Off the Page

Joyce Carol Oates
Tuesday, May 9, 2006 12:00 PM

In the afterward to her new book of selected stories, Joyce Carol Oates complains about how hard it was to choose, how painful it was to leave out so many favorites. If it weren't Joyce Carol Oates, this might be hard to imagine: High Lonesome: Selected Stories, 1966-2006, is 662 pages long.

Oates was online Tuesday, May 9 at noon ET to discuss her short stories, as well as her other work.

Oates's pure prolificness is often the first quality that people think of when her work is mentioned. She's written some 20 collections of short stories alone, and about 50 novels or novellas--which doesn't include the mysteries she writes under the name Rosamond Smith.

But when I pick up an Oates book again, I am struck by its careful scrutiny of American life. Her work is both exterior (examining pop culture in Blonde , for example, about Marilyn Monroe) and interior (revealing the thoughts of a teen-age girl). This is especially true of her short stories, which can be both horribly violent and surprisingly intimate at the same time.

Please join us to discuss her short stories, her take on American life, and other topics literary.

--Carole Burns

Host Carole Burns is 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.


Carole Burns: Hello booklovers, and welcome to Off the Page. We are fortunate to have Joyce Carol Oates online with us today, and already many questions for her to answer. I am also in Wales today, at the University of Wales Swansea, with a few journalism students and Nigel Jenkins, the poet. Perhaps we'll see a question from Swansea today? But, hello Joyce -- let's get to our questions.


Fairfax, VA: When you first began writing stories, did you think anyone would read them? Did you imagine that high school and college english classes would feature your writings? When you realized it was happening, how did that feel and did it influence how you wrote from that point forward?

Joyce Carol Oates: This is an interesting question because it evokes a kind of retrospective wisdom that I feel people don't have. When we begin as writers, our hopes are very modest. Simply to be published is a very astonishing phenomenon and we tend to be very grateful for any kind of early encouragement. I was extremely fortunate because one of my first stories when I was 19 was published in a national magazine, Mademoiselle. And so I had immediate readership at an unexpectedly young age. I don't really think of an audience when I write because the story in which I'm working is usually, to me, unique, and I have no idea with whom it would be appropriate.


Bombay, India: Dear Ms. Oates,What do you think prevents the short story from getting its due recognition as an art form, and from publishers backing and supporting it commercially? What about writers like you getting together and lobbying hard for this "long-ignored" form to arrive at its due place? An uphill task, no doubt, but one that would constitute a serious contribution to literature. Looking forward to not just your response, but your experience of how readers respond to it.

With gratitude to you and the Post for this splendid opportunity.

Joyce Carol Oates: The history of short stories is very complicated: some of the greatest work of the 20th century have been short story collections, notably James Joyce's Dubliners, Kafka's In the Penal Colony, Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time, and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and in the 19th century Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, and the stories of Chekhov. So there has been a history in which the short story has definitely received its due. Many short story collections in the present time have done very very well, for instance, Flannery O'Connor's collected stories, Issac Singer, John Cheever, and John Updike, and many others have won distinguished awards. So I don't really understand why one would say that the short story has been an underrated form. Finally, literary fiction itself, whether novels or story collections, have become problematic for commercial publishers.


Carole Burns: Several of your stories, such as "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" have been included in many, many anthologies. If you were to select the stories to get that kind of attention, are these the stories you would choose? Why do you suppose that one has gotten so much attention (though I have to admit teaching it, and loving it)?

Joyce Carol Oates: I would probably choose more or less the same stories. Writers tend to favor stories that are complex and experimental, but readers generally respond to stories that focus on characters and plot. So I would resist my own inclinations to choose something more complex than the stories that have been anthologized. I tend to like everything that I do almost equally, because each story is a unique challenge. For instance, James Joyce believed that having written Finnegan's Wake, the most difficult novel in the English language, his next work would be a simple love story. He didn't, unfortunately live to write it.


Rochester, N.Y. : I live in Rochester, N.Y., a place that is obviously near and dear to your heart. What is it that draws you to keep writing about Rochester, as you did in the Tattooed Girl and The Falls, both beautifully written books which I couldn't put down.

Joyce Carol Oates: I'm drawn to write about upstate New York in the way in which a dreamer might have recurring dreams. My childhood and girlhood were passed in upstate New York, In the country north of Buffalo and west of Rochester. So this part of New York state is very familiar to me and, with its economic difficulties, has become emblematic of much of American life. I've only written one novel set in Rochester, The Tattoed Girl.


Athens, Greece: In order to write, someone has to be from early age in a kind of "quarrel with reality." Did you experience such a thing? And, do u believe that, in a sense, a writer is a "tutor of chaos"?

P.S. U have a big follwing in Greece, hope u ll come one day to visit us!

Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, this is a very astute question. It can be said that many human endeavors depend upon a "quarrel" with reality, whether these are scientific or philosophical or political or aesthetic. I think that, like many writers, I'm fascinated by the world that surrounds me, both the human world and the world of nature. I don't know that I have a quarrel with it, but I do see myself as an observer, both admiring and skeptical.


