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Joyce Carol Oates

What would a 1950s family near Niagra Falls say about an episode of The Sopranos? Why does America so easily forget its ordinary heroes? A conversation with the prolific Joyce Carol Oates about her most recent novel, why she loves to teach, and how many other books are gestating in her desk.

Perhaps it is too obvious a joke to say that Joyce Carol Oates’s picture appears in the dictionary next to the definition of “prodigious.” The author of nearly 30 novels (including some published under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith), countless volumes of short stories, poems, children’s stories, and essays, she is often characterized as a workaholic, to which charge she told the New York Times in 1975, “I am not conscious of working especially hard, or of ‘working’ at all. Writing and teaching have always been, for me, so richly rewarding that I don’t think of them as work in the usual sense of the word.”

Oates was born in Lockport, N.Y., and attended Syracuse University, graduating as valedictorian, before receiving her master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin. Since 1978, she has taught creative writing at Princeton University, where she is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of Humanities. Oates received a National Book Award in 1970 for her novel Them and has been a recipient of numerous other awards and honors. Her stories are regularly anthologized in the annual Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Prize collections. In 1996, she was selected for the PEN/Malamud Award for a lifetime achievement in the short story form. Some of her recent novels are Blonde, I’ll Take You There, We Were the Mulvaneys, The Tattooed Girl and most recently, The Falls.

The Falls is set in 1950 in familiar Oatesian territory, western New York state, specifically, the city of Niagara Falls. Ariah and Dick Burnaby and their three children are the nucleus of the story, which unfolds over three decades against the backdrop of one of nature’s awe-inspiring landmarks and a region suffering the dramatic decline and environmental ills (remember Love Canal?) all too familiar in recent American history.
 

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: Do you have any particular preoccupations these days, which won’t let go of you, that haunt you?

Joyce Carol Oates: That’s a good question. Most of my writing does arise out of some hauntedness of some kind. Often it’s a place or image or perhaps a person or an event. Yes.

RB: So these days?

JCO: I’m working on a story—I mean I’m always working on something so it tends to be somewhat fleeting. I am preoccupied with ethical considerations.

RB: You may be the only person in America. [laughs] Just kidding.

JCO: The idea that to choose the right path maybe very difficult, not only for you but for your family and to have a kind of idealism that doesn’t become discouraged or disintegrated in history, those are terms that I am very interested in.

RB: Like Dirk Burnaby, the noble lawyer in The Falls?
Oates, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
JCO: Yeah, people like him, who do exist in the world. Who are not perfect. They are not really heroic. They behave in heroic ways but they would not see themselves as heroes. They are pretty human people. They don’t have any grandiose, pretentious platform. It’s more, “How does one respond in an immediate ethical altruistic way when there are so many options and when it maybe difficult to make that choice?” We talk about things like this at Princeton University in ethics seminars. I tend to feel that adolescents, perhaps even more than adults, have a natural sense of justice and a disdain for hypocrisy. And when we become older we tend to be more compromised.

RB: Why do you think that?

JCO: Because we are older. [grins]

RB: [laughs]

JCO: Because we have more experiences. When you are in your teens and 20s you may not have a family, you may not have a permanent job, so life can look very different to you.

RB: So ethical decisions require reviewing fewer variables?

JCO: That’s right.

RB: I was thinking about the way we feel when we reread things we read in our youth and how differently we experience that.

JCO: Yeah, it’s always changing. And when I came here this morning, toward Boston, I naturally would think of Henry David Thoreau because I love Concord. That’s one of the most beautiful places. I have gone to Concord and made pilgrimages to Walden Pond many times and the phenomenon of Henry David Thoreau is essentially a phenomenon of a kind of adolescent idealism. He was unattached. He didn’t have a family; he didn’t have any children. He didn’t have any gainful employment. And life was, to him, a matter of making choices that were fairly direct and didn’t have to be mediated or compromised. He was going to be a schoolteacher for a while, but there were too many compromises there and he didn’t. Henry David Thoreau declined being a schoolteacher. He quit because he didn’t want to whip the children. And a good teacher in those days had to whip the children. He didn’t want to do that. But most of us don’t have that kind of austerity that he had. We may be employed by institutions. We may have families. We made choices that align us with the establishment in one way or another. But in my writing I am mainly writing about people. I am not writing about these abstract ideas. So it’s somewhat misleading to talk this way.

RB: I wonder if there is a corollary to the phrase “banality of evil.” Like the “commonality of goodness.” A way to describe the person who makes honorable ethical decisions but would not be called heroic. In a way we expect people to do good but not in a florid or pumped-up way.

