The author of hundreds of short stories and over 80 novels and essay and poetry collections, Joyce Carol Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Born in Lockport, New York in 1938, Oates received her B.A. from Syracuse University in 1960 and her M.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1961. She taught English at the University of Detroit in the 1960s, during which time she lived amidst turbulent race relations in “Murder City, U.S.A.” Upon leaving Detroit in 1967, Oates taught at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada until 1978. Before the passing of her first husband Raymond Smith, she worked as the associate editor of the literary magazine Ontario Review, which she co-founded with her husband in 1974.
Oates is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the PEN/Malamud Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Short Story, the Common Wealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature, the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, the O. Henry Prize for Continued Achievement in the Short Story, and the National Book Award. Her novel What I Lived For was a Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, Blonde (based on the life of Marilyn Monroe) was a National Book Award Finalist and also a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and The Gravedigger’s Daughter was a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist. Oates was recently honored with the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Her most recent works include the novel Little Bird of Heaven, Dear Husband (an omnibus of 14 stories), and In Rough Country (a compilation of essays and literary criticism). Sourland, a collection of stories, will be published later this year.
A few months ago, you finished writing A Widow’s Memoir, an account of the death of your first husband, Raymond Smith. Can you comment on the process of writing it?
It isn’t a time I remember very clearly now. I had difficulty sleeping and would often write late at night, on sheets of paper folded lengthwise, which can fit neatly into a book which I might be reading, or trying to read. My normal concentration was shattered and so I “took notes” in the hope that some time in the future I could bring these fragmented passages into some sort of coherent whole. The effort seemed enormous at the time—like hauling myself up by hand, pulling on a thick rope.
I expect that reviewers will compare your memoir with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.
Joan’s memoir is very like her non-fiction work—poised, rather cool, dispassionate, analytical.
You have called yourself the ideal reader of John Updike and John Cheever. How do you envisage the ideal reader of your own novels?
I don’t envision any “ideal readers”—or any readers at all, I suppose. My imagination doesn’t work in that way. My concentration is turned inward, upon the work itself—beyond its perimeters, I can’t speculate.
Do you read works by other writers more than once? Is there any particular work that you regularly return to?
I’ve read the poems of Emily Dickinson numerous times—they are always mysterious and new. I have read short fiction by Chekhov, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence many times, as well as the great modernist novels of the 20th century.
What is your favourite work or author to teach to your students?
I don’t have any single “favourite” work, but students do respond well to the early work of Hemingway.
When you taught at the University of Windsor, you enjoyed a degree of anonymity. Do you miss teaching there for that or for any other reason?
I’ve enjoyed teaching—my students and my colleagues—at each university at which I’ve taught. My Princeton students have been my most impressively prepared students, but I’ve always had outstanding students at other universities. I didn’t have any more or less “anonymity” at Windsor than at Princeton, in fact.
You encountered tales of H.P. Lovecraft in your early teens and his writing made a lasting impression on you. Can you discuss your affinity for the gothic genre?
Lovecraft was impressive to me when I was quite young—14, 15. I would not say that Lovecraft had any significant influence upon my writing. “Gothic” is a term that, to me, is somewhat synonymous with “surreal”—”dreamlike”. I’m not interested in the “real” monsters of gothic literature, or the bizarre cosmology of Lovecraft’s Ancient Old Ones. It’s really the psychological drama in which I’m interested.
Do you do equal amounts of reading and writing each day? How often do you devote an entire day to just one of those activities?
Reading is ideal for the evening. My husband Charlie Gross is a great reader also, and we often read and discuss the same works.
How important is it to read or write literary criticism?
How important? I’m not sure that it is “important” for everyone—I can’t imagine Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, or James Joyce taking time to write criticism. I love to read serious criticism and to write it as well—there is nothing so pleasurable as analysing a work of fiction which one has admired. (I am not so keen about writing negative reviews, and try to avoid this whenever I can.)
In Wild Nights!, you create vivid stories about Emily Dickinson, Henry James, Poe, Twain, and Hemingway. How did you decide which writers to write about?
I had been invited by James Atlas to write “short lives” biographies of both Emily Dickinson and Ernest Hemingway, but I very much preferred the form of fiction, of course! It’s my aim to evoke the experience of being rather than take the reader through the more familiar experiences of reading about.
What gave you the idea of an Emily Dickinson RepliLuxe?
What gives anyone an “idea”? The appropriation of a great artist or poet by the bourgeoisie—in somewhat attenuated form—is obviously part of our lives; it has its ironic aspect, but its poignancy as well. The husband has not a clue what “Emily Dickinson” is about—her poetry, her soul. The wife does have a clue. (Yes, this is a playful feminist parable.)
The mysterious life of Emily Dickinson has attracted a multiplicity of writers, from Susan Glaspell to Jerome Charyn, whose novel, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, you recently reviewed for The New York Review of Books. What do you find most appealing about Dickinson and her poems?
Dickinson is a profound artist. She and Walt Whitman are our great 19th-century poets. One can read her poetry endlessly, always with surprise and admiration.
In your Journal: 1973-1982, you praised Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf, and contemplated writing a biography yourself. Who would make a good subject for such a book?
I would never write a biography; I would be impatient with the constraints of “reality” as well as the formal aspects of gathering historical fact in great, great detail.
You were influenced by Thoreau when you were young, and you enjoy outdoor activities like walking, gardening, hiking, and cycling. What have you learned from nature?
Everything. There is nothing in our brains that is not “from nature” in some way. I was born and raised on a small farm in upstate New York…
You have written many naturalistic and romantic novels. To what extent is your writing influenced by Greek tragedy? (I’m thinking of your lyrical Little Bird of Heaven, which is set in Sparta, New York and deals with the brutal murder of singer Zoe Kruller.)
My earliest reading as a “serious reader”—between the ages of 18 and 20—were of the Greek tragedies. As an undergraduate I took a number of courses in classics—in translation—and so I was imbued from this relatively early age with a sense of the ritual underpinnings of the elemental experiences of our “ordinary” lives. Virtually all of my novels depict crimes—from a perspective of the tragic rites of sacrifice, redemption, and the passing of the old order—that is, an older generation—to the new order—the younger generation. It’s somewhat unusual that a novel of mine, like Blonde, is purely tragic, without any apparent hope of redemption.
Rhoda Feng is a freshman at Stony Brook University in New York.