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Interview by Joyce Carol Oates with students at Bellarmine College
SOURCE: "An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates," compiled by David Y. Todd, in Gettysburg: The Gettysburg Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 291-99.
In the following interview, compiled from various question-and-answer sessions during the fall of 1990 while Oates visited at Bellarmine College, Oates addresses influences, her writing habits, the recurrence of violence in her work, and her personal literary philosophy.
Joyce Carol Oates was born in Lockport, New York, in 1938. She earned a B.A. from Syracuse University and an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin. Since 1978 she has taught at Princeton University and, with her husband, Raymond Smith, she runs the Ontario Review Press. Oates has published more than forty books of fiction, poetry, criticism, plays, and essays, and her novel them won the National Book Award in 1970. Recent works include a long essay, On Boxing (1988), the novels You Must Remember This (1987), American Appetites (1989), Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990), and Black Water (1992), and short fiction collections The Assignation (1988) and Heat and Other Stories (1991). In a review of her novel Bellefleur (1980), John Gardner wrote: "Oates's vision is huge, well-informed and sound…. By one two-page thunderstorm she makes the rest of us novelists wonder why we left the farm." In the fall of 1990, Oates visited Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky, where she read from her poetry, answered questions from the audience, and later met with a small group of students and teachers at the college library. This interview was compiled from those question-and-answer sessions and from a later conversation near the end of Oates's visit to Louisville.
[Interviewer:] You began publishing fiction in college, before you went to graduate school. In those early years, were there certain authors you admired or thought of as teachers?
[Oates:] Thomas Mann was one. I studied him in my early twenties. He seems not much read today, but I've gone back and reread Doctor Faustus and certain of the shorter works, which I like very much.
What about Chekhov, Faulkner?
Certainly I read them, and Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dostoevski, the Brontës, and many others in high school. I've always tried to read widely.
Any recurring favorites?
I often mention Thoreau. I frequently teach him, and recently I did the introduction to the Princeton University Press edition of Walden.
Do you ever go back and reread you own novels or stories?
Your novel Wonderland, first published in 1971, was republished in 1973, with a different ending. Why? Do you often want to change something after it has been published?
No. It must have been the case that I hadn't exorcised certain unconscious issues in the first version of Wonderland. The writing of any intensely felt work, especially one so lengthy as a novel, is very much a matter of emotions only dimly comprehended, let alone controlled. I felt a strong need to rewrite the ending, which I did, about a year after the original writing; after that, it was laid to rest. But the question is a provocative one: should one rewrite, after publication? Should one revise one's earlier self? We know that writers as varied as Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, Auden, Yeats revised earlier work, but not always fruitfully.
My characters have a way of living on in my own mind, though of course I should be realistic and acknowledge that they are fictional constructs, imaginary. Still, I sometimes get a second chance to inhabit them, for instance in writing a screenplay for a novel. (I've recently done the screenplay for Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, which is scheduled to be directed by Lawrence Schiller.)
What did you think of the movie that was made from your story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?"
Smooth Talk was based on the story but it also was expanded. I was invited to write the screenplay, but I was doing a novel, and so a very gifted screenwriter named Tom Cole did the script. It contains the same story but is basically different. Much of the emotion of the movie had to do with the mother's relationship with her daughter, and my story has virtually nothing of that. I thought the film was extremely well done, under Joyce Chopra's direction. Laura Dern was brilliant. Movies and books are autonomous; the movie is its own artwork, and the book or short story is its own. I don't think a book can, or should, be faithfully treated in a movie; I don't think you should criticize a film for not being a book.
The very short stories in The Assignation are intriguing: some of them seem to end so abruptly. How did you conceive that collection?
I've written many conventional short stories and wanted to experiment with structure. I call these miniature narratives—quicksilver movements of plot without psychological development. Character development interests me, of course, elsewhere.
There is a broad range of voices in the collection. For example, in "Fin de Siecle" you have a drug dealer telling how he and his cronies go to the home of an old rich doctor and murder him.
I'm not sure where that came from! I was in Los Angeles when I wrote that story. I seemed to pick up a throb and beat in the air, a sort of L.A. voice…. It's playful, and lethal.
When you start to write a scene, do you know whether it is going to end up as a story or a novel?
