I’m still trying to inhabit my life and there is not room for two people there; I’d rather be alone. Also I’m still using my material and my memories, still coming to grips with my own life. The biographies of living people are either libellous, in an attempt to make the life sensational and interesting, or very dull, and since I have a limited amount of energy I would rather put none of it into dealing with a biographer. I have four living children, and ex-wife and a present wife, all of whom deserve some privacy even if I don’t. When I am as old as Graham Greene, and if I am as distinguished, perhaps I will invite a young man like Norman Sherry in, but I’m nowhere near that stage of eminence.
I admit an outsider might be more truthful in a way, but in my autobiography I tried to put down some of the things only I could know. The things anyone can find out I will leave for someone else to deal with. A life is a very strange thing. My mother died last fall, and I’ve been reading letters I wrote to her in the 1970’s, which isn’t so long ago, but how much I’ve forgotten of the day-to-day routine! I suppose a biographer goes through all that: finds the letters, tells what was happening all those years before. I don’t want to face that now. I’d rather try to be a creative writer while I still can.
It is flattering to think a lot of people might find me interesting to read about, but I honestly don’t know how many there are who want to know all about me. Perhaps six: ten at most. We begin life usually with our mothers being very interested in everything we do. They record every word we say and every bowel movement we manage, and maybe that’s enough of that kind of attention. I would rather have my works interest people, but have them come out of a slightly mysterious centre. It’s very hard in this day and age to maintain any privacy or any personal mystery at all, since people are interested in the real lowdown, as we say in this country. We do pick up a lot of books expecting to learn what the writer has been doing lately, which almost brings it down to a level of gossip, though maybe it’s a healthy kind of interest. We read the books of Erica Jong or even Philip Roth in part out of curiosity about them as the authors of their previous books. But one would like to think that writers do more than just divulge their recent histories, and there is some capacity to imagine lives other than their own, or some capacity to draw larger lessons from their own lives. Without being as reclusive as Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Sallinger, I have tried to stay out of at least some of the gossip columns and to avoid some of the many interviews I’m invited to give.
You become less effective as an artist the more interested you become in yourself as a person; and the more you become interested in yourself as a person, the more you’re in danger of becoming a fatheaded, lazy artist. Better to wear your hairshirt and hide in a cave than come out and try to be a beautiful person. There are so many beautiful people in the world now – so many in the New York nightclubs and the London clubs – that I don’t think a writer should attempt to swell that particular throng. It’s one thing to wish your books to be elegant, another to wish to be elegant yourself. I’m all for elegance in the right places, and my concern is to try to be elegant in the books. But I’m not sure that elegance is the supreme human quality we should aspire to. It seems to be like a pear. It goes rotten very quickly. Maybe we need some sturdier virtue, something more like a potato that will keep for months and even a year in the cellar.
Did you always want to write?
Not really, but my mother was a frustrated writer. She would send off manuscripts and get them back, and was trying to write through much of my childhood, so the notion it was a worthy thing to try to do dawned upon me. But my first artistic itch was to draw. I did a lot of drawing as a child, and continued certainly through college. I was on a magazine at Harvard and did cartoons and covers, but by the time I got out of Harvard, the writing side of me had become stronger and seemed the more saleable, the more useful side. I had some early acceptances, and by the time I was about twenty-three was committed to being a writer. And I’m lucky, because you can draw in writing – in a way, incorporate the visual art into the writing – but you can’t really write in drawing. Writing is quite a broad activity in which you can use almost anything you know at some point, and I would say that my drawing skill has been useful to me. I draw very rarely today. Occasionally an amusing birthday card to a child. The New Yorker have sometimes asked me for illustrations, so I have had three drawings published there, always attached to an article. It’s strange how, when you sit down after years of not drawing, the art picks up right where you left it. Basically I still draw the way I did a twenty-two. I’m no better, but I’m not much worse. It’s fun to try, but I really don’t have the time to draw for pleasure. When I had small children I occasionally drew them as babies. Then I bought a camera and stopped drawing.
Do you find writing easy?
Some days are easier than others, and it’s never totally easy. There’s always a little jump into it, like into a swimming pool. I tend to postpone and make a cup of tea, and circle the desk and answer some letters. But by and large I’ve been pretty good about sitting down to it finally and doing a certain amount each day. I would not class myself as one of those people who really sweat out each day’s work. I think I write fairly easily as writing goes, maybe too easily, yet there’s always some effort to it, and some serendipity, some surprise. You always find things you didn’t know you were going to say, and that is the adventure of writing: that you can’t plan it entirely but need to have faith each day that you launch yourself at this blank piece of paper, knowing in a general way what you’re going to try to cover but not knowing exactly. You hope for things to happen that you can’t foresee, and the life of the prose is in these unforeseeable harmonies, these characters who do something other than was planned. All those little surprises are what make it such an entertaining profession. People who can make a living writing are very lucky because not only is the day short and the labour not too difficult, but you have a kind of self-therapy. You’re always, in a way, expressing yourself, which they tell us is healthy if you do it to a psychiatrist. You’re constantly finding out what you know and feel which you didn’t know you knew or felt before.
You’re right that it is lonely. One of the reasons I was happy to come and meet you was that I must vary the loneliness somewhat. Now that my children are grown up and my wife works, I’m alone in the house for much of the day. All day, from seven to six. But then I was an only child, and maybe my tolerance for being alone is greater than that of many. I can take several days of not talking to anyone without too much discomfort. After a while, of course, the need to make contact becomes very pressing, but on the whole I like it and I guess I talk to myself and I’m my own company. I have telephone contact with various editorial people. The mail is of great interest to me, probably more than for a painter, say, or a musician. There are these various ways of relieving the loneliness. But there’s no doubt ever that you must be alone at the moment of actual work. You must face yourself to that degree, and many don’t want to do that. Most people enjoy the constant company of others. It’s like having the radio going in the elevator – something to chase away the silence, this awful silence at the background of our lives that we’re trying to shut out. The writer in some ways tries to face the silence, at least for the three or four hours a day that he works.
Nobody can be entirely self-sufficient. I’m very dependent upon the fact of getting published. My enjoyment of writing is not so keen that I would do it if there were no rewards. Proust and Kafka would both seem to have had fairly low expectations, though both had some publication. Proust paid for his first book to be published, and Kafka fought to be published, but even writers as hermetic and exquisite as these at some point welcome the actual experience of getting published. And for me, who’s been published quite early, it would be very sad if my publishing house and the New Yorker magazine were to stop publishing me. I need that kind of stimulus. I seem to need a fair amount of attention, in fact, or I wouldn’t publish so many books.
Some American authors go years without publishing. Thomas Pynchon just now published a novel after seventeen years of silence. I don’t think I could ever go so long. For all of my tolerance of solitude, I do like that annual fuss that surrounds the book. And like many children in this country, especially of my generation, I have a sort of love affair with New York City. I was a small-town boy – in fact I was a farm boy for a while – and I thought that where I was going to find happiness. was in New York, presented to my generation as Fred Astaire and Top Hat, penthouses and beautiful women in lovely long white gowns. So I always thought I’d live in New York. When I got there I found there were some of the things I had expected, but there was also a great deal of hassle and no place to raise a family. My wife had no natural social life there, and was lonely. I was working, so was not so lonely, but we didn’t stay long. Yet I’ve been able to keep a hold of New York with the writing. I talk to it often. I have friends there. When I go I feel at home. I’ve tried to be a New Yorker without paying the very real price of living there.
Can you tell me something of the relationship between the life and the fiction?
I suppose I am somewhat more autobiographical than other writers appear to be, though when you look into a writer like Tolstoy, who seems almost a god-like omniscient above it all, it turns out there is a surprisingly high degree of autobiographical material. We all need some kind of personal stimulus, some moment that we want to expose or tell about, and writers can be variously clever over how they’re going to package it. But these two elements – a personal sharing and a kind of packaging – I think are true of everybody. In my case, the package sometimes may seem very thin, a little cellophane around the nugget of life, but it is in my mind always a package. Even if I tell the events of one afternoon in my life, I’m not telling every afternoon, so there has been an act of selection and a sense of shaping.
