A great American author died today. John Updike. And while I’m sure the web is abuzz with tributes, I feel I must add my own tidbit about the man, what made him a “great” man to me.
In the early 90’s, Updike came to read at George Mason University, when I was an MFA student. He was our headliner that year, getting paid a lot of money to come. All he was required to do was read to a large crowd, answer a few questions, and then leave. But, we learned, just before his visit, that he wanted to do more. He wanted to meet with “some students, some budding writers, perhaps.” He liked meeting with students, our program director said.
So about a dozen or so of us, perhaps more, gathered in a classroom on the Mason campus to sit in uncomfortable molded chairdesks in the glow of this famous American man of letters, to ask him questions and listen to his kind, patrician wisdom, because he had requested it.
Even then, we knew his request was special. Now, twenty years and countless writers’ visits later (all good people, most of them) I have never known it to happen again. For a writer, of his stature especially, to ask, “could I meet with the students as well?”
After his meeting, a small group of my friends took him to the metro so he could catch the train back to New York. At his request, they stopped at a Dunkin Donuts for coffee and returned later, to the TA bullpen with John Updike’s coffee cup, a modest paper cup which they promptly attached to the wall with a thumbtack.
I’m told it’s still there.
John Updike’s passing is sad, but he left a ton of awesome work. “Immortality is nontransferrable” he said appropriately.