An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates

From the December 5, 1969 Issue
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Joyce Carol Oates, at 31, had begotten four novels, Them, Expensive People, A Garden of Earthly Delights, With Shuddering Fall, two volumes of short stories, Upon the Sweeping Flood, By the North Gate. Numerous other stories of hers have appeared in magazines and anthologies.

This formidable output has won Miss Oates two nominations for the National Book Award, several O. Henry Prize Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship and National Institute of Arts and Letters grant. While producing poetry and fiction at such great speed, she also teaches creative writing and continental literature at the University of Windsor, Ontario. A devoted  sailor, like her husband, a professor of 18th-century English literature, she lives in a beachfront home on the Canadian border across the river from Detroit, the setting of her latest novel, Them.

Them is written in a fairly naturalistic manner, yet charged with a nightmarish quality. It depicts a poor white family: tough, resilient mother; sensitive, politically radical son; fragile, tortured daughter. The novel culminates with the 1967 Detroit riots, the author's apparent attempt  to  show,  in wider social terms, the inevitable consequences of the poverty, violence and futility which dominate the lives of people like the Wendells.

 

Linda Kuehl: Your preface identifies your latest novel as "a work of history in fictional form." Was the creative process altered by having facts at hand—facts that you were recording?

Joyce Carol Oates: Yes, I think definitely, because I felt that I must always be responsible to a certain dimension that could be verified or found fraudulent. I imagined this novel as a series of events that have more or less historical validity. The events did not necessarily happen in the order that they occur in the novel. They did not all happen to the same people, but they happened to people whom I either had known or had heard about or had read about in the newspapers, so that most of the novel is very real.

LK: Is Maureen Wendell—who is based upon a real person, a former student of yours—is she like your other precious heroines?

JCO: I don't think of Maureen as being very energetic. She's rather passive. One thing that happened to her—and it's really the worst thing that happened to her in the whole novel—is when she lost that stupid secretary's book. This is something that had happened to me too, and both of us responded in a very weak, rather victimized way, by being annihilated almost and reduced to tears and despair by a completely foolish event which is so small and yet, when you're that age, it can sort of run over you. I think a strong person—I'm not a strong person, she's not either—a strong, impulsive child would have been affected much, oh, much more mildly by that event

LK: In most of your other work, there seems to be a dichotomy between your neurasthenic, sexually back ward male characters and your tough, daring females.

JCO: I think the dichotomy is more between intellectual and non-intellectual people rather than between male and female. At the end of A Garden of Earthly Delights, Swan is in love, in a way, with a cousin of his who has been in and out of  the  novel  earlier and she is like him. She is rather weak and too. . . too self-conscious, I suppose, is the word. I have a great admiration for those females who I know from my own life, my background, my family—very strong female  figures  who do not have much imagination in an intellectual sense, but they're very capable of dealing  with  life. I think that in my writing I really admire these people and keep coming back to this kind of personality which is completely antithetical to my own.

LK: How do the male figures like Swan and, of course, Richard in Expensive People fit into this particular scheme?

JCO: They tend to be more intellectual and, I think, they're rather autobiographical. I project my doubts, my metaphysical and philosophical doubts, into them. That's why they erupt into violence more often.

LK: Yes, Richard shoots his mother and Swan his stepfather. Is this the natural outgrowth of a Freudian triangle? Or did you ever think of it as such?

JCO: Domestic romance? Yes, A Garden of Earthly Delights does have that, though it's not really a triangle. It's more between the boy and his mother. Strictly speaking, to have this Freudian romance, one must have a good strong father figure, so it's not quite that, but . . . but close to it, I think.

LK: Why the patricide or matricide in the novels?

JCO: These novels are put together in parallel construction. Each deals with a male imagination and consciousness that seeks to liberate itself from certain confinements, and only in  the last novel, Them, does this consciousness really become liberated in what I see to be an ironic way, that an act, a gratuitous act of murder, is committed, and this frees the individual. He's on his way to some sort of American success whereas in the other two novels it didn't work. In them, I saw Jules as a kind of American success in an  ironic  sense, of course.  He is a hero and a  murderer at  once. I think that is ironic. I hope it is. Maybe it is a common thing. Really  it's very  difficult to  answer these questions because, although you're bound to make perfect sense or perfect   nonsense within the context of the novels, it's hard to talk about  them in an analytical   manner.

