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If you like Joyce Carol Oates's story, you might also like:
Joan Didion,
Rita Dove,
Louise Glück,
Nadine Gordimer,
Khaled Hosseini,
Norman Mailer,
Frank McCourt,
W.S. Merwin,
James Michener,
Carol Shields,
John Updike
and Gore Vidal

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Joyce Carol Oates in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Novel

Joyce Carol Oates's recommended reading: Walden and Civil Disobedience

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Joyce Carol Oates
 
Joyce Carol Oates
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Joyce Carol Oates Interview

National Book Award

May 20, 1997
Baltimore, Maryland

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  Joyce Carol Oates

When was it that you first realized what you wanted to do?

Joyce Carol Oates Interview Photo
Joyce Carol Oates: I began writing when I was very young. Even before I could write, I was emulating adult handwriting. So I began writing, in a sense, before I was able to write. But I didn't think about being a writer. I think, like many children, I was just exploring different kinds of creativity, drawing and painting. I was making up little songs and singing and so forth. Writing happened to be something that I stayed with.

Did adults notice that you had this proclivity?

Joyce Carol Oates: Yes, I think they did. I was always encouraged. We were living on a small farm in upstate New York, and it wasn't really an environment that was particularly receptive to children being creative. I went to a one-room schoolhouse. So I more or less just found my own way. But the adults in my family were very supportive and very warm.

What impact do you think your family and early environment had on your work?


Joyce Carol Oates: I've always been so interested in personal history. I'm very fascinated by my parents' and my grandparents' generations. I seem to think that they had a resilience and an integrity that may be somewhat deficient in my own generation, and in subsequent generations as well, because America has been rather easy to live in since the Depression. So, I've been so interested in my parents' generation. And probably out of that respect -- a curiosity for what they lived through -- grew my fascination with subject matter.

[ Key to Success ] Passion


What was the first thing you wanted to write about?

Joyce Carol Oates Interview Photo
Joyce Carol Oates: The first things I ever wrote about were the animals and the farm. I love animals. I'm very close to animals, and I've lived with animals for quite a while. That goes back to childhood. I was writing about cats and writing about horses.

When did it become clear that you were going to pursue writing? Did you set a course for yourself?

Joyce Carol Oates: I was so interested in acquiring a voice or a sensibility. I was 14 years old when I was started to read William Faulkner. I was walking through a small library in Lockport, New York, and I saw some books on display. I picked up this book, which was a critical biography of Faulkner. I had vaguely heard of him because he had won the Nobel prize. I looked at it, and I got very drawn into it. So I began reading Faulkner when I was 14 or 15 years old, and then emulating him in my writing.

I was also drawn to Hemingway who is, in some respects, the polar opposite of Faulkner. So I began a kind of apprentice life, I think, without knowing what I was doing.

When did you actually decide to emulate other writers and pursue that course?


Joyce Carol Oates: When I was in junior high school, I began much more systematically reading and emulating other writers. I was not conscious of emulating them. I fell under the spell of Faulkner, and under the spell of Hemingway. I remember reading Eugene O'Neill. I was much too young to understand the content of much of what I was reading, but I was so fascinated by the language, the cadences, and the rhythms of their voices that I became really so drawn into it. It was like a rapture.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


Was there one book that made a particularly strong impression when you were young?


Joyce Carol Oates: The one book, probably, of my young adolescence would have been Henry David Thoreau's Walden. That struck a very deep chord with me. Henry David Thoreau is very independent-minded, very iconoclastic, and had quite a corrosive sense of humor. He reminded me of my own father in fact. I think that I probably have grown up to have a Thoreauvian perspective on many things. Though in other ways I live a life he would not have approved of. He believed to simplify, simplify, simplify. Make your life very clear and plain and meditative and not confused. Sometimes my life, in fact, is confused. So I would say Henry David Thoreau's Walden.


When did you actually decide that you would be a writer, and start making a plan?


Joyce Carol Oates: I never conceive of my life as a writer. I think that in the arts, people like to do what they're doing. People play piano because they love it. Or they're working with paints, or they're sculpting. But when one crosses over from an activity, or the verb, of writing or doing, and becomes a noun, like "a writer" I think that is an act of supreme self-consciousness that I've never, in effect, made. I write, but I don't like to think of myself as a writer. I think it's somewhat self-aggrandizing and pretentious. Now, I am a teacher. Literally, I am a teacher. That's a different kind of activity. But to be a writer is something I would rather just do, instead of talking about being.


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