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Updike on time, writing, Cheever

In his 23rd novel, “The Widows of Eastwick,” John Updike has returned to familiar ground. The trio of witches whose verve and wit helped give 1984's “The Witches of Eastwick” its puckish glee, are back. This time, though, they are more melancholy and creased by doubt.

Updike's best work has addressed the subtext of daily life. In his new book, Updike, 76, imagines the curtains of age beginning to close. At one point, Sukie, the youngest of the witches, finds herself thinking that “both Alexandra and Jane were vaguer than she remembered them – deeper into the engulfing indifference that renders us for death.”

Q: Your last book, “Terrorist,” had a contemporary theme and was a best-seller. Why did you return to characters we met 30 years ago?

Variety. It also occurred to me that maybe the first book was a success of a sort. It had a movie, and I thought we might be able to sell a few more copies. In the wake of “Terrorist” I also thought a return to a comedy would be a relief to my limited public.

Q: What is the creative process like when you revisit established characters as opposed to creating somebody we haven't met before?

It gives me a chance to write about the passage of time. It was true of the Rabbit series, and the short stories of Henry Bech. You can see a character affected by time, and undergoing changes that couldn't have always been predicted. And the author is saved the trouble of naming characters afresh and giving them biographies.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your writing day?

When I set up shop up here as a freelancer, I tried to set a schedule where I'd do three pages. I'd begin in the morning and work until 1 p.m. I've really kept to that and still do. There's no mystery to it. In my case the morning energy is better. John O'Hara worked at night, beginning at midnight when his family went to bed, but that might have been a newspaper man's habit. I've tried to avoid teaching, which for all its charm takes a lot of your energy and makes you doubt yourself.

Q: Earlier this month, the New York Post cited an upcoming biography of John Cheever and noted that he resented you for not treating him as an equal. What accounted for his concerns?

I thought he was a great writer. I was amazed by him. He had a poetry and speed that were terrific. I was 100 percent admiring of John Cheever, and he was friendly to me. Still, many of his letters and diaries contained uneasy feelings about me and even some hostile remarks. But I never felt it personally and always had good times with John when I saw him. All that aside, what mattered is that he had a wonderful gift, a wonderful luminous way of writing. He was very impatient; maybe that's an alcoholic's quality. Everything was succinct and quick; even his movements were rapid. And that came through in his prose. He didn't harp on anything. There was no excess of words.

Q: Is there any chance you'll return to more contemporary themes in your next novel, say the Wall Street crisis?

I bet Tom Wolfe is just the man to handle that.