Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most prolific writers in America. Her critics even complain that she writes too much. She has written more novels than Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, more short story collections than John Updike, more books of essays than Norman Mailer, more words of poetry than Emily Dickinson and more plays than Chekhov. Critic Harold Bloom considers her “our true proletarian novelist.” Author and critic John Gardner called her “an alarming phenomenon–one of the great writers of our time.”
She has been described as shy, mouselike, intense, perceptive, brilliant. She can cook, play the piano and quote James Joyce, and she writes about boxing with style and authority (in her Life magazine piece on Mike Tyson she couldn’t resist quoting Thorstein Veblen, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf and Wallace Stevens). She writes about troubled lower-class people and the way they sometimes brutalize one another. She’s been criticized for being too fascinated with violence and praised for writing about life as it is. She doesn’t shy away from rough language, and in her imagination she can commit the most horrendous crimes: murder, incest, self-abortion.
More than 20 years ago Newsweek called her “the most significant novelist to have emerged in the United States in the last decade.” Oates has a loyal cadre of readers who line up outside bookstores, usually carrying an armful of their favorite titles, whenever she’s signing. “Nobody else writes nearly as much as she does,” said critic Bruce Allen in The Hudson Review. “The really alarming thing is that so much of what she writes is good.”
Adds book reviewer Marian Engel in The New York Times, “It has been left to Joyce Carol Oates, a writer who seems to know a great deal about the underside of America, to guide us–splendidly–down dark passages.”
Allen agrees: “We are a country of intensely destructive (and self-destructive) people, she seems to keep saying. What is there in us–and outside us–that makes us act as we do?”
Despite her acclaim, Oates is not a hugely popular novelist along the lines of Stephen King or Larry McMurtry. Her themes are dark and complex. Her writing style changes from book to book. One doesn’t pick up an Oates novel, as one does a book by Raymond Carver or Elmore Leonard, with predetermined familiarity. Her writing, like her subject matter, is neither predictable nor comforting.
Hers is an intellectual life. When she isn’t writing she’s teaching graduate students at Princeton about writers and writing. A friend, critic Elaine Showalter, once noted, “In the midst of a quite ordinary conversation about the news or television or the family, Oates often inserts remarks whose philosophical penetration makes the rest of us feel like amoebas in the company of a more highly evolved life-form.” Oates is married to a teacher and editor, Raymond Smith, and they often spend time reading each other poetry. Together they founded the Ontario Review and the Ontario Review Press, which publishes work by up-and-coming writers.
There is no other writer in America, male or female, who quite compares with Oates. In 1970 she won a National Book Award for an early novel, Them, and she has been inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1990 she received the Rea Award for Achievement in the Short Story, the Bobst Lifetime Achievement Award and the Heideman Award for One-Act Plays.
Born in the small town of Millersport, near Lockport, in western New York on June 16, 1938, Joyce Carol Oates came from a working-class family. Her father was a tool-and-die maker and neither of her parents graduated from high school. Her grandfather was murdered when her mother was a baby, an act of violence that indelibly altered Oates’ development.
She began writing as a young girl, throwing away novel after novel as quickly as she completed them. When she was 14 a relative bought her a typewriter to help her churn out her stories. One of them, In the Old World, written when she was 19, was a co-winner of Mademoiselle magazine’s college fiction award. After graduating as valedictorian and Phi Beta Kappa from Syracuse University in 1960, she went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where she received her master’s degree in English and met and married her husband. While enrolled in a doctoral program at Rice, one of her stories was given an honorable mention in Martha Foley’s Best American Short Stories. That was the acknowledgment she needed to convince herself that she was, truly, a writer. She dropped out of Rice and never looked back.
Her first book of stories, By the North Gate, was published in 1963, when she was 25. A year later came her first novel, With Shuddering Fall. Then another book of stories, Upon the Sweeping Flood, followed by her second, third and fourth novels, A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), Expensive People (1968) and Them (1969). While living in Windsor, Ontario, she also managed to squeeze in two books of poetry during 1969 and 1970. In the Seventies she published seven novels, nine books of short stories, four volumes of poetry and two collections of essays. Nine more novels were written in the Eighties, including her trilogy of gothic, romance and mystery novels: Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance and Mysteries of Winterthurn.
You need a calculator to keep track of her work. In the 30 years that she has been a professional writer, Oates has written and published 27 novels, 17 collections of short stories (she has contributed nine short stories to PLAYBOY over the years), seven books of poetry, five volumes of essays, 15 plays and more than two dozen works published by small, independent presses. She has, by her own estimate, written more than 300 short stories, most of which have not been collected in book form, and other novels that she has not seen fit to publish. She has edited numerous volumes of essays, story collections and interviews with other writers on their craft. She has also written four psychological suspense novels (Lives of the Twins, Soul/ Mate, Nemesis, Snake Eyes) under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith.
What is astounding about her output is the breadth and depth of her subjects as well as the quality of her prose. With Shuddering Fall deals with cars and leaving home; Them with corruption, race riots and death. “Wonderland” deals with family murder and the psychology of medicine; The Assassins with politics; Son of the Morning with religious fanaticism; Do with Me What You Will with irrational, possessive, adulterous love and the legal profession; “Angel of Light” with revenge; Unholy Loves with faculty life at an American college; Solstice with female love; American Appetites with turning 50; You Must Remember This with coming-of-age and loss of innocence; Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart with racism and alcoholism. Her book On Boxing was an insightful look at an often brutal sport.
A recent novel, Black Water, which was just released in paperback, is a fictionalized account of Senator Ted Kennedy’s incident at Chappaquiddick, where Mary Jo Kopechne drowned in a car accident that spoiled any chance Kennedy had of becoming president. The reviews were mostly raves. The New York Times said it was as audacious as anything in recent fiction, “a brilliant vision of how a culture has learned to associate political power with sex. Taut, powerfully imagined and beautifully written, [it] ranks with the best of Joyce Carol Oates’ already long list of distinguished achievements.”
Reviews have also been good for her latest book, Foxfire, which is written from the point of view of a female high school gang member from upstate New York.
