An Interview With John Updike: In ‘Terrorist,’ a Cautious Novelist Takes On a New Fear
By CHARLES McGRATH, The New York Times, March 31, 2006
John Updike is wary of the Internet, concerned that a worm could migrate into his computer and chew up whatever he is working on. In a much-publicized speech recently at BookExpo America, the annual publishing convention, he also took a dim view of the notion of digitizing all books on an enormous online data bank.
For his new novel, “Terrorist,” however, he ventured onto the Web to research bomb detonators. He was fairly certain, he remarked recently during an interview in Boston, that the only detonator he could recall — the one that Gary Cooper plunges in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” — must be out of date, but he was also reassured to discover, as he put it, that “the Internet doesn’t like you to learn too much about explosives.”
While working on the book, Mr. Updike, now 74, white-haired, bushy-browed and senatorial-looking, also risked suspicion by lingering around the luggage-screening machines at La Guardia Airport, where he learned that the X-rays were not in black and white, as he had imagined, but rather in lurid colors: acid green and red.
And he hired a car and a driver to take him around some of the seedier neighborhoods in Paterson, N.J., and to show him some churches and storefronts that had been converted into mosques. “He did his best, but I think I puzzled him as a tour customer,” Mr. Updike said.
“Terrorist,” which comes out from Alfred A. Knopf next week, is set in Paterson — or, rather, in a slightly smaller, tidier version of the city, called New Prospect — and is about just what the title says. Its protagonist is an 18-year-old named Ahmad, the son of a hippie-ish American mother and an Egyptian exchange student, now absent, who embraces Islam and is eventually recruited to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel.
The new novel is Mr. Updike’s 22nd and in some ways a departure. It loosely follows the conventions of a thriller, for example, one of the few forms that Mr. Updike, a jack of nearly all literary trades, had not tried before. And yet as he spoke about “Terrorist” it became clear that the novel also knits together some themes and preoccupations that have been with him almost from the beginning: sex, death, religion, high school and even Paterson itself, which also figures prominently in his novel “In the Beauty of the Lilies” and which Mr. Updike said he sometimes imagines as another version of Reading, Pa., near his hometown, Shillington.
Mr. Updike, who confessed to a mild phobia about tunnels, said the image of an explosion was actually the inspiration for the book. “That picture was the beginning,” he added. “The fear of the tunnel being blown up with me in it — the weight of the water crashing in.”
Originally, though, he imagined the protagonist as a young Christian, an extension of the troubled teenage character in his early story “Pigeon Feathers,” who comes to feel betrayed by a clergyman. “I imagined a young seminarian who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take away his faith,” he said. “The 21st century does look like that, I think, to a great many people in the Arab world.”
When Mr. Updike switched the protagonist’s religion to Islam, he explained, it was because he “thought he had something to say from the standpoint of a terrorist.”
He went on: “I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system. Nobody’s trying to see it from that point of view. I guess I have stuck my neck out here in a number of ways, but that’s what writers are for, maybe.”
He laughed and added: “I sometimes think, ‘Why did I do this?’ I’m delving into what can be a very sore subject for some people. But when those shadows would cross my mind, I’d say, ‘They can’t ask for a more sympathetic and, in a way, more loving portrait of a terrorist.’ ”
Ahmad is lovable, or at least appealing; he’s in many ways the most moral and thoughtful character in the entire book, and he gains in vividness from being pictured in that familiar Updikean setting, the American high school.
“It might be that, having gone to high school and having a father who was a high school teacher, that I’m imbued with the ethos,” Mr. Updike said. “It occurred to me, though, that a real omission in terms of plausibility is that I don’t do enough with cellphones. My school isn’t really electrified.”
When he was in high school, Mr. Updike added, his own head was “in The New Yorker instead of the Koran,” and so while working on “Terrorist” he again picked up that religious text, a book he first read when learning how to impersonate Colonel Ellelloû, the narrator of Mr. Updike’s 1978 novel, “The Coup.”
“A lot of the Koran does not speak very eloquently to a Westerner,” he said. “Much of it is either legalistic or opaquely poetic. There’s a lot of hellfire — descriptions of making unbelievers drink molten metal occur more than once. It’s not a fuzzy, lovable book, although in the very next verse there can be something quite generous.”
“Terrorist” even includes some Koran passages in Arabic transliteration; Shady Nasser, a graduate student, helped Mr. Updike on those sections. “My conscience was pricked by the notion that I was putting into the book something that I can’t pronounce,” he said, but he added: “Arabic is very twisting, very beautiful. The call to prayer is quite haunting; it almost makes you a believer on the spot. My feeling was, ‘This is God’s language, and the fact that you don’t understand it means you don’t know enough about God.’ ”
For all its theological concerns, “Terrorist” is also an authentic Updike novel, and, thankfully, includes some sheet-rumpled, love-flushed sex scenes between Ahmad’s mother, Teresa, and Jack Levy, a guidance counselor at the high school.
“I was happy — because there was so much shaky ground in the writing of this novel — when Jack began to hit on Terry Mulloy,” Mr. Updike said. “I felt I was in a scene I could handle. That little romance was very real — to me, at least. I liked those two because they’re normal, godless, cynical but amiable modern people.”
While waiting for “Terrorist” to come out, Mr. Updike has been working on one of his omnibus volumes. As for what will come after that, he said he was not sure.
“All my life there has been one more thing I think I can do — but only one,” he said. “I feel I’m very near the bottom of my barrel at every moment of my career — not like Dostoevsky, who had a notebook full of ideas when he died. I try to see the next book in my mind, and I see a slightly plump book with a lot of people in it, like ‘Gosford Park.’ But it’s not a murder mystery because I’m not clever enough to write one of those.”
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