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A Portrait of the Writer: An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates

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It may surprise you, as it did us, to learn that we citizens of the United States have not yet built ourselves a museum to honor our great writers. Luckily, The American Writers Museum aims to do just that in Chicago in 2016. In the meantime, artist Mia Funk is tasked with creating a group portrait of America’s finest authors. In this ongoing series, she presents her preliminary sketches, along with thoughts on, interviews with, and histories of her subjects. This week, she sketches and interviews Joyce Carol Oates.

joyce carol oates mia funk portrait

To be an observer as transparent as a glass of water is a haunting metaphor. It is also, perhaps intentionally, something of a contradiction, considering the person who said it has published over 70 books. Those publishing cycles are those of someone fully comfortable with dipping into her subconscious and sharing what she finds there. The opposite of safe. The opposite of invisible.

In that way, Oates almost resembles Bob Dylan, that other poet of American life whose output astonishes and whose song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was the inspiration for her much anthologized “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” She seems to have embraced the same down-to-earth don’t think twice philosophy about producing work and moving on. Not so much a Mike Tyson (the boxer she has written extensively about) but a literary Manny Pacquiao; a fighter who has moved effortlessly between different weight divisions and is known for his fast combinations and not being afraid to rise up and stretch himself even at the risk of leaving himself wide open. Oates taught James Joyce’s writing at Princeton and also seems to share his intellectual curiosity for things high and low. When people from Dublin visited the Irish writer in Paris, he’s said not to have been interested in talking about literary theory, but quizzing them about all the little changes to his hometown since he’d left it. Oates also has this openness to learning from everything around her; her reputation for listening to students and helping them discover their style; her engagement with Twitter; the multiplicity of voices in her collected works. Joyce once said of Ulysses that he had put in it “so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.”

Oates is just such a living puzzle: A funny and soft-spoken writer who often writes about violent extremes. A generous teacher who finds time to be one of our most prolific writers. (She made time for this interview during her transition to Stanford, that’s how giving she is.) Born on a farm in upstate New York, she began her education in a one-room schoolhouse and has now spent over half a century teaching at the highest level. Though some of her books seem designed to shock (Rape, A Love Story indeed contains a love story and not at all the one suggested by the title, and Blonde is not all glamor and Hollywood but an interior portrait of Norma Jean Baker) there is a subtly positive undertow to all this conflict in some of her stories about survivors, which is more evident in her fiction for young adults.

In addition to publishing under her own name, she’s written mystery novels under the names Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly, but the person she resembles most, of course, is herself. The most-visible invisible woman. Oates. Teacher. Novelist. Memoirist. Poet. Essayist. Short Story Writer . . . We will be talking about her for generations to come.

—Mia Funk
Tiny-House

Mia Funk: If I were to go into your online browsing history, what would I find?

Joyce Carol Oates: A hodgepodge of many things, I’m sure.

MF: It’s said you never have writers block. So what feeds your imagination? What gets you going writing in the morning?

JCO: Though I am never exactly “blocked” I do have difficult periods. I am led by a fascination with material—the challenge of presenting it in an original & engaging way. I have no problem imagining stories, characters, distinctive settings & themes– but the difficulty is choosing a voice & a language in which to present it.

MF: Which books of yours came to you naturally? And why?

JCO: “Naturally”?—none.

MF: Which ones were more of a struggle?

JCO: Blonde, which is my longest novel, was a considerable struggle simply because of its length & complexity. It is a “fictional biography” of  Norma Jeane Baker, who becomes “Marilyn Monroe” encased in a sort of American postmodernist epic.

MF: What do you find most challenging to write?

JCO: The novel is the most challenging form if you are trying to create something original. Obviously, all genres can be written “to form” . . .

MF: When you are creating characters, do they already have a strong presence in your mind’s eye?

JCO: Characters begin as voices, then gain presence by being viewed in others’ eyes. Characters define one another in dramatic contexts.  It is often very exciting, when characters meet—out of their encounters, unanticipated stories can spring.

MF: You’re a writer who has so many ideas. Do your ideas ever keep you up at night?

JCO: But I really concentrate on just one work at a time. (At the present time, a novel told from several perspectives, so that the tone of the chapters changes considerably from person to person.)

