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Joyce Carol Oates

Interview: Joyce Carol Oates
National Book Award

May 20, 1997
Baltimore, Maryland

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

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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.

What was the first thing you wanted to write about?

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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.

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.

Was there a teacher that inspired you greatly?

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Joyce Carol Oates: I've had a number of teachers including my first teacher who was, I think, a somewhat heroic and Amazonian woman, who ran a one-room schoolhouse in upstate New York, north of Buffalo, right in the snow belt. And in those days a one-room schoolhouse was manned by one person who was a woman. And she took care of the wood-burning stove, as well as eight grades of students, in some cases unruly students, farm boys and so forth. She was a heroic figure. She was quite large, and I remember her very, very clearly because she was my first teacher. I think she was kind to me. I was obviously one of the good girls. I wasn't one of the bad boys. So I was probably one of her favorites.

So I excelled in school. I thrived, like a plant that could only be nurtured in a very small area but would have been destroyed outside this sheltered area.

You mentioned your father being Thoreau-like. What about your parents? Was there a particular way that they encouraged you?

Joyce Carol Oates: My parents inspired me by their example. They both grew up in the Depression, and both of them had to quit school when they were quite young to work, because there actually was no choice. So, though they're intelligent people -- and my father in particularly is interested in books and has subsequently, since his retirement, attended classes at the University of Buffalo -- nonetheless, they didn't have any opportunity to be educated. So they've always impressed me with their resilience, their good spirits, their courage. It wasn't an easy life, and I won't go into details, but there were a lot of problems. And yet they were never defeated.

Somebody else might have been defeated. Someone else might have been really depressed, or become an alcoholic or something, because there were personal problems and economic crises. But I just remember them carrying on and just doing their lives. They really made a strong impression on me.

You had this creative disposition, yet your parents had to deal with pragmatic survival issues. Were you more or less a free creative spirit in the home? Was there any kind of value clash?

Joyce Carol Oates: I was always interested in writing and reading, but I had many chores to do.

I did a lot of work around the house and around the farm. I remember cutting the lawn -- not with a power mower, but with a hand mower -- when I was fairly young. So, it wasn't that I was a free spirit. I was not a free spirit. I fit in with the household in the way that people do in farm communities. Everybody's working, basically. But I think I had my own private imagination as we all do. And I just found a way to have a private space in my own imagination somehow.

Did you feel that you were different from the other kids?

Joyce Carol Oates: It's hard to say how we compare to other people. We each inhabit our own personalities. I have often felt that I'm a very neutral being and that I have almost no personality.

I'm drawn to writing partly because I'm fascinated by the mimetic process. That is, to describe a scene that moves me emotionally, to render it into language so that it may evoke the same emotion in a reader. I find that I'm in love with the external world, and writing is a way of conveying that.

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But as far as my own personality's concerned, it's as if I'm a neutral or transparent medium. One thing comes, by way of the medium, into being a book or some writing. I don't know whether I was different from other people. Perhaps I am. Perhaps no one has a personality, and people are inventing themselves in the context in which they find themselves.

Did you have any major setbacks while you were creating yourself as a writer?

Joyce Carol Oates: Major setbacks? I have minor setbacks probably every day of my life. I have a friend in Princeton, who's a writer named John McPhee. He says every writer has a mini-nervous breakdown some time in the mid-morning but keeps going. I guess that's about it. Each day is like an enormous rock that I'm trying to push up this hill. I get it up a fair distance, it rolls back a little bit, and I keep pushing it, hoping I'll get it to the top of the hill and that it will go on its own momentum.

I'm very deeply inculcated with a sense of failure for some reason. And I'm drawn to failure. I often write about it, and I'm sympathetic with it I think, because I feel I'm contending with it constantly in my own life. A sense that there is a movement toward light or illumination which requires strength and ingenuity. But then there's another contrary force that pulls us back into defeat and a sense of giving up. I feel, probably, that I'm in the throes of that contest every day of my life, virtually.

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.

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?

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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.

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.

What was the most exciting moment in your career?

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Joyce Carol Oates: Maybe it lies ahead. I'm not sure. My life is a very interior and solitary life. I tend not to care that much about external things. I'm really very happy when my husband and I go running. When I'm in nature, I feel that peace. I'm a very active person. My metabolism seems normal when I'm running, not when I'm sitting. So, my happiest moments in life are likely to be in private or with my husband in nature.

