It is rare that a writer is an icon of modern American literature during his or her time. And it is perhaps even more rare that such a writer is both a revered academic and beloved bestseller. Yet Joyce Carol Oates is just that.
In person, Professor Oates has an ethereal presence, enhanced by her elegant motions and soft, precise manner of speaking. She can silence a room – from a creative writing class like her English 190v workshop here at Stanford to a large auditorium like CEMEX, where she gave a reading earlier this quarter – with a small cough. She is a cat-lover who Tweets (sometimes about her cats). Her blunt, dry humor is impressively unshakable, although perhaps expected in an author who explores the range of human experience, from the darkest to the most redemptive.
Professor Oates has an impressive resume of awards and recognitions, yet is unfailingly modest and even comes across as shy. She is incredibly prolific, a fact which no interviewer can help mentioning, yet is something she has insisted is unremarkable in many such articles.
Professor Oates has written over seventy works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, short stories, criticism, and essays. Readers may recognize titles such as “Where are you going, where have you been”, We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and them. Her most recent work is The Sacrifice, a novel released this year.
The Princeton Professor has received the National Medal of the Humanities (presented to her by President Obama), the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for her short stories, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.
The Stanford Arts Review was able to ask Professor Oates about everything from her art, to family members in her novels, to her experience on Twitter, to what she does when she is not writing – and much more.
Stanford Arts Review: What books have influenced you most? What is your favorite book?
Joyce Carol Oates: The single most influential book of my childhood is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Alice Through the Looking-Glass. The most influential single book of my adult life (as a writer) is probably James Joyce’s Ulysses….Though I have been influenced by myriad writers both American & European.
You write on range of subjects – as you have not had firsthand experience with everything you write about (being Marilyn Monroe, for instance) – how do you prepare these pieces? Do you research first, or write the story and then add in the details?
Most writers research before, during, & after they write. It is wise not to become overwhelmed by facts & paralyzed; better to establish a narrative momentum, & add or enhance material in subsequent drafts. It is very exciting to take up the challenge of giving life to someone who has actually lived & may have been underestimated or misunderstood during his/ her lifetime. I always felt in writing about Norma Jeane Baker / “Marilyn Monroe” that the actress was systematically undervalued during her lifetime & after her premature death woefully misappropriated & misunderstood. Blonde was a feminist redemptive work, though it is not a sentimental or unblemished picture of the difficult, self-punishing woman.
Do you let your family/friends read work that has characters based on, or inspired by, them? Has anyone ever noticed themselves in your work?
This is a complex situation. I did not ever put family members in my writing but I often write about recognizable settings, which my parents (who are no longer living) really enjoyed. As a young writer you must realize that people who know you will avidly look for themselves in your work– they will complain that they “don’t look like that, & didn’t do that”– while convinced that somehow you are writing about them. If it seems to be a problem you might want to consider writing under a pseudonym & keeping your identity a secret.
Do you ever re-read your works once they’ve been published?
Of course, often, for various reasons. But not thoroughly, & not as a matter of principle. Writing in medias res is the challenge– there is really not enough time for taking up old work.
I have read that you are a runner. Are you able to think productively about writing on your run?
Writing & walking swiftly are the very best, most productive times for any sort of creative planning. I try to envision a story or a chapter in visual form, as a kind of film — run & rerun it in my head — & when I return home, hurriedly “remember” it in prose. I often write in longhand, in notes, which I later transfer to the computer.
What work of yours would you recommend to our readers? Which do you feel most captures your writing style and personality?
That depends upon whether one would prefer a short novel (like Beasts) or a moderate-sized novel (Carthage); a complicated postmodernist quasi-historical novel (Blonde) or a monologue novella (Zombie). My recent story collection Lovely, Dark, Deep is quintessentially my “style”… My memoir A Widow’s Story is a particularly forthright work created from journal entries that were edited but not much revised.
There’s some anxiety at Stanford about studying the humanities – in part because many people worry about its importance, in part because there’s a notion that you’re choosing something you love over something more practical and marketable. You’ve clearly been quite successful, but what might you say to a freshman who is deciding whether to declare, for example, English?
This is entirely a matter of personal preference…Either profession is very crowded & competitive but one could go into the practical field first while continuing to work at a “creative” career — but not the other way around.
What advice do you have beginning artists — writers in particular?
All artists have to be familiar with what is happening in their fields– otherwise they will be discovering things that have already been known. Writers should read widely & with enjoyment. Moviemakers famously see many, many movies & become obsessed with movies often as teenagers– the same should be true for writers. But it sometimes happens that writers & poets do not read as widely as they should, which impacts upon the quality of their work negatively.
If you weren’t a writer/teacher, what career do you think you might have pursued? Or, how did you know that writing and teaching was the path for you?
Art history would appeal to me strongly. I have a powerful visual sense & very much enjoy painting, sculpture, photography…
What has your experience on Twitter been? Do you enjoy it? What do you think of “Twitter fiction”, such as Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box”?
I think it is a radical democratization of information, insight, & experience. Of course it can be frivolous, but your experience is what you make it; whom you follow determines what you derive from Twitter. It is a distilled sort of communication — instead of writing an essay, we can try to reduce what we have to say to a sequence of 140 characters. It is always possible to write several tweets if necessary.
Undergraduate creative writing workshops at Stanford focus on short stories, so not all creative writing majors have experience with writing longer works. Some may be intimidated by the idea of writing their first novel. How do you think about constructing a novel when you’re beginning a new one? Do you start with plot, characters, an idea of the ending?
A novel might grow naturally out of a long, complex short story involving a number of characters. A novel would not evolve out of nowhere. Definitely, characters generate plot/ story….In conceptual fiction, ideas & plot predominate.
I’ve read that you write in the morning for several hours and then sometimes resume in the afternoon. How did you find a creative process that works for you?
Most writers follow a similar schedule. It is really not so unusual! It’s important to be somewhere quiet where you will not be interrupted.
You seem to move so easily between art forms – poetry, prose, fiction, nonfiction, etc. Can you elaborate on this ability? Does your mindset need to change radically or can you work on a poem one day and a short story the next? Do you prefer one form?
Not really. All involve the use of language which is always challenging & exciting. I suppose that short stories are integral to my life.
How do you feel your style and understanding of your own writing developed over time?
I am more interested in the speech of others than in my own “narrative voice.” The richness of American speech is fascinating to me–different voices, different accents, personalities.
What do you like to do outside of writing?
My husband, who is a neuroscientist, & I like hiking, traveling, seeing films, meeting people…Also, I enjoy teaching very much, especially when writing students are original, imaginative, & ardently engaged in the workshop, like student-writers in [the English 190v workshop here at Stanford]. I have been impressed!
You’ve written about racial, class, sexual, and familial tensions, interpersonal relationships and national events. What themes in your work do you feel most compelled to return to? Why?
No one could ever come to the end of writing about the subjects you have listed. That is quite a catalogue!
Joyce Carol Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and the Winter 2015 Stein Visiting Writer here at Stanford. She teaches English 190v, a creative writing workshop.
Photograph by Charlie Gross.