Some of my work may look more autobiographical than it is. I prefer to think it doesn’t really matter. I’m alive now, and having a life of a kind, and while I’m alive I must share what seems to me momentous about it. To be too discreet or too cunning would be self-defeating. But always I see it as a change, a metamorphosis. There’s no such thing as offering the reader your life. What you offer is a set of packaged moments that in some way you have witnessed, maybe out of the dead middle of your experience or maybe in the sense of imagining. I don’t think the distinction matters terribly much. In some way you must make your life interesting, must give it a kind of relevance, an application beyond that of just telling what happened today. As long as you do that and make the ideal reader care, you’ve fulfilled your responsibility. Meanwhile you live your life the best you can.
People talk about being put into a book as though they can be actually lifted out of life and inserted, but we know that the two orders of existence are really very different. There are the flesh-and-blood people who have all kinds of qualities and fully occupy space and time, and there are fictional characters, who are really just a few words tossed on to a page. It’s such an enormous difference between the world, on the one hand, and a book on the other, that I’ve felt fairly free about writing sometimes about my life fairly directly. Take one example. Couples was a long novel that was certainly about a kind of milieu that I felt, and I made the observation that we were all set up as couples and expected to be very happy yet weren’t. Having decided that here was the sociological condition worth telling about, I felt obliged to disguise all of my friends heavily so there was almost nobody in there who could say, ‘That’s me,’ though they could all recognize the general feeling.
There’s a little novel of mine called Of the Farm, which is autobiographical in tone. It’s first person and is about a woman very like my mother, set on a farm exactly like hers, but the situation is false. The hero has a second wife. I did not have a second wife at the time, and didn’t acquire one for another ten or more years. So more often than not we write not out of what happened but out of what might have happened. We write out of tendency as much as of the fact.
Are fictional characters more interesting than real ones?
I think not. A real person has endless depths. Just the anatomical qualities of a real person are fascinating: what makes the molecules click what makes the psyche and the mass of memories each person carries around. A real person is overwhelmingly large in terms of potential data that could be expressed. Fictional characters are therefore interesting in part because we can stand them. They don’t overwhelm us, they’re often very simple. If you look at even complex-seeming characters in fiction they’re really quite simple: basically dolls with maybe three or four moving parts so our minds can encompass them. They’re interesting because they’re involved in a story, and a story is a suspense of some kind which makes us care about what’ll happen next. We read it in the faith that it’s going to have an end, that all of our immediate questions will be answered one way or another.
So we are excited by stories, whereas life doesn’t seem quite to have a story, but is many stories all interwoven. Perhaps we read fiction in part as a relief from the enormous factualness of life that seems to have no clear point. A fiction writer has assumed a certain obligation He will somehow resolve the fate of his characters. Even fairly avant-garde works do this in a way. When we put down Ulysses or Remembrance of Things Past, we feel it’s come to an end and that the author has said everything he wants to say. In Ulysses Molly Bloom gives a kind of blessing to life itself, and in Proust the author arrives at the revelation that time can be made to reverse itself, or does reverse itself and it’s this which justifies a life. We always come to some point of satisfaction in fiction, and we consent to be interested in the faith that all of the anxieties and questions aroused within the microcosm of the novel will be answered and placated; that, unlike life, there is no tomorrow with its own set of questions. When the book ends, there is no tomorrow. A fictional world must have both lightness and weight, the lightness coming from the fact that, when one mind is processing it, it will somehow add up and be entertaining and, unlike life, won’t contain long dull stretches. But it must also have some weight. There must be an illusion that this is enough like life so that the processes we observe in the work of art can be applied to the life we then lead. This feeling of actual instruction as to how to live is very much one of the reason why we read a fiction, in so far as we do – and most people don’t. Not only do most uneducated people not read books, but a lot of intelligent people, especially men, abandon fiction. Therefore fiction has rather a small audience, but those of us who do read it and try to write it hope for some revelation about life; that we somehow emerge from the book slightly more humane and able to cope with real-life situations.
In the past twenty or thirty years fiction has become much more sexually explicit and realistic, and this has been deplored in many quarters. But for me it often has the great moral virtue of attempting to tell us how the other sex feels about sexual transactions and, in demonstrating the sexual adventures of the characters, making us more knowing and perhaps gentler and less deluded; less egocentric in our own romantic behaviour. I often read female novels just to be illuminated as to how women think, though clearly not all women think alike. Nevertheless it is interesting for me to read about romance from a female point of view: what the expectation is and where the disappointments lie. All of that is information, and we do read for information. A slight embarrassment is that, given two novels of equal virtue, we would rather be in one about Saudi Arabia, say, than one about the city we live in. We’re interested in strange places, in other lives. We travel in a way through fiction, since we can’t travel entirely by ourselves, and all this fairly humble curiosity gives the writer an opportunity to expand the consciousness of his readers, to give them experiences they won’t otherwise have since life is so short.
Do you subscribe to the idea that sex is the lifeblood of our existence?
In a word, I do. You might broaden sex to something like love or Eros, and if what goes on between the mother and the infant is sex, then certainly sex would cover the whole field. A lot of what we do is apparently unsexual, but I think Freud is correct: everything really has a sexual goal. In other words, the hard-working Wall Street expert in financial mergers works all day so he will cut an impressive figure, perhaps so he can buy seductive clothes. He will certainly try to enhance his own maleness, his own plumage, as it were. The job, the work, the factory, all these are male plumage. I think a lot of what we do for the pay-off comes in erotic terms. And we’re far from truly knowing how our emotional life as children blends into the erotic life of the mature adult, though surely it is a continuum in that we are at every point of our lives seeking for confirmation and approval from someone else. At a very humble level, we want our bodies approved of and accepted in the various physical ways that sex allows. Beyond that, we want in some way to be confirmed in our immaterial being as well. I suppose this to be an erotic search which can be carried on via many partners or one partner, or via a stamp collection. There seem to me to be a lot of people who really should not be enlisted in the sexual armies, as it were. There are people who have honourable reasons for just not caring, many who in the older societies would become monks or priests or eccentric bachelors – formerly a very honourable thing to be. We’re in danger now, in the late twentieth century, of forcing everyone to become a sexual hero, a sexual superstar when there are probably a number of alternative ways of working out the basic erotic patterns of your life. But when all is said and done, novels are almost invariably about love. It’s as if we were saying that we are most alive when we’re in love.
A writer’s experience must include other people’s books. Is there a distinction between what comes from experience of the real and what comes from books?
You certainly shouldn’t write out of other books. I’ve not taught much writing, but I have done a little, and the students by and large haven’t really learned to see, to have the language for their own lives. They don’t see what they’re living, and all they know is what they’ve read in books, and so they have to process their reality through what other writers have done. It’s quite rare for a young man or woman to come into their own voice, their own material, much before the age of twenty-three or twenty-four, because the books we’ve read control what we see and screen out so much of what is real about us. We are all creatures of literary tradition, and it is the ability to be excited enough by the world of print to wish to enlarge it, to take a piece of your perception and experience, turn it into print and make it join on to this big Antarctica of things in print, which is the basic impulse. In other words, to take your life out of being something impermanent and trivial and purely personal and make it something that can in some way enlarge the experience of people you don’t even know. It’s a great act of transformation, and if you can do it, it’s a great privilege to expand that world of print.