What drew you towards teaching?

Joyce Carol Oates: I always wanted to be a teacher. I admired my teachers in elementary school. I thought it would be a good life, and my parents were very supportive. I got my BA degree from Syracuse University, where I had wonderful teachers. Then I went to the University of Wisconsin to get a Master's degree. I wasn't so interested in the teaching there or so impressed by it. It was much more scholarly and erudite and somewhat dry. But I got my Master's degree in one year, and I didn't do any teaching. I had a fellowship, and I got a job to teach at college level. I had four courses at the University of Detroit. I had never taught before and was amazed that I had been hired to teach four courses without having taught before. That was very nice of these people to hire me.

I came into the classroom, and there were about 40 students. It was a night class. And I had been very excited and really frightened because I had never taught before. And I remember walking in the room, and I came to the podium and I looked out and some of these students were older than I was - I was only about 22. Such a feeling of happiness came over me. I thought, "This is where I belong." Then I started teaching, and I just loved it.

I can't imagine where I got that confidence. If I had been very nervous, I would have been quite comprehensible. What seems surprising to me was that I wasn't really nervous, and that I loved it. And I felt so happy. So I always feel very happy teaching. A wave of happiness comes over me in the classroom.

How could you explain to somebody who knows nothing about your field what makes it so exciting?

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Joyce Carol Oates: Writing? The field of writing is filled with tension. Any kind of artistic activity is. It's not, I think, psychologically healthy in some ways. It's very agitating and turbulent. I spoke of teaching, which I find very restful and peaceful and rewarding and invigorating. Teaching is a social activity. Creating out of one's imagination is solitary. And I find that it's fraught with anxiety much of the time. So I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. I think people who are artists will be artists. And some of them will have tremendous psychological strain. I can't look in the mirror and say to myself that it will be worth the ordeal. Because we don't really know till we're all finished whether the ordeal was worth it.

For you, is the teaching kind of a balance to the writing? A balance between extroversion and introversion?

Joyce Carol Oates: That may be. I do like writing., it's just that I feel it isn't very easy. I don't have children, but if I had a child who went into a creative field I would be worried.

How do you deal with criticism?

Joyce Carol Oates: I don't know. I've been writing since 1963. I've gotten a lot of criticism.

Most people don't get criticism. They don't know what others are saying about them behind their backs. Politicians, film makers, actors, people on television, writers -- anyone in the public eye gets a lot of criticism. And much of it is somewhat ill-spirited, or it's mean. So how can one divide the spiteful criticism from what might be a constructive criticism? Many writers don't read the critics, and I sometimes don't read criticism. Even if it's a good review. I may get a stack of reviews and some of them are maybe wonderful. I find that I may not read them right at the moment because they're very distracting.

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I'm sort of enthralled with what I'm working on, caught up in this activity that I'm trying to wrestle with. And sometimes I'm given a literary award in the midst of a crisis of writing. And I feel that I don't deserve the award. There's a profound irony. People are saying nice things about me, but I know that back home I'm having such a problem that I don't feel I deserve the award. I have to be very careful what I say. I'm polite and discreet, and I sort of go along with this ceremony. Ultimately, we measure ourselves against our own ideas of idealism and perfection, and we don't always come very close to them.

Have you ever been truly afraid? Afraid that something was going to throw you irreparably?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, there's psychological fear and physical fear. I've had some physical frights, but I've probably never had a panic reaction in my whole life. I'm sure I will some day. I've been on airplanes in very turbulent weather and sometimes had to turn around and go back to the airport. I should have felt some panic then, but I felt a kind of resignation which doesn't seem very normal somehow. I'm sure that under the right circumstances I feel a lot of panic and adrenaline.

Fear of another nature is more intellectual. I know there are abysses that lie ahead. Maybe I've had fearful episodes and I've denied them. The human mind can't bear much reality, so we're often in a state of denial and amnesia about things that we've experienced. I tend to be very hard on myself and very self-critical so I'm not sure if I can really credit that.

Is it possible that you've worked out some of your fear through your writing?

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Joyce Carol Oates: It's possible I've worked out some of my fears through my writing. That's why some people identify with it. There's a web page devoted to my work. I have nothing to do with it, but I was looking at it, and the discussion group focused on how these readers thought that I could inhabit other characters very convincingly and that I could write about states of violence and anxiety and fear and terror. They thought that was very realistic. So it's possible that I am doing that.

