Thank you, John Updike

I met John Updike at a party celebrating the publication of a tome he edited, The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Okay, “met him” might be a slight overstatement. We were in the same room together and I was standing next to my agent when she shook his hand and said a few words to him. The room was full of people like Joyce Carol Oates and other luminaries whose work was included in the collection and I just didn’t know what I, an unpublished novelist would say to such a behemoth as John Updike…”thanks?” And for what? Even though I knew he was the famous rabbit guy, I’d never read any of his books. At the time, I favored fiction by authors who were no longer living. I also wasn’t a very good liar, so pretending to love his work was out of the question. So, I said nothing, took a copy of the book my agent bought for me and pressed it over my name tag. (One very famous author had already walked up to me, read my name tag and realizing I was no one, kept on walking…didn’t want that to happen again.). I went home that night feeling like a fraud, convinced that I would never publish anything and wondering why my agent even took me on.
In the security of my down covers high above the busy New York City street we lived on, I cracked open the book. It was arranged chronologically from 1915 to 1998. I was surprised at how few authors I recognized after 1957’s choice of Flannery O’Connor. I needed to read more current fiction. I started that night reading several of the stories including Susan Sontag’s , “The Way We Live Now,” and my favorite, “In the Gloaming” by Alice Elliott Dark. Unable to resist the dead writers, I went back and read John Cheever’s “Country Husband” and Dorothy Parker’s, “Here We Are.” I decided, no more writing workshops at the 92nd Street Y for me. I set myself on a path of reading current fiction (at least from this last half of the century). Why not start with the man I had to thank for my epiphany, John Updike himself.
The next day, I went to a branch of the New York Public Library on the upper east side where I lived. I had it in my mind that I would take out one of Updike’s books from his popular Rabbit series, but when I started searching through the catalog (yes they still had an actual card catalog with little index cards and the Dewey decimal system,) I saw that Updike had written a book called Brazil and it was fairly recent. I could kill two birds with one stone – stick to my plan of reading more current fiction and read subject matter related to my novel, which was set in Brazil. That night, I was back under my covers excited to crack open the book. By the end of the first chapter, I wished I’d gone with the Rabbit series. Not even when the famous author at the book party gave me the royal brush off did I feel so offended. I deserved that author’s brush off…I was no one she knew. But that opening chapter of Brazil presumed to know something about all black people in the favelas of Rio, which being black and having lived in Brazil for a year was just not something I could swallow. I felt fairly confident there was nothing that book had to offer me in the way of advancing my understanding of the craft of fiction, or at least not in the way of character development since his seemed more caricatures than actual people. I know Updike is valued for his way with words, but I was so soured by his character choices that I couldn’t stay with the book long enough to see his strenghts. I returned it to the library the next day.
Within a year, I had my first child, moved to the suburbs and once again, put my great American novel on hold. I moved to a town that is to writers what Hollywood is to actors. It’s hard to walk a block in this town without running into one. So when my children were securely immersed in their schools, a friend suggested I join the town’s editors and writers society (that’s how many writers there are around here…we have our own society!) I did and looked forward to each week’s email announcement of new publications by our local authors or parties for people to network. One such email announced a master fiction class led by local writer Alice Elliott Dark. I read the email over and over not quite believing that the author of my favorite short story of all time, listed in the Best American Short Stories of the Century could not only be living in my town, but be offering a class that I could actually afford.
I screwed up my courage and called the number she gave. I was surprised she would give her number. In the time since I first read her short story, it had been made into two movies and I was sure someone of her high literary stature would be swamped with the likes of fans like me just wanting to bask in the glow of a star. I tried to think of my accomplishments. I would tell her how I’d published a lot of nonfiction, had been a journalist and had that one honorable mention in the poetry contest hosted by the 92nd Sreet Y. I hoped any of that would count. I would mention that I had an agent and hope she wouldn’t wonder at the oddity of that, an agent without a finished manuscript.
She was very natural on the phone. She asked me what I hoped to accomplish in her class. She looked forward to meeting me and gave me the time and the address of her house where the classes where held. I was a little puzzled. The address she gave seemed shockingly close to my house. In fact, it was just up the street. For the next two years, I walked to class every Thursday (when I wasn’t running late), returned to work on my novel and won grants and fellowships based on my work in her class that helped me finish the first real draft of my novel.
I read a lot of dead as well as living authors at her and other class member’s suggestions and I studied the craft, details, arc, plot and drama, elements of a great story and began my attempt at folding them into my writing. I never asked her what she thought of John Updike’s writing, because I didn’t want to know. Now that he’s gone, a place in my heart has softened for him and I feel more compelled to give his Rabbit series another try. And I guess I really can say thanks now, to John Updike for introducing me to my writing mentor and including her in the book that brought me to her.

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1 Comment

Filed under Alice Elliott Dark, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, The Best American Short Stories of the Century

One response to “Thank you, John Updike

  1. Lisa Romeo

    I love hearing writers talk about the often circuitous routes that take us to our writing mentors, and to the work which speaks to us. It often seems as if the circle is about to complete, and yet at the same time, widens.

    Glad you started the blog, girl; and thanks for listing mine in your sidebar.

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