It's been about a month since the great novelist John Updike died. And while the tributes to him in the media have faded, I wanted to share the story of my own, very brief encounter with him, since it deeply impacted me.

To set the stage, Updike was in town for a long-forgotten seminar at IUPUI. He very generously made time to chat with reporters from three local news outlets: The Star, the now defunct Indianapolis News and, quite improbably, NUVO. The date was April 8, 1994.

I had been furiously re-reading Updike's work in preparation, but I was thrown into a state of emotional upheaval on the day of the interview. The news came from Seattle that Kurt Cobain, the tortured leader of Nirvana, had shot and killed himself.

Like everyone else, I was saddened and confused about Cobain's suicide. How could a man of such talent and passion have been in such pain that he felt the need to murder himself?

Had I been at Denny's that day, I would have asked my fellow diners, but I found myself instead in a room with one of the great writers and minds of the 20th century, an author who himself was no stranger to despair. So I asked him what he made of the situation.

His answer has stayed in my mind, haunting me for the last 15 years. Luckily, I had audiotape rolling as he spoke.

"I think all of mankind operates in the shadow of spiritual crisis," he said. "The rock stars, in a way, more so than any of us. I don't know quite what led to this man's suicide, nor does every rock star commit suicide, of course. Very many remain quite healthy and survive the terrible blast of celebrity and whatever other temptations befall them.

"It puts an extra strain on the system to be so young and, suddenly, so rich, so much attention focused on you.

"And what do you do with all this sense of suddenly being superhuman? I suppose one thing you can do is maximize pleasure. One way to maximize pleasure, maybe the first way that comes to mind, is to take drugs. Drugs have a life of their own; they get you involved in a self-destructive cycle and, just off the cuff, that's why it may be extra hard to be a rock star.

"'Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,' Thoreau said. Certainly most men and women lead very deprived lives. In a sense, the deprivation shelters us from ever exploring those limits of possibility, which the very rich, the rock stars, the movie stars are used to leading.

"I once read a book about the sultans, the sultans of Turkey, to whom the word 'no' was never said. They could do anything. And one of them would go out and shoot people at random on the street because the sultan was allowed to shoot 10 people at random a day. They had harems populated by scores, hundreds, of women. Rich beyond belief. A lot of them wound up crazy and impotent, so there's a limit to getting everything you want.

"Rock stars? I don't know where they come from, they probably come out of middle-class basements, don't they? Where they have their guitar and their drum sets? They are simply middle-class kids whose dreams have come true too soon and maybe because they're very reckless and self-infatuated, they're trying to become angels. That was certainly the feeling you had in the late '60s and early '70s, when so many of the real stars just went down like rockets: Joplin, Hendrix and others.

"What their insides, their spiritual state feels like, I don't quite know, but modern man lives under an extra stress that people of the Middle Ages, the more credulous ages, didn't have. You cope with it in varying ways. Some refine their faith; some turn to drink; some ignore the whole problem and some shoot themselves in the head."

The room went silent for what seemed like an eternity before the reporter for The News broke the silence with an unrelated question. In a few, off-the-cuff sentences, Updike had both calmed my frayed nerves on a tragic day and put the event into a broader context that, while certainly not explaining the unexplainable, came as close as anyone could in doing so.

I've been fortunate in this life to have met or interviewed many of my idols - Kurt Vonnegut, Elvis Costello, Tom Wolfe and James Brown, among others. I'm grateful to have had such opportunities.

But none has resonated in my mind as much as my brief meeting with Updike. After all, he was letting us interview him out of sheer generosity; it wasn't as if any of the reporters in the room, especially me, was going to advance his career in any meaningful fashion.

So while the literary world mourned a brilliant writer last month, I silently gave thanks to a brief moment of illumination that came so effortlessly for him.


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