I start with intense emotion. I evoke form to contain it. The memory or emotion is like a little seed. If the work is a novel, I put maps or charts on the wall to aid me in writing it. I need to get the emotion out of myself into another form. I rewrite constantly; I have to keep working with the emotion until it becomes formally disciplined, in a way "history." And I can't write a novel unless I know the precise ending: where the people are, what they are saying, the literal words. I aim for that, always have it in mind. So the sentences of a work are meditations upon this ending.
Which is not to say that this is the only way to write; there are at least two basic ways. James Joyce was very schematic, intellectual, always knew exactly what he was doing, where he was going. D. H. Lawrence, a writer of equal genius, wrote spontaneously. In a letter to a friend he once said, "I'm on page 250 of a novel [Women in Love] and I don't know what it's about." When he finished a novel, he would sometimes start again and rewrite the whole thing.
But I always have a sense of what I am going to do. I never start writing until I've thought it through completely. It is as though there is this great, imaginative pool in which we all are living, as if all of us are part of this pool of consciousness we share because we're human beings. Some people dip into it and write a poem or play, or paint canvases. It's something we share. To me it is all the same consciousness or imagination, and the forms vary.
Do you go through stages when you write only poetry or only fiction, or do you shift around? And when you do finish a longer piece—say a play or a novel—how do you deal with that sense of loss, walking away from those characters?
I can only do one thing at a time. When I work on a novel, all my effort goes to that. It is as though my heart were beating its blood into it.
I have especially enjoyed the series of long novels you started with Bellefleur, particularly A Bloodsmoor Romance, and each time you publish a new novel, I wonder if it is going to be the next one in that group. Do you plan to write any more of those?
I tend to oscillate between periods of realism and periods of surrealism. I had become interested in history going back to the 1950s and moving up, and did a good deal of research for You Must Remember This. I became deeply involved in the McCarthy era and its power in the popular culture. At the time, I had been too young to know what was going on, but I came to see parallels between the 1950s and the 1980s, having to do with race relations and other issues. Bellefleur goes back before the "United States" existed, the French colonial period. Then with Mysteries of Winterthurn, I got as far as the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. The next novel ends with the election of Franklin Roosevelt.
Where do you find this wealth of people to write about?
I suppose most writers are simply very attentive to the world. Certainly I find people mysterious; the phenomenon of human personality.
It seems that violence occurs frequently in your fiction. Do you think it is so common a part of human existence?
Obviously! However, I tend to write about the consequences of violence. Often I focus on victims of it, women and children. It's not that I am writing about violence in itself. I write about the effects of violent events on real human beings and families. Naturally, since I am an American writer, I write about things that happen in America.
Well, at the end of the title story of The Assignation, for example, your third-person narrator suddenly uses the pronoun "I" to indicate, perhaps, that he is someone outside watching a woman go through her solitary actions. It is terrifying: we don't know what's going to happen to her.
In retrospect, perhaps one concludes that this man has invented the story. He might be imagining her going through these things, but while you read it you think she is in control, in her room, changing clothes, doing the little things we all do when we think we are unobserved. Then at the end you realize somebody is watching. Perhaps something will happen to her. As, perhaps, someday, to us.
Did you know, the whole time you were writing the story, that you were writing it from that man's perspective?
Certainly. Also, I am always rewriting.
Is that a hard process for you?
Like crawling over broken glass. It is tormenting, but worth it, as training is for an athlete. I spend a lot of time revising, a process that mesmerizes me.
You had two short plays, Tone Clusters and The Eclipse, under the title In Darkest America, premiere together at Actor's Theatre of Louisville in 1990. You spoke rather joyously then of the process of having the editor there hack away at your work, spoke gratefully of his contribution. Are you similarly disposed toward the editors publishing your fiction?
The two are completely different. A novel is sheerly language. I have been writing fiction for so long that I think I know how to edit it. But theater is another sphere, visual and three-dimensional, with a director, actors, set design. For me it is a collaborative enterprise. I've worked with Martin Scorsese, and, with plays, people ask me, "Aren't you upset to give up control over your writing?" A naive question—if I wanted to keep control, I wouldn't have anything to do with films or theater. The idea is to give up one's autonomy and work with others.