To find out what keeps Oates writing as much as she does, PLAYBOY sent Contributing Editor Lawrence Grobel (whose previous interviews include Robert De Niro and Robin Williams) to Princeton, where she lives with her husband and their four cats. Grobel reports:
“The street Oates lives on is quiet and idyllic, the area exclusive and privileged, the nearby university elite and prestigious. Her study and living spaces are crowded with books–on shelves, tables, even floors. There is a healthy garden outside where vegetables are tenderly cared for by her husband.
"She appears fragile, with short curly hair and enormous eyes. During the week we spent talking, she tired each day after a few hours. But that’s because she’s not used to talking about herself. Her time and energy is almost always focused on her work.
"What she seemed to look forward to were the times when we stopped and went out for dinner, or to a party hosted by one of her Princeton friends–times when she could relax and enjoy the food and conversation. But during the days we taped–at her home, in a limousine taking her to and from a book signing, at a restaurant–Oates was all business: concentrated, thoughtful and very, very smart.”
Since you seem to be a compulsive writer, what is it that excites you most about putting words on paper?
Getting the inner vision out. I love to write. I feel I have something to say. It’s exhilarating once in a while, but most of my experiences are fraught with frustration because I always feel dissatisfied. An entire day can go by and I’ll feel I haven’t accomplished anything. My husband was asking me about this. He said, “You get a lot done in a day.” I guess I do, but I don’t feel I have. I always have a feeling, which is subterranean, of being profoundly dissatisfied with what I’m working at.
Does dissatisfaction lead to compulsion?
Compulsion probably accounts for virtually any achievement. There are people who say they are envious of me, who write “I wish I were you.” These people don’t know how hard I work. You have to have a driving, almost feverish energy. It’s like the tremendous hunger you saw in the young Mike Tyson. How many other men who fantasize about being a boxer would really want the kind of burning passion, hunger and desire to hurt other people that a great boxer must have? To be a writer you have to be compulsive, eccentric. You have to want to stay up all night writing because you have some brainstorm. The energies are demonic. You can’t be a normal, happy, contented person and be a great novelist or a great filmmaker or actor. You have to be a little crazy.
How crazy do you get?
Well, I write all over, and sometimes I can’t stop taking notes. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I’ve actually written while I was being introduced to give a talk. It’s a good way to use time. I really begrudge the hours that I have to sleep, because sleep is a waste of human energy. Think of all the hours you spend asleep. Sometimes when I travel I don’t sleep at all. It’s like a chaotic rush of images, a kaleidoscope, that keeps me awake all night.
Does this drive you to be so prolific?
I don’t know how it adds up. I must have a different time zone. People ask me how I find the time. I have the same amount of time as anybody else. I just try to use it. It might have to do with the tachycardia I have, where with every tick and every heartbeat, if I’m not getting something done, I feel I’ve just wasted that moment. Whereas a more normal person would feel, well, why not relax for the whole afternoon and go sailing?
What is tachycardia?
A little malformation of the heart valve. It’s often associated with people who are tall and lank. A tachycardia attack sends a person into hyperventilation, the heart speeds up and pounds hard. A person may faint or feel he or she can’t breathe. Then the extremities start turning icy cold because the blood’s not circulating. It’s like a mimicry of death. It’s terrifying because you feel that you are dying.
Do these attacks happen often?
I’ve probably had 50 over my life. I’ve been admitted to the emergency room at Princeton a couple of times, but not recently. I take digitalis every day. It started when I was 18. I was playing basketball at Syracuse and I was knocked down. I started having this attack and it scared the life out of me and everybody else, including my gym teacher. She thought I was going to die in front of her eyes. It was terrifying. It’s because of these attacks that I have a heightened sense of mortality and time. That’s why I’m always working and why I’m concerned with wasting time. Almost every minute of my life is plotted very carefully. Thoreau said, “You can’t kill time without injuring eternity.” That’s probably part of the reason I seem prolific.
So you’re unlikely to hang out at the beach?
I would go crazy. I could sit on the beach for maybe three minutes. I was even wondering before you came if we could do this interview while jogging, but I realized that was absurd.
No wonder your output is so staggering. Do you see yourself as successful?
No, I don’t think of myself as successful. I experience dissatisfaction or relative degrees of failure more than success because I’m always rewriting. I have to be careful not to put too low an evaluation on myself. Probably the only people who are successful are people who are dissatisfied. What else pushes them on? Some people are quite content, and they were content when they were eight years old, affable, happy people who are not going to be successful and don’t care. And none of them is a writer or creative artist because they don’t have that push. All art begins in conflict. Even situation comedy.
Has any of your success, such as winning a National Book Award in 1970, caused problems for you?
I was young when I won that, about 31 or 32. It got me much more exposure, but it turned many people against me. People don’t like it when someone’s successful. Norman Mailer is the most classic example. He started big and then got terrible reviews of his next novel. Since then, Mailer has always been a kind of punching bag.
Did you lose friends as your career took off?
There was a male writer whose career I helped–I got him my agent, gave him a quote for his first novel–and he really turned against me. He just couldn’t take my winning that award. He threatened my life and did all sorts of strange things. He wanted me to write a review of one of his books for The New York Times Book Review and I said I couldn’t do it. He went crazy. For years he would write me letters. It had to do with the National Book Award. He felt that suddenly I had fame and power and I could get a review published. I tried to explain that even if I wanted to do it, I wouldn’t do it. He wrote a story called “How I Killed Joyce Carol Oates” and sent me the manuscript. I don’t know if it ever got printed. It was pretty extreme. I once talked at the Modern Language Association and he was in the audience and at the end he came toward me. He was going to throw something at me. I don’t know what it was. Somebody found it on the floor and wouldn’t let me see it. I think it was a razor.
Since your work often deals with violence, was that the only time you’ve been threatened?
I get a lot of letters from people in prisons–always men, never women. They obviously haven’t read anything of mine, but they see stuff about me in People magazine. I can’t be bothered.
In what other ways has fame affected you?
It’s very complex. If one is famous, one has a certain amount of power, but maybe power is corruptive and corrosive. Look at the phenomenon of Marilyn Monroe. She had celebrity and extreme fame yet seemingly had no personal life nor any control. Fame exacerbates one’s personal failing. Celebrity, if one doesn’t have inner strength, can be corrosive. It’s as if the flaws in your character, like cracks in a facade, become magnified in the public eye. And you can’t hide them. I feel my heart sink a little when people recognize me, because then I have to put on this identity. At the supermarket I’ve sometimes had to sign autographs on people’s grocery lists. It’s embarrassing to me.