It’s true there are too many books, and most are junk, but to a young person it’s a sacred world and a world he is totally locked out of. To find the way into it and be on the other side of that wall, to be one of the producers of the books is, even at the age of fifty-eight, still exciting. As to influence, I think you do somehow close down and that the major reading experiences of your life occur before you are twenty-five or thirty. That is to say, the writers who really give you your voice are apt to have been encountered by that age. The more of a voice you get the less you can start to change it and the less you are struck by other people’s, but the writers whom you really value and love are the ones you think have shown you the way to what you know. In my case there is the English writer, Henry Green, who in some way opened me up to what prose could do. And there’s the American writer, J. D. Salinger, whose short stories seem to belong to my world. I thought I could write stories like that, whereas I couldn’t write stories like John O’Hara or Hemingway. In some way, you need those few spirits who release you, show you the way to speak yourself. When you’re in college you tend to read what they tell you, and having a lot of catching up to do, I read mostly English classics – Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare. But for all the admirable writers you read in college, in some way you’re reading them to fill in your sense of history and prepare for examinations. Once I got out of college, I read a lot of Proust, in English, because I didn’t have enough French to take him in French, and that year I spent at Oxford I read Henry Green and some more Salinger, as well as a lot of Kierkegaard for personal reasons. But I think Kierkegaard did something for me as a writer. There’s a tremendous energy and rhetorical skill in him, and he’s not afraid to do something thoroughly. The gift of being able to write novels came in part, I’m sure, from Kierkegaard and Proust. I also read Kafka, but I’m not a very Kafkaesque writer. I found him exhilarating because he faces those depressing things, our entrapment and our importance, and there’s a kind of relief in just voicing them. Of course, you tend to feel somewhat superior to Kafka as you read him. You think, well, I’m not that sick, not that neurotic, so in some way you can lick the sugar off the pill and not swallow it.
That’s one thing we always do in reading, of course: take what we want out of a book, and there’s always more we don’t take. Unlike the motion picture, which gives you itself and all of itself in a big bang, a book will only give you as much as you’re ready to hear or to see. It’s amazing to reread a book you read ten years ago. You realize you didn’t read it at all. It’s almost like a brand-new book. One of the marvellous things about books is the layeredness and the way, all the time, they have secrets to give.
To come back to the novel as the product of expert imitation, is it more convincing when experience like marriage or parenthood can be taken direct from life?
You can fake quite a lot, and the level of realism we demand from the novel isn’t extraordinarily high. Our wish to be entertained and instructed is so strong that we will forgive quite a lot of fakery, but there comes a point at which fakery invalidates a novel, and we put the book down, realizing we are learning nothing. Flaubert, though unmarried, wrote well enough about marriage, and there’s an American writer, Ann Beardey, who has no children but has just written a book about the problems of child rearing. So it is possible. There’s also many a sex change where a male writer has more or less plausibly become a woman and vice versa. Nevertheless, what we really have to share is stuff we’ve experienced.
As soon as I was married my writing almost immediately became better, I think because I was somehow a step up the ladder of life. Marriage is something that most writers should not seek to avoid. I wouldn’t have missed having children for anything, and when I had them around me I certainly wrote better about children than I would have if I’d never known any – better, in fact, than I can do now. In my most recent novel, which has a ten- year-old and a four-year-old, I found I knew what they were like, having had four children of my own and lived with three stepsons, but also that I had grown a little out of touch with how children of that age act and think. In general I would say use your imagination, but there are limits to what imagination can do.
It’s very possible to draw upon a personal encounter so early that you don’t yourself know what you’re using. Some of Henry James’s later novels have this quality. He was drawing from very youthful memory without quite knowing it, but in the end a character is a person, and we have to have some general knowledge of people before we can begin to write novels. I don’t think that even a very superior mentality from another planet, with all kinds of statistical information about human beings, could write a novel. In a novel, we are recycling people we have met, and we may be using the nose of one or the arm of another, or it may be a nose we saw in the movies, but there’s certainly some human input that has to happen before there can be any output in the form of character creation.
I don’t think the craft can do these things by itself. There is craft, and more of it than the romantic conception of the artist allows, but the ability is to make a thing coherent. It’s like making a bird house. You imagine it in your head, and then do the little fitting that needs to be done. A great deal of what you might call carpentry goes into making a satisfying book, but in making a bird house you still need to have the bird inside it, and the bird flies out of your experience and your own passion about your experience. For example, I went to Harvard, not far from where we sit now – an admirable institution, but I’ve never been moved to write very much about it; enough people have already done so.
I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of people in my life, but perhaps only a dozen have really gotten through to me in a way that prompts me to want to make them characters. I use the same people again and again, because only they somehow have got to me.
Therefore things have to get to you, and not all of your life will; but when you sit down to make a book or a short story or a poem, you have to have something that you want to package, something you want to present to people in some form. The craft can do the form to a degree, but an awful lot of what we call writerly craft is nothing more than authenticity. It’s not putting down phoney words; it’s trying to have a voice that speaks; it’s really wishing to communicate. That is what makes a great deal of the style, and no amount of rules is going to give you that voice.
What sets ‘literature’ apart from other fiction?
In part a willingness to forget or sacrifice readers, to push forward. You can still be quite a popular artist and do this. It’s a feeling of adventure and a willingness to take risks which makes the real writer distinguishable from the unreal one. It often takes a century, of course, to discover who was real and who was not. It’s not always apparent at the time, and there are many creditable writers now who probably won’t matter much in a hundred years. You could even call literature a higher degree of playfulness, in that the literary writer is willing to play with the thing and not just trying to construct an engine to process a reader’s emotional patterns.
I don’t read much cheap fiction, I just don’t have the time, but when you watch television, you sense these machines instructed to run you through a set of emotional manoeuvres. You’re supposed to care about the guy, you’re supposed to want him to sleep with the girl, you’re supposed to get excited when they’re in a car being chased. There’s a kind of mechanical working over, a little like a massage. Some kind of massage accompanies a literary masterpiece too, but somehow it’s more than a massage. The writer, as he or she goes along, makes discoveries perhaps, and in some way is open to interventions from outside the mechanical pattern. I suppose you can also merely say that literary writers are brighter than the others; that their vocabularies are bigger, their willingness to play with language and their intuitive knowledge about the world greater. The quality of their writing has an adventurous experimental freedom. The great artist is more free: freer to see more and to eliminate more; to do without certain kinds of obligatory performance.
Your autobiography is often provided with footnotes on the use you made in fiction of some incident or person.
That’s a rather arbitrary set of footnotes. Just what occurred to me as I was writing. Several times I’ve given female characters experiences based on my own. I turned a pulled tooth into an abortion for a female character, and also reversed a churchgoing situation. It doesn’t much matter, you know. As the structuralists say, the opposite is often virtually the same thing, and what’s important is the structure. To put it onto a woman or to make it upside down is no great trick. I thought it would make the book in general more fun to read if, in some places, I acknowledged, yes, you have seen this before, or this may ring a bell for those who are devoted Updike readers. It was fun to do. It added a little dimension.
I am interested myself when writers talk about books, especially if they’re admirable books. It’s interesting to read Graham Greene on the period of his life when he was writing the early novels. The Power and the Glory and so on, because even though he doesn’t say much it’s all helpful, and in a way it humanizes the books. A book in the end has to float free of the man’s life, but while he’s alive it’s fun to see these stings and to realize how much he made of something that was little; to see the imagination in operation and realize how little it needs sometimes to take off in a big way.
You wanted your autobiography to be in some sense ‘representative in it’s odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in the world’, but is it not inevitable that some lives are more interesting than others?
I suppose some are more interesting than others. What I think is irreversibly interesting, and true of all of us, is that we’re trapped inside a certain body and a certain set of circumstances, even a certain moment in time. Although I suppose this could be dismissed as a metaphysical riddle saying that you had to be somebody, so why not you, my childhood perception, as I began to grapple with being alive was the extraordinary strangeness of being me instead of somebody else. And so the philosophical emotion behind the autobiography was the feeling of being self-conscious, of being conscious of being this self instead another self. Then you stay self-conscious, and it’s probably not a good thing. The memories which are most affecting are gathered by and large when you were least self-conscious, when you were either young or intensely engaged in some life experience. I’m aware of myself as a writer now, as a man who is recognized on the street, as a man who has the costume of a writer. In a way it’s like a little static in the head all the time, which I try to tune out, but there’s no doubt that I am somewhat self-conscious.
