NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Newseum, Washington D.C's newest museum devoted to journalism and the news business. And there's a audience with us here in the Knight Studio and thank you all very much for coming in. Appreciate it.
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CONAN: Three women friends, widowed in their 60s and 70s returned together to an old summer haunt in a small town in Rhode Island. The women, it should be said are witches, and the town is Eastwick. Novelist John Updike has returned to one of his most popular world, it's almost 25 years after the publication of the "Witches of Eastwick," he's released his characters from their marriages. They are now the "Widows of Eastwick", age mellows them somewhat and reduces their powers as they test the teams. John Updike is most famous for in love, power and aging in modern America.
Later in the program power on another plane. We'll continue our series of final arguments for president Sarah Sewall makes the case for Barack Obama on foreign policy. But first John Updike, one of our best known writers, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and also one of our most prolific with scores on novels, short story, poems, reviews and essays to his credit, and he joins us today in the Newseum. And welcome back to Talk of the Nation.
Mr. JOHN UPDIKE (Author, "Widows of Eastwick"): Thank you.
CONAN: If you'd like to talk with John Updike, give us a call, our number 800-989-8255, email us email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And some might think it a curious choice to write a novel with three protagonists all of whom are women in their 60s and 70s.
Mr. UPDIKE: Well, yes it is odd but then every novel has something odd about it and that's part of the charm at least for the writer if not for the reader. A sequel I've done a lot of sequels, I never thought I'd be a sequel writer, but I brought back Rabbit Angstrom after 10 years and then 10 more and 10 more. So the thing about a sequel is that you've done a lot of the work already, you've invented the characters, named them...
CONAN: Mm hmm.
Mr. UPDIKE: Invented the place, named it and you're able - now to add with the sequel the dimension at the time seemed to me that - I asked myself what do I know now that I didn't know in my other fiction, and I know that I'm older. And so, the witches presented themselves to me as possibly a way to write about old age and aging, and losing your powers including that of witchery.
CONAN: And including the powers of witchery. You described the first novels in attempt to make things right with my - what shall we call them feminist to detractors.
Mr. UPDIKE: Yes, I did say that rather and discreetly...
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Mr. UPDIKE: And I shouldn't be too aware - a writer can't really worry too much about the critics because there's no pleasing some of them and there's no displeasing others in you. But I was startled enough to be told that I was a misogynist to reflect and try to write and which is I thought of it - you know, the charge was that I had all these male sex hungry chauvinistic male characters.
CONAN: So you wrote a bunch of sex hungry female characters?
Mr. UPDIKE: I tried to write about some women and the women are - have power, they have abilities, they are artists each in their way. And I hope that would placate my critics, but it didn't. In fact, they've founded a little more offensive than ever but I didn't mean to be offensive. I really wrote with I thought of a very fond heart and real interest in their fates and did some research about witchery. And - I hate to say it was a fun book, but it's of fun book for me, and when I reread it in preparation for writing this sequel out of surprise by how much was in it, you know, there really was a lot of content there.
CONAN: Kid can write?
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Mr. UPDIKE: Yeah. Not bad I said to myself.
CONAN: Did you ever wish that you know, you've cashed in on that witchcraft thing, you know maybe set in the high school somewhere?
Mr. UPDIKE: Good idea. No, it never occurred to me and I sort of - when I became to write the sequel I've discovered I've forgotten most of the witchcraft I once knew. But the idea was - is that their witchery had faded and they now view that era, the former era, with distaste because they had not only bewitched people but done a fair amount of damage. They'd killed the couple people so somewhat more chaste than in repentant to mood. They go back to Eastwick - see how the town has fared in their long absence and a way try to make amends.
CONAN: The first third of the book though you reintroduce us to our - your characters and in a way - it's an odd form of writing because you have readers who of course know the characters extremely well. You have readers who only know them through the movie, which would be a mistake because they're quite different than they are in the book.
Mr. UPDIKE: Thank you. Yes...
CONAN: And you have readers who don't know them at all. So it's a curious form of how much can you tell us about their back story without boring some people to tears.
Mr. UPDIKE: I tried to do - it just right, you know, a little back story and maybe not, yeah, not too much. When you think about what do old people in this country in this state of global development do is that I discovered as I aged that you travel. And so, I put them - put first one witch on trip to Canada, two witches on the trip to the Nile and the three witches all together to China. So that's seemed to me maybe a fair summary of - and normal human - American activity in old age.
CONAN: So, was this also a way to write off all your trips to Canada, Egypt and China?
