I first encountered Joyce Carol Oates in person when I heard her in conversation with Richard Ford last spring. Though I was only watching from the audience, I left the event feeling stirred: she had a voice I recognized. It seemed to be the voice of truth. While onstage, she openly confessed to her struggle with reading her work to an audience and explained that she had tried several tactics for bearing through: reading from the beginning, reading a central passage, or, as was the case on this evening, reading the end of her novel Mudwoman.
Oates’s work is vast—a prolificacy that flowers from her rigorous approach, fed by her pleasure in writing. She has published over fifty novels, and many volumes of short stories, poetry, children’s books, and essays. Her first was the novel With Shuddering Fall, published in 1964, when she was twenty-six. She is now seventy-four, and in her steady career she has won many awards, including the National Book Award (for Them, in 1970) and numerous honorary degrees, fellowships, and nominations. Since 1978, she has taught creative writing at Princeton University. And though I cannot pretend to have read all her work, or even most of it, what I have read consistently reveals her intelligence, courage, and willful awareness, which she uses in the service of both challenging and embracing American society.
I spoke with Oates at her home in the woods of Princeton. Our conversation veered between art and life. Hearing her appreciation for art and music, and their mesmerizing effects on her, suggested to me that writing is, for her, perhaps in part an extension of an open, meditative state—the same state as appreciating art. We spoke for several hours in her living room, surrounded by views of a landscape swept by Hurricane Sandy. The interior walls of her home are covered in art: dreamy landscapes by Charles Burchfield and Wolf Kahn, and myriad far-off lands photographed by her husband, Charles Gross.
I. A DIFFERENT SORT OF TEMPO, A DIFFERENT KIND OF ERA
THE BELIEVER: A few months ago, I heard you in conversation with Richard Ford, and I was so struck because although I had read only some of your short stories, I felt I recognized you as a truth-teller. Do you see the purpose of your writing as truth-telling?
JOYCE CAROL OATES: Well, yes. I think most writers and serious artists are telling truths in different ways. I tend to think that the truth is enormously complex. There is a sort of superficial or surface “truth,” but it is the privilege as well as the obligation of the serious artist to get beneath that to see a myriad of truths. Human nature is, I think, enormously complex. That is why it is such a strange phenomenon to be watching these campaigns and elections. Because you have to vote for one person or another, and you vote yes or no. Whereas in our lives generally, we do not just like one person and reject another person. Much more is going on.
BLVR: I imagine that many writers write for the experience of language, and I can see this in your work as well, but I also feel that there is a certain urgency to convey a message.
JCO: Well, I wouldn’t really say there is a message in my writing, per se, because I wouldn’t know what the message was. It is more conveying states of mind and experiences that people have. Often I write about women who are in some transitional state. The culture may be transitional and the women are like pioneers moving into it. So I am sort of expressing what their experience is.
BLVR: That’s so interesting. I’m reminded of Nada, the Russian immigrant woman in Expensive People, who is a sort of pioneer. Do you consider her a particularly autobiographical character?
JCO: No, no, not at all. Nada is a very disagreeable person. Maybe with a sort of a Nabokovian playfulness, I invented a Russian immigrant writer, but she is a mother and she married a businessman and there is not too much connection except that she is a writer and I am a writer. I do not really create characters who are like myself. I might have something in common with almost all my characters. Obviously, if there is a woman writer in my novel and I am a woman writer, you might say that is something in common. When people write reviews they often say things like that, which are somewhat simple. But if you are a writer you get used to that. Nada is sort of sardonic and sarcastic and I feel there is much more to my life than hers. She is almost like a bit of a satirical portrait. I suppose her portrait is presented by her son, and he feels that she was not a mother. He loved her very much, but she was maybe nothing as a mother. She doesn’t want to be a mother. She became pregnant by accident. The son prefers and loves the mother, but the father is the one who really takes care of him. And the father is sort of a vulgarian. He is a Detroit executive at a time when Detroit was quite affluent. The mother’s role with the son is more like nothing. He is the one who thinks of her as nothing.
BLVR: Right. It is very often the case that we do not properly understand the role of the people who are nearest to us.
JCO: Well, consider that woman novelists throughout history have tended not to be married and not to have had children. Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, the Brontës, Jane Austen, and many, many poets, like Emily Dickinson. They didn’t have children, partly because of their personalities, but maybe partly because they wanted to focus on their work. In this country, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton—did she have children? I don’t think she did. Now, Toni Morrison did have children, and there are some who do. But Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, the list goes on and on of women who do not have children…
BLVR: I actually do not know, do you have children?