But no two lives are alike and we would rather live some than others. Most lives on this planet are miserable, and one of the tragedies surely involved in the human race right now is that so many lives are wasted before they’ve begun, largely because of poverty. I’ve been very fortunate. Anybody who’s fairly healthy, and was born into the United States when I was, is in a tiny minority of blessed people, living in an area that is more or less disease free. Even compared to my grandparents, how relatively little pain I’ve had. Think of the toothaches that people in the nineteenth century put up with, the infectious diseases that would lift away a whole set of children, the powerlessness of all that. To be alive in an era when so much of that particular kind of powerlessness is gone is a great privilege.
Anyway I wasn’t writing about how lucky I was to be me, but more how strange it was to be me. It’s a little like Heidegger trying to write about being, being as an entity: in a sense it’s absurd and doesn’t get you anywhere, but on the other hand it is something to face. There is a kind of miracle involved in anything existing, a kind of miracle involved in being you. So I hoped that some of that sense of the miraculous would express a gratitude, a glad-to-be-here kind of feeling
You wrote about Christmas and the way the idea of a snowy Christmas was more real to you than the bleak brown ones you actually knew. Was it that imaginative vividness that prompted you to become a novelist?
Certainly a susceptibility to that kind of imagery was what prompted me. Al those snowy Christmas illustrations that appeared in children’s books and old-fashioned magazines lie the Saturday Evening Post were very real to me, more real than the muddied brown world around me. Had I not responded so strongly to those little pretend worlds, had I not wanted to enter in and get on that hearth and rug with Santa Claus in the sleigh, no doubt I would never have chosen to live by my imagination the way I have done. From early on I loved these images of another world: comic strips, illustrations Christmas especially.
The stylization of Christmas was so far advanced in American commercial art. Artists knew how to draw it, how to make those little windows with the frost in. There was a kind of vocabulary of Christmas that had descended through generations, so it was intense as a totally imaginary experience that had nothing to do with the real Christmases I experienced. All that excited me, and it seemed a good way out of the world I was in.
The experiences that gave you such pleasure as a child, like being out of the rain, but only just out of it, you explained as pleasurable because ‘the experiencer is irresponsible, safe…there is nothing he can do or ought to do.’ This sounds very like an analogy for the art of the novelist, who is also ‘morally detached, safe and witnessing’.
That’s very good, and entirely your invention. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but now that you mention it, writing a novel is rather like being out the rain that you’re creating there on the page, but just out, so you can smell it, feel it and hear it. Being in a little shelter out of the rain still affords me pleasure. The house I live in now has a kind of open garage, and it still gives me a thrill to stand there with the rain falling all around but not quite on me. I guess that novelists are often people who are fascinated by the rain but don’t want to get wet. It’s a good point.
Edmund White once dais it was the particular curse of adolescence that events were never adequate to the feelings they inspired. Do you feel something similar?
It’s true that when you write about them you have to be careful somehow to make them seem in proportion to the response. It’s possible to be very superior to adolescent experience. On the other hand, it is a human experience. We are as alive at thirteen as at thirty-three, and it deserves to be put into print. I think we have to try to rid ourselves of our own myths about adolescence and write about it. What is awkward from the standpoint of a novelist is that adolescents don’t really have their grip on the handles of the world yet. They can’t make decisions they can’t decide they will marry, they can’t decide they will sell the company. They aren’t quite grown up. All they can do is feel and thrash around, so in that way they’re unsatisfactory. I found I could write about adolescents quite easily in short stories, but that they won’t carry me through a novel. You need adults who can do grown-up things to get you through a novel.
You wrote in your memoirs that you were conscious of wanting to ‘show them in Shillington’, to revenge your father for the slights you and he felt had been put upon him. Did you come to feel at last that you had done so?
I wrote that when my mother was alive, and I suppose, had she been dead, I would have included her, because in a way I was trying to work some kind of revenge for her as well. It was she who felt that Shillington was a hard place. To me it seemed enchanting. It was kind to me and I love it, but I was aware that somehow there was a level of respectability that my parents didn’t quite get into. Among my motives has been a wish to show Shillington that we weren’t intimidated. It was a typical small town full of people, none very rich, none very poor. Somehow I have a wish to show Shillington people that we can make more money than the factory workers from the hosiery mills. What sticks in my mind as a social insult was that my father, though he had the prestige, such as it was, of a schoolteacher, made less than the full-fashioned knitters, and there was a funny feeling about being, not exactly at the very bottom of the social scale, but certainly at the lower end. If I’d stayed in Shillington I’d probably be at the lower end of the social scale myself. I had to get out to show it.
You describe yourself in your memoirs as malicious, greedy for a quota of life’s pleasures, an obnoxious show-off, rapacious and sneaky. That is certainly not how you are perceived publicly.
I think that anybody who knows me would agree with all those adjectives. I was an only child who never had to compete with a sibling, and my parents were both, in their way, very loving and indulgent. Just the fact that I had the presumption to become an artist is rather ridiculous isn’t it, with no qualifications except that I felt treasured as a child. When my mother died, among her things in the attic was a scrapbook containing many of my drawings done when I was three and four. Not every child gets that kind of attention. The good side of t is I have a certain confidence, and by and large I’ve acted confidently in my life and had good results. The bad side is that I like to be at the centre of attention.
As to being malicious, I think I am more than unusually malicious. That joy, that Schadenfreude we take in other people’s misfortunes, is well developed in me, though I try to suppress it. I detect within myself a certain sadism, a certain pleasure in the misfortunes of others. I don’t know whether I’m average in this or whether it’s exceptional, but I’m interested to a degree in the question of sadism. People who are sadistic are very sensitive to pain, and it’s a way of exorcizing the demon of pain.
I’m so aware of my enviousness that I try not to review books by contemporary Americans. I’m not sure that I would really give an honest opinion, and that’s sneaky. ‘People who are cowardly and don t especially enjoy confrontation or battle tend to be sneaky. In this unflattering self-characterization though, I was no doubt just doing my Christian duty of confessing sins. Human nature is mightily mixed, but surely all these malicious and cruel aspects are there along with everything else.
One reviewer, talking about Couples, called you ‘the pornographer of marriage’. Did you resent the tag?
Not too much. I wasn’t trying to be pornographic I was trying to describe sexual behaviour among people, and the effect was probably the opposite of pornographic. Pornography creates a world without consequences, where women don’t get pregnant, nobody gets venereal disease and no one gets tired. In Couples I was trying, to the limits of my own knowledge, to describe actual sexual situations and show them with consequences. Without resenting that phrase, I don’t think it describes very well what I was trying to do. One is always sensitive to criticism to a degree. If they tell you you’re the best thing since Shakespeare, you want to know what’s so great about Shakespeare. I remember especially some reviews I got early. When I began to write, the big figures on the scene were Jewish, by and large: Malamud, Bellow, young Roth and so on. The literary world was Jewish and up comes this little WASP out of the country, writing in a style influenced by Proust. I think I irritated some people, because I did receive a number of harsh reviews of books that were in their way quite innocent and well meant. I was told I had nothing to say, was told it repeatedly, so some of those darts stuck in my skin and I still remember them. On the other hand, it’s part of the game. Every profession has its hazards and harsh reviews.
At least I mattered enough to get bad reviews. I was enough of a presence to deserve to be debunked, and I should have taken some comfort from that. I’ve never consciously tried to adjust my writing to please critics. It would be a mistake, because you’re never going to please many of them. Some of the things said were no doubt fair, as I see now, but when you’re a practising artist you can’t afford to be too much into the critics’ skin. You have to push, to keep going with your own vision and your own sense of reality, and let others make the judgements. On the other hand, I was always protected from adverse judgements by the fact that I had the New Yorker magazine in my corner. They liked me and took most of my things, which meant that my livelihood and my ego gratification came from the same source. I could always hide behind the fact that I was a New Yorker writer and the people who weren’t were just jealous.
I think Couples was certainly of its time, just in the fact that it spans very specific years and refers to a lot of historical events. In a funny way, the book is about the Kennedy assassination. It’s also about the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the fact that the danger of getting pregnant was almost entirely removed and that a certain amount of promiscuity resulted directly from this technology. It also turns out that it was the pre-Aids, pre-herpes paradise, so it was a moment that’s gone, a moment of liberation which broke not upon a bunch of San Francisco hippies and young people, but upon middle-aged couples, yet was a revolution of a kind. It is very much of its historic moment. Those wives did not work, but now, in that same economic group the wives would have jobs, or half-jobs. But these were people who married in the 1950s and thought family life was going to solve all their problems, then discovered it didn’t.
