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John Updike

WASHINGTON, D.C. — During an interview with John Updike, he is reminded that the last time we spoke, three years ago (for his collection of short stories), he said he would never write a thriller.

"I said that, did I? Never trust a writer."

The 74-year-old Updike was promoting the latest of his 22 novels, "The Terrorist." And during the hour we spent together at the BookExpoAmerica trade show and convention in the Washington, D.C., Convention Center, he was gracious and self-effacing.

Occasionally he would raise his Andy Rooney-like, white, bushy eyebrows in puzzlement. "(The book) was meant to be thrilling toward the end, with the usual lift in blood pressure — but to write a real thriller, you have to have been in the CIA or at least know someone who has. I don't pretend to have that kind of know-how. It is meant to be more than a domestic novel, though — one about danger and, to a small degree, politics."

Updike said his inspiration was a feeling that he could present "the perspective of a terrorist."

He believes most people are baffled by those who want to hurt the United States, yet there are "destructive ideologues who intend to do so. I felt I could access the belief system for someone like that. What is badly called 'the war on terror' can be told by a novelist."

The author has also been careful to write about both sides of the issue. "I meant to make my terrorist hero a sympathetic and likable man — to an extent. I don't believe people are inherently evil. I think they all act with good intentions.

"The terrorist is a victim, too. He is a young man who gets the wrong kind of guidance. He's one of a kind. Ahmad is very devout and captive to the notion that he is important on some invisible scale. We all have such feelings

about ourselves. That's a strange and wonderful thing about being alive."

Because Updike has read the Quran, he used several passages to good effect in the novel. But he finds the text of the Quran to be "mangled" and "hard to retain." He was glad to find the new Quran has an index. "Every book, including novels, should have an index. But the language of the Quran is quite beautiful when it is pronounced aloud."

The most important task for Updike was the creation of a believable terrorist character. "I like Ahmad, and I felt at home in his head. I like the stately way he talks, the way he watches himself. I suppose he is a version of myself under different circumstances."

Updike went to high school in Pennsylvania, then completed his education at Harvard and Oxford. He speaks now with a measured but unmistakable brand of wisdom.

Describing the writing process as "pretty smooth," Updike said, "Things always seem easier in retrospect than they probably were. But it seemed to work well enough. It probably has holes in it. The actual terrorist side of it is likely. What's wrong with a lot of American lives is that there is not this sense of being needed."

Updike remembers that during World War II, "there was a sense of pitching in, even if you were a 10-year-old kid. We want to be useful. I am asking the reader to look at the way people who hate us think, to offer a portrait of a susceptible teenager who is left out. Whether I have done it adequately, I don't know."

It's not that Updike expects the usual readers of thrillers to be drawn to his book. "I'm trying to extend my reach in the world here. It's a thriller done in my particular way. These people are dear to me. Even the minor characters bring something to the story. Everyone means well."

Updike feels privileged to observe society, including his own childhood. "But every time I think of something I want to do, I realize I've already done it. You come almost to the limit of your own experience.

"For a novel, you sort of wait for the ideas to gather. The 'Rabbit' books came out of stories my high school-teacher father brought home about high school athletes whose lives had come to nothing. It was genuine. I had more of a feeling for post-high school disappointments than many. You wait for that kind of insight."

Asked about his place in literary history, Updike seemed embarrassed. "It's hard to pick out the giants when they're still alive. It's hard to know how you'll do. The most likely thing is that you will be forgotten — like William Dean Howells.

"Howells reminds me of myself, trying to find the smiling aspects of American life. He was very successful in his lifetime and was in every way an admirable man who spoke up for liberalism. He was a good critic, too. But he's on the dust heap now as far as who is read.

"All I can do is try not to be lazy, keep my eye on the ball and not fritter away the time I have. In general I think I've given it a good shot. Good writing can't be willed. It needs cooperation with the era itself. Something about Elizabeth's reign made it a good time to be a playwright. Just do your best.

"I've been fortunate to have been able to make a living — and it's been a lot of fun to be a writer. At least I don't have to get up in the morning and put on a suit."

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com