Over 20 years ago, in the fall of 1997, I got my first job, at The New Yorker magazine. A small-town girl from coastal Maine, I had graduated from Brown six months earlier and had been recommended by the writer Francine Du Plessix-Gray, a visiting professor there. I had taken the bus to New York City, with two pairs of nylons and two wool J. Crew suits packed into a small suitcase — one black, one a pale, beige-y blush — for my interview.
I was hired to work on a special project for the photographer Richard Avedon. (Oh, the thrill on my first day, when I got into the elevator with Tina Brown, then the editor, who was wearing sunglasses, a natty suit and sipping a Diet Coke through a straw!)
I was well aware that my literary hero John Updike, born on March 18, 1932 and also from modest country beginnings, had begun his own career with the magazine before he had even graduated from Harvard. Indeed many of my favorite writers, the ones I read in my college bed with the covers pulled up over my head so that I could be alone with their words — John Cheever, Alice Munro, Ann Beattie, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Andre Dubus — were all published in the pages edited and checked in the stately, drafty building at 25 West 43rd Street where The New Yorker was then housed.
If you wanted to take a shortcut, you could walk through the building into the brightness of Bryant Park and see the back of the New York Public Library, or, conversely, journey into the darkly nostalgic rooms of the Algonquin Hotel on 44th.
I had written my college thesis on John Updike’s Maples stories and had been lucky enough to correspond with him. My missives were handwritten on cards I chose carefully at the Thayer Street Bookstore, and his were typed on little white prestamped 20-cent postcards; the stamp had a lovely color picture of a green hill, some blue sky and a red Beverly Farms barn. When he made a mistake, he simply “xx”-ed out the word and carried on, though he never wrote more than one postcard.
At first Updike bristled at the subject matter of my thesis — I was writing about fathers and children of divorce in his stories and Richard Ford’s novels — warning me not to assume that his fiction was memoir (as he warned many others). But he gradually warmed and, on and off, became a faithful and gracious correspondent, a gentle and perhaps unintentional mentor.
After the job for Avedon ended, I was hired to stay on at The New Yorker as a freelance fact checker. However I soon went from feeling lucky to stressed. I had become the subject of inappropriate attentions from a senior male staff member, who was married.
This was a very different from the ease with which a junior Updike, just out of Harvard and abroad in London and studying at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, was enthusiastically offered a “first reading agreement” by the famous editor Katherine White (E. B.’s wife). She sweetened the deal, according to Adam Begley’s comprehensive 2015 biography of Updike, with a hundred dollars, as “‘a symbol of our good faith,’ she said, ‘to bind the bargain.’” Shortly afterward he was—effortlessly, it seemed—given a staff job by William Shawn writing for the Talk of the Town section of the magazine.
Nevertheless, Updike went with me as I navigated the city. He more than anyone, I sometimes felt, understood the trials and tribulations of the common person, and the self-conscious awkwardness one has while struggling to succeed in life and love. (Just think of his story “A & P,” for instance, told in the voice of a 19-year-old boy, Sammy, working in a supermarket when three girls traipse through in their bathing suits.) I found myself once again comforted by his short stories as I quickly ate Hale & Hearty soups during lunch breaks.
And it was truly exciting to begin to learn the intense and rigorous art of fact checking, which is like cross-examining sentences. I absorbed quickly and satisfyingly how to do another layer of reporting on the heels of the writer. I figured if I did good work and kept my head down, I’d eventually be rewarded.
But, try as I did to avoid them, the affections and gifts and little notes continued from the older staff member — attentions that had begun during the interview process. One day he leaned in, suddenly, and kissed me in front of the Nat Sherman luxury cigarette store on Fifth Avenue. I didn’t know whom to talk to about this or even if it was as weird as it felt.
I’ll be the first to admit that the themes of adultery and overt and detailed sexuality in Updike’s stories sometimes made me slightly queasy. But there was nothing in them that ever smacked of the predatory; on the contrary, it was his fastidious honesty, his euphoric interest in sexuality, that rattled and embarrassed me.