JCO: That’s true.

RB: Would there be a phrase we might employ, “the ordinariness of decency,” or something?

JCO: I’m not sure. Most people would choose to behave in an ethical and good way if they knew what the options were. But their lives are so hemmed in by compromises. For instance, every time we eat something, especially if it’s chicken or veal or something, we are buying into a consumer culture in which the animals have been grossly mistreated. And yet most of us are not going to be thinking about that all the time and then each day we have so many things to think about; when we reach for something in the grocery store you can’t be thinking, “Where did this come from? What were the circumstances?” Some people do but most people don’t have time for that. And so that’s what I mean by the moral compromises. Some of my students are vegetarians. I am not a vegetarian. I don’t eat red meat, but I am not a vegetarian. And there are lots of really strong moral arguments.


We tend to think we are good people and that we have God on our side. But the other nations think they are good people and that they have God on their side. It’s just the way the human species is constructed, to be very myopic. Each person thinks he is the center of everything else.


RB: They are vegetarians because of moral concerns?

JCO: I think so. People make jokes about vegetarians. People feel uneasy. As I said, I am not a vegetarian. But people joke about things they are uneasy about. When women’s liberation was just beginning back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were a lot of really harsh, cruel jokes at the expense of the feminists, because there was a feeling of uneasiness. And feeling of threat. And that suggests anxiety and defensiveness.

RB: Did the joking ever abate?

JCO: I think it has abated.

RB: Really?

JCO: Well there are so many women in positions now—there are women who presidents of universities where decades ago women were not allowed in these same universities. I teach at one of them—Princeton. We have a distinguished woman president for the first time in our history. We also have had a woman provost. We have women deans. Believe me, some decades ago the whole concept that women would even be students at Princeton, let alone professors like myself, and administrators, would have been laughed out. It would have been considered so ridiculous.

RB: So there has been progress in human history? [chuckles]

JCO: There are pockets of progress. In medical technology, and in medicine, and in science. Other parts of the world may go forward, but then they may slide backward. I am not sure what position the United States is in morally—it depends upon what your political bias is. Some people think we are a rapacious nation and that we are aggressive and bellicose and cruel—

RB: That may be most of the world—

JCO: And exploitative. We tend to think we are good people and that we have God on our side. But the other nations think they are good people and that they have God on their side. It’s just the way the human species is constructed, to be very myopic. Each person thinks he is the center of everything else.

RB: By concerning yourself with ethical matters issues or at least including them in your thoughts about writing, does that suggest that this is one of the functions of literature? And it in fact may be the last refuge of ethical dialogue? Is there much concern with ethical issues in the public conversation?

JCO: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer because the terms moral value and ethical values are used but they are used for political expediency. But as a writer and a reader of literature, I am also just concerned with stories and characters. I love drama. I love the memorializing of places. I can read Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy or D.H. Lawrence almost as much for the landscape and for the cityscape as for the characters, because the landscape is so vividly portrayed. So when I write I try to do the same thing.

RB: You grew up in the locale that is the setting of The Falls?

JCO: Yes, I grew up about 20 miles from Niagara Falls. I know the area very well and I go back often to visit. I have family there. Niagara Falls as a phenomenon of nature is extraordinary. But I was also interested in the city of Niagara Falls, and if you live in that area, you may refer to “the Falls,” and “Niagara Falls” is the city. And they are quite different, really. Tourists know about the Falls and they take pictures of the Falls and the cliché of honeymooners going there. But Niagara Falls as a city is a very deeply troubled, financially beleaguered American city that had a lot of heavy industry and still has some industry but is very depopulated. It’s like Detroit.

RB: Has it ever recovered from Love Canal? [In the late 1970s, residents of the Niagara Falls area discovered a canal once used as a hazardous waste disposal but filled in more than 20 years earlier was causing health problems and birth defects. The resulting emergency evacuations and legal fallout prompted increased attention to environmental problems nationwide.—ed.]

JCO: Has it ever recovered? I don’t think that the city is what one would call a healthy city, but there are many other reasons having to do with the financial collapse. Upstate New York and Western New York have been in an economic recession for decades. I wouldn’t say it was linked to Love Canal. It’s been like that for many decades; an economist could explain why.

RB: In the early chapters when you are introducing Ariah, though the book begins at mid-20th century, it had a feeling of being the turn of the 20th century. It felt older and simpler and more restrained.