Mr. UPDIKE: I haven't taken any deductions. I did - I confess I have been to all three places and did use some of my memories and some guide books to get me through. I tried not to make it sound too much like a guide book and maybe it is a little guide-booky. But the fact is Americans now must live with a consciousness of the wider world and like good students a lot of us are trying to learn about the globe before we pass on.
CONAN: I have to say they are charming travel companions, they are a lot of fun. But, I wanted to read a short passage from your book, just ask you a little bit about writing. "Alexander glimpsed a possibility of breaking out of her windows monotonous life pushing through her book clubs monthly choice of literary fiction, having drinks and Dutch treat dinners with her towers(ph) girlfriends leaving quarrelers messages on the telephones of her evasive children fighting her way with cheeks stinging hikes in the high ranch country north toward the Willard Peak. Her only companion, the arthritic old black lab, she and Jim had raised from a puppy they called Cinder because of his ash gray fussiness, his eyes the wonder struck white glass of a huskies. In Eastwick, her lab had been called coal."
Mr. UPDIKE: Nicely read.
CONAN: Nicely written. Is that a technique you stole from Homer? I mean the long discursive wonderfully rambling sentence and then that short punchy one.
Mr. UPDIKE: It did sound not too long-winded, but it sound long-winded enough. I think, you know, you have to vary prose and go from long sentences to short ones. And I've never been shy about long sentences, often I find there's even more you want to crowd in. Somehow one clause, one phrase breeds another, but in that one it's sort of an enumeration of her life. After all in one sentence I'm trying to tell you what a 72-year-old woman out in New Mexico does with her days. So in that sense I think it's OK and it gets this over the terrain and then we can having met Alexander, we can go on to follow her and her later travels.
CONAN: We're talking of course with John Updike, the author most recently of the "Widows of Eastwick." If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, email us firstname.lastname@example.org. And why don't we begin with James, and James is calling us from Parkersburg in West Virginia.
JAMES (Caller): Yes. Thank you very much. I'm going through the Rabbit series Mr. Updike. I love it very much. I read of the "Witches of Eastwick" quite a while before the movie came out, and I had Jack Nicholson in mind for Satan right from the very start, you know, I was very startled when the movie came out that he'd actually been cast the role. And I've always wondering whether if that was something that you had in mind when you wrote the book.
Mr. UPDIKE: No. I was invited. Once you sold the book for the rights, movie rights, I was invited to participate as kind of an adviser, and I backed off. I figured that a writer is really a moth lost in the bright lights of Hollywood, and I do better to try to write another book than to in anyway, try to advice or correct the movie. A movie has to be quite unlike the book, and indeed, that movie was quite unlike the book. The longer it went on, the less like it became. And they left all of the violence that I mentioned earlier.
Nicholson, you can't fault, he's a wonderful actor, role after role he comes through. And he in did that one I thought the script let him down at the end, it wasn't really enough for him to do and so it fell to the special effects directors to think of how to fill the screen. And also, the actresses were all lovely - Cher, always lovely, Susan Sarandon and then quite new to the screen, Michel Pfeiffer. So you can't complain about the cast. But I did think that the movie misrepresented the book enough that I could write a sequel in part to erase the memory of the movie.
CONAN: Where did you see the movie for the first time?
Mr. UPDIKE: I saw it only once. I saw it in a theater in Denver's Mass, near where I live. My wife and I snuck in to an afternoon show. About halfway through the film, she rested her head on my shoulder and said, "Oh John, you must get your name taken off this." I didn't think of it as that bad but anyway, she's kind of a perfectionist. I thought, it was in many ways, a noble attempt. I was grateful on the one hand to have interest from Hollywood but seeing the versions that they produced is sort of embarrassing. I felt like I'd put these very talented actors and other artists in a kind of a glass box with my feeble imagining, and I wanted to break the glass and get them out of the movie somehow but of course, I couldn't and we left the theater. I mean, we saw it through the end and never mentioned it again.
CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
JAMES: Thanks for taking me.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's see if we can get Carl on line. Carl is with us from Tuscaloosa in Alabama.
CARL (Caller): Yes. Mr. Updike, a pleasure to talk to you. A somewhat different question. I'm sure you're familiar with the writer Patrick O'Brian of the "Aubrey-Maturin" series. You mentioned sequels at the beginning and after writing 19 books before he died, I wondered if you might like to comment on the work of Patrick O'Brian, and I'd be very interested in your thoughts.
Mr. UPDIKE: Well, you embarrass me because I've never read a book by him. I remember, of course, the name and they're seafaring books, aren't they? They're about adventures at sea.