BLVR: And do you feel that, whether or not you had been a writer, that was just right for you, or do you feel the decision was to make your work primary?
JCO: I think I just was not particularly interested in having children, and my first husband was not particularly interested in a family. We were both very literary people, and my first husband was an editor and publisher and we were both professors so we kind of were focused on our work, and the idea of a traditional family wasn’t part of our lives. I have a number of woman friends who don’t have children. Now, if I had lived in a different, more traditional society, like back home, where everybody had children, probably I would have had children, but I was in this university setting where it was a different sort of tempo, a different kind of era.
II. THE PERSON IN THE MIRROR SEEMS INTERESTED IN US
BLVR: I am a painter, not a writer, and I know for me, I use repetition and deconstruction to bring the element of time into something that is very still. Language obviously is not still in the same sense as a painting, but I felt that in Black Water or Them you did interesting things with time. There were these eternal moments. For example, there is the repeated moment of the instant of Kelly Kelleher’s death.
JCO: Though I am not a visual artist myself, I have such great love and admiration for painters, artists generally, and photographers—because it is a still moment. It is the one exemplary moment that is taken out of the flow of time. I like to move toward those moments in my writing. And I really love to reproduce the physical world, because when I am writing, I am sort of seeing it in my mind, and working to get the right words to evoke a sky or water or some trees. It is sort of a spiritual projection, where when we are looking at landscape we are looking at something that is both objectively there but also what we have projected onto it. That is why the landscapes of our childhoods are so fraught with a kind of radiance, but they can also evoke fear and dread, because there is a lot of emotion in the landscape. I think the best examples of landscapes that just come alive in this potent and mysterious way are the later paintings of van Gogh, where obviously there is a physical world, but he has transformed that with his passion. You sort of stand riveted before them, as if by something magical, and I would like to be able to do that in prose.
BLVR: To stir that passion?
JCO: To evoke emotion in the reader by using the images that are realistic.
BLVR: Yes. Well, we project so much of our human experience onto what we are seeing. I have the same experience when I read your work. I project onto your work the questions or answers I am personally seeking. I tend to read your work in terms of how it relates to identity.
JCO: And what are your paintings like? Are you a realistic painter or an abstract painter?
BLVR: I’m an abstract painter. I am dealing with ideas of place and what creates a sense of place, and I use very distilled forms and composition to create context.
JCO: That is harder in ways, isn’t it, than being a figurative painter?
BLVR: I find it very freeing. For me, not dealing with recognizable objects makes me free to deal with ideas, or ideals, even.
JCO: Well, as I said before, I really love painting, and I often spend time in museums just kind of staring at art. It’s not that I have any great intellectual or historical things to say about it, though I wrote a book on George Bellows, and I have written essays on art. But I just find that it is somehow very aesthetically pleasing and satisfying. My friend Steve Martin is basically a person who collects art. He has a public career but he loves art and it has a spiritual dimension for him. I think I feel that way, too. Like if I am not feeling happy or I am feeling anxious, if I go into a museum and find a work of art, then I sort of transcend myself. It seems really, really interesting and important and beautiful.
BLVR: Are there certain works that you are drawn to, certain periods of painting?
JCO: I like so much. Very conventionally, Matisse and Cézanne—I mean, everybody loves their work. And then I like Rothko very much. He probably means a lot to you because he’s this heroic, luminous, beautiful, mystical… he is huge. I would love to have a big Rothko on the wall and just sit and look at it. And I like Helen Frankenthaler; her work has a very transparent kind of luminosity. And Clyfford Still is very interesting. Diebenkorn. Arthur Dove. And again, obvious people like Hopper.
BLVR: Hopper is someone who for me distills time in a unique way.
JCO: Yeah, it is very dreamlike. Very magical, sort of surreal, almost. People think he is a realist, but he is more like the surrealists. I could just wander in museums. There is an exhibit at the Neue Galerie of Ferdinand Hodler, a Swiss painter, and his work has a kind of allegorical quality to it. The details are dropped out so it is more like the shapes of distant mountains, and it seems to have that spiritual quality. When you have paintings where the details are very hard-edged, like in photography, it is a different kind of tone. You are really looking at that scene. But when it is more stylized, you are kind of communing with the emotions. It is a different kind of feeling.
BLVR: Does reading give you that feeling as well? Or is it a different experience?
JCO: Well, it is somewhat different because with reading it’s not so sensuous. It is more about identifying with a person who is interrelating with other people. Whereas the works of art that I am speaking of are kind of still. There is not a story going on. They are just still.
