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Why Updike delved into suicide killers’ psyches

John Updike wrote his new novel to help Americans understand terrorists’ motivations — and maybe have sympathy. Read and listen to his interview.
/ Source: TODAY

John Updike, one of the country’s most famous and respected writers, is best known for depicting life in American towns and suburbs. In his latest novel, “Terrorist,” Updike writes about Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, a high-school senior living in a dilapidated factory town in a northern New Jersey city who gets drawn into a terrorist plot, and his 63-year-old, world-weary guidance counselor, Jack Levy. In an interview with’s Louise Witt, Updike says he created the character of Ahmad as a way to discuss the state America finds itself in after the September 11th attacks: “I’m trying to get the terrorist out of the bugaboo category and into the category of a fellow human being.”

Updike wanted to write about terrorism because he was disturbed by brutal violence not only in the Middle East but also in this country — like the Columbine massacre. “It wasn’t just the suicide bombers in Palestine and Iraq that intrigued me and got me upset,” he says. “It was also the American youths who with a kind of Nazi ideology have plotted and carried out massacres in their high schools.” He considered writing about a Christian radical but decided that an Islamic fundamentalist character would better show today's stark conflict between the Muslim world and the West. In “Terrorist,” as well as in his other books, Updike says he deals with the “pain” of the human condition: “To be a human being is to be in a state of tension between your appetites and your dreams, and the social realities around you and your obligations to your fellow man.”

In the following interview, Updike discusses his latest novel, “Terrorist,” the conflict between the West and the Islamic world, the role of literature in society, and punk music. To listen to this interview, click below.

Louise Witt: John Updike has delved into the contemporary American psyche in his novels, short stories, essays and poetry for more than a half century. He won the Pulitzer Prize for “Rabbit Is Rich” and “Rabbit At Rest.” In his 22nd novel, “Terrorist,” Updike tells how a Muslim high-school student in northern New Jersey gets drawn into a terrorist conspiracy. With its suspenseful plot and surprise ending, the book is a first for him — a thriller. Mr. Updike joins us to discuss his book and what it says about post-9/11 America. Welcome, Mr. Updike.

John Updike: Thank you.

Witt: Many of your best known — and most beloved — novels have examined the lives and struggles of rather ordinary American middle-class suburbanites. Why did you want to write about an inner city Muslim teenager whose hatred of America drives him towards terrorism?

Updike: You try to vary your palette as much as you can. I never really made a choice to live in America, so I should be aware of the social strata outside of the ones that I may live in. I’ve done plenty really with small towns. I grew up in a small city, or smallish city, in Pennsylvania. And I feel like I have some feeling for the declining Eastern factory town, and was struck by northern New Jersey as being the epitome of the old factory environment that has, in some cases, turned into slums and in some cases suburban paradises. And being a not-wealthy 18-year-old in an American high school, I felt like I could do Ahmad in a way that I couldn’t do a lot of other people who are in the news. My interest generally is the hidden Americans; the ones who live far away from the headlines.

Witt: When you say hidden, what did you want to draw out of the character Ahmad?

Updike: I wanted to show a deeply convinced religious personality, a person for reasons of his own, which I indicated in his life story, clings very deliberately to Islamic fundamentalism, although his imam cast some shadows of doubt his way now and then. The boy is a naïf believer who in the force of his belief is used by others to achieve certain terrorist, political goals.

Witt: In one of your interviews you said you had considered writing about Christian fundamentalists or radicals.

Updike: Well, the notion of the world being full of devils who are trying to take your faith from you appeared to me in a Christian context at first, but it is really more apt in an Islamic context. Islam doesn’t have as many shades of gray as the Christian or the Judaic faith does. It’s fairly absolutist, as you know, and you’re either in or not. So it’s a good, plausible religious context for a sense that the world is alien, is something else, is something not paradise, is trying to take your faith and your companionship with God from you.

Witt: You have said the West doesn’t understand the Islamic hatred for Western civilization.  What do you think is happening between the two worlds?

Updike: I think that we are bewildered by it. Not all of us don’t understand it; there are experts, but not too many [of them] seem to have predicted the actual results in Iraq. From the standpoint of a Middle Eastern citizen, we look like a bully forcing our way of life on the Islamic way of life. So we are probably resented by a lot of people who are not actually terrorists and not playing an active part in the insurgency to get us to leave. The notion of purity is very important in Islam, and a lot of the negative warlike actions taken against us have to do with our physical presence in the Middle East. Osama bin Laden was trying to get the American, or protesting the American military presence in Saudi Arabia. It’s not surprising that our strong presence in Iraq has produced a wave of resistance anger, extreme anger in some cases, and a permissive atmosphere that allows these people to go undetected.

Witt: What is it about terrorists that you want the readers to become aware of, or at least think about?

Updike: I hope that they would think of terrorists as other human beings that have a case on their side, and I was hoping to present a terrorist who attracts our sympathy, and, in his way, is likeable. A boy who is trying to be good and trying to make sense of his life in an American environment, which doesn’t make much sense to him. He sees the rather hedonistic, materialistic, pleasure-now side of America, which strikes him as worthy of condemnation, and is certainly evil in his mind. I’m trying to get the terrorist out of the bugaboo category and into the category of a fellow human being.

Updike: They all live in the same America. Jack Levy, a much older man, who’s been around and doesn’t have a fervent religious belief, but is nevertheless disgusted by overpopulation, over exploitation of limited resources, of certain greediness, of the dumbing-down of popular culture, of celebrity worship and fad diets producing obesity. All of that is visible to Jack as well as Ahmad. But Ahmad had the positive thing of a God that he believes in and that he even feels at his side. There’s a verse in the Quran that God is as close as the vein in your neck. In his youth, [Ahmad] feels that vein very much. So it’s not only complaints, but a sense of a better life, a better standard than is illustrated around him.