Oates, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005


JCO: Well, the novel begins in a semi-mythical past and moves into more of a gritty realistic late 1970s. I wanted a narrative with operatic overtones. But 1950 is actually a long time ago. People dress very differently. Women wore corsets and all sorts of things that they don’t wear today. Men were much more likely to wear neckties and coats, and the sexual politics were very different. Women and girls really knew nothing about sex. And a good girl was not only a virgin, of course, but actually knew very little of what would happen on a honeymoon or a marriage. This is completely antithetical to today. If one wanted not to know today one would not be able to—because we are just assailed. Just in turning on a television set today, we see images very casually that in the 1950s our ancestors would be stunned. They wouldn’t believe what they were seeing. One episode of The Sopranos, for instance—they would not be able to believe their eyes. So we were all very protected in the 1950s. I was just a little girl then. I didn’t really what I know now. And I wasn’t looking at my society with any kind of objectivity in those days. Looking back on it, it was a very repressed time. The concept of gay liberation and homosexuality was not acknowledged and was considered a pathology, and we are very different today. So it may be that 1950 is closer in some respects to 1900 than it is to 2004, and that’s what you are responding to, that.

RB: The internal dialogue of the newly married couple seemed like a 19th-century relationship, not a 20th-century relationship.

JCO: It was a 1950s relationship.

RB: What was the starting point for this book?

JCO: I wanted to write a novel in which a father would be redeemed, and the father was going to be expelled from the family, and the first version he was going to go to prison. He had become involved in something and he was sent to prison. Anyway, it’s kind of complicated.


I like to write about people who are heroic in a quiet, almost anonymous way and no one knows or even cares about. It’s the same way today; there are many people who elect to work in extremely dangerous circumstances, and they just take a chance.


RB: There were many versions?

JCO: Just in my mind. Just in my imagination. I work things out in my head before I write them. So they undergo lots of changes just in my mind. But I wanted to write a novel where a character is unjustly considered to have been a bad father and then it’s realized after his death that he was really good father. So basically that’s the rhythm of the novel—to bring the father back.

RB: As the reader, I never felt he was a bad father.

JCO: No, no you didn’t.

RB: The only person who felt he was a bad father was his wife. And perhaps the social class he allegedly betrayed.

JCO: Yeah, in the city, it seemed that he drank and he got into a fight. He hit a bailiff in court. He behaved badly. He was drunk in court. He was sentenced to prison and committed suicide. That’s what they thought. Now we know it’s different. And the fact that he was drinking as a consequence of his idealism, he was very, very upset, and so on the neighborhood in the city his reputation was actually quite bad. And so I wanted to redeem him. And I wanted to write about Niagara Falls because I lived in that area and I had a grandfather who died of a work-related illness, emphysema, but it wasn’t known at the time, really, what was wrong with him. He worked in the factory in Tonawanda, which is near Niagara Falls. I always wanted to write about people who suffer anonymously who work in factories, to provide the best wages they can for their family. Many of them are younger men who are not educated and got married and had babies, and they go out and work in these factories and they die when they are 45 or 51. My grandfather died when he was 52. And it’s like they sacrifice themselves. I like to write about people who are heroic in a quiet, almost anonymous way and no one knows or even cares about. It’s the same way today; there are many people who elect to work in extremely dangerous circumstances, and they just take a chance. An analogue—a different situation but it’s an analogue to young people who smoke who know very well, all the culture tells them smoking is very dangerous, but it’s a kind of denial and they feel maybe it doesn’t pertain to them Or maybe it won’t happen. So that is part of our species, to be in a state of denial.

RB: Did the Love Canal litigation really begin back in the early ‘60s?

JCO: Yes it began in the 1950s. It was a grassroots, neighborhood sort of thing.

RB: Was the case taken up by just one lawyer, as in The Falls?

JCO: I don’t know if there was one lawyer. There were a number of people. Lois Gibbs, who wrote two memoirs about the Love Canal litigation, was one of the housewives in the area who went out and rang doorbells. She tried to get people to sign petitions. And some of her neighbors just wouldn’t sign. They just pushed her away. They closed the door. They said, “This is communism, to criticize.” Back in the 1950s, there was no concept of environmental protection. You didn’t really have that consciousness that we have today. There are certain buzzwords in the 21st century that we take for granted. “Environmental protection” is one of them.

RB: “Social justice”?

JCO: Well, “social justice,” yeah. “Gay rights,” that never existed before. “Women’s rights.” The rights of ethnic minorities. None of these things existed. Back in the 1950s and earlier, you were thrown out in to this great ocean of conflict and there were people in power, and they tended to be white men and they had power and they weren’t going to give it up to some black people or some women.