CONAN: During the Napoleonic wars.
Mr. UPDIKE: Yes, during the Napoleonic wars, and I can't claim to have read them. But sure, if I have read them, I would have enjoyed them. A series I did read was "The Flashman" series which again took place in Victoria, England. And it was very entertaining. Sequels, as I say, have the charm of having a stable set of characters, basic characters and you can watch them function through time in a way you rarely can with a single novel.
CONAN: Carl, Patrick O'Brian was a guest on this program to talk about his books and take calls from listeners. I guess we could go through the archives and get you a copy by - I don't know how we would get it to you but write as an email, let's see if we can get you a copy of it.
CARL: I will do it. Thank you very much for taking my call.
Mr. UPDIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. We're talking today with John Updike. His new book is titled "The Widows of Eastwick." If you'd like to speak with him about his writing and his career, 800-989-8255. You can also send us an email, Carl should do that, the address is email@example.com. A bit later in the show, we'll ask him for his take on This American Moment so stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting today from the Knight's Studio inside the Newseum in Washington D.C. We're talking with John Updike. After more than 50 books, his latest is a follow up to the bestselling "Witches of Eastwick." If you'd like to read more about how the witches have fared over the last 30 years, you can find an excerpt from "The Widows of Eastwick" on our website at npr.org/talk. And if you'd like to talk with John Updike about his novels, his criticism or his career, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And I wanted to ask you that Margaret Atwood in the review of your first book, "The Witches of Eastwick," not your first but first in the series, said that in some ways the town itself was the main character.
Mr. UPDIKE: That's how I felt. That was very nice review, by the way. Margaret Atwood. You mentioned the feminist critics and here was a woman writer (unintelligible) who came out with a very kind and generous and witty review of "The Witches of Eastwick." Yes, the town, several towns have meant quite a lot to me in my life and in my fiction. I've named one of them Olinger with the Pennsylvania basically in which I grew up and another was Eastwick which under various fans for the town in which I kind of became with some difficulty an adult. So living in New England for a Pennsylvania-born boy has always been a slightly strange experience.
I moved there to get away from New York City and to find a little space that I could call my own and it's been very good to me, really, and I love New England but I've never been at home there. So the details of a New England town and the seasideness of it and the brightness of it and the antiquity of it, I mean history going back to 1630, that's a lot of a history for America. All that interested me and I did dramatized, tried to make the town real and in the second book, I tried to make just as real or even realer. It has a kind of voice in the second of novel, this sort of puritan voice breaks in the notion that there's a puritan darkness at the bottom of this New England resort town.
CONAN: She also said in that review of Margaret Atwood that this was an opportunity to fill a lifelong fantasy of being a woman. Was that the witty part?
Mr. UPDIKE: That was among the witty parts. And sure, one wants to be a woman or an old man when you're young or a young man when you're old. One wants to use the advantages that fiction presents of becoming other people to some degree. So, of course, crossing the gender line is one of the chief tests and you can't be a novelist without crossing it in some way or the other and you must. I mean, if you don't ever enter into the brain of the female character, you must give her things to say and things to do so in some sense, you're identifying and yes, I enjoyed being and so far as I successfully entered into their spirits and their bodies, even. I enjoyed trying to be a woman, a guy among these three gals. And that was true of the second book also. Again, it is nice to be back on their company even though they had aged 30 years. I, too, had aged 30 years so it wasn't that bad.
CONAN: We'll get more listeners on you just a moment. But I did have to ask you, you described the witchcraft that they do at one points as sort of half-baked suburban variety of witchcraft and it turns out later in the book, you said that Eastwick itself could provide many of the materials needed for this particular line of work.
Mr. UPDIKE: Yes, the raw materials you need, certain knives and magic candles and perfumed candles and all that can be obtained.
CONAN: And the box of Cascade, I think that's the suburban part.
Mr. UPDIKE: The box of Cascade was used to outline the magic circle that their coven or their Sabbath takes place. And yeah, you have to use the materials around you and these are suburban women and I tried to be as inconspicuously ingenious as I could in using what was around to use.
CONAN: Let's get David on the line. David is calling us from Tuscan, Arizona.
DAVID (Caller): Hello. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead.
DAVID: I just wanted to thank Mr. Updike for the story he wrote very early on called "Pigeon Feathers" and that story was shared with my by a teacher when I was in my late teens, and I was a period of having a hard time connecting with my parents, Protestant faith and trying to find my own path and it gave me a lot of encouragement and hope.
