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Off the Page: Joyce Carol Oates

With Joyce Carol Oates
Novelist, Short Story Writer, Essayist
Friday, October 24, 2003; 1:00 PM

Prolific, sharp and utterly American, Joyce Carol Oates writes about the culture of the United States, and its pop culture, with the clarity of an outsider.

Sometimes, she thrives on fictionalizing public life, as when she examines a Chappaquidick-type accident in Black Water, or a Marilyn Monroe phenomenon in Blonde. Even stories of private life -- the push-and-tug of teen-age rebellion captured in the stunning short story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" -- reveal larger truths about America. Joyce Carol Oates doesn't write small.

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Post Review: 'Blonde'
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Winner of many prizes including the National Book Award and the author of an astounding 87 books -- novels, short story collections, essays, poetry and drama -- Oates turns in her latest book to a subject she knows rather well, The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art.

Oates was online Friday, Oct. 24, at 1 p.m. ET, to discuss her work and the life, craft and art of writing. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns, a news producer at washingtonpost.com, is also a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Carole Burns: Hello Book Lovers, Welcome to today's "Off the Page," where we are fortunate to have one of the nation's most compelling writers, Joyce Carol Oates. Let's get to our first question.


Beltsville, Md: How do you know when you've finished a work? Is there something you use to tell yourself the editing process has accomplished what you want in the story?

Thank you.

Joyce Carol Oates: Depending upon the genre you're writing in, there are different ways of establishing what we call closure. For instance, if you're writing a very short piece, like a poem or a prose poem, or a "miniature narrative," you can actually print out variants of the work, and have two or three or more endings. And you can read through them quickly and live with them for a few days or weeks, and see in a kind of dispassionate way, what seems best.

If you have a longer work, like a novel, obviously you can't do quite the same thing. But you can have alternative endings. My own way of writing is very meditated and, despite my reputation, rather slow-moving. So I do spend a good deal of time contemplating endings. The final ending is usually arrived at simply by intuition. (Sometimes an editor will have a comment. An editor may feel an ending is too abrupt, since I try to have dramatic endings, so I would revisit that work and see if what the editor has said might be valid.)


Carole Burns: In your new book, you write about reworking the beginning of a novel when you are writing the ending. Can you talk about that?

Joyce Carol Oates: I always rewrite the very beginning of a novel. I rewrite the beginning as I write the ending, so I may spend part of morning writing the ending, the last 100 pages approximately, and then part of the morning revising the beginning. So the style of the novel has a consistency. And often, I'm changing the beginning because of what the ending has led me to. The beginnings are always changed many many times. I probably rewrite the first chapter twenty times, because my vision of the novel is evolving.


Boston, MA:
Hello Ms. Oates--Just wanted to say that I enjoyed watching you play video games on the McSweeney's Issue 11 DVD. What was it like collaborating on that project? Looks like it was fun.

Joyce Carol Oates: Since I'm a good sport, I simply did what the editors instructed me to do for the video. I really had no idea or awareness or frankly much interest in any actual game, and I have never really played any video game. (Sorry to disillusion you. It was all staged, in a playful way.)


Chicago, IL: For you, what is the most enjoyable part of writing fiction? Is it the planning, the decision-making, the crafting of sentences, editing and rewriting? Why? And what is the least pleasant aspect?

Joyce Carol Oates: All the features that you have mentioned are pleasant, or can be pleasant, but the first draft is definitely the hardest, like hacking one's way through a thick jungle with something like a butter knife. By far the most pleasurable aspect is the final revision, which is like soaring over the jungle in an airplane that you are piloting.


Washington D.C.: Of the emerging new writers, whom do you like? As an aside, there seems to be a lot of excellent work coming out India, Jhumpa Lahiri in particular.

Carole Burns: We had Jhumpa Lahiri on "Off the Page" earlier this month. You can read the transcript.

Joyce Carol Oates: Among the emerging writers with whom I'm acquainted, I would single out Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything Is Illuminated, and Nell Freudenberger, whose Lucky Girls is an excellent collection of short stories. And Dean Paschel, whose By The Light Of the Jukebox is the most bizarre collection of short stories you are ever likely to read.


Washington DC : Is the idea of the macho writer, Mailer, Hemingway, dead? And, if so, what does that say?

Joyce Carol Oates: Yes, I think that the concept of the so-called macho male writer is probably extinct, but these values are certainly prevailing in the culture. Most of my writer friends who are men are really feminists, though they may not write overtly about feminist subjects. They take for granted the equality of the sexes. Among my very masculine writer friends, which include Russell Banks, Richard Ford, and Robert Stone, I would say that their portraits of women are very convincing and very respectful.


Washington DC: Professor Oates - I had the wonderful privelege of hearing you read several years ago at a literary festival in Dowagiac, MI. I had never read anything of yours before that day, but have consumed everything since. I thoroughly enjoyed your recent novel, Middle Age. Your talent is astounding, as is your humbleness. Professionally, what was your best day?

Joyce Carol Oates: I have lots of wonderful days. I have many wonderful days that are too quiet and unsensational even to take note of. A very nice day would have work in the morning and some accomplishment, however small; an afternoon with my husband on some outing like jogging or bicycling on country roads here in rural New Jersey; a return in the late afternoon to work again; and maybe an evening with friends in Princeton.


Washington DC : Fifty years from now, what book of yours would you like a reader -- interested in your body of work --- to turn to first? What work do you think you'll be most remembered for?

Joyce Carol Oates: What a question! It's a tossup between Blonde and Them for both questions. I could as easily have chosen a number of titles. It's as difficult for a writer to make choices among her books as it would be for a mother to choose among her children.


Dunn Loring, VA: I've read many of your books, Ms. Oates, and have almost always enjoyed the ride. How do you deal with the notion of "gratuitous incident"? In other words, how do you manage to know the difference between gratuitous and integral in all you write, and how much self-editing of excess incident do you do?

Joyce Carol Oates: There should really not be anything gratuitous in a work of art. Sometimes what seems as if it's gratuitous may be a passage in which a character is being characterized so that the reader comes to know him or her better.


Mltv., NJ: What do you think of Philip Roth?
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Joyce Carol Oates: Philip Roth is an excellent writer whom I have met several times with much pleasure, and whom I read for many years. My favorite novel of his is probably The Human Stain, but I like his short stories very much too.

I never really knew I wanted to "be" a writer, but I was always writing from a very young age. It became more conscious as an ideal when I was in my twenties.


Lenexa, Kan.: Ms. Oates: In the current New York Review of Books, your review of some new short fiction begins by mentioning a number of "preeminent" American writers of the genre (at or near mid-20th century): Porter, Welty, Taylor, Stafford, O'Connor, Cheever, and young Updike. It's a distinguished list and, of course, one has to draw lines. In a slightly larger list, who might you have added? Also, are you a big fan of Salinger's Nine Stories. Thanks.

Joyce Carol Oates: Salinger could certainly be part of that list, as well as J.F. Powers, and Bernard Malamud.


Annandale, Va.: Hello--
How do you shift your mind, writing style, research to work on a fictional work one time and a non-fiction work the next?

Joyce Carol Oates: Non-fiction is by far the easiest, the mode in which our minds are naturally operating. Fiction requires the acquisition of a different voice; that is, a voice not our own.


Carole Burns: Thanks so much to Joyce, for coming online today. Be sure to join us next week when we have Edward P. Jones, a Washington, D.C. native whose first novel, The Known World, was just nominated for a National Book Award. Join our discussion Thursday, Oct. 30, at 11 a.m., or submit questions now!


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