Joyce Carol Oates interviews herself


Illustration of Joyce Carol Oates.
September 13, 2013

All right, let’s cut to it — our audience, curiosity whetted by the ubiquitous social media, wants avidly to know: What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you lately?

Do you mean as a “writer” — or just more generally?

Don’t be circumspect! Interest in you, at least minimal interest, derives from your being a “writer.”

Well — I was in the grocery store yesterday, in the dairy section, when a woman who’d been staring at me quizzically asked, “Are you some kind of writer?” Vaguely, I shook my head no, as if I might not have heard the question, and eased away without glancing back . . .

And then?

And then someone who knew me breezed by saying in a loud voice, “Hello, Joyce!” — and the woman must have overheard . . .

That is embarrassing! Denying your own writer-self, and even as the cock began to crow, someone comes along and outs you! Is this some kind of absurd modesty?

I could not explain to the woman: “I am not ‘Joyce Carol Oates’ right now, but a shopper in a grocery store. And the dairy section is freezing.”

If police had arrived and demanded your I.D., you’d have had to confess — what?

My driver’s license, passport, social security — are all in the name “Joyce Carol Smith.”

Why not “Oates”?

Because my legal self, my property-owner self, is “Joyce Carol Smith.”

Who’s “Smith”?

The name of my first husband, Raymond, who died in February 2008. [Pause.] We all have numerous identities that shift with circumstances. The writing self is likely to be a highly private, conjured sort of being — you would not find it in a grocery store.

Is there something frankly embarrassing or shameful about being a “writer”?

The public identification does seem just a bit self-conscious, at times. Like identifying oneself as a “poet,” “artist,” “seer,” “visionary.”

Yet you are, are you not, a “writer”? After all these years?

If I’m required to identify myself on a form, I write “teacher.” I’ve been a teacher almost as long as I’ve been writing. [Pause.] I think of myself less as a writer than as a person who writes — or tries to. Each morning is a kind of obstacle course in which the obstacles seem to have all the advantage.

A curious and unconvincing sort of modesty! Your name is on your book covers, after all.

But my name is not me.

Our readers think that you owe that woman in the grocery store an apology. [With malicious smugness:] I will post this on our Web site and see how many viewers excoriate you for your behavior. Move over, Paula Deen!

Excuse me, but —

Excuse me. I’m the one asking the questions. What are you trying to say in your ineffectual, stammering way? That you are — or are not — the “writer”?

I’d have liked to quote to the woman in the grocery store Henry James’s beautifully succinct remark about the public and private lives of writers: “A writer’s life is in his work, and that is the place to find him.”

His? Him?

Well, Henry James was a man of his era. Most things, if not all, were in the province of the “male.” The “female” was ancillary.

You’re just apologizing for the rampant sexism of that bygone era. If you admire a writer, you make excuses for him. James is just one example.

Henry James is a paragon of the artist — a “writer’s writer.”

Sounds deadly: “writer’s writer.” Let’s get back to the crucial question: Are you, or are you not, the “writer”?

The point of James’s remark is that the “writer” is embodied in his — or her — writing. The place to look for James, for instance, is in his books.

But you’ve been teaching, as you’ve said, most of your life. What about that?

As a teacher, I don’t teach myself — in any way. If I’m teaching a fiction workshop, my focus is on the work of student-writers and exemplary works of fiction by classic and contemporary writers.

You don’t teach literature as a writer? How is this possible?

I don’t teach literature from my perspective as “Joyce Carol Oates.” I try to teach fiction from the perspective of each writer. If I’m teaching a story by Hemingway, my endeavor is to present the story that Hemingway wrote in its fullest realization.

When you appear in public as “Joyce Carol Oates,” who is that?

A representative of the writing, perhaps — but not the writing itself. Some writers are not very adequate representations of their work. We would suppose that Emily Dickinson, for instance, pressed into a public appearance, would have been resistant, shy, disengaged, without enthusiasm for the occasion, while Walt Whitman, exuberant, outgoing, wonderfully vain, “extroverted,” would have been charismatic. Samuel Clemens loved the public eye — impersonating “Mark Twain” was much easier than writing, and audiences adored him. Charles Dickens was enormously popular as a reader of (abridged, highly melodramatic) scenes from his novels, in both the U.K. and the U.S., and exhausted himself in a succession of public appearances. Edith Wharton may well have been assured and articulate in a public forum. Flannery O’Connor, cringing with shyness, and miserable. Hemingway was certainly a distinctive public presence, while William Faulkner would have loathed and disdained the public eye. It’s said that Faulkner mumbled his Nobel Prize acceptance speech so badly that few in the audience heard it, and only later, when it was published, were Faulkner’s words recognized as brilliant and visionary.

Are you “at home in public”?

As I’ve been a professor at Princeton University since 1978, and recently taught a semester at UC-Berkeley, certainly I am “at home in public.” In fact, being “in public” is less stressful by far than remaining “at home in private” trying to write, as Sam Clemens knew.

Writing is stressful?

Any kind of creative activity is likely to be stressful. The more anxiety, the more you feel that you are headed in the right direction. Easiness, relaxation, comfort — these are not conditions that usually accompany serious work.

All right, then — why do you write?

We write to create the books that we would like to read, that haven’t yet been written.

This is a somewhat mystical answer, isn’t it?

The writer is a “somewhat mystical” — or do I mean “mythical”? — person.

Does the writer exist?

Writings exist, in some form or other. The “writer” is an individual who writes, but does many other things, as well.

What is the very nicest thing about being a writer — assuming you have acknowledged that you are a writer?

Research. As John Updike said, “Research is the innocent part.”

Any advice for young, emerging writers?

Frankly, no.

No? You’re the first writer asked such a question who hasn’t had a ready, if somewhat platitudinous, answer.

Writers and artists never pay attention to advice given by their elders, quite rightly. The only worthwhile advice is the most general: Keep trying, don’t give up, don’t be discouraged, don’t pay attention to detractors. Everyone knows this.

Why are you a writer, and what is it all about?

My theory is that literature is essential to society in the way that dreams are essential to our lives. We can’t live without dreaming — as we can’t live without sleep. We are “conscious” beings for only a limited period of time, then we sink back into sleep — the “unconscious.” It is nourishing, in ways we can’t fully understand. Even a bad dream is nourishing, somehow — it is your own creation.

Dreams spring out of sleep, and sleep springs out of — ?

The human brain. Literature is to society as the part of the brain called the hippocampus is to memory. The hippocampus is a small, seahorse-shaped part of the brain necessary for long-term storage of factual and experiential memory, though it is not the site of such storage. Short-term memory is transient; long-term memory can prevail for many decades. If the hippocampus is injured or atrophied, there is no memory. I think that art is the commemoration of life in its variety. The novel, for instance, is “historic” in its embodiment in a specific place and time and its suggestion that there is meaning to our actions. Without the stillness, thoughtfulness and depths of art, and without the ceaseless moral rigors of art, we would have no shared culture — no collective memory. As it is, in contemporary societies, where so much concentration is focused on social media, insatiable in its myriad, fleeting interests, the “stillness and thoughtfulness” of a more permanent art feels threatened.

Well! That sounds like speechifying. That would not be acceptable on Twitter. Shall we leave it at that?

The writer will have the last word?

Of course!

Joyce Carol Oates will speak in the Poetry & Prose pavilion on Sept. 22 at 1:50 p.m.

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