Yet yours is a modest kind of fame compared with a Monroe or a Madonna.
That’s probably true. The outsider looking in would have thought Marilyn Monroe was a tremendous success. It must have been keen and sharp and terribly ironic for her to realize that her image was out in the world and she scarcely shared in that. It’s a bizarre, almost schizophrenic experience. I recently saw The Misfits on video and I was really struck by Marilyn Monroe as a kind of female impersonator. There were real women in that movie and they walked around in regular shoes, and then she would come on the screen completely confectionary, her hair, her manner, her walk, her physical being. It was as if she were a female impersonator in a way that we don’t experience women now–stuffed into a dress, teetering on high heels. It’s kind of like being an anthropologist and going back in time: Was this really an ideal of female beauty or was it, even then, exaggerated and a little absurd? She said to one interviewer, “Please don’t make me look like a joke.” So she was aware of that.
When you were growing up, did you ever want to look like her or any other star?
No, then you’d have to deal with so many men being attracted to you, and that’s hard. In Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, the figure who represents Marilyn Monroe can barely walk down the street without three men following her, accosting her, talking to her. Who would really want that? The most attractive girls in high school were the ones who ended up getting married and having babies right after graduation. In a sense their lives are finished. So being very beautiful and having a strong appeal for the opposite sex is a handicap, though it’s not perceived that way when one is young.
Have you always been satisfied with who you are?
I don’t really identify with my physical self that much. My spiritual self, my inner self, my imagination is probably my deepest self, and that expresses itself in language in my books. My physical and social self is just another person.
But people describe women writers in such a way that we are lumped together in some strange category that’s heterogeneous and kind of promiscuous. I have books of literary criticism that list ‘women’s novels’ and I’ll find myself in that chapter along with women who write about romantic experiences or domestic life or children.
Do you feel being a woman allows you a certain invisibility?
A woman is often judged by her physical appearance or by the fact that she’s a woman. But a man is judged by his work. It would never be said about a male novelist that he was very handsome. You also don’t say, “Hemingway, a male novelist, has written some good books.” But people describe women writers in such a way that we are lumped together in some strange category that’s heterogeneous and kind of promiscuous. I have books of literary criticism that list “women’s novels” and I’ll find myself in that chapter along with women who write about romantic experiences or domestic life or children. And my real kinship would be with someone in the realistic-novel category who’s a man. But I’m not put in that chapter because I’m a woman.
And yet you also believe that this is the best time in history to be a woman.
I think so. Women are being published in great numbers, women are being read, women support one another–and this was not always the case. Women are directing plays and having roles in the organization and administration of theaters, which has been very male-dominated. There are women’s studies programs at universities. Young women are going into medical school, there are women lawyers. They still encounter sexism, of course, but it’s not the way it used to be when women couldn’t get in at all. To me, it’s by far the best time for women professionals.
Do you think we’ll see a woman president in our lifetime?
I seriously doubt that. Vice president, possibly.
Do you take the radical-feminist attitude that men are the enemy?
Even though I am a feminist, I’ve never felt that men are the enemy. I’ve also never had any real animosity toward men. Some radical feminists have attacked me in the past because I write about men with a certain amount of compassion or because I defend men. They feel that I’ve betrayed them. I was attacked in a women’s journal because I had written a novel called Solstice. The woman who attacked me was a lesbian and she said that this was a thinly disguised novel about an evil lesbian. In fact, the novel doesn’t have a lesbian in it. She was projecting her own propagandistic vibes into the novel. I’m a counterpuncher, so I wrote back, “If I want to write a novel about a lesbian who is evil or a silly lesbian or a brilliant lesbian, I will do it. This is my prerogative as a writer and I don’t subscribe to any ideology except writing.” Feminist literature per se is propagandist literature. And feminism, like any ism or ideology, exacts too high a toll. You can be politically incorrect and people get angry with you. I will always place a much higher value on aesthetic integrity than on any kind of political correctness, including feminism.
How do you define feminism?
In a root way: Everyone should receive equal pay for equal work. To me, feminism is basically economic.
Are there differences between the sexes?
Your question is particularly appropriate for PLAYBOY because I really have to go against some feminist thinking. No, I don’t think the two sexes are that different. There’s an intensification of aggression, especially sexual aggression, in the male: Sexual feelings, instincts and desires of the male are in many cases more intense than in the female. For instance, female rapists or sex offenders are virtually nonexistent. There are 17 times as many male criminals as female criminals, and the sexual component has a lot to do with that. But it’s a continuum. If you got rid of all men and had only women left behind in some bizarre dimension, you would then find clustered toward one end of the continuum these adversarial and aggressive women. And they would be the “new men.” So I don’t feel the sexes are different in kind, only in degree.
Camille Paglia, the author of Sexual Personae, suggests that “male aggression and lust are the energizing forces of culture, and that if civilization had been left in female hands, we’d still be living in grass huts.”
That’s ridiculous. She obviously hates being a woman. And she’s identifying with what most men consider the worst traits of maleness. The men I know in Princeton and elsewhere, and the men in my family, are not marauding males energized by lust and aggression. They’re energized by desire for creativity. Norman Mailer once said that nobody says to a woman, “Come on, be a woman!” But to be a man, it’s either explicit or implicit: “Come on, be a man!” And that admonition to be a man is fraught with a good deal of anxiety. What does it mean? Be a man like Mozart? Like Einstein? No, it really means be a tough man, a physical man in terms of other men.
Aren’t there differences between men and women in the area of sports?
Sports may be an area in which women and men are different. And that’s too bad. For the men I know who play squash or tennis or poker, it’s a celebration of friendship. They love one another and they love what they’re doing. And men experience sports that way. Women don’t have the same thing. I don’t know why not. When I watched a lot of boxing, virtually everyone I was with was male. It was a male experience, and when I was in it, it was as if I were a male. But other women experience it differently and they put their hands over their eyes: “Oooh, this is awful. How can you look at this?” As if by watching boxing I had abrogated my femininity.
What is it about boxing that fascinates you?
