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  • John Updike Talks About Writing, His Life, and His Works1Vol. 57, No. 3, Spring/Summer 1995
  • Ronald G. Shafer and John Updike

To what extent is your fiction autobiographical?


Everything you write is autobiographical, to the degree that it interested you enough to write it. Philip Roth somewhere says that every piece of fiction has to have some personal point to begin. I'd say that poetry, lyric poetry, when I manage to find time to write it, is pretty much outside of my mainstream of experience. It's about things around me. I turn out to be more interested in nature than I would have thought. My mother was a great nature observer, and I sort of shunned all that, but I see in my later years that my poetry is often about nature. The short stories are primarily autobiographical, some of them, but even when something is taken straight out of the crisis in your life, there's always some twist or change to make it a story, since by and large your life doesn't break down into stories. A story always needs a little more. It's like extending a line or taking a tangent of a curve or completing the curve to some kind of conclusion, some kind of a click that makes it a story.

Not all my stories, though, are like that. I have, believe it or not, used my imagination considerably in my short fiction now and then. My most anthologized short story is "A&P." The whole little incident sprang to my mind. The story might even have begun with something as crass as the thought, "Why are there no stories written about A&Ps or other supermarkets?" The story was an invented thing. I was never a clerk in an A&P. "A&P" was based entirely upon glimpsing a couple of girls in bathing suits, shopping in the town of Ipswich. They looked so strikingly naked in a way they wouldn't have been on the beach that somehow the notion of girls in bathing suits in the supermarket struck me. So that story was quite invented. Heaven knows why it's been chosen by anthologies: It's like the plague being spread from one anthology to another.

The novels, in general, depict a fictional world that is somewhat invented; it would be too boring if it were your own life. In some way, the main character has to be somebody you're not: a woman in the case of Esther in Witches of Eastwick, a great basketball player in the case of Harry Angstrom, which I was not. Nor am I six-foot-three and blond and blue-eyed, as he is. I'm not as handsome, not as attractive as he is, either. In every novel, such as my novel The Coup, in which the hero is black and [End Page 254] an African, you need some sort of gap to make the spark jump. I find that a novel has to be in some way a fantasy to surprise the writer, as well as readers as they go along.


Do you get the feeling at times that the autobiographical dimension hinders and somehow weakens the art, because you're too tied to self?


There's an effort to get rid of it, sort of, like names: The names of real people seem inextricably attached to them, and it's very hard to cook up an artistic name when you have a real person in mind, but you do have to break yourself of this belief that only the real name will do, and you must invent a name. Also, you have to break yourself of the feeling that the particular experience and all its contours must be followed. The longer you live, the more general experience and more memories you have to draw upon; so, in a sense, you become less autobiographical as you get older. When you write in your twenties, you are pretty well stuck, I think, with what you know. Of course, writing instructors are always telling their students to write what they know. It's not...


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