I hope it’s not too dated. I haven’t read it since I checked the last proof. No doubt some of the writing I would improve if I could get my hands on the text again, but I don’t think it’s dated more than any book that has some roots in a historic moment. All novels belong to a certain time, to two times in fact – the time in which they’re located and the time in which they’re written. That book was written a few years farther on from the moment it describes, so in a way the characters are innocent Kennedy characters, whereas I wrote it in the era of Johnson when the Vietnam commitment had deepened and widened under us and people were beginning to burn flags. In a way I was already looking back on an innocent little paradise.
In a novel like Couples, aren’t you concerning yourself with what is really an American middle class?
I think our middle classes are pretty distinct, and because we don’t admit we have a class structure, the other classes are less accessible in a way than they perhaps are in a very class-conscious society like Britain. Somehow to know that there are upper and lower classes, and even some of the traits that determine them, seems to make it easier for writers like Graham Greene or Henry Green or Evelyn Waugh to cross those lines and put before us convincing thugs and servants and what not. Whereas, in this allegedly classless society, we are timid. On the other hand, American experience places you in proximity with quite a range of class. I have no first-hand experience of city ghetto life, but I do remember what it’s like to be shabby small-town and shabby country, and I’ve been able now to get a peek into the moneyed classes, so in a way I have a sufficient social range. But the English do seem to create multi-class novels more easily.
With an acceptance of more sexually explicit writing, much of the so-called literature of concealment has disappeared. Have more relaxed attitudes always been good for literature?
Any strategy of concealment can benefit the work of art, because it imposes certain demands. Rhyme in poetry, for example, had the advantage of forcing people to recast lines and a certain ingenuity came in. Often they were driven to find words they wouldn’t ordinarily have found. And so it was with sexual concealment. In a way, you closed the bedroom door, you conveyed something was going on, and everyone knew what. It seemed important to me in the early 1960s to write about sex explicitly, because it was a little frontier. Some had crossed it already, but always in banned books. Henry Miller crossed it, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover had crossed it, but Joyce was the best model in this because, unlike Henry Miller or D. H. Lawrence, you can’t say Joyce is sex obsessed. Ulysses is not about sex but about life, yet sexual words and references occur and it feels right in the sense that, on a spring day in Dublin, this is how people’s energies would be flowing. With that in mind, it seemed to be important to be as realistic as I could. I don’t feel the need exists in the 1990s. Now people are more or less free to write what they want. I do it less because it does seem not to be an artistic frontier at all, though I would like to think that the freedom still exists for those who want to exercise it – even freedom to be pornographic if pornography is taken to be exciting. I don’t see why a piece of writing can’t be sexually exciting. Certainly writing excites us romantically, after all. Why not try to excite us sexually?
You have sometimes been accused of sentimentalizing your women characters.
I’d have to know the characters in question. I have tried to grow in my depiction of women without abandoning my own sense of women and my own wisdom and experience of them, but I suppose I’ve tried to give them more credit for being something in addition to being interesting to men as sexual opposites. The women in Couples might be sentimental. I’m not sure. I’d have to read the book again. But as women have become increasingly vocal about their feelings, their long-held anger and their long resentment of male views about them, so any male writer to some extent has to look into his heart and try to make his portrayal of women as honest and fair as his portrayal of men. I wouldn’t want to treat them better than I treat my men.
Women have been important in my life, from my mother on, in ways I don’t even know as well as a lot of ways I do. I married young, and my first wife was exceedingly helpful, shaping not only my work but my whole outlook. My second wife too. If I had to be condemned to one sex, I would rather spend my time with women than with men.
You parted from your first wife. Are modern divorce rates prompted by modern conditions, or is it that divorce has become less difficult and more affordable?
The alternative activities to marriage that society has provided have, I think, diminished. It was quite possible to be very unhappily married in Victorian America and not exactly know it. You were off at the office; you then went to the club. The wife had her own circle and sets of entertainments. In a way, once you were past the child-making phase, your contacts could be fairly few and formal, and expectations or marriage were perhaps not quite so high. The post-war world in the West has put many of its eggs, as far as personal happiness goes, in the marriage basket. The demands on marriage have upped, which increases the stress. Also, of course, this is a Protestant country without the Catholic restraints on marriage, so that many a marriage that people would, in the old world, have lumped with the help of lovers, or doing without, or the Church, or any number of other things, now has no convenient way out except divorce.
Having been through one with children who, if not exactly babies, were a little too young to have their parents break up, I’d say it’s something to be avoided if possible, but it’s not maybe the worst thing to happen in many circumstances and the fact that it happens to so many children now has to some extent lessened the burden on each of them. You’re no longer the pariah or odd-ball if you have a split family, since at least half your friends do too. It’s not that we are indifferent to marriage; it’s expecting so much of it that makes people become dissatisfied.
Do you write better under stress?
I have written under stress, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a steady thing. As Wordsworth said, emotion recollected in tranquillity is the optimum, so by and large I try and arrange a tranquil life around myself, and I write best in it. Of course, you have to have something to write about and that often does involve undertaking or going through some stress. I’m a compulsive writer who doesn’t wait for the perfect day before he writes, so I’ve written on some poor days and written when I was in considerable discomfort. The one thing to be said for writing when you’re unhappy is that at least you’re having an experience of unhappiness. In a funny way, if you’re always tranquil, always satisfied, always the orderly writer who goes and does his job, words are in danger of becoming too cheap. You write too easily. Some of my best writing has been done under stressful circumstances. Nevertheless a simple bourgeois monotony is to be desired for a steady productive life.
Dr Johnson said that a man not married was only half a man, but Cyril Connolly added to the dictum by saying that a man who was very married was only half a writer.
It raises a ticklish issue. It’s true that people are always only partially married, and that a writer writes to some extent with the unmarried the lonely, the solitary adventuring self. My own temperament has led me twice toward marriage, maybe because I don’t have Cyril Connolly’s needs. He was a bit of a gadabout, I gather, as many writers have been.
I have the feeling that, like many Englishmen, he needed a generous amount of bachelor freedom to feel a hundred per cent a man. Trying to think about notable twentieth-century writers who seemed thoroughly married and none the worse for it, I come across two immediately: Thomas Mann and James Joyce. I’ve seen too many American writers suffer in a way from not being married or being stable enough. You can easily fritter away your talent in drink, wasted energy and exhausting skirt chasing; or, indeed, in pants chasing – why leave the women out of it? In marriage the mind is unmarried enough. The mind is a kind of a bachelor, in any case. It’s maybe a good mix to have the body very married.
You spoke of your memories of growing up as being ‘used up and wished away in the self-serving corruptions of fiction’. Do you feel that somehow you are intruding upon the reality of those who live in memory?
I suppose so. I feel also that you are selling your life in a strange way, including the people who were standing around while you were living it, which brings something a little shabby into the transaction. When I was a little boy, I was much impressed by a fairy story about a wishing hide hanging on the wall. Every time you make a wish, a little piece flies off. Eventually there’s no hide left. I think I have that same feeling about writing. Each time I turn something into a story or a novel, another piece of the hide is flying off. Fiction is self-serving in so far as the writer is ultimately in control and anything too embarrassing will be suppressed. The general trend of the distortions is therefore in his own favour, so in that way it’s corruption. Nevertheless it’s what I do for a living, so I can’t be too apologetic about it. But there’s something consuming about it and a typical writerly fear is that you’ve used up everything you want to say. In fact you never do. Somehow, with a little patience, there’s always more. But you write very close to what feels like exhaustion, to what feels like the end of your story.
In what sense do you live your novels as you write?