It’s a paradigm of life where you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a mimicry of a fight to the death, mortal combat. Whereas tennis or chess is a stylized mimicry of a fight–the chess players are the kings and their pawns are soldiers and they’re fighting on a board, but it’s only a game–boxing is not a game. It is the real thing. It inhabits a special dimension in the history of sports because it arises out of mortal combat in which one man would die. It’s different from other sports not in degree but in kind. To me boxing is mainly about failure. It’s about getting hurt but doing it with nobility and courage and not complaining. I tend to be sympathetic with boxers. I’m not sympathetic with the managers or with the business side of boxing, because they exploit boxers.
Are men fascinated by boxing because it suggests that masculinity is measured in terms of other men?
That’s true. And boxers have a camaraderie with other boxers and with the history of boxing that excludes women. Women have nothing to do with it. Women can admire boxing, as I do, but boxers are basically boxing for other men and for other boxers.
Was Mike Tyson surprised by your interest when you were interviewing him?
I was never really interviewing Mike Tyson in a formal way and I didn’t have a tape recorder. I was doing it by hand. We were in [his then-manager Jim] Jacob’s apartment in New York sitting on a sofa, talking about fights, seeing boxing tapes. Mike was from a world in which everybody knew boxing, including women. To him it wouldn’t have been surprising that a woman could talk about Jack Johnson or any other fighter.
Had Tyson read any of your writing?
He wouldn’t have had time. He had his karate videos and splatter films. He didn’t have time to turn the pages of a book and move his eyes.
Did Mike Tyson surprise you in any way?
Mike always surprises people when he walks into a room because he’s so short. He’s not a Sonny Liston or a Muhammad Ali. When I knew Mike he was only 20 years old. He was soft-spoken. He’s not the same person anymore. Getting married and signing with Don King accelerated his aging process. He’s a much older person physically. He’s probably abused his body, his reflexes may be gone.
Are you saying that you think he’s finished as a fighter when he gets out of prison?
I’m an optimist. When Mike gets out of prison he may come to his senses and realize that he’s been behaving self-destructively. I think he could make a comeback. If he wants to do it he can do it. And if he were in condition he could beat the current crop of heavyweights handily: Bowe, Lewis, Holyfield, Morrison, Foreman–it hasn’t been a distinguished time for boxing since Tyson lost his will to fight and his title.
Do you feel Tyson got the punishment he deserved?
It’s hard to know what anyone deserves. Do we get what we deserve? Or do we deserve what we get? I’m not a person who judges happily. I guess that’s why I’m a novelist; judgment is usually suspended in a novel.
What other boxers and fights do you admire?
One of the things I liked about Sugar Ray Leonard was that, like all great boxers, he was most dangerous after he’d been knocked down. Once the average boxer is knocked down, something goes out of him. But when Leonard was knocked down and then would get up he was much more dangerous than before. I liked Leonard near the end of his career a lot more than I liked him earlier. Like many people, I wanted Marvin Hagler to win their fight and couldn’t believe it when Hagler lost. Looking back, we might say that Hagler’s finest moment–when he fought Tommy Hearns–turned him into a lesser boxer because of the beating he took from the man he beat. If Hagler had fought a different fight he might have beat Hearns anyway, but he would not have been hurt as much. They both took terrible beatings. That was a fantastic fight.
What about the heavyweights?
I don’t like heavyweights that much, except for the outstanding ones like Ali. But most heavyweights, like Gerry Cooney, what can you say? I don’t even want to see them. I never watched George Foreman during his comeback. I refuse to look at a boxer whose physical being is an insult to a great sport. I don’t want to see an overweight boxer in the ring. The sport is too important and has a history that the men who are in it should respect. That’s why I was so shocked when Tyson came in out of condition with Buster Douglas. I couldn’t believe he would demean the heavyweight tide. I found it hard to watch Mike fight because I knew him, and when I saw him lose the title to Douglas I was stunned. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes. When he came into the arena that night I could see he was dry, he hadn’t been sweating, he didn’t look good. He hadn’t trained. To me that’s much more profoundly disturbing and bizarre than the things he did in his private life, which I can understand. I don’t condone raping a woman but I can understand that a lot more than I can a heavyweight champion coming in at a young age and not being trained. That was shocking to me.
Was it also shocking to you that your book On Boxing was praised by so many aficionados, including Norman Mailer?
Yes. Norman has said he feels a kinship with me. It was nice of him to say. He introduced me at Lincoln Center for a benefit evening and he said, “This person wrote an essay on boxing that was so good I thought I’d written it myself.” And he didn’t know why people were laughing. He meant it sincerely as the highest praise. I came out and said, “It’s considered high praise to be told you write like a man, but to be told that you write like Norman Mailer is off the scale.” And in my novel You Must Remember This, I’m really inside a person who’s a boxer. I just love that part of the novel, that whole masculine ideology and the camaraderie of men in the gym. I don’t suppose any other women novelists would even want to write about that.
You’re working on screenplays based on your works. Are you ever asked to write original scripts–not based on your stories–for actors?
I was asked to write the Jeffrey Dahmer story for HBO. I thought it was a strange invitation. And I was invited to write something on Mike Tyson for HBO and I declined. I don’t have much time. I’m usually working all the time, sometimes up to midnight. I’m now immersed in a novel I’ve been planning for a couple of years. It’s called Corky’s Price and it’s my attempt to get inside the skin of a man, to deal with male sexuality in a candid and nonjudgmental, realistic way. It’s a challenge because I certainly could fail. I can’t fail writing about women–I’ve written about women’s sexuality many times–but this is something I’ve never really done before. The entire novel is this man going through four days of his life. It took me about two years to get the voice for this man–a lot of profanity, obscenity, but funny. I want him to be an average man.
What male writers do you think have best captured the way a woman thinks and feels?
D. H. Lawrence is one of the pioneers in the male attempt to write about women. Lawrence had a sensibility that was androgynous. Although he was a heterosexual male, he was also possibly homoerotic. He was attracted to men, too. He was an ideal artist in that he had an erotic feeling for much of nature. This kind of intense identification with some other living presence is probably necessary for a writer. But I can’t think of many of my male colleagues who’ve written compellingly or convincingly about women. Faulkner is an example of a truly great talent who could not create any women characters of any depth; they tend to be caricatures. Melville has no women characters. Saul Bellow is a great writer who has concentrated on male portraits. His female portraits in some cases are compelling, but it’s the male portraits that are really brilliant and memorable. Shakespeare was a great writer whose masculinity is evident. He’s created some great women, such as Cleopatra, but they tend to be somewhat mannish women.