Mr. UPDIKE: Thank you and I'm glad to hear that. I do think, in all modesty, that's one of my better stories and it certainly was a heartfelt story from my standpoint. I wrote it years after the events and in confirmation class that inspired it, but they remained pretty vivid with me and yeah, I put a lot of myself into that story and the New Yorker took it. It's slightly cut, actually, in the New Yorker because I had much more about the parents quarreling in it. The New Yorker didn't like too much quarreling. I don't know what version you read but the version in the book "Pigeon Feathers" is the one that I'd like you to read.
DAVID: Excellent. Excellent.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, David. We have a question from the audience here in the Newseum.
Unidentified Questioner: Hi, Mr. Updike. This is somewhat along the lines of both religion and witchcraft. Back in the '50s, you wrote another story, perhaps a favorite, called "The Christian Roommates" about some of your real roommates at Harvard. And one of them had a nervous breakdown in the story and we know that madness and witchcraft have long been associated and I just wanted to let you know that he grew up and became my high school English teacher. He converted to Judaism but he's now teaching at a Catholic college. So I would hope that you would write a follow up on his story, too.
Mr. UPDIKE: I don't want to intrude on your or my privacy but this isn't Reg Henaford(ph), is it?
Unidentified Questioner: It is Reg Henaford
Mr. UPDIKE: It is Reghenaford. OK. I'm glad he recognized himself without pain and survived it. I had a fairly colorful set of roommates and housemates when I was in college, and I did write, as you say, about a lot of variety. And meeting religious questions is something you do in your late teens or college years, I think, often and certainly Reg took his introduction to (unintelligible) quite hard.
Unidentified Questioner: And we all have.
Mr. UPDIKE: He's not an easy man to meet, you can say. That is also a unique story in my work. And that, although, I attended Harvard for four years and it was a very formative experience for me and not an unpleasant experience. I've only written one story and that's the one, "The Christian Roommates."
CONAN: Thanks for the question. Let's see if we can get, this is Michael. Michael is on the line with us from Moke Hill in California.
MICHAEL (Caller): Good afternoon. Mr. Updike, my basic question is are you a happy person or a happy man? The reason I asked is so many times you read about famous authors like yourself who are quality crafters of stories, but you'd find out in their autobiography, these are really miserable people and their writings didn't show that. They really put on remarkable stories that intertwined the male-female relationship. And the other part of my question is this criticism, I find it as kind of a double-standard where men write about women, and they are criticized for it. Whereas women write about men and they are not criticized for it. I wondered if you'd like to touch on that.
Mr. UPDIKE: Yeah, beginning with the second one. Yeah, I think it's a double standard, all right. But something political happens when a man tries to act or be or imitate a woman that doesn't happen when a woman crosses over and tries to do a man's point of view. The British women who I think aren't as afraid of being manly seemed the better. Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark both write about male characters and always very convincingly to me. I have no trouble with it and as I say, I think a novelist, fiction writer on any sort, has to attempt to cross across the gender line above all. As to my happiness, I think of myself as quite a fortunate and happy person. I was a happy child, my mother tells me. And I'm glad to be able to be a writer, it's what I wanted to be, some kind of an artist as a child and I have become that. I've actually done better than he thought possible. I love life. I love being alive. I love being an American. So all these things are I think would make me a happy person. I'm not happy about the fact that I'm going - that I'm aging and getting older and losing my fastball. And going on the dye before too - too very long. So - but, if you love life I think you have to reconcile yourself to the - to the darker side of being a mortal creature.
MICHAEL: Well, that's very true. And I really appreciate all your work.
Mr. UPDIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: Thank you, Michael. All right. On American, here's a good email from Bodie(ph) in California. I'd like to know Mr. Updike's reaction to Horace Engdove(ph) recent statement. Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures but you can't get away from the fact that Europe is still the center of the literary world - not the United States. The U.S. is too isolated to Winsler. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialog of literature, that ignorance is restraining.
Mr. UPDIKE: Yes, I've heard that quoted more than once especially lately since I've gone on the road with my own book. I think there's some - something in it to be fair. We are big but provincial and always have been provincial. We were isolated here more or less, oceans on either side of us and much of the charm of American literature is it's provincial quirky, cranky qualities. It's not like European literature. European literature in general if you can make a generalization is about society. People reacting, interacting in the society, we tend to write about loners or couples like Huckleberry Finn and Jim are going down on a - in the Mississippi, write about people looking, trying to find a white whale that infuriates them and is dangerous and - so yes.
