James Schiff on His Book, 'Updike in Cincinnati'

Six years ago, English professor James Schiff landed literary giant John Updike as a speaker for the April 2001 Cincinnati Short Story Festival.

Details of that long-ago, two-day visit, however, are as timely as today via "Updike in Cincinnati: A Literary Performance," a wonderfully quirky account published this year by Ohio University Press.

Schiff misses nothing, from what Updike was wearing when Schiff picked him up at the Greater Cincinnati airport on April 17 (Updike was outfitted in khakis and a tweed blazer) to the author's observations, actions and reactions during his stay in the Queen City. Described in the New York Times' Paper Cuts blog as "a blissful snort of unfiltered catnip," the book is artfully accentuated with black and white photos by Jon Hughes, UC English professor and director of journalism.

But committing "Updike in Cincinnati" to print, it turns out, wasn't a given from the get-go.

"I had the events videotaped so that I would have them later for classroom use," said Schiff, a graduate student when he met Updike in 1989.

"Because the events – an interview, panel discussion, and several Q & A sessions – turned out so well, I had transcripts made, then decided to publish them in literary journals in 2002."

Still, Schiff said, he put off publishing the entire proceedings in one volume for several reasons.

"First, such a volume didn’t seem to resemble any other book that I knew, which led me to believe that a publisher wouldn't be interested," he said. "Second, as a critic and reviewer I've always tried to maintain some credibility and objectivity, and I feared that by publishing these materials, which some would view as homage, even hagiography, I would undermine that personal objective. Finally, my desire to preserve the record, get the proceedings into print, and bring some attention to the public literary performance won out over my reservations."

More on the matter:

Q) When did you become a fan of John Updike, and can you offer some thoughts on his importance as an American literary figure?

A) During my senior year of college I began reading Updike's Rabbit novels at the recommendation of my English professor. I was immediately drawn to Updike's highly visual literary style and use of metaphor, but even more so to his depiction of quotidian American life. Before I began to read Updike, I didn't believe that an ordinary existence in middle America could be worthy of great fiction. Such fiction, I naively believed, could only be set in places like London, New York, the South Pacific, rural Mississippi and Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana. Although Updike’s Pennsylvania and my own native Cincinnati were not identical, there were substantial similarities. And so Updike demonstrated to me how a relatively mundane middle-class existence, the world in which I was raised and know best, could be deeply compelling. It was a revelation.

Q) You describe one of his performances as being "so effortless and graceful that one assumes that this is the very thing he was meant to do his entire life." Who are some other writers you've heard/met who seem to naturally connect with audiences?

A) Updike is certainly one of the most eloquent and resourceful speakers I've heard. Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens and Harold Pinter were also quite wonderful and compelling.

Q) What was it like for you, as a fan of his work and also as a professor of English, to not only land Updike for the festival, but spend time with him? Did you take copious notes in addition to mental notes, audio and video?

A) It was great spending time with Updike, though exhausting since we were on such a full and busy schedule. Updike was as congenial and as accommodating as one could possibly imagine, particularly given that we worked him so hard. As for notes, I took very few. At the end of each day, I set down perhaps a page of observations. I really had no intention of putting together a book. I simply wanted to preserve a record of what I had seen.

Q) Describe the audience reaction to Updike's performance, and the quality/depth of their questions – was he well received, and what type of feedback did you get later? A) The audience, as far as I could tell, viewed Updike as eloquent, funny, generous and humble. Even those who may have felt some initial hostility toward Updike because of his fame, his attention to middle-class issues, or his standing as an older white guy, told me how surprisingly engaging they found him. One of the primary reasons for bringing to campus any visiting writer is to expose students, and quite a few of them told me how impressed they were to see this major literary figure taking time to carefully answer their questions.

Q) Have you worked with Jon Hughes a lot in the past, and how was this collaboration? A) Jon has been a friend and colleague for years, and I've long admired his work. In fact, I proudly display several of his photographs in my home. When I told him that Updike was coming, Jon volunteered to photograph the Elliston Room appearance as well as the visit to the Cincinnati Art Museum. We never, however, gave any thought to putting together a book. As I recall, Jon shot only two rolls of film. His photos, though, were so good that the idea of a book slowly began to materialize.

Q) This sounds generic, but did all your efforts pay off in a good experience for the audience and especially, for those who love Updike's work?

A) Yes, at least I hope so. In preparation for the festival, which brought to campus nearly a dozen short story writers and critics, students had been reading Updike, Lorrie Moore, ZZ Packer, and others. They then had the opportunity to listen to and interact with these writers. It was an engaging two weeks. Hopefully, we all learned a good deal more about not only Updike and the other writers, but also about the short story.

Q) Did you learn a lot more about a man you've long admired through Updike’s visit and through the book's creation?

A) I first corresponded with Updike in 1989, when I was a graduate student in New York City, and I had the opportunity to have lunch with him in Cincinnati 1991 when he read at the Mercantile Library. So there was some prior history. What I’ve learned, though, through our correspondence and his visits, is that the man has tremendous energy, a strong work ethic and great tolerance for and acceptance of his fellow man. He also answers mail more quickly than anyone I know, and he possesses an unceasing though never hurried desire to, as he puts it, "get the words out." Whether in his writing, which accounts for 60 volumes, or his public speaking, Updike seemingly takes great delight in stringing together words and sentences, generating metaphors and using wit and humor. Watching him speak without notes at the lectern is like watching a wonderful dancer glide effortlessly across the stage. Nothing could seem more graceful, beautiful or natural.

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