III. MAYBE SHE WILL BE MARRIED TO HIM FOR FIFTY YEARS
BLVR: As a writer, how deeply entwined do you feel your being is with your work? Do you see each work as a work unto itself or as something that leads to one ultimate work?
JCO: I suppose it is something of both. Much of what we do as artists is unconscious. When I start work, I always have some initial difficulty. But I always feel very comforted because I really enjoy writing and get a lot out of the process of doing it, so that is always a positive thing. And if I write a couple pages a day, I feel very good about that. I usually begin the next day by rewriting what I did the day before. I get a lot of momentum from that. You rewrite very quickly and then you sort of move into the next chapter. I think of the work that I am working on as individual. When I did the series of novels—the sort of social realist novels—I may have done the first one and then the second one and then I started thinking of them as a trilogy or a quartet, but in the beginning I was just a young writer and it was quite enough for me to write the one novel. I think I was twenty-six when I wrote A Garden of Earthly Delights. It was an effort. It was really kind of exciting and a real project. I never dreamed that I would have a long career and I never dreamed of anything much beyond the first couple of things.
BLVR: Right, but you are so prolific.
JCO: But I did not know I was going to be prolific. My first book of short stories was accepted when I was about twenty-two, but then the publisher put off publishing it until I had a novel, I think. So it did not really come out until I was twenty-four or twenty-five, and all that time I was writing short stories. But I did not know or think that I would be writing so many books. It is like two people meet and get married and the wife makes a dinner. It would not occur to the wife that maybe she will be married to him for fifty years and you have all these dinners and they will be doing the dishes together. You basically only think of what is in front of you. Now, when people get older they start to have a larger view—Norman Mailer, for instance, had a plan for a couple of novels after his most recent novel, and he was over eighty, and that is really vast, to have that kind of energy. Unfortunately, he did not live to do that. But I almost never have the sense that I am going to write a series of books. It may be short stories that are united by a theme, but not novels. A novel can be very exhausting. You put everything that you have into the novel and do not even think that there will be another novel.
IV. MARK TWAIN
BLVR: The books that I have read of yours have been mostly set in the present day, and it seems to me that you feel very strongly about certain contemporary issues. But I am curious to talk about The Accursed, your latest book. It’s set in Princeton in 1905, and I feel like it represents a tremendous shift in terms of the way you comment on humanity and our social structures. Instead of doing it through the present day, you are doing it through a historical structure.
JCO: Well, I have written several historic novels in the past: Bellefleur, Mysteries of Winterthurn, A Bloodsmoor Romance. The Accursed is sort of in that tradition. Big novels, Gothic novels. In fact, Mark Twain appears in A Bloodsmoor Romance and then he appears in The Accursed. I have also written a short story about him. I really like Mark Twain. He is somebody who, while I am not really similar to him, I really identify with in many ways.
BLVR: Do you feel that he, too, is a truth-teller?
JCO: Absolutely, he was extraordinary.
BLVR: I wonder what calls you to him.
JCO: His courage was remarkable. In the early years of the twentieth century, he was actually a feminist. He was an enemy of anti-Semitism. He was so courageous about writing in favor of black people. He thought there should be anti-lynching laws. He really kind of wore himself out in that effort, and all around him were all these indifferent white people who did not care at all.
BLVR: I just found a book of his called Letters from the Earth. Have you read it?
JCO: Yes, it is very pessimistic. He turned really dark when he got older. His beloved daughter Susy died of meningitis when she was about ten and he never got over that and his life just kind of ended at that point.
V. AND THEY CAN WEAR BLOOMERS
BLVR: I’m curious to ask you about Marilyn Monroe, and how she fits into your interest in pioneering women.
JCO: Well, she was certainly a pioneer of her time. It began in a very innocent way, where I was looking at some pictures and there was a photograph of Marilyn Monroe taken when she was about sixteen, and she reminded me of my own mother and of girls I went to school with. She did not have blond hair. She was basically a brunette and she was pretty, but she wasn’t glamorous. You know, she was sixteen years old, and I just thought, Wow, this is Norma Jeane Baker. And I thought, In ten years she is going to be a worldwide name, and what a vertiginous journey this girl went on. Basically, people just plucked her up. She was a model and then they plucked her up and they made her into a star, and they called her into the studio one day and they gave her this name, Marilyn Monroe, because I think Betty Grable was getting old. In one version of the story, she would have just stayed where she was and gotten married and had children and nobody would ever have heard of her. But then in this version that actually happened, she sort of made her way very far and she is so famous, but of course she never really integrated that public self with her private Norma Jeane self. She felt very lonely and very incomplete, and though we see she was such an excellent actress, she wasn’t admired as an actress. She was sort of like a joke. When we look at her movies, she is really acting. But her contemporaries just sort of saw that blond and they laughed at her. And she made much less money than other actresses. So I guess I wanted to write about somebody who was basically living as an underdog and who was always underestimated, who then after she’s dead has this fantastic legacy. I had been writing about the plight of women and the plight of poor people, and then I wrote about cold war American and popular culture at that time. I also wanted to show how Marilyn Monroe was extremely professional. She was always taking classes, she was always working. She would take dance classes, she would take acting classes. She was always doing something, whereas other famous actresses were not doing anything. So I wanted to present her as someone that I could really identify with. Very working-class.