The kind of quest that is an American quest is not quite the European one. I rather doubt that having more translated and would enable us to participate in the dialog that he mentioned, I don't know quite what goes on in that dialog. I think that people who care can certainly read enough translation. They also can learn the language in which the book is written if they - I do not end. I began when I was a critic or a young man and begin to write criticism, I was especially in what European writing was doing because I thought it was different and more thoughtful.
CONAN: Well, this was theoretically.
Mr. UPDIKE: Yes.
CONAN: And if somebody put this in the context of the comment that there are no American writers worthy of the Nobel Prize writer's day and so, some of us might be able to think of somebody in this room who might be worthy of such an honor but yourself excepted. Might you think of others - Americans who might want to be considered for a visit to Scandinavia?
Mr. UPDIKE: I can think of a number of American writers who would not disgrace the Prize and the Prize has gone to a number of people that American's by and large have never heard of, so...
CONAN: That he first wrote about 25 years ago. He's joining us in the Knight Studio at the Newseum - email@example.com "Witches of Eastwick" now that name came to be. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get to one last call in and we'll go to Mark and Mark's with us from Saint Augustine in Florida.
MARK (Caller): Hello there, Mr. Updike.
Mr. UPDIKE: Yes.
MARK: Glad to meet you, sir.
Mr. UPDIKE: Thank you.
MARK: I have a comment and then I'd like to ask a question. When I was about 10 years old, I read a book my mother had called "Rabbit Run." And of course, I was flipping through it trying to find the good parts.
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MARK: And it seemed like all the books that came out in the 60s and all that were trying to bust the envelope. And my question is for you is, at this stage in your game, are the envelopes to push open anymore? And I'll take my answer off the air.
CONAN: Mark, thank you.
Mr. UPDIKE: That is quite a good question. Almost too good for me to answer but you're right. "Rabbit Run" was an attempt to slightly push the envelope of sexual explicitness to sexual realism really because I - although sex had been described in this and that work of arts, choice, others, Andy Miller, to innovate it with the normal flow of middle class experience, it really describe what happens, this strange dream like a thing we do seemed to me to be worthy enterprise and one that hadn't quite been carried out before. So for me that was a bit of an adventure, and I'm not ashamed of it. E
nvelopes to push it's sort of hard to tell until you've seen them pushed, you know? But I do think the big problem in a way for a fiction writer is how do you deal with ordinary life that is not extraordinary, that does not involve heroism, that does not involve crisis really but the way in which we are alive is meaningful and it does have a certain radiance, the beauty of - the beauty of the actual. So that's what I keep pushing at whether or not it's an envelope that's already been slit wide open, I don't know.
CONAN: We just have a couple of minutes with you left. But since the start of the Democratic Convention in August and ever since, we've been asking any number or politicians, writers, thinkers about this particular moment in the history of this country as we face an election now six days away and I wanted to think, ask you briefly to step back from, you know, partisan politics and just to comment if you would on what you think is at stake at this - in This American Moment if you will.
Mr. UPDIKE: I think it's an interesting election, and I will keep my partisan feelings out of it although they may peek through and that we have no present incumbent running and so we have in a way a clean slate and we're more conscious than usual I think, of the choices as far as approach, style, doctrine go. It certainly looks like an election that a lot of people are going to vote in and that's a good thing in the democracy. America notoriously has been one of the poorest voting turnouts of any industrialized country, and I think it'll be a good turnout for this year. And it was nice to see a black man and a white - white woman fighting for the nomination.
It hasn't been so many years ago, that would have been unheard of and now it is not only heard of, but it's happening. So I think it's - in a way a very hopeful moment for America. The century is young. We still feel like a young country although we're not anymore, and I'd like to thank for embarking for this election, upon a fresh path.
CONAN: On a fresh path. You say, you seemed very optimistic at a moment when you're given the financial chaos among us. So many people are uncertain.
Mr. UPDIKE: Yeah. I'm not sanguine about that and we've all felt a bite of this - we're a little less rich than we thought we were. But I somehow think that 10 years from now or even two years from now it'll be seen as just one more bump in the financial ups and downs which are part of capitalism. So maybe I'm being - I don't think it's the end of the world, finally enough although they tell us they're pretty close to it.
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CONAN: Well, we'll have you back in a couple of years to see how it worked out for us.
Mr. UPDIKE: All right. It's a date.
CONAN: John Updike's new book, "The Widows of Eastwick." He joined us here in the Knight Studio at the Newseum and we thank him very much for his time. Coming up, the next in our series of final arguments for the candidates for president of the United States. Former deputy assistant Secretary of Defense Sarah Sewall makes the case for Barack Obama on foreign policy. Stay with us, I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.