Joyce Carol Oates Talking Books

Joyce Carol Oates

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attack -- shooting attack in the I am in New Jersey for this edition


of talking books. My guest is Joyce Carol Oates, a novelist and a


professor at nearby Princeton University. She is one of the most


prolific American writers. In her 50th year as a published writer,


she is continually drawn to examine how human beings cope with


explosive violence in their lives. Welcome to talking books. Thank you.


I want to ask about the longevity of your writing. You have been


writing for many years, you are in your 50th year as a published


writer. Does it excite you as it used to? Certainly. There is a


romance of writing, not knowing what you will be writing on a given


day. I am happiest when I am revising a manuscript that I have


finished. Because I both know what it is - I know the ending and so


forth - but also because I know how the sentences came about. Does it


worry you that there is less of an interest because the demands on any


given audience are that much greater? The demands on people's


time of greeter. People are less interested in sitting down with a


book. That might be... I am not really aware of an audience. I have


not thought about those things too much. Going back to when you first


started writing, tell me about new writing from a young age. Who was


it who encouraged you? Before I could write, I was drawing and


colouring in a little book. It is an intrinsic human desire to tell


stories, to draw and to have a kind of mimicry of the world. Children


do this without any sense of an audience. They just chatter away.


And if they have an audience, the audience does not understand them.


They are just being very creative in the most elemental sense. When I


was a child, I was doing these things. When I was older, I was


writing her and handing that into my teacher. It just evolved. I


never thought of myself as a writer, I was just someone who liked to do


this. I have read many times that it was your grandmother who


encouraged you in particular. father's mother was Jewish. We have


not known she was Jewish. She was a German Jew. And she had this


amazing and wonderful love of books and so she gave meet books for


every holiday, my birthday, Christmas. And so I had all these


books I would not ordinarily have had because we lived on a farm and


we had very little books. She definitely encouraged me. However,


she had no idea I would be a writer. Nobody in my family even graduated


from high school. There was no expectation that one would even be


anything. To survive was the battle line. You have mentioned the


process of writing and rewriting, and your eyes have lit up. You have


been known to Whitehall novels and threw them away. What is it about


the process of writing that you find so exciting? We all begin with


a vision that is incur hate and a formalised and we tried to


specialise it into something that is very specific. Pace-setting with


characters and so forth. It is the taking of a vision, which is


something that is abstract and interior and fashioning it into


something like a work of art, you could say - a plate, music, the


composition or a novel - that you can share with other people. And


that is very exciting to take something abstract and make it


specific. I find it exhilarating and it is a process that evokes a


lot of anxiety every day. Working on any work of art is a matter of


process. And the product comes at the end. We are all excited and


happy that the product is as good as we can make it but that isn't as


good as the exhilaration and almost the dread of daily writing. That is


what you become addicted to. Does it become obsessive? I don't know


if it is excessive -- obsessive and the more than dreaming. We all


think that we like to sleep. Most people fall asleep and have dreams.


Even when a dream is negative and disturbing, it is your dream,


something specific. And so the dreaming... I don't know if it is


obsessive necessarily. I find the fantasy aspect of writing very


engaging. When you tell his story, there are so many ways of telling


it. Literary ways, a way that is more vernacular or colloquial, a


way that involves a fast plot, another way that has a sense of


slimness and a rhythm... These are always that you shoes. And I find


that interesting. Your parents grew up in the Depression. What kind of


impact did that have one you? world I come from was never an


affluent world at all. People were not necessarily poorer, but it was


a relative situation. Everyone was more or less on the same level. By


today's standards, it would seem that we were the so-called walking


poor, but at the time, those terms did not exist. And as for the life


your parents had, when you look back on it and you think about what


their lives were like, how do you think on it looking back on it?


find that my parents and grandparents extremely interesting,


exemplary people with so much courage and inventiveness, so much


stamina and energy. They were very optimistic. I come from that rural


world where the family was important and work was important.


But affluence in a sense the did not matter and having a very fancy


car I really did not matter. I just don't come from that world. When


did the idea of We Were The Mulvaneys come from? This is a


novel that you are very well known for. It came out in the 1990s and


had a rebirth when it was featured in the Oprah Winfrey Book Club and


then it was made into a television series. It has had a long life in


different guises. This was a story about the perfect American family


in some ways. Where did that notion come from? We Were The Mulvaneys


was basically about a certain kind of family that was not my family.