MF: You’ve said the idea for Mudwoman stemmed from a dream. Do your novels often come to you that way, as a pure image?

JCO: It is very rare for me to get such a powerful idea from a dream. I wish it happened more often—it is quite magical, challenging, unsettling—though it is also a good deal of work, the attempt to contextualize the image and give it a plausible presence in the world.

MF: Is it too much to ask . . . what was the last dramatic dream you had?

JCO: Dreams are intensely emotional & “retelling” them is misleading.

MF: What elements have to be in place for you to commit to a writing project? What convinces you that an idea is strong enough to work as a book? What questions do you ask yourself?

JCO: Before I undertake a lengthy project, I have usually given much thought to it over a period of years. My files are filled with likely subjects—which perhaps, one day, I will develop.

MF: Have there been times when all the elements have been in place, but the writing itself proved challenging?

JCO: Yes, usually this is the case, in the first several weeks especially.

MF: How do you think the experience of being born on a farm influenced your work?

JCO: Yes, there is something very special about living in the country, the fact of solitude, being able to spend much time alone—though cities are fascinating & filled with vitality & diversity, the country seems to provide a deeper sort of solicitude for the soul.

MF: What was one of your most significant memories of that time in your life?

JCO: I’ve written about my childhood & girlhood in a memoir titled The Lost Landscape , which Ecco will publish in fall 2015. All of my memories of those years seem about equal . . . though I have one chapter that is narrated from the perspective of my pet chicken, Happy Chicken, when I was about five or six years old.

MF: You’ve spoken of your upbringing, the importance of discipline and the encouragement your family gave you as a writer. What about the way they expressed themselves? Do you find echoes of it in your writing voice?

JCO: Yes, my parents’ voices do emerge from time to time in my writing.  My father was particularly funny, had a sharp wit & sense of humor, & I am often drawn to presenting such men in my fiction, an unusual blend of the sardonic & the tender.

MF: Because of the subject matter of your books I feel I have to ask . . . what was your first exposure to death?

JCO: My first exposure to death was the abrupt, unexpected death of my grandfather when I was a young girl.

MF: You have spoken before of the effect receiving the book Alice in Wonderland as a young girl had on you. Which edition of the book did you have? Did the illustrations in it affect your reading of the book?

JCO: Which edition? Grosset & Dunlap (?) w/ illustrations by John Tenniel.  

MF: What places and symbols reoccur most in your work? And what do you feel draws you back to them?

JCO: The landscape of upstate New York, including the Adirondacks, is haunting to me; I have set many of my short stories & novels there. Obviously, it is the place of childhood, that exerts a powerful spell over us through our lives.

MF: You have spoken of crime as being a metaphor of society and the country in which we live. As our society has changed, how has the way you’ve written about crime and violence changed over time? Are your concerns different than they were at the beginning?

JCO: Writers evolve in ways not always obvious to them. I don’t write about crime per se—I never have—but about individuals who may have encountered “crime”—violent domestic incidents, in particular—that has affected their lives.

MF: You’ve written family sagas, suspense novels and books for young people. You’ve written about Mike Tyson and Marilyn Monroe. That’s an extraordinary range. So what draws you to these subjects who on the surface don’t seem to have much in common? And can you share with us a little of your process of getting in character when the character you are writing about has life experiences which are vastly different from your own?

JCO: Really impossible to answer! I write about what excites & interests me.

MF: What’s striking about your writing is how you take gritty situations and damaged characters but somehow through your prose manage to give them a state a grace. Is there something about these contrasts which attracts you?

MIA-FUNK-JOYCE-CAROL-OATES-lost-landscapes

JCO: We all inhabit interior landscapes & these are mediated to us through language.  It might be said that we are the thoughts we are thinking. What engages the writer/ poet is the individual’s response to the “situation”—what she or he makes of it. That is the essence of the human drama, & why imaginative literature is so much deeper, more intense, & more memorable than objective history with its impersonal perspective.

MF: It seems you’ve found the perfect balance between your writing, teaching and private life. Can you think of any particular moments where you have lost touch with the experience of life, with certain people around you, because you were so busy writing? If so, how did you manage to maintain this balance?

