Use Everything

March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Adam Begley’s new, authorized biography of John Updike goes on sale April 8, and excerpts are starting to hit the Web, including in New York Magazine (March 24 issue, reprinted at Vulture). Begley recounts the tale of a journalist named William Ecenbarger, who in 1983 scored an interview with the author after trekking to Updike’s hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania, and being fortunate enough to run into his very proud mother at the library.

Not fond of being interviewed, Updike nonetheless treated the visitor cordially, offering to chauffeur him around Shillington in Ecenbarger’s Volkswagen (“’I’ll drive so you can take notes,’ Updike suggested as they left the house, ‘but I want to drive your car.’”), pointing out local landmarks, old girlfriends’ homes, and sharing anecdotes in what turned into a day-long trip.

Begley notes that, with astonishingly quick turnaround, Updike channeled his own impressions of the exchange into his work:

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

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

Ecenbarger was by no means an isolated target. Begley notes that the episode was indicative of the consumptive way Updike, trained as a visual artist at the Ruskin School for Drawing at Oxford, mined his own life, and the people dear to him within it, for his fiction, even the very proud mother:

When the biographer Ron Chernow, who went to see Linda Updike in Plowville in the early ’70s when he was a young journalist eager to write about Updike, asked her how it felt to pop up as a character in her son’s fiction, “she paused and said, ‘When I came upon the characterization of myself as a large, coarse country woman I was very hurt.’ She said she walked around for several days, brooding—and then she realized she was a large, coarse country woman.”

Elsewhere, Matthew Kassel at the New York Observer (for which Begley is the former books editor) on Updike’s years as a Talk of the Town reporter for the New Yorker.

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