We were the working poor, my mother did not work, she was a housewife


and a mother. We lived with my friend Terence on a small farm. We


Were The Mulvaneys is about a farm where the man who lives on the farm


is a businessman. He has made a lot of money, he is a billionaire. And


this farm is like an idyllic farm, like from a story book. He has all


sorts of animals but it is not a working farm that I come from. It


is a different kind of farm. We would call these people gentlemen


farmers. Mr Mulvaney was not really a gentleman... He really liked to


work with his hands and he really loved his animals. The novel comes


with the experience that I had... There was a time in my father's


life when he was getting older. Something like a king Lear Syndrome.


Where he was unhappy with his physical diminishment. And he no


longer had quite the last of all the personality that he had for his


children and I felt such a keen sense of loss. Later on, he became


more of himself again but I felt what it would be like to lose my


father and so I wrote the novel We Were The Mulvaneys, which is


essentially about a father who rejects his daughter, and as it


turns out, it was not a reasonable fear of mind. I suppose I was just


hypersensitive. The reason for the rejection is that the girl is raped


and there is a shame involved in that at that time, which is the


1970s, and that is what she's the family and completely implodes the


family. -- ruptures the family. You have spoken about this as having a


breathless quality. Lots of this was about remembering rather than


inventing and imagining. Explain that, if you could? I want to


create a sense of walking or of running. Instead of imagining that


a movie in my head, I might be lying awake in bed at night, I am


working on a story. A story that is evolving. And then when I come back


from a walk or riding my bicycle, I quickly take notes and I go and


write it. So it has a breathless quality of remembering because I


have to remember quickly because I might forget. The portrayal of the


family as the quintessential successful American family in a


small town is very interesting because it is contrasted with the


demise of that family, the dysfunction and the failure of it -


- of it. I wonder what drew you to fight about the American dream of


success and its delusion? I wanted to create an actual family that was


very happy, full of wonderful and good people, and that is not so


easy to do because to write about good people and genuine Christian


people who really are Christians, it is actually very hard to do that.


To depict people who live according to their ideals, who are not


hypocrites, and who really love one another... I set them on and I


learnt -- I'd really sort of set them on an island and there were


these inclusions from the outside world, drug-taking, the


consequences and the aftermath of the Vietnam War, many of these


things started to erode American society. The family are like


America. I wanted them to seem really healthy and good and full of


love but very vulnerable for different reasons. And the girl, so


naive, such a good girl. She was based on girls I knew in high


school. She went bring charges against her rapist because she does


not want to feel like a victim, she would prefer to forgive, and her


father gets very angry with her. Because to bring charges against a


rapist especially in a small town is a very big Act. More than 50% of


women who were raped do not report it, they don't even talk about it.


But many feel you should bring charges as part of your duty as a


citizen. The novel examines the ethical obligations that you have.


All feminists would say that you must bring charges but not all


women are feminists and not all people want to cause more trouble.


They will say, well, I was punished, and made a mistake, I will not


continue. And because of that, the father got angry. Many of your


books deal with events as a social and political backdrop. Black Water


Ricoh refers to the incident with Ted Kennedy. The riots in Detroit,


Vietnam War, the assassination of JFK... Is there an impulse he knew


that you feel you need to write about America's history in your


fiction? America has a vast history and not all of it is all that are


relevant. There are things that happen in every country and all


around the world that are emblematic. Of the 19,000 things


that happen every year, they might be one that is allegorical or


symbolic. The situation when Ted Kennedy left to this young girl,


swam away, went to his lawyer and let her down, that was emblematic


of how innocence and naivety are exploited by political leaders.


Political leaders are in some way always exploiting their


constituents. Also, it had a reference to the uses of power vis-


a-vis the power. I was not writing about Ted Kennedy. I never write


about him. There is no mention of Kennedy in the novel. People are


the wrong ages, it is different. But I wanted to write about that


situation. Then I have a novel about Marilyn Monroe and it is


called Blonde. Taking the idea of the blondeness as a package, a


consumer item. The girl Norma Jean Baker is the actual living person


but the blonde creation is Marilyn Monroe. And so I am writing about


the disparity between the girl and the consumer product and how they


If the backdrop is the contentious involvement of America in Iraq. Do


you think writing about this a historical, political, social


issues of making a political brighter? Everyone is political in


some way. Sometimes you are by resolutely pretending they arrive


no politics which is a conservative position. I want to write about


those moments in history, as a warm and, with such a sense of crisis.