In a sense, I may not consciously know what I'm doing. I feel that I'm telling a story. I'm a kind of medium by which something is transmitted. I choose my language very carefully, and I'm a formalist. Something that's out there may be considered a reality, but it's inchoate and unorganized. Bricks and mortar and stone have no voice. A writer or an artists brings to these materials some sort of voice and then becomes obedient. And then it becomes a work of art. It could be a movie. It could be some music or a novel. People read that, or they see the movie, and they respond emotionally, even though the person who made the film may have been pretty cold and calculating. Yet there's a reality, and it's legitimate. Filmmaking, particularly, is a medium of such collaboration and technique. So many people go into it, and then someone edits it.

What do you see as your next challenge?

Joyce Carol Oates: That's hard to answer because I'm working on a novel at the moment. Each novel is a challenge.

What does the American Dream mean to you?

Joyce Carol Oates: The American dream to me is very metaphorical. I think of it in historical terms, going back to the Puritans.

To the Puritans who came from England, America was a land of complete newness. And they were going to establish God's colony in the wilderness. And so the dream of the America was a religious dream, basically. America is a very religious nation. Not a mono-religious nation because there are many different strands of belief, but there's something about this nation that inspires people, or perhaps draws people, who are strongly idealistic. And even though they may be multimillionaires, ultimately, and they may be capitalists and very pragmatic and materialist in their methods, yet they seem to be stimulated by idealism. And they seem to carry with them these seeds of religion.

In the major industrialized nations of the world, particularly the European nations, it's most unusual to have a high degree of religious participation among the citizens. The United States is very different from European nations. Their civilization is older than ours, but it's also been contaminated by history. We had the Civil War, which was very terrible, but it's not quite like World War I and World War II and the devastation of wars in Europe in such a small space.

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We seem to be different in that we still have this capacity for belief and idealism, but at the same time, we're very pragmatic. We're a very physical nation. We have crime rates that are unbelievable to the civilized nations of Europe. Everyone in this country could have a gun. There are so many firearms in this country. This is astonishing, let's say, to Sweden or to England. They can't believe we're living in something like the Wild West.

All these things go together in a strange way. So the American dream is a multi-metaphor made up of distinct regions. Many regions of this country are almost like different countries. Even in one state, northern and southern California are like two separate countries. In Europe, they would be two countries perhaps. So the American dream is very diverse and, in a way, mysterious. Perhaps it will come to its fruition in the 21st century.

Do you recognize that characteristic American idealism in yourself?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I'm not a very pragmatic or materialist person, so I guess I'm idealistic. I'm very American in the sense of being an explorer. America is filled with people who are interested in exploring landscapes, either external or internal. A westward nation of explorers.

What are the books that have inspired you the most as an adult?

Joyce Carol Oates: As an adult, there's one book I keep coming back to very often. It's on a shelf right by my desk, and that's The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. Some of her poems are very short. Some are only four lines long, even two lines long. But she has written so many profound poems that I find I can just open the book and read and reread and be carried into another sensibility. I would almost rank Emily Dickinson with Shakespeare. Shakespeare does something very different, of course. His whole agenda is very different. But Emily Dickinson is the great poet of inwardness and spirituality. And I'd mention Shakespeare. Of course, I go back to Shakespeare quite frequently.

What about movies? You mentioned before that you felt some of them really came.

Joyce Carol Oates: The moviemaking art is fascinating. Many of my students are convinced they want to write and direct their own films. I don't discourage them. I think they have to go off to California and find their own destiny somehow, but, I think that making a movie would be very, very difficult and laborious.

I used to know Martin Scorsese, whose work I admire very much. He talked of spending six months editing, working twelve hours a day, in the dark, in a dark room, in a kind of basement situation. Very, very hardworking. No glamour. It's painstaking work to edit. And he creates a movie that people see in the theater, and they have visceral reactions. And they feel it's glamorous and exciting. And I think that's the quintessence of the artistic enterprise.

We work on things painstakingly and fastidiously. We have all sorts of emotions like despair, frustration, dissatisfaction. Once in a while, we're satisfied for five minutes. Anyway, this product comes out, and then people react to it in ways we can't even anticipate. They think it's glamorous. There's something glamorous about movies? Well, excuse me! Or something glamorous about the theater? I'm involved in the theater, and the only glamour and romance in these fields is in the audience. The audience will feel that thrill of something glamorous.

