Joyce Carol Oates, Novelist/Poet/Playwright/Nonfiction Author/Part 1
Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most prolific writers in American literature, with over 30 novels to her credit, and has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including Broke Heart Blues, Black Water, We Were The Mulvaney’s, and Because It Is Bitter And Because It Is My Heart. She’s a recipient of both the National Book Award and The PEN/ Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and currently teaches in the Creative Writing department at Princeton University.
I was honored to write for the same sports section as Ms. Oates when she covered boxing and I wrote a baseball column for The Village Voice in the 1980’s.
The following is the first part of an excerpt of a 1997 interview:
Question: When was it that you first realized what you wanted to do?
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.
Question: What was the first thing you wanted to write about?
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.
Question: When did it become clear that you were going to pursue writing? Did you set a course for yourself?
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.
Question: When did you actually decide to emulate other writers and pursue that course?
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.
Question: Was there one book that made a particularly strong impression when you were young?
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 I 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 one ought to simplify, simplify, simplify. Make your life very clear and plain and meditative and not confused. Sometimes my life, in fact, is confused. But I would say Henry David Thoreau's Walden.
Question: When did you actually decide that you would be a writer, and start making a plan?
Oates: I never conceived 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 the activity, 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. Being a writer is something I would rather just do, instead of talking about being.
Question: 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?
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.
Question: Did you feel that you were different from the other kids?
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. 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.
Question: Did you have any major setbacks while you were creating yourself as a writer?
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.
Question: Was there ever a day when you felt like giving up?
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.
Question: What kept you going when you felt like a failure?
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.
Question: Do you ever leave spaces blank? Like "To be filled in after I find out about corporate law."
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.