Writers and Company

John Updike on imperfect characters and the American dream

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with one of America's most successful, elegant and accomplished writers — John Updike, in a rare interview. (Originally broadcast in 1996.)
John Updike wrote four books about an alter-ego character named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Rabbit at Rest was the Pulitzer Prize–winning final instalment in the series, published in 1990. (Random House)

By the time of his death in 2009 at the age of 76, John Updike was one of America's most successful, elegant and accomplished writers, with a career spanning over 50 years and 60 books. He was an astute social observer and sympathetic chronicler of ordinary people, and even his detractors acknowledged the beauty of his writing style. He is perhaps best known for the four books in his series about his alter ego Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, of which two — Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest — won the Pulitzer Prize.

Updike preferred to avoid the media, but he agreed to this interview with Eleanor Wachtel in Toronto in 1996. At the time of the interview, he'd recently published a novel called In the Beauty of the Lilies, an ambitious family saga covering four generations of the Wilmot family.


He's more of a real American than I am, although we began about the same place in the country and are roughly the same age. We went to the same high school, you could say. But then I went to Harvard whereas he didn't go to any college, so our paths diverged. And yet there's enough of Harry in me that whenever I took him up as a character, I always found I had lots to say, lots to describe. Because he's kind of a slow learner, everything is interesting to him in a way that's really interesting to me, but you couldn't express it with another, more urbane character. 


I guess Rabbit is not [the most likeable guy], but what is likeable? I've never been one to try to make likeable characters. We're out of the Victorian age when you could have Dickensian good and evil. We're all mixed bags, and Rabbit gave me the chance to explore some of the less attractive aspects of what you might call male psychology. He's a touch of a sadist, he certainly is callous and self-centred, he is on some kind of a quest, but for what, he couldn't say. It's important with any character to love them as a god might love them, and to understand them, and follow them through their dark sides and not hold them to any standards of correctitude, or niceness, really. Fiction is an intimate transaction which speaks to the reader about his or her innermost self, and so it's not really an arena where you should censor or hold back or try to make a character admirable in any conventional or easy way.


It probably fixes me in time that I was capable of taking a phrase like "the American dream" seriously. I was born in 1932, and there was a solidarity in the Depression. We all adored Roosevelt — or I wouldn't say we all adored him, but those of us who did adore him trusted him in a way that I don't think any president since has been trusted. And then in World War II you saw the United States really fighting on the side of the angels against a pretty unambiguously ugly enemy. So this kind of patriotism was rubbed into me by the time I was 13, and I have tried to look at America as a kind of venture of mankind, as in some ways a step forward, and in other ways a kind of disappointment. I have the American dream — I had a dream of becoming a writer! I was little — not rich, or not anything really, but I did have this hope and faith and it kind of has come true for me. So I wouldn't say the American dream is all hokum. Not in my case, at least.


It's been my fixed impression that other people know more than I do and are more wised up and know more about living. It might go back to being an only child. An only child — you learn something about how adults think because there are no other children to hide behind. So life has been a great adventure for me, to find a woman who would actually marry me and bear my children — all that's been thrilling in a way that I think many males would take for granted. Having children was a great joy for me — since I'd been an only child, and this was the 1950s when large families were kind of the vogue, so we had four fairly quickly. Being a father was one of the nicest things that's ever happened to me. It's sad to be a post-father now, because all those children are long adult, and they all have children of their own. Being a grandfather is not a career or a job the way being a father is. It's something you only do now and then, whereas being a father, even a mediocre father, was somehow very occupying. I don't remember any idle time in those middle years. It was a treat.

John Updike's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the interview: "Clarinet Concerto: I. Slowly and expressively," composed by  Aaron Copland, performed by James Campbell and the National Arts Centre Orchestra.