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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
 
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Joyce Carol Oates Interview (page: 3 / 6)

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  Joyce Carol Oates

Was there ever a day when you felt like giving up?

Joyce Carol Oates: I've felt like giving up many times. It's hard to talk about now, because one cannot convey the depth of the emotion. When one talks about something retrospectively, it seems to be under control, but during the experience, there was no sense of control.

What kept you going when you felt like a failure?

Joyce Carol Oates: I've never given up. I've always kept going. I don't feel that I could afford to give up. That would be the beginning of the end. There was one project I was working on once.


I was doing a book on boxing with a photographer. And I was very fascinated by the material. And I wanted to write the book very, very badly. So I was in a state of anxiety and tension about writing it. And it seemed that I could not even begin it. And I tried and tried for days to get a way into this book. And I had different openings. And I simply couldn't do it. And so I finally felt that I'd given up. And I was very disintegrating and very depressed. I thought it was the beginning of the end, that I would never be able to do anything again. So I went to bed, and all night long I was thinking about these distressing thoughts. And towards the morning, I started thinking, "Well, failure is actually what most people experience in boxing." Most athletes inhabit failure, but particularly boxers. And they're punished -- extremely punished -- for instance, for failure, or a little bit of carelessness. So I started writing about a boxing match I had seen in which somebody failed ignominiously, and the crowd in Madison Square Garden was vicious. And I thought, "There. I can identify with those two boxers." And I found a way to write about the whole sport by way of beginning with failure, with the image of failure.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


That's the most powerful example in my memory of how I had given up. But then, by way of connecting with subject, with theme, I was able to find a kind of lifeline. Writing's like a lifeline. You have to get the right way in. Otherwise the material just lies there, and you can't do anything with it.

What did that project turn into?

Joyce Carol Oates Interview Photo
Joyce Carol Oates: It turned into a book called On Boxing with photographs by John Reiner. It's gone through a number of editions. It's been translated and published in many countries and was recently updated with some pieces about Mike Tyson, who is the only boxer whom I really got to know.

The topics of your books are so varied, you must do a lot of research. Are you especially drawn to research?

Joyce Carol Oates: I like to research very much. However, if I'm doing a short novel, like Black Water -- a novel of several years ago which was stimulated by the Chappaquiddick incident of July, 1969 in which Ted Kennedy was involved -- I would write the novel first, because it's only about two hundred pages, working with emotion and memory and this mimetic impulse of which I spoke a few minutes ago. And then I might do the research afterward. I don't do the research initially because it would be too distracting. Because to write, you have to have an emotional thread. For the longer novel, I would do the research simultaneously with writing.

Do you ever leave spaces blank? Like "To be filled in after I find out about corporate law."

Joyce Carol Oates: That's not the way I write. I usually am so intensely involved emotionally that I have to forge through and get a kind of workable first draft. Then I go back and rewrite that.

What would you say your process is? What steps go from the idea to the finished product?


Joyce Carol Oates: The steps from an idea, which is very inchoate, to a finished product are really incalculable, and it can involve years. To write a novel, so many elements come together. It's like tributaries making their way into a river. You see the river, and it looks like it's a coherent whole but, in fact, it's made up of numberless -- perhaps thousands -- of small tributaries. And it's hard even to talk about this phenomenon. It's a sort of rushing current.

[ Key to Success ] Vision



If I had an idea, the idea would not be sufficient. It has to be bolstered by something from the unconscious, some kind of sympathy or connection, some sense of drama that's like a spark of identification. I wanted to write a novel, for instance, about a man who had been falsely accused of a crime and maybe went to prison. And his own children exonerated him, and they set out to redeem him. And that must have been an idea that was in my mind for years. But as I'm working on the novel now, and it's so different. I remember the genesis, and I couldn't be writing it without that genesis. But it's completely different now. And I don't understand these mysterious processes.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


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This page last revised on May 16, 2012 20:53 EDT