Aren’t you worried, then, that your male character might be considered a female-ish man?
Absolutely not. I feel that I know men from the inside. I’ve created a lot of male characters.
Why do you suppose that your contemporaries have such difficulty capturing women but you don’t have any difficulty capturing a man?
It’s just a measure of what one’s trying to do. I don’t value one achievement over the other. Faulkner and Melville are great writers. It doesn’t matter that they couldn’t capture women as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald or D. H. Lawrence. The measurement of genius is sui generis. Geniuses are not compared with one another. I mean, it’s not held against Chopin that he never wrote an opera.
Do you measure yourself against other writers?
No, that would be discouraging. I don’t like the idea of competition. We have great writers living today. It’s difficult for contemporaries to accept one another. Virginia Woolf said it’s impossible. I agree.
What’s the biggest compliment you’ve ever received as a writer?
I’ve been compared to the most extraordinary people–Bach, Melville.
Since Melville is often considered America’s greatest writer, isn’t that comparison somewhat overwhelming?
Melville lived for years as a complete failure. That a man of such genius would think he’d been a failure is heartbreaking. That’s one of the saddest stories in American literature. When he was writing Moby Dick there was no prototype for it. It was an adventure story, a Shakespearean tragedy, it was metaphysical and philosophic speculation. Nobody had ever done that before in America. And then it was published and got the most vicious, ignorant, jeering reviews. Obviously his heart was broken, he didn’t make any money and after that his life took another turn. I kind of identify with him. Many writers do. It’s like we’ve done the same thing but we’re more lucky. When he died his obituary in The New York Times was about Henry Melville–it even got his name wrong.
Hemingway said American literature starts with Huckleberry Finn, and Mailer said that William Burroughs changed the course of American literature. Do you agree?
No. In terms of history, Walt Whitman changed the course of American literature. He was saying things that nobody ever said before. Not William Burroughs, because few people have even read him. But Whitman came along with Leaves of Grass in 1855, and he was saying things in his poetry and he had a musical, incantatory voice in which he talked about being both male and female, about homoeroticism, about having a baby. This was profoundly contemporary and was so deeply disturbing to his contemporaries that he was considered extreme. And yet he has affected so many people.
Can a major writer alter, as Mailer called it, “the nerves and marrow of a nation”?
Not the United States. But definitely individuals are affected. Whitman, Dickens, Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Upton Sinclair had effects upon legislation in America. Emily Dickinson had an effect upon individuals. People have told me that their lives have been changed by things I’ve written. A nun actually left the convent after she read a story of mine. Obviously she was inclined to feel that way and then the story gave her a push.
How much of a class society is America?
Oh, very much a class society. It’s getting more and more evident. Segregation is more marked than it was in the Sixties. We have a new division between fundamentally illiterate people and the rest of our society, which is educated and has knowledge of computers and the electronic medium. Along with other problems of poverty, ghettos, drugs, I don’t know what’s going to happen. The Los Angeles riots demonstrated that.
You dealt with an earlier city riot, the one in Detroit in 1967, in your novel Them. Did you actually experience the riot?
We were only one block away from some of the burning and looting, and I’d never been in any situation like that where your physical being is at risk. You never forget it and as a writer you want to deal with it. It was not an easy time. Living in Detroit changed my life completely. I would be writing a different kind of work right now had I not been there. I came from this rural background and suddenly I was thrust into the city in the Sixties. It was so alive and fraught with excitement.
Do you miss the rural background of your youth?
I don’t want to make my childhood sound like something out of Tobacco Road. It wasn’t. But I went to a one-room schoolhouse and the other students, particularly the boys, were very rough, really cruel kids. A lot of things frightened me, but I had to face it day after day. At one point there were eight grades and some of the boys were big, like six feet tall, farm boys, very crude. We heard tales of things that had been done to other girls, acts of incest–an older brother forcing himself on a younger sister, then boasting about it. And I certainly was the object of molestation of one kind or another.
Verbal or physical?
Verbal is nothing, who cares about verbal? No, really physical. Being chased, being mauled. I was molested when I was about nine or ten. I was not raped, but it would be considered sexual molestation today. And I couldn’t go to my mother and say I was sexually harassed at school. I was threatened and ordered not to tell. However, I’ll never forget it.
I know what it’s like to be a victim, but I also know what it’s like to get away and not have been damaged or scarred.
Did you have anyone you could talk with?
There was no consciousness then. Molested, battered children were in a category that was like limbo. There were no words, no language. If you tried to talk about it, you’d say, “I was picked on.” Then there was a certain amount of hesitancy, if not actual shame, to say anything about your body, so you wouldn’t want to say where you were harassed. So a lot of this was never spoken. It was extremely important for me, retrospectively, to have these early experiences of being a helpless victim, because it allows me to sympathize–or compels me to sympathize–with victims. I know what it’s like to be a victim, but I also know what it’s like to get away and not have been damaged or scarred. I was part of a world in which almost everybody who was weak was victimized. This seems to be the human condition: to be picked on, to be a victim.
Did this drive you inward, turn you to writing at an early age?
I was always writing little books when I was five or six. I would use a tablet and do drawings. I was never interested in dolls, I gave my dolls away. I was reading books like Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass when I was very young. I obviously was greatly influenced by Alice, who was a little girl but has some of the courage and resilience we associate with adults. And, of course, she’s a female protagonist, and that made a strong impression on me.
Was your family religious?
My family became religious when my grandfather died of emphysema. He worked at a foundry and his lungs were filled with bits of metal. Our household was traumatized by that. My parents had been Catholic and they had lapsed. That’s a joke to other people, but to Catholics you are never not a Catholic. You’re born Catholic and you’re baptized, then you become a lapsed Catholic for the next 90 years. It’s like an alcoholic–you’re never not an alcoholic. I’m not a person who feels very friendly toward organized religion. I think people have been brainwashed through the centuries. The churches, particularly the Catholic Church, are patriarchal organizations that have been invested with power for the sake of the people in power, who happen to be men. It breeds corruption.