LK: You can't do that to your own fiction?

JCO: I don't think that one could really do that to fiction at all. That if we were to discuss Hamlet or Alyosha Karamazov and discuss these people outside the context of their world, they would make sense, because we are comparing them to more ordinary behavior in the normal context.

LK: You've been called a gothic novelist. Do you agree?

JCO: I don't know what those words mean. I use words myself in a kind of loose manner. One has to use language to communicate, though the words often don't mean anything. I'm really a romantic writer in the tradition of Stendhal and Flaubert.

LK: In the tradition of any American novelists?

JCO: I'm like Melville, I suppose.There's a similar, certain clumsiness and bluntness and a blindness toward excess which I think I share with him.

LK: Not Faulkner?

JCO: I think I'm like Faulkner. I suppose he's gothic . . . naturalistic.

LK: And Flannery O'Connor?

JCO: I don't know. I used to think that I was influenced by O'Connor.  I don't know that I am really. She's so religious, and her works have to be seen as religious works with this other rather creepy dimension in the background, whereas in my writing there is only the natural world.

LK: There's no Catholic or religious influence?

JCO: I think of religion as a kind of psychological manifestation of deep powers, deep imaginative, mysterious powers which are always with us. And what has been in the past called supernatural, I would prefer simply to call natural. However, though these things are natural, they are still inaccessible and cannot be understood, cannot be controlled.

LK: But you don't see any direct Catholic influence as you do in Flannery O'Connor?

JCO: I think there probably is a great deal there that I'm not owning up to. I know my first novel, With Shuddering Fall, was conceived as a religious work. Where the father was the father of the Old Testament who gives a command, as God gave a command to Abraham, and everything was  parallel—very strictly parallel—and how we can obey or not obey it, and, if we do obey it, we're not going to get rewarded for it anyway. I think I was working myself out of the religious phase of my life and tried to show that having faith in this larger context leaves one really nowhere. One has defeated the world and defeated one's own impulses and passions and is left with nothing—sort of like a nun. I hadn't thought about that novel for many years. It's very disturbing to me, some of the things that went into it. It was very personal and very, in many ways, very autobiographical.

LK: Everything you treat seems in some way to be tinged with irony.

JCO: I don't do that consciously. I try to write things with happy endings, but they seem to turn out bathed in a kind of  green  light that I didn't imagine.

LK: Does irony have anything to do with disavowing Catholicism, that it grows out of your rebellion in a religious sense?

JCO: That might be, though I don't think of myself as rebelling. I think of Ivan Karamazov who returns the ticket and his brother says, "That's rebellion." And Ivan smiles sadly and says, "Well, I hadn't thought of it that way." Or, "One can't live in a state of rebellion." But this is a word that somebody else gives to it.

LK: It's not rebellion?

JCO: I don't think so. In any case, one goes on to the next problem which is the problem of living in the world. It seems to me a sufficiently intricate hopeless problem itself without bringing in another world, bringing in an extra dimension. Those of us who are intellectuals, so to speak, and who deal with intellectual and literary matters, have forgotten if we ever knew the toughness of the world where there isn't any money.This is the basic reality. It's economic.

LK: Your first two novels and most of your short stories take place in Eden County. Is that fictitious?

JCO: Yes. It's really nowhere, nowhere at all.

LK: Is Eden County your paradise lost?

JCO: I'm from a county that's called Erie County which is in western New York, near Buffalo and Lockport, not too far from the Great Lakes. So I imagined the county named Eden with just certain similar elements. I don't know that it's paradise lost. It's not paradise at all. It's pretty bad as a matter of fact.

LK: In other words, your choice of Eden was not because of the Garden of Eden?