Things sharpen as you write. On the other hand, you have to have some notion of the little scene. I saw a lot of movies as a young man, and I still go to the movies. There is some degree to which our imaginations are all cinematic. I think of the novels as scenes, but I often don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. Sometimes the characters say less than I had hoped, sometimes more, but in general they hold within certain bounds of what can occur. A novel is unlike a play in that there is a weave of the verbal action with the background: the room, the scenery, the kind of day has somehow to come into it. The human mind wanders constantly, picks up little bits of the past and so on. All of that has to be written too, as well as the voices. It all gets sharper, and you hope it gets sharper again when you see proofs. Sharp seems a good way to think of it; clear. There should be a kind of clarity and a certain clash of edges; little jumps whereby the reader knows we’re going forward. Each sentence should be a slight shock. I once saw that as a description of style, and I’ve tried to remember it: that good style is a succession of small surprises. I don’t think it was Cyril Connolly, but it could well have been an Englishman. And so, yes, there are the surprises which are surprising to the writer, and then to the reader.
Do you feel at your peak as a writer now?
It’s hard to know if I’m getting worse or if my critical sense is getting better. Just looking at the life curve of most writers, in America especially, you tend to peak young when your memories are fresh and youthful. It’s a rare writer in this country who gets better after thirty, and many have blown up by the time they’re in their forties. So at that age you’re working against the trend, but in some ways I know more than ever. I’m less naïve, and it’s only a question of energy. Writing is in part an athletic feat. It’s all in the head, but it’s a matter of images and words, of making it all have a kind of spring and a tension.
You have written only one play, Buchanan Dying. Was that just a matter of seeing if you could do it?
I’d tried to write that book as a novel first and found that the historical novel posed problems in terms of fakery and bluff that I couldn’t meet. I might be able to do it now when maybe I’m not so inhibited about faking but writing it all as a play was a way of unloading the considerable amount of material I had accumulated. It was bliss to write a play, bliss to try and picture the stage and to know you were making an artificial thing and could do away with all of that scenery that the prose writer is constantly creating. If the play had been produced on Broadway and been a great success, no doubt I would have tried to write others, but since it was too long and produced only in a few truncated college versions I received no encouragement to become a playwright. Evidently I don’t feel strongly enough about the form to do it on my own. I’ve never much enjoyed other people’s plays, frankly and I m not a great theatregoer, so a number of things have combined to prevent me from trying another, though some day I might. I don’t know the theatre very well, and I’m scared of getting involved with all those other people: the director, the actors, the agents.
You once described living in modern America as like skating on thin ice.
I don’t remember saying that, but a lot of being alive is a little like thin ice There’s a sense that you must keep in motion or you’l1 fall through, that there’s never a settled place. You look at European societies, let alone Asian societies, and there seem to be moments of rest, certain roles that people achieve whereby they are honoured by the societies. Think of how a fifty-five-year-old Italian man looks, with his grey hair and wonderfully trim suit – everything just so, everything exactly right on him. He is happy, filling his skin totally. Englishwomen of a certain social class have that same air of filling their skin. Their role, their expectations and their abilities are in exact accord, and there is a satisfaction Here I don’t think we are provided with these niches of final achievement. You always need a little more, are always running, always in motion, always having to prove something. That is I guess what I mean by skating on thin ice.
I believe Americans more than Englishmen have a sense of a void underneath, maybe because we came to a wilderness and there’s so much of the land that’s still wild and raw: the sense that nature is not a tame collection of fields and villages, not a man-made thing; that we are strangers on the planet and the void is all around us. That’s an American idea, a part of the blackness Melville talks about: the American sense of reality that makes one anxious.
Do you feel pressure as a writer to reflect the times you live in?
At thirty I was on the crest of cultural developments: the songs being sung were the ones I was singing and so on. Now I’m fifty-eight, I’m aware of there having been several cultural waves since me. But in general I feel we all reflect the times we are alive in, are products of a certain set of decades and might as well admit it. Although not all of my books have specific years and dates, many of them do. We are all so calendar conscious in this day and age. The fashion designers change fashions, the news media keep producing new stories. It would be silly to try to write a timeless book about a century that is so very time conscious. Just by beginning to particularize, you’re going to get into a certain time-specific feeling, no matter whether you want to. I always admired Ivy Compton-Burnett, who always wrote about families who were having their discussions around 1900, and she made it work. We’re not too interested in what fifty-eight-year-olds do any more: the interesting age for us as novel readers is the mating age, people, more or less, up to the thirties. It used to be that people or characters were all twenty, surprisingly young in fact.
The English novelist and critic Malcolm Bradbury wrote of you: ‘His books are uneasy celebrations of American life, troubled interplays between bright domestic interiors and dark history . . . which sense like the couple themselves that Grace has gone but might be restored with aesthetic care and attention.’ Do you believe that Grace has largely disappeared from the American way of life, and are you in the business of restoring it?
I’ve read that description and it seems just. Maybe it’s typically American, however. I was reading another English critic the other day, and she makes the point, about American writing in general, that it’s all against a background of Utopian expectation. The Puritans came here expecting to create a Utopia, so we Americans tend to be very hard on our own society, because it isn’t perfect. No society is, but perhaps only this one expects to be perfect. My life has taken me from the Depression, of which I have selected memories, to the Second World War, which I remember quite well, from an adolescent’s point of view, as a time when we and the British and some few others were fighting what seemed to be the forces of utter darkness. We emerged triumphant as well as very powerful, so obviously from the high plateau of 1945 there could only be a slide down.
I’ve been a witness to that long slide, but on a political level I’m probably more pro-American than most American writers, and more willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, in the texture of life around me, in the way people behave toward each other, the way the cities look, the amount of garbage of all kinds – garbage in the trash masher, garbage on the television sets – there’s a lot to complain about. I suppose I have registered this in my novels, but basically I try to describe the human condition as I happen to have seen it as an American. If I had been born in England or France, I would be writing about Englishmen or Frenchmen, but I happen to have been handed this subject and love the idea behind America and the natural landscape we were handed – or rather that we grabbed. But there’s a lot wrong with the country when you compare it with the ideal we’re trying to live by.
With so much talk of censorship in the air at the moment, would you say people’s lives are particularly changed or affected by the fictions they read?
Well, mine has been. It’s not the only thing that’s affected my life, but certainly I’ve been affected by the books I’ve read, especially by a book like Madame Bovary. One is encouraged to fall in love by reading about people falling in love. In some sense our erotic expectations are shaped by what we read, as our notions of our responsibilities to society are also, I’d say, somewhat shaped. I’m trying to distinguish between my reactions as a citizen, as it were, and my reactions as a writer, because clearly, as a professional writer, I’m especially open to being affected by books. I’m always trying to learn how to do things or always willing to be surprised. But one very good American novel, The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, not only really told me about Chicago, which I’m happy to know, but also excited me and made me feel better about being American.
I think that censors are correct that books, even in this day and age, can be quite important. They’re very important in societies where they’re censored, and where, of course, it has a reverse effect. The Soviet Union was until -recently a country where writers mattered enormously because they were almost the only people who would even begin to tell the truth. They couldn’t tell all of the truth, and they often got kicked out and had their books censored, but nevertheless, in both the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia, they were caretakers of the truth. That will probably change as the pressure on them becomes less and less, and they’ll eventually achieve the status of writers in the West, where what they say doesn’t seem to matter much. But it does matter to a degree. Our notions of how to be human are to a considerable extent affected by what we read, and even if we don’t read we go to the movies, we watch television shows prepared by people who have read, so in a way there’s a trickle-down effect of significant writers in that it permeates pop culture and affects the way people act.
If my own books were censored, I’d quite mind it. I’m not used to it, of course. As an American I was raised on the Bill of Rights and so regard all attempts at censorship, even fairly mild ones, as a great affront. George Steiner kept telling us in his columns that Eastern European writers were better writers than Americans because they had to cope with censorship. This may be, but it’s still not a price I want to pay. I don’t like the revival of puritanical school boards and library staffs. The pernicious effects aren’t so much at the front line, because there are lawyers to fight these suits and the censors often lose, but at a remove, when the publishers start to pull in their horns; they would rather not go to the trouble of seeing a controversial or too sexy text into print.