In Princeton, we could not believe we were going to go through the


Iraqi war after the catastrophe of Vietnam. All the intellectuals were


sang, it could not happen again. Could it? No, it could not happen


again because we remember Vietnam. But it turns out it did happen


again because of the extraordinary power that advertising, and using


television, using the media to persuade people who should have


known better to brainwash people. Today, many Americans think we went


to war with Iraq because they caused 9/11. The Bush


administration was deliberately misleading the media. The media


then misled a lot of people. A one to ask you about the gothic quality


of the violence you betray. One of your reviews in 1971 said that you


like to splash but all eyes are ours. Would you say that about


Shakespeare? He likes to splash blood. I think there is a stupid


remark., Surrey. Tell us about the quality of the violence you betray


and the tradition of Gothic novels in American literature? I am not


necessarily writing Gothic novels. His Moby Dick and Gothic novel? It


is saying idiosyncratic novel. Someone can pull a stamp on it and


say it is a gothic novel but that grave


grave diggers and daughter - To due feel you could only right that


after an amount of time had passed for is something you learnt about


and then sort this is a rich area I cannot write about? I learnt my


grandmother had been a German Jew and her father had tried to kill


her and tried to kill her mother and the killed himself with a


shotgun. He was a grave digger. It was basically a horrible story that


I learnt when I was much older, when I was not a child. I was 50


years old when I heard about this. I just thought about my grandmother


and she never had anyone in her life with whom she shared anything.


They were Jews who were not Jews, they did not want any connection


with other Jews. I think they were exhausted or terrified by the


phenomenon of been Jewish and having survived Europe. They wanted


to begin again. In a tragic way, in upstate New York, they were


isolated, there were no Jews, as far as I can figure out, the father


just kind of disintegrated. He was these grave digger. But my


grandmother's life to me seemed like she was a wonderful person.


She was a quintessential mother and grandmother. She loved you and you


loved her. She did everything for her children and grandchildren.


Later on, I realised that she had no life of her reign. She was


always for other people so I wanted to write a novel commemorating that


kind of person. It is not literally about my grandmother it is about


the idea of this sort of person who had to invent herself as a


different personality. She even cuts her hair and dyes her hair a


little bit and makes herself into the very pretty American girl to be


of service and make other people happy. I think she always felt that


if she could not be happy herself, she could make other people happy.


A widow's story, and memoir about the dramatic turn in your life when


you first husband died quite suddenly. Was it difficult to make


the decision to publish what were essentially the journal entries you


had written in the immediate aftermath of Los -- loss and raw


grief? That do not publish the journal immediately. Some time when


my. By that time -- some time went by. By then I had transformed it


some of it by structuring. Most of my work is a way of remembering and


commemorating something for a person, usually, or a place,


something like that. In these plans are wanted to commemorate the


marriage and my husband who was gone. The memoir was a way of


preserving that. I also discovered what friendship meant to a widow


and perhaps which are also. It is extraordina extraordinartant is the


bereft. I just felt that was quite a discovery. I was wandering how


many other many other t know that. So I wrote about that.


There was some minor controversy in the aftermath in the New York


Review of Books with Julian Barnes reviewing the book. It was not make


clear in the book you had remarried. Was that the difficult thing for


you to confront. You responded to the


three months after you lose a day you are stumbling. I was not


writing a m writing a memoir in the sense of an


autobiography about a whole period of two or three years. A wanted to


write a brawl book about those early days, weeks and may be about


three months. Two or three years later I am married, I live in a


different house, I publish this book, that is not part of that


experience. I personally do not think I would be alive in a year or


so. It did not see how I could continue to leave. Life seemed a


someone extremely close you quite quickly, it seems life is like


these, you really think it is bizarre to wake up in the morning


and thank you are still here. I do not have the sense of any longevity.


I thought it was really... Many people thought it was mean-spirited


and vicious of these people to feel that I should have stayed on that


level or that if one has a loss you should stay on that level, you


should never get over being a grief-stricken person, so too with


somebody who had cancer, and you say you got over the cancer, I do


not feel sorry for you? Up believe me, going through the experience of


going through cancer and chemotherapy is no picnic. That


fight is later you do not have cancer, does not negate the


experience. People should now about the hellish experiences and if you


do come out of it... Having come out of it, how has informed, if it


has, your life as a writer differently? It is more OP about my


own life. It is very perilous and precarious. After my first husband


died, for a long time, and maybe even now, I just think that life is


just so absurd. It seems like it has some so it -- ASA and coherence


and permanence but people find that out some leak and they're very


surprised. I do not think I can be surprised in the same way again. It


will be a confirmation that life is not what you think it is. It is not


orderly and coherent, somebody comes along and tears the fabric,


the wall down, these giant hands comedown and a cold eternity comes


rushing into the room. That is the experience people have and I


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