I found going to church every Sunday and on holy days an exercise in extreme boredom. I never felt that the priest had any kind of connection with God. I’ve never felt that anyone who stands up and says “Look, I have the answers” has the answers. I would look around in church and see people praying and sometimes crying and genuflecting, saying the rosary, and I never felt any identification. I never felt that I was experiencing what they were experiencing. I couldn’t figure out whether or not they were pretending.
Yet haven’t you had some mystical experiences?
I actually had some experiences that were electrifying and changed my way of looking at life. But I haven’t had them for a long time.
Can you describe what happened to you?
I can’t talk about it. A mystical experience is ineffable and you can’t put any language to it because as soon as you do you demean and reduce it. You wouldn’t have a mystical experience in a Sunday Mass, you would have it out in the wilderness. You’d have to be alone. It might not have any god involved. It would be more like an activation of the deepest psyche. I’ve been interested in religious experience and the spiritual side of all of us, and mysticism. But organized religions such as the Catholic Church are the antithesis of religious experience.
Do you feel the same way about astrologers, numerologists, tarot cards and Ouija-board readers?
The persistence of crackpots, pseudoscientists like astrologers, suggests the failure of science and education. How can people still be superstitious, still believe in nonsense and astrology and grotesque demonic religions of every kind, every fundamentalist religion crowding us on all sides? How can we have these phenomena and say that science and education have not failed? That’s embarrassing.
It sounds as if you’re not the kind of person who would turn to therapy.
I can’t begin to imagine going to a psychotherapist. You’re going to another person who has some dogmatic ideas and his or her own agenda. Why go to somebody else, anyway? Theoretically they’re listening, but in fact they’re not, they’re looking at the clock, thinking, How can I bend this person to my own theories? Go for a long walk or go jogging, take a retreat and meditate and think. Or read Walt Whitman.
Would it be fair to categorize your philosophy as: Shut up, don’t complain and get on with it?
I have strong interior models from my parents and grandmother of how a human being should behave with dignity. Not that I always live up to it, but I sure know how you die, how you deal with life without complaining, with as much strength as possible. I’m in a profession where people are so quick to complain about the smallest things. Their vanities and egos are easily bruised. To me this is just absurd. The harshest facts of life have to do with the economy, with one’s own economy. If you are poor, if you are living at or below the poverty line, then you’re right up against life in a way that literary and academic or professional people are not. I come from a world where there was a fear that there wouldn’t be enough money, not enough food to eat. I remember that. Now I’m in a world where somebody fears they’ll get a bad review.
You also come from a world where one relative was murdered and another committed suicide.
My mother’s father was murdered in a saloon fight when she was a baby, the youngest of eight or nine children. Their family was extremely poor, so she was given away to relatives. I only found out about it as an adult. Then I found out, many years later, that a relative put a gun in his mouth and shot himself while my father’s mother was with him. This took place before I was born, but it’s part of my parents’ life. I’m pretty close to my parents and a lot of my writing draws on their experiences. They really had adventurous and arduous lives growing up in the earlier part of the century in a rough part of America, and they came of age during the Depression. They were brave, strong people.
Their lives weren’t made any easier after you were grown and your sister was born autistic. Being as verbal and articulate as you are, that must have been quite a shock.
I’ve written about the phenomenon of one person living in language and the other not having any language. My sister has not really ever spoken. She was born at a time when virtually nothing was known about autism. An autistic person has a little bit wrong with the brain chemistry. It’s a mystery. She’s now in a special home.
Given your history, it’s understandable why you would lean toward tragedy.
I’m always struck by that wonderful remark by Henry James, how what’s bliss for one person is bane or evil or pain for another. That’s so true in life–what’s happy for one person can be painful for another. If you have a happy ending in a novel, it’s probably not going to be happy for everyone.
Why are difficult and troubling works of art more beneficial to readers than happy ones?
Well, the classic theory of tragedy is that it allows people to be ennobled. We see people pushing the limits of their courage and their involvement. King Lear, for instance, rises to a stature by the end of the play that he didn’t have in the beginning. If it were a situation comedy and Lear were just dealing with a funny daughter, he would always be on the same level. Serious works of art push people to the extreme. That’s why creative artists try risking things that could fail, because they feel that’s how they learn more about themselves.
Can fiction show a person how to survive?
Oh, definitely. We pick our models from art. In the past, prose fiction and drama provided models for people. I’m sure many young people now get their role models from the movies and television, which may not always be good.
Are there any TV programs that interest you?
I don’t watch television. I don’t have time.
What about news events such as political conventions or the Olympics?
No. If I wanted to know about the conventions I’d read The New York Times. And I’m sorry to say that I was no more interested in the Olympics than those athletes are interested in my writing. As many athletes as there are crowding one another at the bookstores to get hold of my books, that’s as much as I watched the Olympics. I like to read. Television is a different kind of medium: It’s for people who are skimming along on the surface of life.
With the way you work, would you have felt trapped if you had children?
I was never driven by a strong maternal instinct. Nor does my husband have a strong paternal instinct. We never really thought about it much.
Did you think about marriage before you met Ray?
I grew up in a time when young women wanted to be engaged as soon as possible. When I graduated from college in 1960, to get married was the ideal. But I was different. I was always bent on either teaching or being a writer.
How old were you when you met Ray?
I was 21 and he was 30, so he was an older man. This had a certain romance about it. He was getting his Ph.D. and I was beginning my M.A. I guess it was love at first sight. Or love at first conversation. We met at a social gathering and we started talking. I think of marriage and/or love as a long conversation that has many modulations to it. Ray’s a stabilizing force in my life. When I have trouble writing, he is a voice of calm.
Is that the secret to a successful marriage: Stay calm and have long talks?
The secret is that one is closest friends with one’s spouse and it’s a relationship that deepens with time.
Does Ray ever appear as a character in your books?
No, I’m so close to him that in a way I don’t see him. I have assimilated him, which is typical for people who have been married quite a while. There’s a kind of pronoun “we” consciousness.
Do “we” share the housework?
I do all the housework and Ray does all the outside work–the lawn, the garden. I start making dinner at eight, which is pretty late. My take on cooking and housework is that it’s part of my writing. Sometimes my brain is like a computer screen and I can do my revisions and copyediting of the day’s work while I’m preparing a meal. When I’m done I’ll go to my desk and make those corrections, then the whole thing’s erased in my head.
Is it true that your husband never reads your work?
