This is what writer Adam Begley had to say about how he landed the job of writing the biography of one of the most famous writers of modern American literature, John Updike. When Updike died five years ago, Begley was literary editor at the The New York Observer. His boss telephoned him on the day, and said: “Updike is dead. You need to write the obituary. You have three hours in which to do it.” When it appeared in print the next day, an editor from US publishers, HarperCollins rang and asked him if he’d be interested in writing a biography of Updike.
Five years later, after copious amounts of reading and research, Begley’s book, entitled simply, Updike, is complete, and hit the bookshop shelves in April to outstanding reviews. I had the pleasure of interviewing Begley at his home in Oundle to find out about the experience.
Aside from his literary journalism, Begley has been a contributor to other books, but had never written a big book before taking on Updike.
The experience was made difficult by his training not as a biographical writer, but as a critic. He told me, “It took me a while to relax into the idea of writing narrative.” He added, “I did not know what I was doing, and I had to learn as I went along.”
There was enough professional confidence in his skills from others, however, for him to have been awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and Leon Levy Centre for Biography Fellowship, which supported his years of research and writing.
On the prospect of taking on such a momentous task Begley said: “I was daunted.” He had good reason to be; Updike wrote more than 60 books. Begley said: “That meant that if I read one book every week, it would take me more than a year to read all of his work.”
Perhaps more important, though, was the inevitable pressure of writing the biography of such an important author. Updike won every major American literary prize, often more than once. Mr Begley stated plainly: “This is a book that is going to be reviewed in every major American publication. I felt under a lot of pressure to get it right, to do him justice, to write a book that he would have been, if not happy about, at least respectful of.”
Begley accepted the offer to write the biography not just because he “found it difficult to say no”. He is also an admirer of Updike’s work. “Updike isn’t straining for wild effects or unusual situations…he can find meaning in the everyday.”
As for what can be learned from Updike, Begley does not hesitate. “How to write really good prose,” he replied. “He was a wonderful writer of English sentences.”
Much of Updike’s fiction was drawn directly from his own experiences, and Begley’s book is a close analysis of that literary and biographical mix. Those familiar with Updike’s work may have his 1960s novel Couples spring to mind. Called by one contemporary headline, “the most explicit novel ever written about America”, the book prompted speculation amongst his readers as to how much truth there really was behind the adulterous community featured in the story. “There’s some spice in the biography,” Begley disclosed.
So what comes next for Adam Begley? He has another project in the pipeline, another biography, but this time of Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon), “One of the greatest portrait photographers of all time,” Begley informed me, the excitement evident in his voice. Begley is not yet done with his career as a critic, however. “I would like to do more book reviewing than I did while I was writing Updike.”
It is not surprising that after dedicating years to the writing of this biography, Begley considers himself to have been influenced in several ways. “Reading so much of him and living with his writing has made on impact on my writing,” Begley admitted.
Begley said he had also learnt a few life lessons from his study of the author. “I’ve come to admire certain things about him and I’ve been trying to emulate them in my life.” He highlighted in particular Updike’s devotion to hard work. “When you reach a certain age, it is a real pleasure.” The other quality was his “complete professionalism and unfailing courtesy with everybody he dealt with”.
Begley said, “If I could be more like John Updike, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”
Updike, is published by HarperCollins, and is available to buy at The Oundle Bookshop, in Oundle’s Market Place.
By Anna Trafford