How to Write John Updike's Deathbed

updikehrA couple of weeks ago, Adam Begley was in town to publicize his biography of John Updike, which is, as Louis Menand put it, “an extended essay in biographical criticism, an insight into the man through the work and the work through the man.”

I’d intended to talk to Begley, who I’ve known for years, about a scene towards the book’s end. Updike is dying at home, surrounded by his wife, Martha, and ex-wife, Mary. It’s a vividly rendered paragraph and I wondered: Had Begley been present?

He was still at home when Mary telephoned Martha and said she’d like to come see her ex-husband. Martha suggested that she bring her daughter Miranda, which Mary readily agreed to. Martha met them at the door, and the two wives exchanged a tense hug. After sterilizing their hands, they went up to the sickroom. Miranda sat on one side of the bed, Mary stood at the front; Martha was opposite Miranda. Updike tried to look cheerful, buried under the covers, trying to keep warm, but the effect, as far as Mary was concerned, was miserable. “I felt I shouldn’t touch him,” she remembered, “except for his feet, so I was massaging his feet, and that seemed to be all right.” They talked about the children, very briefly, and about how he was feeling, also very briefly. Mary was struck in particular by a remark out of the blue: “He said to me, ‘Now remember Aunt Polly’—my great-aunt, whom he knew, who lived to be ninety-something or other. He was telling me, I thought, that I should remember that and try to live as long as she had.” After twenty minutes, Martha said it was time to go. On the way downstairs, Mary said she’d like to come again and was told that it would not be possible.

We met in a flower-strewed room at The Pierre, where he answered this question, but also indulged queries about Updike’s sexism, his relationship to Joyce Carol Oates, fact-checking and fucking.

Were you in the room with Mary and Martha?

God, no. I’ve never met Martha.

The notes attribute “I felt like I shouldn’t touch him” to Mary. But the details are incredible—the description of the “tense hug,” the sterilization of hands, the “after twenty minutes”… All of this I assumed would’ve been unlikely to have been remembered by the participants. 

They come from two sources: Mary, directly, and then I ran what she told me by Miranda and David, the children. Martha I never spoke to and [she] wanted nothing to do with the book. Which, of course, I respected completely and never bothered her again after that. Mary I interviewed for, I don’t know, a total of twelve hours, and then I would email her with more specific questions and she would email me back with amplifications and corrections. For example, the “tense hug” here occurs when she comes in. But originally Mary had told me she had hugged Martha and Martha had been completely rigid, and not hugged her back. So that’s what I described, and Mary later corrected it to “tense hug” to make it seem less harsh on Martha. Then we negotiated for a long time about where this hug took place—whether it was on the stairs or before the stairs or before they’d sanitized their hands or after they’d sanitized their hands. And it took a lot of emailing to get it right.

For even a casual Updike fan, reading about the man’s last days recalls the end of Rabbit At Rest. Did you feel the spectre of Rabbit’s death scene when you were writing this?

I certainly had it in mind. The last word is, I think—enough, isn’t it? I would be lying if I said it didn’t enter into my mind to use the word “enough” at some point, but I resisted. But it’s a different kind of death. The only time I picture him is in his own house, not in the hospice. Now, as long as I’m being totally disclosing, I’ll tell you I have never been to the hospice. I looked it up on Google Earth. I looked at photographs of it, at promotional material, and I got David and Michael to give me as much description as they could. But I just didn’t see that I need to go to Danvers and stand there. If I were Robert Caro, I would never have forgiven myself for omitting this. But I thought, in this day and age, that I could probably spare myself that.

Did anyone written about in the book see a copy before publication?

That’s the other thing. What my agreement was, because there were five potentially interested parties—Mary and the four children—I told them, after much thought, that I would give the manuscript to Mary to read, and that she would then use her judgement to bring in the children where she thought they were particularly concerned. So, for example, for this scene, Mary took the manuscript and marked all the areas where she thought there may be problems or inaccuracies. And she put them around the dining room table in a pile for David, and a pile for Michael, a pile for Miranda, a pile for Elizabeth, and then the kids came and looked over what I had written. Based on that, she then wrote me back a long memo with corrections, suggestions and objections.

When there were corrections and disagreements, did Mary say who had made them, so you could weigh the veracity? Was there ever a case where the children disagreed on something, and you had to say, Well, I believe A over B?

Not in this case. First of all, in the scene you’re talking about, there were no objections from Miranda. But, yes, Mary identified who was objecting. Sometimes, though, it was amplification or reaffirmation—underscoring, shall we say, a point of mine. In the case of the death scene, there were numerous corrections to my first draft. I got the number of hours he was in the hospice wrong. I had it at 36 hours and it turned out to be 26 hours.

Where had you gotten the initial figure?

From David, I think. I actually corrected it to 36. I thought 26 was too short, and it couldn’t be right and I must’ve misheard. So I put 36. And then David and Michael both came back to me with 26.

But, for example, with the very fraught-for-all-involved scene where I describe the biographical basis of the story “Separating,” where John in the guise of Richard Maple announces to his children that he’s leaving the family, there were four versions. And in that case, of course, I had to decide who I trusted. They weren’t arguing with each other; they just remembered it differently. In the end, I said two remember it one way, and one remembers it another way.

Another instance where there was a disagreement—huge amounts of it, which was sort of odd—was with Martha and John’s wedding, which of course I wanted particularly not to make a mistake with because I wasn’t there. Martha, I would assume, would’ve been rather pissed off if I had. And I had a bunch of people who had been there. I had a guy named William Wasserman, who was one of Updike’s close friends and was the best man at this wedding. I had David and Elizabeth. Miranda didn’t go, and refused to go, and Michael was in Wisconsin. I think David remembered it as a really, really hot day and sunny, while Elizabeth remembered it as sunny but very, very cold and windy. So, what do you do, really? I suppose I could’ve gone back and looked at the weather report, but I simply left the weather out.