I have always felt that I didn’t particularly want people close to me–my parents, my husband–to read my work. I wanted freedom and I didn’t want people peering over my shoulder. I didn’t want them to feel they had to like it. I’m not a person who gives her writing to her friends to read. I would feel very embarrassed to do that. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne read each other’s work all the time. That is a healthy, symbiotic relationship they have worked out. But Ray has so much of his own life to do, he just wouldn’t have time to read any of my work.
Who takes care of the finances in your house?
Ray is the one in charge of the finances. When he married me many years ago, he could not have anticipated that he’d spend a lot of time dealing with accountants and investors and money men. It’s nothing that he’s interested in. We’re both literary people and interested in culture.
Are you also very rich?
How can you ask a question like that? If I said yes I’d have a burglar visiting immediately. I don’t have much idea of how much money we have, but we’re not really wealthy. We don’t spend money, put it that way. We live quite modestly. I’m not concerned with money.
Still, with all those books in print, you must constantly receive royalty checks from around the world.
Over the years I’m surprised by checks that come in because I don’t expect them. I could probably live comfortably on my income just from Germany and Sweden.
What does the money mean to you?
Money is kind of a burden because one feels one should spend it intelligently. You can spend money in a consumptive way and waste it, but to spend money intelligently, to direct it toward meaningful goals, to give to charities that are not exploitive, that’s difficult. We subsidize our friends in terms of publishing ventures. James Michener has given away millions of dollars. Giving away that amount of money has probably caused him creative angst.
Are you uncomfortable talking about the subject of money?
When I grew up, sex was not talked about–it was a classic taboo subject. These days, I think money may not be talked about. If a child were to ask his parents, “How much money do you make? How much do you have in the bank?” that might be the taboo subject today.
So let’s talk about sex. Norman Mailer says sex that makes you more religious is great sex.
How does Mailer know what’s great? Maybe what he’s experienced is puny, but he has only his own experiences. Norman has a sense of being an entertainer. He’s like a boxer–he feels you get into the ring and you put on a show and it’s adversarial. I’m not like that. Maybe I would be more like that if I were a man.
Girls were, and probably still are, afraid of sex–for a good reason. Getting pregnant was always the fear. It was a sense of public humiliation.
Was sex a scary subject for you growing up?
Girls were, and probably still are, afraid of sex–for a good reason. Getting pregnant was always the fear. It was a sense of public humiliation.
For many boys of your generation the novels to read were usually written by Henry Miller. Did you read him as well?
I read some of Henry Miller, but it’s on the level of a comic book. People seem shallow, nothing that has any appeal to me. I do remember going to the adult section of a library when I was about 12 and I pulled Ulysses off the shelf and the whole book seemed to glimmer with a forbidden glow. It was erotic and forbidden and exciting and sacred. Now when I look at it I feel this identification with James Joyce, who was 38 when he finished Ulysses. But he was a struggling writer and that’s the effort of his great struggle.
Which of your own novels are watershed in terms of your career?
Evidently Them–it’s the one people talk about. Maybe Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart and You Must Remember This–so much of my own life and heart went into them. I can’t tell, it’s hard to get a bead on one’s own self.
You omitted Wonderland, which caused you quite a bit of anxiety when you wrote it.
Probably the closest I ever came to cracking up was in the writing of Wonderland. Appropriately enough it’s about the human brain, examining a crisis in American society by way of one representative man. It’s hard to talk about. I thought I had this neurological problem and had to see a specialist, but it was more a biochemical problem caused by stress. I put so much energy into that. It was such a monumental novel, very daunting to write. It left me kind of breathless. I felt when I was done that I didn’t want to write any more long novels.
Are the novels of Rosamond Smith the kind of novels that Joyce Carol Oates would write? Or did you simply choose that pseudonym to escape from your identity?
I wanted to write psychological suspense novels that would be more cinematic than my other novels. However, as time has gone by they have gotten more intellectual and analytical, more Jamesian, more interior. All the Smith novels are about twins of one kind or another.
How strongly did you want to keep your identity a secret?
I wanted badly to keep it a secret. It was like being 11 years old again, like a little girl. I would have had reviews that were for a first novel, and everything would have been new and fresh and untried. But then the secret got out. My editor was upset and had reason to be. I didn’t think it was that important if I wrote a novel under a pseudonym. Why would anyone care? But it’s hard to have a secret identity because one has to have a Social Security number, income tax forms.
Why did you feel the need to go undercover?
Because people don’t judge the new work as new work. In my case they say, “This is Oates’ 25th novel, or 50th book.” Whereas with my new identity it would have been, “Here is a new novel by a writer we haven’t heard of.” And the attentiveness would have been for the text itself.
Were you disheartened when you were discovered?
It was sad. Disappointing.
Critic Alfred Kazin said that you write to relieve your mind of things that haunt us rather than to create literature that will live.
Well, Kazin doesn’t know. It’s sort of a statement like, “Does she dye her hair?” It’s a haphazard pomposity that one gets from people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
Do critics ever know what they’re talking about?
It’s unpredictable. I get extremely good reviews or angry reviews. People have said they admire that I keep going. They have a different reading of the enterprise of being a writer. My worst problems are inner-generated, they come from my own self.
You’ve said that a writer who has published as much as you have develops a skin like a rhino’s. How necessary is it to be thick-skinned?
It’s scar tissue over the years. I started writing before women’s liberation, publishing since 1963. I came under a lot of attack because I was a woman writing about subjects that men usually write about. John Updike once said that I really took a lot of hostile criticism. Some writers stay down in the mud. D. H. Lawrence called it the scrimmage of life. I consider myself still down there. I’m fair game for the attack.
Let’s talk about some of those people. We’ll name a writer, you say what you think. We’ll start with Norman Mailer.
If anyone has literary presence and power in New York it is Mailer. He has been courageous and adventurous, and he obviously loves the craft of fiction. He also gets negative reviews. People are either jealous of him or they have an ax to grind. Norman and I try different things all the time, different voices. We are much more vulnerable than many writers who repeat the same formulas for success. But Norman has taken a good deal of abuse. And it’s good for him. He’s a fighter, a counterpuncher. One should defend oneself.
She’s in the tradition of George Eliot–she tries to write about society in an ambitious way. Lessing’s more like Norman Mailer and like me, for better or worse. She’s tried different things.
