January 30, 2009

Rabbit, Royce

John Updike died Tuesday. And this is all I know of him -- a fuzzy memory of one October (November?) night sitting in the left-side first row of Royce Hall as I listened to him answer David Ulin's questions about mortality and The Widows of Eastwick in soft stage light. When I got home that night, I scribbled down what few tidbits I could remember from his answers, which is the only reason I am able to write this entry at all.

I learned that he liked writing his novels with "soft pencil on paper," but his book reviews by typewriter or computer. That writers are "a jealous lot, really." That he believed a writer's purpose is to communicate his or her opinions and interpretation of reality. That he planned to continue to write until he "dropped dead" (and he followed through on that one -- doesn't he have a final book coming out in June?). It almost sounds too romantic and cliche to be true, but he wrote his first novel, titled Home, on copier paper he stole in the morning at his job. He came in early to write 3 pages a morning, every morning, and somehow ended up with 600 pages. When he showed it to his boss, a publisher and "a nice woman," she politely said, No, it's not ready. But he kept at it anyway.

Even though he was obviously self-absorbed, agreeing to countless interviews and writing pages upon pages of criticism about his own profession, he still seemed somewhat feeble or weak-spirited in a way that had nothing to do with his age. I wondered if he was happy, even though he had the crowd, including me, wrapped around his finger, ready to laugh at the slightest joke and quick to reciprocate every smile that flickered across his face. I remember quite clearly one thing he said: "A part of me thinks we have children to keep from being lonely later on." And I wonder, was it enough for him? Did he die lonely, or was he satisfied with what he had accomplished in the end?