Was there a third-party fact checker?

Not at all. One of the great ironies of journalism is that magazines fact check and when they fact check they accept as fact items in books, but books aren’t fact checked. I know that there are mistakes in here, because I’ve seen them already. At one point, I’d transcribed Updike wrong. I used the word ensnared when, in fact, he’d used the word ensnarled. That was a bitter pill when I saw that I’d done that. That was caught by New York magazine, whose fact checker was checking my excerpt. If I’d had a fact checker all along, I think this would be a much cleaner book. I’m sad to say that, but I’d be dishonest if I weren’t owning up to it.

I’m not a great researcher. I tried to keep the death scene as clean and simple and spare as I could. I thought that less would be more. I thought that if I put in a few details that I could corroborate that that would do a lot more than trying to guess or pad or inject emotion by saying what people were feeling. Or getting them to tell me what people were feeling. I thought if I could get where they were in relation to the soon-corpse, and where they were standing and what hand gestures they made, it would say more than I was devastated by the sight of his emaciated body.

What do you most regret that you had to leave out of the book?

Well, continuing with my policy of baring my soul, Dwight Garner said something like, the book was like one of those satellite photos of North Korea when I talked about the second marriage. I obviously had very little access to Updike from ‘77 on, really. And I cheated a bit by using Ian McEwan as my spy in the Updike household. First of all, Updike definitely did pull up the drawbridge and retire into his castle and I thought, in a sense, that this should be respected. He had decided on his persona, at that point—the highly professional man of letters. And I thought, why not let him go out with that persona intact? And what’s interesting, at this point, is what he wrote, how he made an attempt to forge his legacy, to defend and position his legacy. And really, then, it became, Who was Updike in the landscape, at that point? Which is what I finished with.

When first started out with this book, I went to see Ron Chernow because he was a big Updike fan. And in addition to a funny little anecdote about Updike’s mother, he gave me a little avuncular advice. Adam, he said, there are three kinds of biographies. There are two-year biographies, five-year biographies and ten-year biographies. He and I agreed that I should be writing a two-year biography. OK, it took me five years to write a two-year biography. I loved writing the book, and I would have loved to have written longer and longer, but I did not want to spend ten years with Updike in my head. I mean, I don’t know how many friends I’ve lost in the last five years by turning every conversation to Updike.

So there’s nothing that you cut for space?

Yes, I cut my dealings with the short stories, but, according to Bob Gottlieb—who read the manuscript a couple of times—I didn’t cut enough. And he’s probably right. I probably should’ve. But I loved writing about the short stories and I’m in love with exegesis. I’ve always loved exegesis. And if I have any kind of talent, it’s probably for exegesis of short stories and novels. So I indulged myself and all I can say is, I’m sorry, Bob. I let you down. There’s nothing in this world, except for a haiku, that can’t be improved by cutting.

Can I ask you about his relationship with Joyce Carol Oates? I’m surprised that Updike and Oates exchanged so many letters, while he and, say, Ian McEwan exchanged so few.

Is that because you don’t think as highly of Oates as you do of Updike?

Well, I don’t, but they also seem like temperamentally different people.

What Oates was surprised by, when she read this book, was how few friends he had. And how very few literary friends. She was completely gobsmacked to hear that she was the only one he corresponded with all the time. There just aren’t that many letters to other people. But partially that’s because of the way she responded to him. I really do think that her letters reminded him of his mother’s letters. So there was some sort of connection there.

And then, remember, he felt very competitive towards male writers. And he was able to have a connection with people like Joyce or Anne Tyler because he didn’t think of them as in the same league, because they were women. Which is, I guess, sexism, but sort of anodyne sexism.

Were there any women that he felt were equals?

He certainly admired Anne Tyler. I think there’s sometimes a tinge of condescendation in his appreciation for her. I should be careful what I say here: Some of his remarks about Joyce’s fiction make it seem to me that he’s more amazed by the quantity than the quality. I think that he admired Cynthia Ozick. He admired Erica Jong. He certainly wrote a glowing review of Fear of Flying. You know, I don’t think there was somebody he thought of the way he thought of Roth or—well, he didn’t think much of Mailer, and he had very little to say about Bellow. And Bellow had nothing to say about him. I think Bellow had nothing but contempt for him, which was really odd.

Did Updike—for lack of a better way to put it—keep his wits about him until the very end?

As far as I could tell. No one has suggested to me that he, for even a moment, lost it. He kept trying to be courteous until the very end, which is characteristic of him.

Did he ever suffer for his art? Was the process really as frictionless as it appeared?

I don’t think he suffered for his art. I think he worked for his art. It depends on how meta you want to get. There was a tragedy about Updike, in some ways, that was also the engine that fueled his work, which is that he lived his life behind a scrim of observation. He was a writer, observing, so whenever he was living he was also observing. And that’s great for the work and not so great for the life. So there are times when he suffers, if you will, from the consciousness that he will never be able to suffer without it being grist for his writerly mill.

Was there anything in Updike’s life that allowed him to turn off the detachment that was necessary for him to live and observe at the same time?

Volleyball, Sunday sports and maybe fucking. Obviously, on some level he observed the carnal act, because he spent a lot of time writing about it, but maybe what he liked so much about the carnal act to begin with was that it was a moment or two of switching off the old impression-gathering device.

The interview has been lightly edited and reordered.

Elon Green is a contributing editor to Longform.