BLVR: I wonder if your interests are beginning to wander beyond America at this point. Do you think in global terms?
JCO: No, not so much. It is really about all you can think of to deal with this country. I really was writing about the whole country in The Accursed—sort of the transitional period just before World War I, when many younger women are getting really impatient with the old ways of doing things. They have to wear corsets. They are kind of breaking free. Some of them are learning to ride bicycles, and they can wear bloomers, and older people are shocked at what they are doing—when they might cut their hair or something. They were feminists who were called “suffragettes” who were politicizing and giving talks and gaining some supporters. Mostly just women, not too many men. But it became part of the social dialogue, whereas before it hadn’t been. But the main focus of The Accursed is the failure of the white Christian affluent society to look upon black people as if they were equals, and to protect them against the right-wing fanatics like the Ku Klux Klan. There were many good, Christian, white people, and they were good people and they were not racist, but they didn’t do enough. The Ku Klux Klan was lynching people. There were lynchings in this country up until the 1950s, and it would have stopped much sooner or completely if the majority of white people had just done something about it. The novel is really about that. Woodrow Wilson was the president of Princeton. He is an example of this good Christian who just wouldn’t do a little more.
BLVR: Do you feel those issues are relevant today? Are you also commenting on our current state?
JCO: Yes. I am writing about these ongoing racial issues and giving a little background and showing how at the time there were socialist people like Jack London and Upton Sinclair. And some of the younger people in the novel represent positions that are more like ours today. There are a couple of young women who are more feminist, and there wasn’t really a support system for anybody like that. A young woman in my novel goes to New York and she lives there and she is a painter. She is an artist but she has to have a rupture with her family. They are really, really unhappy about it. So it is earlier generations doing what we are doing and what we have done today, and they look more like the pioneers.
BLVR: We do have to be aware of how things change. My awareness of feminism is probably not the same as yours, because I possibly take certain things for granted, and I would not necessarily want to distinguish myself as a woman versus a man. I would just want to be that thing. But there is so much that goes into getting to that point.
JCO: Yes. And if we’d had a strong right-wing victory in this election, they would have rolled back a lot of things— maybe the availability of abortion, and, in some states, even contraception. I think young women would have been absolutely stunned. They never would have thought that this could happen.
VI. THEY SHOT PEOPLE IN THE BACK
BLVR: Perhaps I could read you a few more quotes from Them…
JCO: It is one of my favorite novels of my own. I revised it recently for the new edition. I am so glad you read the new one and not an earlier edition.
BLVR: I’m glad I read this edition, too.
JCO: When I wrote Them, I was living in Detroit, but like many white people in Detroit I did not really know how unconscionably, how terribly the police force, the firemen, the power structure of Detroit were treating black people. Subsequently I read the history—because now it is history—but the Detroit riot was so much a consequence of this terrible bigotry. During the days and the nights of the riots, the white policemen were behaving very badly. They were actually shooting black people on the street; they had shotguns and shot people in the back. None of that came out until many years later. If I were to rewrite that novel extensively, I would have to put in much more of that. But I did not actually know it at the time.
BLVR: I find it so interesting that you could rewrite the work.
JCO: I could also imagine extra chapters and scenes where Loretta is walking somewhere, or Loretta strikes up a conversation on a bus. There is a lot more to Loretta and her life than I was able to find room for. Jules gets a lot of attention and he is sort of like the hero of the novel. I spent a lot of time with Jules.
BLVR: We do wonder what happened to the woman who shot him, Nadine.
JCO: Yes, we do wonder about her. She has a name like Nada. She is the same kind of neurotic, self-focused woman who is attractive to men but at the same time she is so divided. It is one of the things that is exciting about being a writer, to know that at any time one can go off in a new direction, one could actually revisit something. I don’t know what would be analogous as a painter. Maybe you would never go back, or maybe you would. But with fiction you have characters whom you still remember. You think, Oh, how is Jules Wendall? Like, he would be this age now. Maybe I’ll write a little story about him.
