April 3, 2014

Watch out, interviewers! Authors might put you in their novels


Painting of Updike by Alex Katz via Flickr.

Painting of Updike by Alex Katz via Flickr.

Interviewing an author can be a perilous process. There’s so much to get right, so much that can go so wrong. But Adam Begley has just given interviewers another reason to lie awake nights: authors might put you in their books. As John Updike did with journalist William Ecenbarger, who interviewed him for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1983.

In a chapter from his forthcoming biography of Updike, excerpted in New  York magazine, Begley recounts the story of that interview—inadvertently thrust upon Updike by his mother, who Ecenbarger happened to run into in Updike’s hometown of Shillington while doing preliminary research. Though Updike was initially brusque (as anyone might be expected to be in such a situation), it ended up going well: the two men drove around Berks County, visiting the hospital where Updike was born, his childhood home, and the farmhouse where he’d spent his adolescence, which turned up in many of his novels and short stories. In the course of the day, Updike opened up, and Ecenbarger was able to file his interview.

But then he got a surprise. As Begley writes:

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…

Updike had been observing Ecenbarger as closely as the journalist had been observing him, down to giving his fictional journalist Ecenbarger’s “exceptionally tight mouth.” Fair game, I guess, and something that might even have been expected from Updike, who regularly and unabashedly used his own family as material.

One wonders if there isn’t even some element of a writerly challenge here, ie “you’re going to write about me, eh? Well, why don’t I write about you at the same time, and see if I can get you better than you get me?” It is, after all, a uniquely tense situation, and can become even more so when both the interviewer and the interviewee are novelists: as Martin Amis put it in his 1987 interview with Updike, “however genial, they are always anxious and exhausting, with the interviewer fielding about 80 per cent of the nerves.”

Or perhaps the only way for Updike to make peace with what he saw as the “intrinsically phony” nature of interviews was to write and rewrite them, to get them out of the air and down on the page– in stories, in novels, even the text of actual interviews.  A prime example of this is Charles Thomas Samuels’ 1967 Paris Review interview of Updike, which was partly conducted by correspondence and partly in person. After it was over, Updike went over the transcript

to bring them [the spoken comments] into line with the style of his written answers. The result is a fabricated interview—in its modest way, a work of art, and thus appropriate to a man who believes that only art can track the nuances of experience.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.