JCO: I suppose I had that in mind. I think so. I was very interested in religious problems when I was writing those early stories, and many of them I know I had imagined as workings out of remarks of Pascal, and also Kafka, and Kierkegaard too. And I would take ideas from these men and try to illustrate them dramatically.

LK: There is the motif of free will.

JCO: I don't really know what free will means, but it's something we all think about every day of our lives. We never come to any conclusions. We think we're free. We think we're liberated or about to be liberated. It comes home to us that we're not at all free. It's a continual mystery. I really don't think we come to the end of it. It's exciting not to come to the end of something.

LK: It's amazing that you can write a novel a year.

JCO: I really write more than that. It's just that only one is published a year. Usually I’d written another novel in between that I don't publish, so that novels as they come out don't represent strict chronological order. I write the ones I don't publish with great enthusiasm. I love them when I'm writing them, and then they're all done. And so I write another novel which I love, but I like the  second one better than the first, so the first one I don't submit for publication. I just keep it at home, because you tend to like the things that you've written most recently.

LK: They come in pairs?

JCO: No, they just all go along, one after the other. I have one at home that I wrote... I can't remember exactly when. That's about 400 pages and it has lots of references to the Vietnam War. And I can see that if I don't publish that soon it's going to be completely out of date, or I'll just have to change it to the war in Thailand or something. But it's so heartbreaking. When I wrote that novel, I said these events really took place in 1969, and I had written it in 1968, and dated it ahead thinking, well, this will be just right. But now it's going to be 1970. This novel I probably will never publish. It's a long love story. It takes place in Detroit and Grosse Point, but the Vietnam War is very real to the people who are in the novel.

LK: How about your latest? Is this novel one you intend to publish or put away?

JCO: I don't have a latest novel. I'm working on a collection of short stories about a central theme. I've been doing that lately. I have a whole lot of short stories about love—different forms of love, mainly in family relationships: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and that sort of thing. So that's what I've been working on and I think that will come out in the fall of 1970. It will be called just Love Stories. And I'll be starting another novel which I hope will be published in 1971 if I finish it.

LK: Do your books need a lot of editing?

JCO: No. I don't change much around. I shorten some things. That's about it.

LK: When do you do your writing?

JCO: In the evening after dinner. If I start to write, I write about twenty or twenty-five pages, but I don't do that every day. Maybe a couple of days a week or I might write some poems. If I write poetry, I might write two or three poems and then fix them up a few days later. And I've taken up painting as a kind of hobby. That's extremely enjoyable and it takes up a lot of time and I don't have any talent for it either.

LK: Is poetry as demanding as novel writing?

JCO: It's much more immediately rewarding, and there's nothing as wonderful as writing a poem, even a bad poem. It's just wonderful to have this small unit, a work of art, complete on a page before you. With a short story, particularly with a novel, it's much more of a linear thing, and it takes longer just to get through it. So the psychological reward is just a little more diffused. It's not as dramatic.

LK: Your dust jackets say you live "a life that is a study of conventionality."

JCO:  Yes, I am very conventional. My husband, Raymond, and I are very ordinary, happy people and I thought I should apologize for it. I didn't have any long list of things like busboy, Western Union boy, short-order cook, naval officer—all of those things that are on most people's dust jackets. So I sort of apologized.

LK: Then to take Maureen or Clara or.  Karen—all very unhappy characters—as the author is most unrealistic?

JCO:  No, they're not me at all. I think if I were in their position I would behave the way they do. I may be some day in the position that those people are in. Robert Lowell, in the Introduction to Notebook, said that writing about the journal of a very complex year in his own life and the life of the United States—how did that go?—that somehow the sorrow got in the poems but not  the  happiness. It's so weird and baffling. You just have to be an extraordinary artist to put in happy endings.

LK: Would you like to?

JCO: I don't know that people need happy books because a happy book is like a happy person—there's nothing to be said about it, nothing to be done to it or for it.

[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]

LINDA KUEHL, a frequent contributor to these pages, is a freelance writer and critic.

This story is included in these collections:

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