Carole Burns: I'm very interested in your take on American life, the violence that you so often portray. This is obviously part of your role as observer. Can you elaborate on that at all?

Joyce Carol Oates: Writers generally reflect their society and their time. Stendahl spoke of the novel as a mirror moving along a roadway, and this is an excellent image for the realistic novel. It doesn't, of course, reflect the interior of our lives, our psychological and spiritual lives. But another kind of fiction, a more psyhcologically analytical fiction, can express that life. The tradition in which I see myself is that of psychological realism, which attempts to mirror the complex outside world of society, politics, art, domestic life, as well as to interpret it. In my longer novels, especially, I do a fair amount of research, and often I learn much that I didn't realize I did not know, as in my novel The Falls, which takes place in Niagara Falls, about 15 miles from where I grew up, but brought me to a historical knowledge of that city and its region that I had not known.


Memphis, TN: This is not so much a question as it is a salute. Hello, there, Joyce. Joyce Carol Oates is a great American writer. An empire of characters and lives in fiction.

Richard Bausch

Carole Burns: Why, hello Richard! Richard Bausch was one of the first guests on Off the Page. Here's his discussion from 2003, when his Selected Stories book was published.

Joyce Carol Oates: Richard Bausch is a great writer, especially of short stories. He is also a wonderful friend, to many writers.


Alexandria, VA: I so treasure your work entitled "Blonde". You seem to be "channeling" MM throughout. How did you research the early years? I could hardly put it down. Thank you for sharing your genius and sensitivity.

Joyce Carol Oates: Primarily I did research into the films of Marilyn Monroe that are available, beginning with her earliest movies and moving to her final movie, Misfits. I was so very impressed by the quality of her performances, and also, overall, by their diversity. I read two or three biographies and deliberately did not take very many notes, because I wanted to imagine the astonishing person who was Norma Jean Baker, who became concealed in and eventually lost in the iconic image of "Marilyn Monroe." I felt that "Marilyn Monroe" was a performance by a gifted and sometimes desperate young woman. One of my epigraphs is Jean Paul Sartre's remark that, "genius is not a talent, but a way we behave in desperate circumstances." I thought this applied very poignantly to Norma Jean Baker.


Oak Hill, Virginia: You learned recently that you had Jewish family members. Did learning about your past change, in any way, the way you look at your future?

--The Happy Booker (

Joyce Carol Oates: Immediately, I was forced to reevaluate many things that I had somehow either taken for granted or overlooked. My focus has been on the history of my grandmother, who was my father's mother, who was in fact Jewish, descended from German Jews who came to the United States in the 1890s and changed their name in order to assimilate into America. I have found my grandmother, who died 30 years ago, a fascinating and enigmatic person, about whom I have written, notably in a short story called "The Cousins," in my new collection, High Lonesome. The story is fiction, but it derives from a long novel titled The Gravedigger's Daughter, which will be published in 2007, which is about the attempt of a young woman to escape her past and to be assimilated into America. She changes her name, she does an extraordinary, almost magical job of transforming herself, but she loses her soul. This seemed to me a way of addressing the tragedy of losing one's identity.

Carole Burns: Did you know your grandmother?

Joyce Carol Oates: Yes, but nobody knew she was Jewish. My grandmother lived among us without ever having addressed any religious identification and never talking about her background.

Carole Burns: Do you think she lost her soul, or is that bit fiction?

Joyce Carol Oates: I don't know. It just seems to me it couldn't have been a happy experience. It must have been a nightmare for her to become aware, as other Americans did, after the end of World War II, of the Holocaust and to realize that some of her own relatives must certainly have perished in the death camps, but she never spoke of it, not ever.


North Potomac, Maryland: As an aspiring writer, I'm really curious as to what you do to dissolve writer's block. Also, if it's ok to smuggle in two questions, besides the past, do you get a lot of inspiration for writing from the way you live presently?

Joyce Carol Oates: Most writers much of the time experience difficulty with writing first drafts. Everyone will say this. Beginning writers may become overly discouraged by the difficulties that more experienced writers expect. We are often "blocked" for periods of time, but if we work and keep writing and above all keep thinking about the project, almost always a pathway will open to us. Sometimes I feel as if I were on the outside of a hedge, a thicket, and there seems to be no way in, and I keep circling this thicket and finally I will find a way in. It might be very small, but it's a way in, a phrase or a sentence or an image or a character speaking to me, and this will be the beginning of what will not be in fact an easy experience. I will close with an artist Chuck Close, he says: "Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work."


Carole Burns: And that is, I'm afraid, the last question that Joyce can answer today. Thanks so much to Joyce for coming online, and to the many excellent questions we had today (even the ones we didn't get to.) And remember, you can get emails announcing upcoming Off the Page discussion by emailing me, Carole, at In July, we will have as our guest Marie Arana, editor of Book World, who will discuss her new novel, Cellophane. I hope to see you then!


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