So even when they apparently lose in the courts, the censors win in the publishing houses. I can’t think of too many cases where I’d be for a book being censored. In wartime I might consider the right of the government to censor a book that gave away military secrets, but I certainly don’t think there’s anything sexual that should not be put into print now. I find censorship offensive, and every artist has an obligation to resist it.
What indeed, about television? I would say that is a real issue. Without wanting to sound too pontifical, the United States has a fairly puritanical past. We were founded by Puritans, we participated in the great Victorian prudery, and in pop culture we have always lagged behind France and Britain with what could be shown. Bare breasts on television, for example, are highly uncommon here, not that I think that seeing the human body will harm children. Presumably they have experience in their own little lives of naked adult bodies. I would say the violence is more alarming than the sex.
I just wouldn’t know where to draw the line, though neither would I trust the censors to know what’s good and what’s bad for us. No sooner had we suppressed violence in television that it might turn out that psychologically, it was saving lives to have all this surrogate violence. Bruno Bettelheim wrote a very nice book about the violence in fairy stories and how they should not be bowdlerized, should not be made less violent, the violence being the point. It helps the child to exorcize its very real fears. So although I wouldn’t say there never can be any censorship, in general I don’t trust the people who would administer it and I’d rather take my chances in a censor-free society.
Well-intentioned liberalism, some would claim, breeds ironies, such as that there have been more deaths in abortion clinics than in the whole of the Second World War. How do you, as a writer, cope with such ironies?
As a citizen you take certain stands, like everybody else. You vote for certain candidates, have certain feelings, some strong and some weak, about positions. But almost all things worth discussing have two sides so there is always more to be said about the paradox of liberalism. I was struck, during all the Vietnam protests, by the eagerness of American liberals to wish upon the South Vietnamese a kind of government they wouldn’t want for themselves. That, to me, seemed paradoxical, but no doubt there’s much to be said on the other side. As a writer of fiction, you can certainly enjoy having two opinions or more about everything, and give them each a voice. A novel is a good arena, not to vote, but to express your knowledge of the contradictions.
In writing fiction, I’m not compelled to express a view, but I am allowed to be as alert as possible to the paradox and the tension involved in all these instances. To be human, after all, is to live in a state of tension between opposites, making decisions that are the best o^ a series of bad choices. So many of our choices have a bad side. It’s one of the things in which the Christian doctrine of original sin makes a kind of sense. We’re in a position as humans where we cannot but do something wrong, no matter what we try.
At the time of the American involvement in Vietnam, you were misinterpreted and castigated as a ‘hawk’ and government supporter, but wouldn’t a policy of non-interference have matched your sympathies most closely?
I just don’t think that the United States, at least in the mid 1960s, could avoid interfering. The Vietnam involvement went back to Truman and Eisenhower, and Johnson was in a way just picking up the overdrawn cheques that other administrations had written. I suppose an all-wise government would intervene only where it could win, and stay out where it would lose, but I don’t think there is any government that wise. I could understand perfectly well how we got into it. I could have wished we could get out, but I did differ from many of my dovish confreres in understanding how we got there. It wasn’t so different from Korea. We were trying to prevent the southern half of a country from being taken over by the northern half. I admired Truman for looking at China back in 1947 and saying we’re not going to get involved with that. We didn’t, and it’s still running its course. I suppose an all-wise president would have looked at Vietnam and come to the same conclusion, but I did feel sorry for the administration and for the Americans trying to make sense of this muddle, and I was shocked by the amount of hatred for our own government that seemed to be present in the young and the old in this society.
It seemed to me wrong to be enjoying the benefits of being an American and to pretend we could enjoy those benefits while always having clean hands. I don’t think you can. Obviously the great power is great in part because it’s willing to use force, but all peace, including our personal peace and our right to walk down the street, is based upon a threat of violence somewhere behind us. So I was happy when we got out of Vietnam and sorry we were there so long, but it seemed to me a more honourable attempt than was alleged by many.
Famous novelists are often called on to sign public petitions for good causes. Do you have any feelings about that sort of pressure being morally intrusive?
It is morally intrusive. On the other hand, if it’s a cause I believe in I’m happy to sign. I’ve signed a number of petitions, but they may not be as common here as in England. I get a lot of requests from Britain, strange to say, to sign things, or to contribute to this and that. I have no quarrel with most liberal causes and I once signed a petition saying that Cassius Clay – Mohammed Ali – should be allowed to be heavy-weight champion even though he had resisted going into the army. I got some theatre tickets for doing it, so I remember that particular cause with pleasure.
May I quote you something you wrote that reminded me of Blake: ‘The essential self is innocent and when it tastes its own innocence, it knows that it lives forever’? Can you elaborate on that?
That’s one of those feelings you don’t have all the time, but there are moments when you seem to be tasting your essential self and the kind of bliss that goes with it. There’s a moment near the end of The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas in which he describes this moment, a sense of revelation and of everlastingness that I think is a real human sensation for whatever reason. If we ever try in our imagination to delve beneath our circumstances toward our actual selfhood, as in the course of my memoir I did, I think we come upon something that tastes good rather than bad, that tastes delicious. Our basic feeling about cosmic matters is that somehow life is good, and that it is good to be alive and be a witness to the world in its processes. I suppose that’s another way of talking about this essential innocence: a certain goodness at the root of things that we feel but can’t prove.
You have had to contend with psoriasis, stuttering, claustrophobia, asthma. Have such problems tended to isolate you and turn you into an observer, hence a novelist?
The psoriasis was isolating to a degree where I felt insecure and didn’t feel I had hundred-per-cent credentials for being human. I was embarrassed and in some way ashamed, and entered more timidly into the standard human adventures than I would have otherwise.
On the other hand, psoriasis is not to be classed with having a real disease or bad eyesight or one arm. I want to keep it in proportion, but it certainly did have an isolating effect and made me feel that I was somehow singled out; and this feeling of being singled out also helped me in choosing a solitary profession. I think I’m less claustrophobic now than many people. I seem able to fly in aeroplanes and go through tunnels without much of a quiver, whereas some people really can’t, so I’m not as claustrophobic, it turns out, as I thought. I’ve had a pretty successful life by and large, so that’s eased me out of some of my neurotic feelings. Asthma was not good, but it seems to have been cat related and did go away. I still think of myself as a basically healthy person.
But you actually say that nothing, not even love and sexual contentment, has reconciled you to your psoriasis.
Certainly the psoriasis has made me doubt my humanity in the ideal way, and that kind of doubt isn’t easily erased. The personality you acquire as a youthful psoriasis sufferer will stay with you all of your life. I’m really beyond being made to feel wonderful. My skin insists on having psoriasis. We’ve tried everything against it, with immediate success, and then a slow leakage back into failure. That’s happening now, and now it’s returning I realize that with it returns this sense of being unclean and unfit, which I suppose has the effect of channelling me into myself as a writer: the books don’t have psoriasis, the books are clean. I’ve had a lot of love compared to many, but no amount of love would ease away the self-distrust that comes from having had psoriasis at such an early age as I did. I notice that my daughter, who has a little bit of it – it came on in her twenties – doesn’t seem to have this really bad feeling. She just accepts it as normal. It’s not her fault and doesn’t much matter, whereas I feel it is my fault and does matter greatly.
Would you now see the early reviewer, who said of you that you wrote very well but had nothing to say, as having passed an unintended compliment? Auden, whom you admire, once said that art cannot be a midwife to reality, so perhaps writing well is exactly what a novelist should do, and there is no real reason why he should be more right about life than anyone else, is there?
It was a kind of a compliment, and Auden is to a degree right, though he is perhaps more right about poets than prose writers. The basic itch has to be the verbal itch, the wish to play with words; and content follows upon the fascination with words. It is felt of a prose writer in this country that he ought to have something to say, and it is true that you write best when you feel you have something to say and your subject is sufficiently strong to give an energy and thrust to the writing. Therefore I was hurt to think I had nothing to say. It seemed to me I did have things to say, and that they weren’t the things that had been said already. The trouble with that kind of critic is that he thinks everybody is going to write like Dreiser or James Jones, but I had my own message and my own particular slant, and I believe the fundamental desire, without which you do not have a writer, is the wish to make books and to find something to say. So I suppose it wasn’t such a bad thing to have said about me, in a way.