JCO: I have always had a job, & so I have never experienced a time in my life when I was not connected to others. I’ve been teaching—at one or another university, predominantly Princeton—(but right now I am Stein Visiting Writer at Stanford)—since the age of 22.

MF: In Blonde you wrote: “If there was music in this scene it would be a quick staccato music.” Music also features strongly in We Were the Mulvaneys and many of your novels. So is music important to your creative process?

JCO: Over all, probably not. But I feel that there is an appropriate, essential music beneath some scenes . . .

MF: I read that you sometimes like to draw. What was the last museum exhibit you enjoyed? Whose paintings do you admire and why?

JCO: This would take hours to answer adequately! I admire much of art. Last museum? One of the Picasso exhibits in NYC at a gallery.

MF: Recently Princeton University held a retirement gala in your honor during which your former creative writing students paid tribute to you. So many of your students, now published authors, mention the inspiration and sense of self you gave them, describing your classes as life-changing.

What do you think being a teacher has given you? What do you feel being a teacher has taught you about writing?

JCO: This is too vast to answer . . .

MF: You have written about being an observer, at times feeling invisible? Is that feeling still true today?

JCO: It is much better for the writer to be an observer than a participant, at least in situations about which he/ she hopes to write.

MF: You’ve talked about an early displacement in your mother’s life, how it opened up a different life for her, but also set up a kind of mystery about the life she might have led . . . What would you say was your most significant displacement? And how did it inspire you?

JCO: My most significant displacement of recent years—or rather, of my life, I suppose—was the sudden death in February 2008 of my husband of forty-six years Raymond Smith. But it is still too profound a loss really to define except at length . . . one never comes to the end of accessing such losses, I suppose. It is like some sort of deep wound that somehow is not lethal, over which a thick scar tissue eventually grows. It is always there, but you persevere.

MF: What do you feel about the expression Women’s Writing?

JCO: It does seem patronizing, since there is no Men’s Writing. But perhaps some attention is better than none.  I am undecided– attitudes toward this subject have evolved over the years & are not fully defined even now.

MF: Which books of yours would you recommend to readers just coming to your work? And if you could condense the message of everything you’ve written into a few lines, what realizations or feelings would you like to leave your readers with?

JCO: My work is various, & so if a reader prefers a long novel, or a novella, or a story collection—that would determine a choice. Blonde is a novel of mine people often mention, but it is quite long, & ambitious; it is a postmodernist experiment of a sort, mediated by a (posthumous) Norma Jeane Baker. Zombie is a short novel narrated by a psychopathic serial killer—it is certainly not for everyone.  Missing Mom is a novel written in a non-literary, readily accessible voice—it was imagined as a novel that my own mother might have read & enjoyed. (It is, in fact, a novel in homage to my mother Carolina Oates.) The stories in Lovely, Dark, Deep take up relationships of individuals—grandson/grandmother; lovers; wives & husbands; daughter, father & father’s fiancee; young woman interviewer interviewing elderly Robert Frost. If the reader is interested in memoir of loss, A Widow’s Story would be appropriate. (In fall 2015 The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, which focuses on my childhood & girlhood in rural upstate New York, will be published.)

Tiny-House

What a brilliant idea, to establish an American Writers Museum! It is very fitting that this ambitious museum is Midwestern in its setting, and particularly in the great literary city of Chicago. Here is a project that will be both educational and thrilling, inspiring to all who love to read and to write. I am honored to be involved in this original enterprise and will be very intrigued by its development and the ways in which it will flourish.

 – Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She published her first book in 1963 and has since published over forty novels, as well as a number of plays and novellas, and many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction

Mia Funk is an artist and writer who teaches at the École de Dessin Technique et Artistique, Paris. Her work has received many awards & nominations, including a Prix de Peinture (Salon d’Automne de Paris), Thames & Hudson Pictureworks Prize, Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, KWS Hilary Mantel Short Story Prize, Doris Gooderson Prize, Momaya Prize & Celeste Prize. Her paintings have been shown at the Grand Palais and are held in several public collections, including the Dublin Writers Museum. She is currently working on portraits for the American Writers Museum, completing a novel and a collection of linked short stories. Catch her on Twitter: @miafunk.

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