An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates

Kate Folk

On April 28th, 2011, Joyce Carol Oates visited the University of San Francisco for a public conversation with KQED’s Michael Krasny. Oates and Krasny have been frequent “sparring partners,” as Krasny put it, referencing both their long history of interviews and Oates’s classic 1987 essay collection, On Boxing. Joyce Carol Oates had come primarily to discuss her most recent book, A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, which she wrote after the sudden, unexpected death of her husband of 48 years, Raymond Smith.
    Oates’s visit to USF was also a culmination of the efforts of one particularly devoted fan, Randy Souther, a reference librarian at USF’s Gleeson Library. Souther started a Joyce Carol Oates fan page more than fifteen years ago, and the site, titled Celestial Timepiece, has become the de facto internet hub for all things Joyce Carol Oates. On April 28th, Souther introduced the writer to the capacity audience at USF’s Xavier Auditorium, cleverly deconstructing the “broad, stereotypical” view of Oates (invariably centered upon her prolificacy). Souther compared it to Oates’s own introduction of Stephen King to a Princeton audience in 1997, saying, “[Joyce Carol Oates] noted that it’s commonly said that certain people need no introductions. But that, on the contrary, it’s precisely those whom we imagine we know, in broad stereotypical terms, who require introductions. And that, I think, is the case here.” With a figure of Joyce Carol Oates’s stature, it seems there is nothing new to be said.
    We here at Switchback were understandably nervous when contacting the author for an interview. She replied promptly, agreeing to an email interview with the request that she be asked “interesting and original questions--I am asked the same questions repeatedly, and I have the idea that no one reads the answers since the questions just keep being repeated.” We took our best shot.

Switchback: Most, if not all, serious writers are serious readers as well. When teaching yourself how to write novels (by writing them), how would you balance regimens of reading and writing? Do you need to get a certain amount of writing done each day before you can give yourself over to an activity like reading?
Joyce Carol Oates: It's natural to read--widely, voraciously--as a young writer. Just read whatever interests you, and try to read numerous books by the same author to see his/her development. Usually, I write through the day intermittently and read in the evening.

SB: You have written mystery novels under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith. Did you ever toy with the idea of writing under a male pseudonym, and how (if at all) do you think your work would be received differently if it were presumed to have been written by a man?
JCO: Yes, I think that many of my novels that are not really "about" women--like Expensive People, Them, Wonderland, A Garden of Earthly Delights, What I Lived For, Middle Age: A Romance, among others--would have been received differently if an ambiguous author's name had made it possible to think that the author was male. I never seriously considered a male pseudonym, however, because, as a teacher, I would naturally be associated with my work; I could not hide away as a recluse.

SB: You've asserted how landscapes and cityscapes are extremely important in your writing, and that they can function as characters unto themselves. Do you think that all writers are "regional" writers in some sense, or, how long do you need to spend in a particular place in order to render it in a way that feels true and "complete"?
JCO: Virtually all writers are "regionalists" in some way. Novelists like James Joyce, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, Mark Twain, even Hemingway (in his upstate Michigan stories that are so wonderfully evocative of a landscape); poets like Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost; short story writers like Eudora Welty, Frank O'Connor, Edna O'Brien, Flannery O'Connor. One would not need to have been born in a milieu to feel strongly about it. For some of us, writing about a landscape or a cityscape, evoking place, is part of the great pleasure of writing, as of reading.

SB: Flannery O'Connor wrote, "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” I know that you were writing novels at a remarkably young age; to what extent do you think "life experience" is necessary (if at all) in the creation of narratives that resonate with people of diverse backgrounds and ages?
JCO: I'm not sure how to answer this...No one is without childhood memories; it's the employment of these memories and the acquisition of a style that makes for memorable fiction. O'Connor was a highly conservative Roman Catholic, a "misfit" sort of girl who observed life drolly from the sidelines, in a readily satirized rural Georgia. That, and not the fact that she had a childhood, accounted for her writing success.

SB: As a teacher, do you especially dislike (or think may do more harm than good to apprentice writers) any particular "writing cliche" such as, "show don't tell" or "write what you know”?
JCO: We tend to focus on texts, as editors; I don't lecture or speak dogmatically about any general principles of writing. In my workshops at Princeton, we pretend that we are editors at a first-rate magazine like The New Yorker--each of us must provide editing advice, all of it constructive, for the story that is being discussed that day. The workshops are lively and friendly--the writers know that nothing devastating will be said about their writing, or about them. Thanks for these very interesting questions which are indeed original and provocative.

For further reading, we recommend this extended 1997 interview with Oates, from the website of the Academy of Achievement; and of course, Celestial Timepiece, which remains the preeminent Joyce Carol Oates homepage.