Talking about the way a writer’s work is reproduced endlessly, you called it ‘a mode of self-assertion that leaves the cowardly perpetrator hidden and out of harm’s way’, but isn’t the opposite true too – once something is in print there is no going back and you are subject to all the vagaries of taste and opinion?
On the one hand you are out of the rain, as we were saying earlier, but on the other you’re getting all wet constantly because you’ve extended yourself, you’ve thrown this hostage out there. It’s not you, it’s cut off from you. It’s like a baby, only even more remote than a baby. Once the publication has occurred, your mind is on other things and you don’t really see the effects it’s having on any but a few people. You read a few reviews, you get a few letters, you see the sales reports. Otherwise the book just fades away and you don’t have to harvest the results. It’s not like a personal act where you must be there to reap the grain, so it’s an extension of you, but a relatively painless one. I’ve always had a distinct feeling that I am myself John Updike and have a certain history and birth date and a certain body, but that what my books say is quite detached from that, is in a way the real me. I try to be honest, to describe what it’s like to be a person, an American male, but it’s not really me and I don’t feel endangered by the books as they make their own way in the world.
You asserted that: -My assets as a novelist I take to be my taste for American life acquired in Shillington.’ What is it that is really characteristic of American life?
Having written that, I wonder if it is true. Maybe I’ve had enough American life. We are certainly becoming more European as we become more civilized and the wilderness recedes. Yet Europe has learned many lessons from America in the past forty-five years, but the difference, I suppose, is that this country was based upon the notion of equality. It was there at the very start in the Puritan settlements, was reinforced by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the notion we are all equal and must prove ourselves is still there. So we are not hopelessly handicapped by any conditions of class, even of race, though certainly to be black in this country isn’t an easy row to hoe. Then there’s the fact that so much of our culture is in the way of being lowest-common-denominator culture. On the one hand, it’s vulgar and simple minded, on the other there’s a kind of energy. Think of the Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s, which were mass culture with a vengeance, yet they now seem works of art in their style. We’re able to see that in fact this was an art form and that it can’t be done now. I like the levelling that happened in America and the fact that any structure is going to be put up from scratch. You can begin again, and every generation begins again. That’s what I would say the difference is between America and Europe.
In view of some of the rather unsavoury aspects of Christianity through the centuries, what now remains of Christianity in your view that seems worth clinging to?
Well, it says: ‘Fear not.’ It tries to assuage our basic dread, to placate our fear that comes from being a death-foreseeing animal. The New Testament also holds out the idea of people being equal in the sight of God and that is as useful a way to try to form society as any. It obviously holds up a number of other ideals, not all of which it has always lived up to, but I like the need, the empowering yes of it. In my own life I’ve taken courage from a sense that I was doing something useful and relatively harmless, but to some extent the energy has all been generated by faith, and by unreasonable faith, because it’s a long way from Shillington to the Ritz Carlton. And so, having lived by faith, I intend to be more indulgent of faith.
I’d say my Christianity is a way of coping with life. It regularizes my week, puts something in it that is entirely voluntary. I get to see a lot of other people who’ve also gotten up on a Sunday morning and put on their good clothes, and it holds up a set of standards that aren’t strictly worldly. It says there are other standards, and it’s healthy for a writer to realize that what matters so much maybe isn’t the results we get but the spirit in which we do something. Sometimes the best success comes to people who don’t try too hard, and Christianity has enabled me maybe not to try too hard but to try enough.
I wouldn’t say I’ve found that I become more religious as I get older. I was most religious when I was in my twenties and most scared. The older I get the less scared I seem to be, and in a sense the less needy. Yet I’m still a churchgoing Protestant, though it’s been many years since I read theology with any real passion. I used to read a fair amount of it. I was so desperate to find some place where I could stand. Now I seem to think I’m standing on a place, but the rug could be pulled out from under me at any moment.
I don’t think a society should enforce religion. In this country there’s a lot of constitutional language saying it should not, though America does seem a little too pious. All the presidents talk about God, for example, as though he’s right next door, even though some of them have not been very religious, or at least very faithful churchgoers. It seems very bad when a country professes an official religion, and I would resist that here, and resist even the tendencies toward it. Government of the society presided over should be minimal. It should be the least number of laws that can create order, and everything else should be left up to human initiative and human emotion, even human whim. A society that tries to create goodness is in danger of becoming a tyranny. This constitution, as I understand it, doesn’t expect people to be good but allows for them to be bad up to a certain point and then says the rest must step in. This seems a more realistic approach than the kind of total package the ayatollahs of Iran, say, would like to enforce, or which you find, for that matter, in Mao’s China, where a total lifestyle, a total set of directives is offered you by the state.
For the last ten years or so you have displayed signs of anxiety at growing old. Are you fearful for your art, or is it more to do with mortality?
One doesn’t like being mortal, and one certainly doesn’t like feeling one’s body stiffen and age under one. I’m not in bad shape at fifty-eight, but there are things I used to be able to do that I can’t. I used to be able to hold a broomstick in my two hands and jump up in the air and over it while still holding on. This is not a great accomplishment, but it was something I could do, and at a party in the late hours I would sometimes do it and astound the other party-goers. When I was little I used to wonder how these big people around me could stand being so close to death, and still walk around, smiling, being silly and cheerful, reading the newspaper. How could they hack it? Now I’m in that position, I see that you hack it in part because you have no choice.
I don’t think I’m abnormally aware of being old. My wife has a healthy and brisk attitude towards the ageing process. She doesn’t deny it, but she thinks life is there to be lived and our duty, as long as we’re alive, is to enjoy it in some way. A lot of writers are dead at my age, and certainly many are dead as writers, so some of that may be a pep talk to myself, saying don’t give up, don’t stop trying, don’t get complacent, keep trying to learn. You have fewer grey cells, but maybe you can make better use of the ones you have. There are advantages to being fifty-eight. A lot of decisions have been made already, a lot is behind you. Your child-raising years are over, you’ve made your career choices. In a way your mind is clearer to concentrate on meaningful things. I’m aware that I tend to make my men older than myself. I put a lot of them in their sixties, for some reason. My present novel is all about getting old and useless, though I myself still feel in pretty good shape.
Do you still feel you have an unfulfilled task?
I haven’t many regrets, things I’d go back and change. I’ve certainly behaved badly on occasions and foolishly on others, but the basic decisions of my life were the choice of profession, where to live, which women to marry, which college to go to. I’ve been lucky in those decisions. I think they’ve been the right ones, and the world has tended to confirm me in that thought. I have hopes of writing books better than the ones I’ve written. I do feel I have something still to say, and to locate that thing and say it seems possible and worth doing. I’m in a position in which what I write will get published, will get some attention, so I’m well located and should try to measure up to the opportunity I still have.
I’d like to think I’m pretty adventurous still. A certain safety enshrouds me now. I can’t escape safety to a degree, especially since American writers, as we’ve said, burn out so notoriously that if I do nothing it’ll be no great disgrace; I’ll merely be behaving like most of my predecessors. If I look back on my novels, they’ve all had an element of self-challenge. They’re all stunts in a way, they all had some trick at their heart. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I was able to write them because the trick amused me.
Fiction is potentially frivolous, and since I came from a line of practical people, doing something so impractical and making a living at it makes me feel guilty in a way. My initial ambition was aimed a little under where I’ve actually landed. I wanted merely to be a cartoonist or a magazine writer and to make a living at it. Instead I’ve found myself catapulted into trying to write literature, really trying to write lasting and significant stuff.
I suppose the kind of language I use is a way of protecting myself from the true awesomeness of trying to write really well. It doesn’t mean I don’t try to write well, but I have to frame it in some way a little lightheartedly or bashfully to make it possible to be productive, because it’s quite possible to get overawed by writing. The only final response to the awesomeness of what you’re trying to do is silence, and I don’t want to become silent.