A great writer, a major, important writer. I write to John Updike and he writes to me quite often. He’s a wonderful letter writer.
I have read a lot of Iris Murdoch and I have written about her. There was a time when I would be asked to review every new Murdoch novel that came out. Her novels are somewhat repetitive.
He’s obviously a satirist and a social critic. I don’t think of Tom Wolfe as a literary figure, but he’s amusing.
She’s an American classic. A very special, very individualistic, very idiosyncratic and, in an odd way, very Catholic writer. She had a gift for satire and treating character quickly.
She has a broader humanity than O'Connor. O'Connor was very narrow and good at what she did–she never wrote about romantic love, perhaps knew nothing about it. Welty tried many more things. She’s more ambitious.
Bellow’s brilliant. Bellow is a genius. A great writer. Brilliant themes. Saul Bellow is off the scale of even Truman Capote, Thomas Pynchon or Thomas Wolfe. You can’t compare him with those others.
How about Philip Roth?
Roth is not as ambitious as Bellow. He hasn’t tried as many things. But what he does he does brilliantly.
T. Coraghessan Boyle.
Tom Boyle is a wild writer, very inventive, surreal, funny. He’s a serious person.
Gabriel García Márquez. I’ve enjoyed him very much. My favorite Márquez is the Faulknerian Autumn of the Patriarch. It’s his best novel.
You’re a big Faulkner fan, aren’t you?
Faulkner was ambitious and courageous in what he did. And that accounts for a lot. The South American writers were immensely influenced by Faulkner. Without Faulkner, Márquez wouldn’t have been Márquez. To speak of greatness, we’re speaking of Faulkner.
How about J. D. Salinger?
He was, or is, a winning and appealing writer who had a strong appeal at a certain time. But there’s no comparison with Faulkner. I wouldn’t even put them in the same room together.
F. Scott Fitzgerald.
He was a brilliant, gifted, somewhat limited writer who needed to live longer. He simply didn’t develop.
I’ve always read Hemingway for his prose. I’ve never thought his characters were interesting, they seem to be flat and childlike. His dialogue seems infantile, but his eye for nature and his ear for language were breathtaking. You don’t find subtleties of character in Hemingway, you find them in Henry James.
A great master, he’s up there, he’s like Shakespeare.
What would you say has been your most influential work?
One short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has been anthologized a good deal and made into a movie called Smooth Talk, and everywhere I go people ask me about that.
Martin Scorsese plans to produce You Must Remember This, which Martha Coolidge will direct from your script. Are you excited about this?
Excited is a word that’s not in my vocabulary, but I’m very hopeful.
When the movie is made of your life, who should play you?
Oh, that’s really science fiction.
Capote thought the ghost of Eisenhower would be right for him.
Oh, well…the ghost of Henry James.
We haven’t talked about how you write. Do you use a computer?
I don’t have a word processor anymore. I write in longhand first–that’s the only way I can be in touch with the emotions that the characters go through. Then I go to the typewriter and it starts to be something different. Much more in control and meticulous. That’s a different process. Ninety percent of what I do now is revision.
How important are names for your characters?
Absolutely important. I spend a long time naming names. If I can’t get a name right I can’t write, I can’t begin. I have a lot of names that begin with J, especially men. It’s like my alter ego. I always go for the J if I can get away with it.
Have you ever used drugs to stimulate your thinking?
No, I’d no more do that than I’d take a bottle of ink and pour it on my rug. What if you stained your consciousness permanently? It’s not a gamble that I would consider.
You teach two writing classes at Princeton. Can writing be taught?
We’re not teaching writing, we’re teaching writers. I believe in helping gifted students get published. I really want to be like a trainer, where you keep pushing and pushing the gifted writer. I’m looking for my Mike Tyson.
Newsweek declared your subject to be “passion and its irrational power over human destinies.” Is that accurate?
That may be part of it. I certainly do feel that we’re guided by subterranean impulses. I don’t just mean individuals, I mean the collective. I mean entire nations. You see it in countries such as Iraq and Iran. It seems like a wave of irrationality rushes through an entire people and could carry them almost to suicidal behavior. And then you see it in individuals. Nietzsche said that madness in individuals is a rarity but in nations it’s the norm. It’s a good point.
In Black Water you attack former president Bush as evil, exploitative, hypocritical and shallow. Would he qualify as a mad Nietzschean individual?
You’re being too meticulous. I’m amazed that Bush got away with such blatant falsehoods. He said things that were screamingly untrue, like Clarence Thomas is the best person–male or female, black or white–to sit on the Supreme Court. Nobody would believe that, including Clarence Thomas.
We take it that you voted for Clinton?
Yes. As long as I don’t have to listen to him speak. Or listen to Al Gore go on and on shamelessly about his son.
You obviously lean more toward the downtrodden and invisible people of our society than to those in positions of power. Do you feel a responsibility to be a voice for the powerless?
Yes, I do. There are a lot of people whom nobody cares about. They work at the minimum wage, they’re exploited, they exist all around us, but they’re invisible. They can’t write about themselves, they don’t have any language, sometimes they’re illiterate. So if anybody’s going to write about them, it has to be someone who can feel sympathy for them. And I’ve always felt the sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.”
With such a body of work already behind you, what are your thoughts about immortality?
It’s just a word, a wishful word. People are not immortal.
Why do we feel haunted by the dead or by thoughts of death?
It’s sad how we love people and they are so fiercely individual and so priceless and they pass away. Then as we in turn pass away, their memories are gone. It’s the eternal drama of a species, of time burying the dead. The wheels keep turning.
If your life ended suddenly, would you feel you had accomplished much of what you wanted to?
I will never live long enough to execute all the ideas I have. Probably everybody has serious work to do and wild stories to tell, but life gets in the way. Everybody has a novel to write.
But not everybody who writes one has a chance for a Nobel Prize. How would you feel if you were so honored?
It would be a great honor, and it would bring honor to a body of work and to a group of people–American women writers. And it would probably change my life irrevocably. If it comes too soon it can have an adverse effect, like with Albert Camus, who was one of the youngest Nobel Prize winners. I think he was only 44 when he won it. He seemed then to have felt that he could not live up to it. But if it comes at the end of a career, obviously that’s different.
So it’s still something a long way off in your dreams?
I’m sure I have a long way to go. I won’t hold my breath.