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But actors whom I know, directors, playwrights, those people are working. When an actor's out in public, the actor tends to be working, and is looking forward to going home and relaxing, maybe watching something on television. The glamour is the illusion.

I remember seeing a movie when I was quite young. It was Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront. That was probably the first meritorious film that I had seen. I was able to see that it was rather like a novel. And I was able to see that it had superior acting, though I was quite young. I had seen many movies, but most of them were just Hollywood concoctions.

On the Waterfront though, which has held up over many decades, was truly a work of art. Remarkably made, with a very sound screenplay by Budd Schulberg -- very literary, very intelligent. And Marlon Brando acted in it so brilliantly. That was the first film that truck me as being on a level with a literary work. Before that, I had only seen movies as entertaining.

Beside your very early attempts at writing and observation, what else in your youth prepared you for your career?

Joyce Carol Oates: My whole life. Much of what was absorbed unconsciously, in a kind of osmotic way, from the people around me, has led to the shaping of my writing.

I come from people who did not go to college. They didn't even finish high school. People who one might call ordinary Americans who are very hardworking. Who were not self conscious and were not thinking about themselves very much. I observed their lives. Some of their lives were quite difficult. There was a certain measure of violence in my world. I'm not from a middle class world. I'm from another kind of world. And I absorbed things without being conscious of them.

For instance,

I was taken to boxing matches by my father when I was quite young, probably around ten years old. And so I inhabited, as a spectator, a very masculine world in which there were not very many women. I watched men fight, and boys fight, in a way that must have seemed to me paradigmatic of the world, though I didn't have that vocabulary. I didn't have a feminist position, and I wasn't saying, "Well, this is brutal and this is ugly and this is cruel." I was just looking at it with open eyes and thinking, "This is the way the world is."

This has all been internalized. I see the world in ways that might be considered somewhat harsh and Darwinistic. At the same time mediated, as in Darwin, by a real idealism and an excitement about the possibilities of the intellect and imagination to deal with this somewhat brutal world.

Have you ever turned down an opportunity because you felt it just wasn't right for you?

Joyce Carol Oates: I've turn down opportunities constantly.

I turn down invitations to do things for money. I have almost no interest in making money. Actually, I've acquired a fair amount of money that I will never live to spend. It's been earmarked for various charities and worthwhile places. So earning money, in a way, depresses me, because I feel it's just piling up. And there's just something melancholy about the image of money piling up that will never be drawn upon. I think what distresses me most in my life is that I have so many ideas I consider exciting ideas that I will never live to execute because it takes me so long to execute.

If a student came up to you and said, "I'm determined to be a writer," what advice would you give him or her?

Joyce Carol Oates: I work with young people at Princeton University. I've been teaching there since 1978, and...

I always tell my students the same thing. And that's to live life, and to read very voraciously without any definite program. To travel, to meet people, to talk to people, to listen very carefully, and not interrupt, but listen to their own grandparents speak of their families. Because older people in our families have so much to tell, and you just have to sort of inspire them and they start telling you. So to be very curious, and to take a kind of neutral position and not to be judgmental, just kind of open. You know, look at the world and see what's there. It's very beautiful. It's a very exciting but in some ways treacherous world, and all this goes into the writing.

Was there ever a time when you felt alienated from the environment of your youth, and felt that you had to disassociate yourself from it?

Joyce Carol Oates: Was there ever a time when I felt alienated from my youth or from any environment in which I found myself? I would say yes.

There was always a certain doubleness. I liked people very much and wanted to be liked by them, I think. At the same time, there was a doubleness and a sense of criticism and a sense of wanting to be elsewhere to gain a perspective. A sense of personality that disassociates itself from the immediate, and is asking questions like, "Why am I here? Who is this person? What am I doing? What is the purpose of this? Is this folly?" These questions are sort of always going through my mind.

I have a very philosophical imagination. I studied philosophy in college, so basic philosophical questions are always scrolling through my mind like, "Why am I doing this? What is the value of this? What is the purpose of this?" These questions are very hard to answer.

Well, thank you so much for trying to answer our questions. It's been fascinating.

Thank you. I enjoyed it.

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