And it is exciting. When I worked with Actor's Theatre, I started with a script perhaps forty-five pages long. The assistant artistic director Michael Dixon is totally professional; has done this many times: it was his task to tighten my play, to make it as dramatic as possible. (This was my strategy, too, for The Assignation—write stories as tightly as possible without surrendering vital information.) When I was working with him, Michael would call me up, and we would frequently have conferences of maybe an hour. He might say, "Now, on page fourteen, we can cut that speech because it's repeated, in a sense, on page eighteen."
When you write something like a long description of a room, do you ever worry that it might not be necessary to the plot, or to the theme or characters?
If you took the descriptions that are so lyrical and beautifully written out of Dickens, or out of Moby Dick, or out of Dostoevski, you might tighten the prose, but you would lose so much. I admire the descriptive voice, and I read many writers—Henry James, John Updike, and others—for what we call "voice." Updike's novel Rabbit at Rest, for instance, has many "digressive" passages that do not move the plot forward; they represent John Updike looking at and describing the world. Some people have complained they are slow, but in many ways I like those the best, more than the plot, which somebody else might say is more important.
Do you still feel, as you have written elsewhere, that the novelist's obligation is to attempt "the sanctification of the world?"
Probably I was speaking idealistically. That is a high motive. I think you find it in some of the very best writers, certainly in the best poetry. Walt Whitman was sanctifying the world. And I think of Mark Twain's line: "persons attempting to find a moral in [this narrative] will be banished." But there is a moral in Huckleberry Finn. He was a very moral writer, but there is a kind of modesty in people like Twain. They don't want to sound like the Moral Majority or fundamentalist Christians or something. But I just love to describe things. Really, I love to look at nature and urban scenes and describe them. If they are "ugly" things, that so-called ugliness can be interesting.
I am sure your husband supports your work, but does he also serve as a first critic? Do you involve him in your writing?
No. I learned not long ago from Elmore Leonard, an old friend of mine, that his wife reads everything he writes as he writes it. If he has ten pages, she reads them. She is the first and, to him, the most important critic. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, who have been married a long time, read each other's work. But I have never had that relationship with anybody. I don't have that temperament. I feel I must do it myself. I get impatient if people tell me something is good, when I know I can make it better. You have to be careful taking advice from people who like you: they want you to be happy. They also want you to like them, and that is dangerous because they probably won't tell the truth. More importantly, they probably don't know enough. I have the sense that I am alone as a writer. I have to be accountable to my own work and its integrity.
Does your teaching at Princeton affect how you write?
My work as a teacher does not have any influence on my writing. The two activities are completely different. And I am not influenced by my students, though I have been influenced in subject matter by things that have happened at Princeton. Generally, the imaginative fuel, the power or adrenaline that you need to write, comes from some other, deeper source. It isn't usually social or professional. It is hard for me to be influenced by the stories I hear. People will tell me an anecdote and say, "There's a novel for you." That is like showing you a picture of someone and saying, "Fall in love." You can't fall in love looking at a picture! It has to be something so deep and powerful, inchoate, intangible. So those two parts of my life are unrelated but compensatory. My writing is lonely, intensive, and frustrating: I live constantly with failure; I feel I am failing, that there is an abyss between the inner vision and the actual work I am doing every day. When I am done with a novel, I feel I have raised it up to a level of integrity. But when I am working through the days and hours, it is mainly in terms of failure. Nothing is ever good enough, so I have to do it over. And over.
But when I leave that behind, leave my house and drive to the university, things become normal and positive. I love teaching, and I like my colleagues at Princeton. I think I would be very lonely and unhappy if I had my writing exclusively—it is like drawing a rake through your brain!
Some writers say they work at a set time every day. Do you regiment yourself in that way?
Not really. Mornings, and nights. As late as possible, when it's quiet.
What sort of effect does your reading have on your writing? Do you ever worry about other voices coming in?
