Joyce Carol Oates-The Fictionary Interview
Rape. Murder. Love found, lost, and perverted. Women whose lives are men, and men whose lives are violence. Welcome to the work of Joyce Carol Oates.
When it comes to Oates, there is a sharp line drawn in the sand. On one side stand those who celebrate her versatility, her insight into the human psyche, and her exploration of literary waters where few writers venture to go. On the other side are those in staunch opposition to her, critics like James Wolcott, who infamously wrote in Harper’s Magazine in September 1982 that Oates, “slops words across a page like a washerwoman flinging soiled water across the cobblestones.” Or people like Truman Capote, who quite inexplicably went so far as to call for Oates’ public beheading when interviewed by Lawrence Grobel for Conversations With Capote. These harsh statements by fellow writers have often been attributed to jealousy over her productivity. Once you take the time to look at her body of work, it is fairly easy to see how an author such as Oates might inspire such vehement jealousy in others.
In her extensive career as a writer, she has given us over fifty novels (including those written under pseudonyms), eight novellas, over thirty short story collections, eight plays, fifteen works of non-fiction, ten books of poetry, and two children’s books, and she shows no signs of stopping. Her long list of awards includes The National Book Award in 1970 for her novel them, The Bram Stoker award in 1996 for her novel Zombie, and, most recently in 2007, she was named Humanist of the Year by The American Humanist Association.
As Joyce Carol Oates is the featured guest for Story Week 2010, fictionary had the opportunity to interview her via e-mail, to talk about what goes into her writing, how she composes story collections, and what exactly it is she says to those who criticize her productivity.
KS: Your work spans so many different genres of fiction, from high literary drama to works of horror, mystery and suspense. Which do you find most enjoyable to write?
JCO: I love all the genres, but particularly the novel, which is the most challenging of all.
KS: You have published works under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly. What can readers expect to find in these novels that they would not find in works written under your own name?
JCO: "Lauren Kelly" is the only pseudonym I am currently using. These novels are likely to be rather more cinematic, suspenseful and dialogue-driven than my other novels, and they are resolved in the final chapters, which is a fundamental feature of "psychological suspense" fiction. The mystery, to a degree, must be "solved."
KS: How do you balance recognition as a “literary” writer while contending with the perception that those who write genre fiction are somehow less esteemed?
JCO: I don't think much about these issues. Should I?
KS: Where do you find your characters and how do you decide what story you are going to work on next?
JCO: Like all writers, I "find" my characters in the real world as transmogrified into fiction, or vice versa. Little is "decided." Our lives are intuitively lived.
KS: How much do you draw upon your own life to develop material for your short stories and novels?
JCO: How much is impossible to gauge. It varies from work to work. My memoirist novel I'll Take You There is in many ways the most autobiographical of my works of fiction, yet it is very much fiction; the settings—in Syracuse—are the most "real" part of the novel. Obviously there is a part of oneself in any created character.
KS: More often than not, your novels ask the reader to identify with characters that are despicable or less than admirable: prostitutes, rapists, alcoholics, gang members, adulterers, and serial killers; all the while developing, if not a sympathy for these characters, then at least some recognition of their humanity. What drives you to write them?
JCO: I don't feel particularly "driven." As I've said, our lives are mainly intuitive, led or guided by instinct. Sometimes I become somewhat obsessed with a particular work—with "getting the words right"—but more often the writing, like the imagining beforehand, is playful, exciting. I don't find my characters "despicable" in most cases. I am not by nature a judgmental person.
KS: Is there a difference for you between writing from the point of view of a male character as opposed to that of a female?
JCO: No difference at all, essentially. I don't feel distanced from or estranged from men or boys. I "identify" as readily with either sex, in my imagination.
KS: Have there ever been any works that you first believed to be a short story that kept growing into a novel?
JCO: Zombie was a short story that became a novel, and more recently a play quite successfully adapted for the stage by the actor Bill Connington. BLONDE was intended as a novella of about 150 pages.
KS: In addition to novels for adults, you also write young adult and children's fiction. How do you gear your writing toward a younger audience?
JCO: My YA fiction tends to be dialogue-driven, with short, dramatic chapters, a dearth of description and very little background exposition. I love to consider young people in dramatic situations in which repressed or undeveloped aspects of their personalities suddenly shine forth. All of my YA fiction leads to a deepening of the protagonists' selves and a discovery that they are stronger and more resilient than they'd imagined.
KS: Your first novel was published in 1964. How have you changed as a writer since then?
JCO: Impossible to answer such a vast question!
KS: Between teaching, an upcoming marriage, and events and interviews, where do you find the time to write? Is there a kind of ritual to your process? Any particular music?
JCO: I wish I had the power to concentrate as I'd once had! Lately, I am not at all efficient and spend much of my time yearning to write, rather than writing. I never listen to music, in any case, while writing.
KS: How has that yearning to write played a part in your life?
JCO: Obviously one must want to write—one must "yearn" to create art—or there would be no creativity. Self-satisfied people are not likely to be artists, as they are not likely to support serious art.
KS: As a widely published short story author, how do you choose what stories end up in a particular collection? Does the order of the stories hold an importance to the whole of the book?
JCO: All of my short story collections are thematically arranged, and the organization of the stories within the book is very important to me. Usually, as in Faithless: Tales of Transgression, there is a movement from the more obviously "realistic" stories to those that verge upon the surreal. My most recent collection, Dear Husband, follows this general principle; it includes clusters of stories about marriages, adolescent sons and their mothers, and family life, but there are stories that verge upon the surreal or the outright fantastic ("The Glazers") that continue the theme of family life in more emblematic, symbolic terms. My next collection is titled Sourland: Stories of Loss, Grief & Forgetting and its principle of organization, in three sections, follows this general course.
KS: In your recent short story collection Wild Nights!, you fictionally explore the fantastical last days of great authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and Emily Dickinson, all of whom made an impression on you as a young writer. Are there any other writers you felt have influenced you greatly in your life? Which author do you feel has had the most influence on your own writing?
JCO: I had also wanted to write about Robert Frost in this volume, but felt that the story would be anti-climactic following the Hemingway story. No single author has had that much influence on me, I'm sure. I have probably read thousands of writers.
KS: What contemporary writers do you find inspire you?
JCO: I've always loved John Updike's work—in all genres—and am so very sorry that he died prematurely. What a loss!
KS: What do you say to those who accuse you of writing too much?