Published: December 2007

I am Jamie Shreeve, the science editor at National Geographic magazine. Our December cover story on Bizarre Dinosaurs features an introductory essay by John Updike. Mr. Updike has kindly invited us to his home to talk about writing, dinosaurs, and writing about dinosaurs. Mr. Updike, National Geographic is a new and unusual venue for you and, of course, I was delighted that you agreed to write something for us. What enticed you to say yes?

Well, I had some feeling about dinosaurs being interesting, not that I am a student of paleontology, but the notion that once there were these enormous if not bizarre creatures has interested me. In some way a fiction writer about modern times needs to incorporate into his vision the immensity of earthly past and the strange events that have happened there. Not just dinosaurs, I have written a couple of short stories about the large creatures, the large mammals that are no longer around. They strike me as poignant somehow, poignant and awesome that such creatures once existed as alive as you and I but are long since gone from the surface of the Earth.

I do remember one of those stories, in particular, "The Man Who Loved Extinct Mammals," about a fellow who seemed to be trying to escape from his broken relationships by perusing a textbook of mammals.

Yeah, he was in hot water and found peace in the contemplation of extinct mammals as presented to him in a pamphlet I happened to get.

It was the really wonderful evocation of their grotesquery and their sort of valiant stabs at existence that you wrote about in that story which made me hope that maybe you would do this for us and I am so glad that you did.

I wonder if you recall also a scene from your wonderful, early novel, The Centaur, where the beleaguered high school science teacher, George Caldwell, is attempting to convey the beauty and immensity of geologic time on Earth to a classroom that is rapidly degenerating into total chaos. Caldwell's love of the subject of dinosaurs included penetrates through the taunts and jeering of his students. Your own father was a science and math teacher I believe. Did he have a particular fondness for paleontology?

My father taught only math. He may have taken some science in college and he was a kind of practical-minded man who took an interest in almost anything that came along but he never taught that particular lesson. The lesson involved trying to imagine the immensity of geological time by the usual device of making it all into one day or one week or whatever and the scene is surreal. For some time I had been trying to, as a high school teacher's child, I had been grappling with the problem of how to convey the feeling of a 20th century high school in this particular surrealism, this particular leap into myth and into vanished creatures. At one point one of the mischief-makers in the class dumps out a whole basket full of trilobites. There haven't been trilobites around for several hundred million years but they appear in this classroom. It also had to do, I know, with the human condition, with angst, with fear. It is fearful to think of all the time that went on before we showed up so all that in a way played into my attempt to show a man who is part a centaur and part a human being in a high school that is part chaos and part just ordinary folks, youth getting along.

In taking on this particular assignment, you had to write about a subject that you are obviously fond of but not particularly familiar with. And yet I was delighted to discover the draft of your manuscript waiting in my mailbox about six weeks ahead of schedule. How were you able to so quickly take the measure of these beasts and feel comfortable writing about them?

Well, I was provided, through you, with material, with several books about the bizarre and new novel dinosaurs. So it wasn't like I had a great volume of material to master and I had a little grounding in basic dinosaurisms. There was a time in my schedule when it seemed easier to do it earlier rather than to do it in the nick of time. Furthermore, I was enough anxious about it, since as you say I have never written for the National Geographic and to me it is a very august publication. Every middle class home when I was growing up somewhere in it had a stack of these yellow back magazines that were somehow sacred. So the notion of appearing in a sacred volume like the bound Geographics slightly intimidated me. Also, I knew there would be some backing and forthing on the piece since I'm not a science writer so I wanted to get started a little early.

It was very gratifying to see. I wish all my writers had the same attitude turning things in early so we could work on them some more.

Well, you were a very fine editor and a lot of the ideas in the piece, I think, are as much yours as mine, in fact.

One difference in writing for Geographic, as you sort of alluded, to is the magazine's tradition of placing accuracy above everything else. A policy that, as you have discovered, is stubbornly enforced by our dedicated fact checkers. But when publishing creative non-fiction, such as your essay, it's a bit of a delicate balance between accuracy and allowing the metaphoric poetic license that invigorates the prose and makes it what it is. Do you feel that we succeeded in reaching that balance?

Oh yes, after all I have been writing for the The New Yorker for fifty years and they have a fact checking department, too. So I am well acquainted with the fact that a sentence that sounds good and feels right when you put it down might be wrong. And you try to make a virtue out of the necessity of changing it and try to construct a sentence that is as musical or whatever, and truer than the sentence that you have replaced, so I was by no means offended by the challenge. It was a challenge in some spots and also in dealing with material that in some ways is still speculative. There was a tendency to cling to my own speculations rather than adopt ones of one of your scientists but, in general, I was pleased to get the information and try to use it and make the piece better.

One of your most famous early stories, "Pigeon Feathers," deals with a young's man horror at the notion that life stumbles on blindly through eons without any intervention from a designer. I am wondering if your own views have evolved since that story or, more generally, is a belief in Darwinian evolutionary theory compatible with a belief in God?

Just barely, I think. But I, like many people, I live with ambiguity. And that boy David Kern in that story arrived, after wrestling with the reality of death, which is after all the aspect of geological time that we don't really like that it means we too will become extinct and a hand full of dust, he arrived at the argument from design by looking at the feathers of recently slain pigeons and couldn't believe that a universe as beautiful, that made so many beautiful things as this one, could allow him to wink out like a candle in a dark room.

So, I am a church going Christian at the same time I certainly am fascinated by science, I get Scientific American for example, and I try and keep up in a way with what science tells us. Increasingly strange things they keep telling us, too, about the subatomic particles and lately about the huge universe that surrounds us. I don't know, I think I'd be gloomy without some faith that there is a purpose and there is a kind of witness to my life.