No, it's hard to be influenced. I assign my students exercises occasionally—write a paragraph in the style of Faulkner or Hemingway. They learn it is really not so easy. You can write parody, but to do it so you have really absorbed the rhythms is hard. Certain writers are inimitable—Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Melville. Any poet who gets drawn into Thomas's orbit never returns. Sylvia Plath was influenced by Dickinson to some extent, but she was strong enough to avoid disaster. Faulkner has had an invidious effect on many writers. What you learn from reading is a magnanimity of spirit and some sense of the disparity of voices. Women who read books by other women learn there are subjects they can write about well, which some generations ago they may have felt belonged only to men. It is more the sense that they can do it, rather than anything on a verbal level.
I read fairly constantly. I am doing a project for Oxford University Press, the Oxford Book of American Short Stories, which begins with Washington Irving. So I am doing a lot of rereading and new reading in classic American short stories. I started with "Rip Van Winkle," and recently I have been discovering a writer named William Austin. He was just as famous as Irving in his time, but I had never heard of him.
Do you ever think about the Nobel Prize? Time magazine has referred to you as the perennial American candidate. What do you think when you hear that?
One night about eight years ago, the telephone rang at eleven o'clock. It was a woman from the Philadelphia Inquirer and she said, "Joyce Carol Oates, you're going to win the Nobel Prize! It just came in on the wire." I said, skeptically, "Oh, really." She said, "It's you, or Doris Lessing has been mentioned too, but it's going to be a woman." She wanted an interview, as if this was a real scoop. I said, "Why don't we wait?" The next day, Milosz won, and I was supposedly a runner-up. How hard to take such rumors seriously!
Looking at another side of recognition or awards, do you have any hopes for the effect your work might have? For example, them won the National Book Award. Are you ever consciously trying to drive some social issue more into popular consciousness?
Yes, I think so. I really wrote them to understand what had happened in Detroit, the Detroit riots. I was teaching there and had been looking at some of the root causes of this malaise, and at violence. I wanted to look around and talk to people. It's partly that the writer wants to learn, and partly that the writer hopes to illuminate some individual hearts. I don't have a great hope as, say, Harriet Beecher Stowe did, that she could change millions of lives. I think most writers just want to touch individual people.
Do you have a system for picking your titles? Hemingway said he listed possible titles for A Farewell to Arms and then eliminated them.
I have never done anything that methodical. My method is more intuitive, or a sudden illumination. I cannot let the work go until I get the right title, though. Sometimes the title has come long before I started the work. Sometimes it comes when I am in the middle. Sometimes after. I suppose I do have literary allusions. I had wanted to use Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart because it is a line from a Stephen Crane poem that I was very struck by as an undergraduate. That was decades ago, and I always thought I would use it in some way, but I never had the novel before that would be quite appropriate for it.
Do the critics ever help you in your writing?
By the time criticism appears, the book has already been done for a couple of years, usually, so it cannot help with that book. I was very moved, to the point of tears, by some of the response of blacks to Because It Is Bitter, which has many black characters in it. I had thought they might feel I was trespassing on their territory because I wrote about black families from within. But the response was very warm. I felt that was very generous, beyond criticism. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote a long essay review on the novel for The Nation.
Graham Greene once talked about a "ruling passion, that gives to a shelf of novels the unity of a system." Do you feel there is a recurrent theme in your work?
Probably my general theme is the subject of power in society, how power is an issue in politics, let's say. It seems that is what I'm writing about a good deal of the time, though I am not that conscious of it, because I am mainly writing about men and women and young people as I get caught up in the stories of families. But when I stand back, I realize I am probably writing about the struggle of various groups for political power and for defining themselves. I do have a lot of stories and novels that end with young people dissociating themselves from the past and achieving some kind of liberation: for instance, going away to college, leaving home. If the past has been somewhat negative, then they define a new future for themselves. That is a theme I have noticed in my work, because I did that myself. I left my hometown, a very small place where the opportunities were narrow, especially for women. When I left for college and went to graduate school and so forth, it seemed like an archetypal trajectory that men and women were going through in my generation. Men had always been doing it, then women were starting to.
Some critics have commented on a darkness in your fiction. But I do not think you paint a grim picture of the world.
No, I don't think so. As I say, I have novels that end with the liberation of a young person. You Must Remember This concludes with a young girl going away to college. Bellefleur ends with young people leaving their homes, which were very confining. I do not think my work is grim. It is more of a real picture, grim for some people, triumphant for others. The drama of our lives.
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