly: “the nearer and dearer they are, the more mercilessly they are served up.” In a heartbreaking interview for a 1982 public-­television documentary, What Makes Rabbit Run, Updike’s eldest son, David, acknowledged that his father “decided at an early age that his writing had to take precedence over his relations with real people.” Later in the film Updike frankly concurred: “My duty as a writer is to make the best record I can of life as I understand it, and that duty takes precedence for me over all these other considerations.” The writing took precedence even over his personal reputation: Some of Updike’s alter egos are convincingly hideous individuals. “I drank up women’s tears and spat them out,” he wrote in a late confessional poem, “as 10-point Janson, Roman and ital.

Part of what allowed Updike the freedom to indulge his autobiographical impulse was his relationship with his mother, the elderly widow who tugged at Ecenbarger’s sleeve in the Shillington public library, eager to talk about her son, the famous writer. To say that Linda Grace Hoyer Updike encouraged her only child and nurtured his precocious talent is to understate and simplify an unusually close and complicated relationship. She helped him to become a writer (and he, when the time came, helped her, getting ten of her short ­stories published in The New Yorker), offering him yards of advice and unstinting praise from the moment he set pen to paper. She was, as he put it, “an ideally permissive writer’s mother,” meaning that he was free to write exactly what he pleased, no matter how painful to his family. When the biographer Ron Chernow, who went to see Linda Updike in Plowville in the early ’70s when he was a young journalist eager to write about Updike, asked her how it felt to pop up as a character in her son’s fiction, “she paused and said, ‘When I came upon the characterization of myself as a large, coarse country woman I was very hurt.’ She said she walked around for several days, brooding—and then she realized she was a large, coarse country woman.”

In “Flight,” a densely autobiographical short story written at the beginning of 1959, the Updike stand-in is Allen Dow, a 17-year-old high-school student burdened with both Updike’s family history and his “special destiny.” Allen’s mother tells him that he will transcend his small-town beginnings—“You’re going to fly”—and this prophecy touches his “most secret self.” She launches a scarcely disguised assault on Allen’s girlfriend Molly; their teen romance, he tells us, “brought out an ignoble, hysterical, brutal aspect of my mother.” Allen’s “special destiny” is the main objection: He mustn’t have a girlfriend who will hold him back. “The entire town seemed ensnarled in my mother’s myth, that escape was my proper fate.” Allen himself is ensnarled in the myth, and he, too, is cruel to Molly. This part Updike borrowed directly from his own experience. In Self-Consciousness, Updike explains that his relationship with his girlfriend Nora was fatally undermined by his mother’s disapproval and the expectation that he would be moving on to better things: “I was never allowed to relax into her; the perfect girl for me would take me away from Shillington, not pull me down into it.”

In the foreword to Olinger Stories, Updike wrote, “Composition, in crystallizing memory, displaces it.” Later, Updike would direct an interviewer’s attention to the conclusion of “Flight,” to the moment of the climactic quarrel, the moment, metaphorically speaking, when Allen leaves behind both his girlfriend and his mother. “This is the way it was, is,” he said—a telling conflation. “Flight” ends with a bitter fight between Allen and his mother, which results in a final betrayal of his girlfriend. In the memoirs, the betrayal is suggested rather than dramatized: “I did not let Nora’s satiny skin and powdered warmth and soft forgiving voice prevent me from going on with my show.”

This is an excerpt from Adam Begley’s forthcoming biography Updike, which will be published by Harper in April.

*This article appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Illustration by Alexandra Compain-Tissier/New York Magazine; Illustration by Alexandra Compain-Tissier/New York Magazine