VII. “GO AWAY, WE ARE JUST TRYING TO SURVIVE”
BLVR: In Them, you wrote something I found beautiful: “My body is like the body of an animal, or one of those things that are just one cell, very tiny, that keep everything in them of all their history and are always the same age.” It made me think of how, on some level, our memory is tied up with our sense of fate and purpose.
JCO: Yes, it’s so interesting. We come into the world with so many preformed instincts and predilections. I think great artists like van Gogh tap into that kind of memory. You look at his work and you sort of feel this kinship, even though you have no idea who he is. I think that great art evokes that. And music evokes that also; it is just very, very mesmerizing. I sometimes hear music and I just stop. I am mesmerized by the sound of the music. It seems to be so powerful. It almost makes me remember something, but I don’t remember what.
BLVR: You also write in Them that “everything was there, waiting.” This suggests that our futures are predestined. Do you believe that, or do you think the future is actually open?
JCO: It is a good question, and very tantalizing. I really don’t know the answer. Sometimes we seem very free, and it seems that things are quite chancy. Other times you find that somebody knew about you or they were going to meet you, and it seems that there is something like predestination and a plan. I often ask my students at Princeton how they came to Princeton. There are essentially two answers. One of them is: “Oh, all of my family went here. My mother, my father, my grandparents went here. So it was always known that I would go to Princeton.” So that is a story and that is true of many students. Then there are students— some of them are ethnic minority students and they got a scholarship, and they would never have gone to Princeton except that there was this scholarship that did not exist years ago. So they are kind of plucked up, maybe from the ghetto, and whirled through space and set down in this fantastically wonderful Ivy League university where they never would have gone in the past. That is the sort of story that seems more like chance, where the other is much more prepared. I think economic security allows people to have these kinds of lives that are much more controlled, and so they are psychologically more at ease and they are more confident. Whereas poor people are looking for chance or good luck and they are hoping, like rolling dice. Sometimes things seem like predestination, and other times everything seems extremely fragmented and chancy. I have had both experiences.
BLVR: Do you think that choice plays a role in either situation?
JCO: Well, it is difficult to answer, because on a molecular— really a cellular—level, it almost seems as if there isn’t any choice in anything. Everything seems blind and without any purpose except to replicate itself. But then people are making choices all the time. They say, “I will go here or maybe I will travel there, maybe I will study to be a social worker or a lawyer.” You really are making a lot of choices that are contingent upon economic freedom and education. I have often written about people whose choices are limited because of their relative economic disenfranchisement. But even so, there are some things in life, maybe the most important things in life, that don’t seem to be open to choice. Like people fall in love or they have really close friendships that seem to be emotional rather than rational. I have friends who, in some cases, I have not seen in a long time, but when we meet each other we just have that same feeling, very fluent and very at ease. Then there are other people I know and there is more awkwardness. So these things almost seem to be on an unconscious level.
BLVR: Yes. In many of your books, the characters’ lives seemed to be so much about survival, more than about allowing themselves to indulge in the luxury of their emotions and their identity.
JCO: That is right.
BLVR: I wonder for you, once you have gotten past this survival state, if love is something that is essential to your work.
JCO: Oh yes, I think so. I like to write about people who are evolving.
BLVR: And is there that process of self-discovery in working?
JCO: Well, there does seem to be such a kinship between the person I was when I started and the person I am now. I do feel that I am pretty much the same person, but I am taking on different challenges. When I was twenty-two or twenty-five years old, I would never have written a novel like The Accursed. I would never, ever have thought of writing this big novel with all these historical figures. At the same time, with my short stories, there is not that much difference. So there is both a continuity and also a discontinuity. I guess I think of my own writing as dealing with questions rather than answers. I do not feel that I know the answers, but I feel that the act of writing… it’s like my students: they have all embarked on their journeys. If they are eighteen or nineteen now, and they keep on writing, they will amass a deeper personality and they will learn more about the world, even though they may not have any answers to questions.
BLVR: So it comes back to art. In Them, Maureen urgently asks a character who has your name, “Why did you think that book about Madame Bovary was so important? All those books? Why did you tell us they were more important than life?”
JCO: Well, I probably saw that more as a paradox or as irony—that this character who is fictitious is reacting against the idea that art is profound. Maureen’s own life is based on mere survival, and I was thinking of people who are very poor, who are actually living without heat or lighting, and are huddling in shelters. If we talked about the beauty of Shakespeare’s plays, they would say, “Go away, we are just trying to survive.” There is something infuriating and upsetting in talk about art. On the other hand, if we didn’t have art, there would be nothing for these people when they did get there.