From Richard Ford I had learned an acerbic and more shrouded form of male sexuality, one that was, somehow, easier to take because less was there in black and white. Either way, these were stories; my best friends were Richard and Joan Maple and Frank Bascombe. No one had ever sat me down and told me what was wrong or right in a job or how to handle anything complicated with men in real life.
As the news of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, the staff member’s flirtations intensified and began to feel controlling in their insistence. After weeks of insomnia, I finally broke down in a co-worker’s office. I remember the smell of paperwhite narcissus through my salty tears more than anything; she was always forcing the little bulbs in large glass vases filled with turquoise marbles on her windowsill.
That night I called a lawyer friend of my father’s, and the next day, using language the lawyer had advised me to, I confronted the man. That afternoon he brought over a bundle of thank you cards I’d sent him during my quest for the job — a personal touch taught to me by a career counselor at Brown. He had tied them with a ribbon, like love letters. In front of two office mates, he ripped up the cards and threw them at my face and walked out. I remember scrambling to the floor to pick them up. A few days later he told me my freelance gig was over, and that I would not be hired on staff. I had been at the magazine only seven months.
My dreams had been cauterized. I had to start over with a new dream, and I wasn’t sure what it would be.
That first summer, I went on to wait tables in the West Village (once waiting on Ms. Lewinsky). I took acting classes and wrote a handful of short stories. I began writing notes for a novel I am finally finishing. And I found refuge in public radio, once interviewing Updike for “Studio 360” about his lifelong battle with psoriasis.
Eventually I edited and published a collection of American stories on the subject of divorce, with contributions and help from Updike and Ford. I’ll never forget coming home one day and pressing play on my answering machine to hear Alice Munro’s voice, and then just after hers was Grace Paley’s and then Edmund White’s. When the book came out, Updike wrote me a gracious and heartfelt postcard commending me for it. He wrote,
Dear Ms. Shetterly:
People around here — well, one person — came to me excited to hear my name mentioned on public radio by a “very well-spoken” young woman who turns out to be you. And then your book came, for which much thanks. I read the Carver and Paley in the Afterlife section, which for a while at least, has the salty savor of anchovies on very thin, friable crackers. Have you ever read my own “Here Comes [sic] the Maples” as a somewhat consoling aftermath of “Separating,” which was written on Martha’s Vineyard while living in a rented cottage for a month with my two daughters, suddenly children of divorce, or of separation. Heartbreak Hill, I hope you avoid it. Any novel I read by anyone under 40 has the obligatory splitting-up scene, by parents of my heedless generation. Nevertheless. Warm regards & Merry Christmas.”
He died on January 27, 2009, and I now keep his letter framed on my desk. Every so often, when I need help, I’ll take it out and hold it, still hearing his gentle, ironic voice.
Updike himself left The New Yorker only a year and a half into his tenure there, moving his young family to the shore in Ipswich, Mass., and forging ahead as a writer. No one forced this move on him, and he had already established himself as an invaluable asset to the magazine. But he wrote that he felt “crowded, physically and spiritually,” by the city and that it was “not quite right for me, as the rejection slips say.” He later said that this was “the crucial flight of my life.” In Ipswich he went on to write his first eight novels and some of the best stories in the American canon, including “A & P.”
If I’m honest, I don’t believe I was long for the city myself. It was too loud and crowded and dirty for me, too. I craved the wide-open vistas of the blue bays of home; the clean, white swaths of snow blanketing expansive fields.
At the end of “A & P,” Sammy chivalrously quits his job when the manager shames the girls for coming inside the store in their bathing suits. When he walks out of the store’s doors and hits the hot asphalt of the parking lot, he says, “my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.”
My mind wanders often to those girls and Sammy’s instinct to protect them. It makes me wonder: If I had turned to Updike for advice on my own workplace situation, might he have helped me? Or might he just have counseled me to hold on to what happened as fodder for stories I would someday write, stories created away from the din of edgy personalities prowling the halls of America’s most prestigious magazine, stories I would eventually write while looking out the window to my native country of pointed firs?