Witt: You have said that you re-read the Quran to do research for this book. Was there other research you did on terrorists or radicals?

Updike: I read a book called the jihadis — no, shahid is the word for martyr, suicide bomber. I read around in it, I’m not sure I read it through. A lot of it told me stuff that wasn’t too helpful or illuminating. But there’s a kind of Islamic tradition going back to the assassins in India and it came to a grisly bloom in the Iran-Iraq War, with the use of young people — quite young, 11, 12, 13 — as minesweepers. So it’s a long history, it is more congenial to their religion than it would be to a Christian one, which takes a strong stand against suicide, although [Christianity] does encourage self-sacrifice in battle. The one thing that I try to keep in mind is that from their side, it is a war, they are on the side of God; we are the godless, we are the great Satan, as the Ayatollah Khomeini said. And so a lot of actions which seem to us gratuitous or merely crazy, make more sense seen in the context of a war. Even Americans in a war are capable of self-sacrifice and dramatic action.

Witt: You have said that you were struck by the sense of “friendliness of death.” Is that part of “Terrorist,” that sort of nihilism?

Updike: To call it nihilism, they would object very much, because to them paradise is quite real and the number of virgins and the kind of couches, which are spelled out within the Quran or in the tradition of Mohammed called the hadith. I don’t think of the religion as intrinsically hospitable to death, but, as I have said, there has been a tradition of shahid, of the suicidal bomber. It wasn’t just Islam actually, it wasn’t just the suicide bombers in Palestine and Iraq that intrigued me and got me upset, it was also the American youths who with a kind of Nazi ideology have plotted and carried out massacres in their high schools.

Witt: Like Columbine?

Updike: Yeah, like that and their imitators, because there will be imitations now. We are living in a world in which we don’t give the young enough reason to live. The temper and the lyrics of a lot of punk music and so on is very, life sucks and then you die, sort of theory. I feel life is cheaper and death is more attractive now than it was when I was an adolescent, as I remember. Suicide was a personal pathology when it was committed. There was no society approval of it, like there certainly is in Palestine and some quarters of Iraq.

Witt: You have said in a recent interview that you were hoping to talk to America like Walt Whitman to “address it and describe it to itself.”

Updike: That’s how I conceived the author’s role when I set out on this procession. Yes, the audience is America, your fellow Americans. And the rise lately of the phrase "literary fiction" disturbs me because it implies that there is literary fiction meant for the literary connoisseurs, just like poetry is for a limited, special audience. And what I set out to write was fiction, pure and simple. My first books were in mass market paperbacks, after their hardcover runs; it was thrilling to see them on drugstore racks and airport racks. I don’t see them there anymore. So, for whatever reason, the author is not harkened to. But even Whitman with his grandiose talk addressed very few people in his lifetime. But yes, your ideal audience is your fellow countrymen and you’re trying to say things of interest about your country.

Witt: Do you think that in some ways literature makes it easier to create a dialogue about ideas?

Updike: Yes. Literature gives us models of living human beings who may not agree with us and even be our enemies. D. H. Lawrence said that the purpose of literature was to expand our sympathies, and I certainly was trying to do that here and in my other books as well. In the “Rabbit” books I was trying to show in many ways a not very useful member of society who nevertheless had a case to be made for him. To be a human being is to be in a state of tension between your appetites and your dreams, and the social realities around you and your obligations to your fellow man. And this conflict cannot be easily reconciled. [The tension] is always there as a kind of a pain in the human condition.

Witt: There’s been so much talk about the world changing after 9/11. Was it a marking point?

Updike: Well, it can be exaggeration its importance. But having nearly 3,000 people killed in the midst of a big city in a spectacular set of explosions and collapses is certainly something that hasn’t quite happened to America in this way. We haven’t seen such violence on our own soil since the Civil War. So, in that sense it changed [our world], and it’s changed the way we go into airports and buildings. But I think you can exaggerate it really. There were terrorists before; there were hijackings before. And what changed the world for me is the constant pain of the headlines from Iraq and Israel and from Palestine, the bombings and the apparently endless, and increasing, bloodiness of the insurgency in Iraq. It is sad to me that in a world that has so many positive things going for it that there should be so much bloodshed and conflict, and conflict that could be reconciled. But anyway, a novelist can’t give political directions but he can try to describe the world as he sees it. And the “Terrorist” is my take on a certain slice of America, and a certain, let’s hope, unusual America.

Witt: You have also said that you feel that America is in decline, and yet you say you’re not a pessimist. Why are you still optimistic?

Updike: By decline, I probably mean that it’s changed since I was a boy, more crowded, but it’s also kinder in a way. And I think the global economy is getting out from under us. The mighty dollar is not mighty anymore. Our cars are not the favorites and the rest of it. But you can always see signs of decline around you, and I think that America has a few more miles on its tires yet. So, in that sense I’m an optimist. I believe in the Constitution. And I believe in the resilience and the basic understanding and adaptability of the American people.

Witt: Did that also figure into “Terrorist”?

Updike: There’s pessimism there and a dark view there. But on the other hand, the book has its up side too. I don’t want to give away any endings. But it’s not all doom and gloom in that book.

Witt: Well, that concludes our interview with John Updike. Mr. Updike, thank you so much for joining us.

Updike: Thank you.

If you’d like to view an interview with John Updike on “Today” and read an excerpt of "Terrorist",