Joyce Carol Oates in Conversation with Alan Cheuse
On November 14, Moment fiction editor Alan Cheuse spoke with fellow writer Joyce Carol Oates at the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest awards ceremony at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. This interview is adapted from that conversation.
Cheuse: How did you begin writing?
Oates: I was very interested in literature and was reading ever since I was eight or nine when I was given Alice in Wonderland. I had tablets that I drew pictures on a little bit like Lewis Carroll’s, and then I graduated to the typewriter about the time I was in ninth or tenth grade, when I was reading Hemingway and tried to write Hemingway-inspired stories. My grandmother gave me the typewriter, which at the time was an astonishing thing. I was sure I was the only one in the whole county with a typewriter.
Cheuse: Did your friends know what you were doing?
Oates: No, but I gave some of these stories to my teachers. I also had phases in which I was influenced by Faulkner and Fitzgerald. I was like an apprentice to these great writers. I remember how exciting that was, pretending I was a real writer, typing away.
Cheuse: Your family encouraged you to write at a rather early age.
Oates: My grandmother encouraged me—I had a Jewish grandmother. We didn’t know she was Jewish. She was from a family that came from Germany in the 1890s, and they disguised their identity and came to western New York. Why anybody would willingly go up there where it’s so cold, I’ve got no idea. We lived out in the country and it was relative wilderness. This part of the family didn’t want to say they were Jewish. They just had a kind of amnesia. My grandmother never talked about her background at all. She was the person who bought books for me and took me to the library in the city. I was her favorite, and I think I’ve become a writer because of her. She was always giving me books. So I came away with a false idea of reality. I thought my grandmother was someone whom I knew. I didn’t know her. I only knew a grandmother. I knew somebody who was playing a beautiful role with her family, but she must have gone home and she must have been really lonely. But the German-Jewish strain, and here I’m sorry to talk in clichés, but this is the intellectual strain. I think, “Why do I read books and why do I love books?” I think it’s probably that inheritance. There is something about Jews who revere books and education and language and art and music in a very wonderful way.
Cheuse: Your teachers must have encouraged you greatly.
Oates: I was very lucky to have teachers who were encouraging. I went to a one-room schoolhouse out in the country, and it was very rough and kind of primitive. It was one large room, one teacher and eight grades. I’ve written a lot about that school because it was such an interesting experience, and people don’t have any idea what it’s like today. Books were so prized and valuable—and in my household there were so few of them—that to me, the book was an aesthetic object. It had a sort of magical value, whereas I think younger people today, who may just be reading online, don’t have that same feeling for the aesthetic properties.
Cheuse: I think that’s true. I remember the first one I ever held in my hands was a book called The Story of the Golden Cockerel, a Russian folktale that my father would read to me. I understood nothing, but I remember smelling the pages and have sniffed books ever since. As you say, the current generation of readers and writers don’t see that a book has to pass the sniff test.
Oates: Do you think that you and other writers would have worked so very hard on your prose if it wasn’t going to be in a book form, but only in e-book form? You wouldn’t write so hard if you were, say, James Joyce, working for 15 years on Finnegans Wake. You just wouldn’t have that motive or that impetus. When James Joyce was writing, the book was a beautiful, aesthetic object that had almost a religious or sacred value in the world. But if you don’t have that, I’m not sure you have the same sort of motives for the writings of Joyce, Proust, Faulkner or Hemingway. They were writing for the library shelf and the three-dimensional world. The e-book is a little more like a book, but it isn’t really your book because it’s an apparatus and you’re a ghost in this machine and you can be erased.
Cheuse: The last figures I’ve seen about e-book sales is that they’re going way down, while hardcover books are holding their own.
Oates: It’s sort of mysterious, isn’t it? Because just recently we’ve had mega-billion bestsellers like J.K. Rowling. There are still people selling many, many copies of their books. I think the Rowling novels are real books, and it’s amazing that young children are reading 500-page books.
Cheuse: There are two strains of thought. There are failed or very disappointed novelists saying that with all the tweets, e-books and everything else that’s going on electronically, they don’t have to write a novel to give the reader the essence of our time. On the other end are the surveys of college students who say they love a physical book above anything else.
Oates: Tweets are no substitute for Dickens. I write tweets. Tweets are just tweets. They’re not a substitute for anything. That’s like saying an advertising jingle is a substitute for Beethoven. But it’s amazing to go onto Twitter and see people responding to television shows like Homeland the way the students used to when its creator, Alex Gansa, was my student handing in his stories. Except now there are millions of people responding, and he’s on a rather higher level of exposure and he makes a lot more money.
Cheuse: You have a kind of odd reputation as the woman who writes about violence. But I think you’ve said this in interviews—when you’ve written as many thousands of pages as you have, there’s bound to be trouble.
Oates: That’s true. Almost every work of fiction that I write of a certain length has a crime in it, some violation, some transgression. Crime doesn’t have to be violent and mystery doesn’t have to have bodies. Our lives are fraught with mystery. And many mysteries are things in our lives that don’t involve violence necessarily. In fact, the violence might be relatively direct and clear-cut, whereas the mysteries that surround us are opaque.
Cheuse: In a 1978 interview with Paris Review, Robert Phillips asked if you were still writing new stories, and you said that you intended to focus on novels. And since then you’ve published some of the most astonishing short stories in American literature. Where is your heart these days—with stories or novels?
Oates: I love to write both short stories and novels, and I love to read them. Writing is derived from the happiness of reading. When you’re very young and start reading, or somebody reads to you, it fills you with such excitement that you want to do your own stories. That’s how I think of it. I’m reading all the time and I really enjoy it. I love just reading sentences. I am so in love with writing that I really am writing, or thinking about my writing, almost all the time. I particularly like to be working on a chapter or a short story and go for a walk or run. I’m running and thinking. I start trying to see the story in my mind like a movie—by envisioning it. But it’s also really important to be alone and to not have interruptions. I can get very misty-eyed and mystical about it. Then, when I come back home, the real work has been done.
Alan: You have a new novel coming in January?
Joyce: Yes. You asked where my heart is now, and my heart is with whatever I’m working on right now, because if you focus on what’s in front of you, that’s what I tend to be thinking about.
Cheuse: And your heart has undergone many transformations and it’s been in many places?
Oates: I suppose so. But to be a writer, or any kind of artist, you have to be able to focus very intensely. It’s the intensity that we bring to our dreams at night. Each night we fall asleep and descend into this magical underworld, where our dreams are so intense and so involving—sometimes frightening—that they completely envelop us. You don’t think, “I’ve had 40,000 dreams before.” You’re involved in this one intense experience, and that’s the way writing is. You put your heart into what you’re doing right now.