RB: Or working people.

JCO: Yeah. It was basically a struggle for dominance. When we look at it today, it seems so clear, because we have deconstructed it and we understand the consequences of these things. But at that time there wasn’t a vocabulary for it. Sexual harassment, sexual politics of all kinds, sex crimes didn’t exist as a category. Wife battering didn’t exist. A husband or father really had the right, an unacknowledged, granted right, to discipline his family. I lived in an area like some of the areas I write about—a man would come home. He’d been drinking; he’d beat up his wife and scare his children and run out into their yard—but the father was kind of sacrosanct and the police would never come to investigate because that was his turf.

RB: Ariah is an odd woman who mirrors her husband’s mother.

JCO: Well, she does have a career. She wants to be a teacher.

RB: But self-involved like the mother.
Oates, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
JCO: The mother was very wealthy. The mother had been a very beautiful woman and a debutante. And she didn’t have any skills. She was never educated. And she was just this society woman and when she got older that didn’t work any longer. But Ariah is between the old America and the new America. She is really a feminist but she is much too early in history. She doesn’t have any sisters. And she doesn’t really want to mingle with society people. She is much more of a loner. I identify with her in various ways. Her great flaw and failing is that she is so possessive. She loves her husband too much. She becomes very jealous. Some people are like that. She loves her children so much and she tries to possess them. And, one by one, they have to get away from her.

RB: Her love for children is a little twisted, at least in the way she talks to them.

JCO: Well, she just wants to keep them at home. She is very possessive. She wants her son, Royal, to marry a certain girl because that girl is sweet and not too smart and she wants the couple to live with her. She says, “You can have all the upstairs. What’s the matter? No rent.” It’s because she loves people too frantically. I like to think that I would not be like that myself. But in other ways I identify with Ariah.

RB: A lot of that came from what happened to her first husband.

JCO: Yes, the disaster.

RB: As opposed to something prior—maybe that is why she married him, some odd connection to him

JCO: Since her first husband commits suicide on the morning after their wedding night, she was very humiliated and mortified and shamed. It had to be that God—if there is a God—that he was punishing her and she was somebody who was in the shadows. Many people feel that way about themselves. They are in the shadows. Other people walk in the sunshine. But there is a shadow side of the street. I don’t know how to account for that. I once wrote a long novel [Blonde] about Norma Jeane Baker, who becomes Marilyn Monroe, and Norma Jeane of those who dwelt in the shade, in the dark, semi-dark. Marilyn Monroe was a creature who was created and concocted, platinum blonde and very beautiful, to exude sunshine and beauty and childlike simplicity. But Norma Jeane who played the role was not like that at all. I was so interested in that contrast. I understand the darkness. I understand the doubt, that people have the self-doubt.

RB: So Ariah after her first marriage is always seeing her relationships as temporary—

JCO: That she has been cursed.

RB: She always feels something was going to go wrong.

JCO: That’s right and that things are cursed. She wanted her children to stay right in that house so that nothing will happen. She doesn’t want her daughter to be hurt. She wants her daughter to be right in that house in the next room. She wants her sons to be right there. And there are some women that feel that way. And actually, sometimes they are right. That’s the irony.

RB: I was struck by the oddness, perhaps because I have a dog companion I am more sensitive to it, her most extreme expression of concern about a relationship is when the family dog disappears.

JCO: Oh yeah, she was distraught. She loved that dog so much, and she didn’t want people to know it. She was pretending to be tough, “Oh, look at the dog,” and scold it. When it came right down to it, she loved that dog very, very much. It’s to show that Ariah is so vulnerable—she pretends to be tough and she pretends to be cynical, but inside she is just melting and she is very vulnerable.

RB: Very late in this story, you have her once again express her love for her husband.

JCO: Oh yes at the end, yeah.

RB: But through most of the remainder of the story, after his death, she had nothing good to say about him.

JCO: She won’t talk about him at all. She feels that he betrayed her. As far as she knows he betrayed her with another woman. And then he got drunk and then he committed suicide. He left the family—that’s as far as she knows. But she loved the dog he [her husband] brought her and he brings this puppy and leaves the puppy there and it’s like he is giving [of] himself. And I personally do love dogs and I love cats. And I sort of relate to animals whenever there is animal in a novel of mine; the animals in my novels have luminous intensity. They are not just animals, but they have a symbolic intensity.

RB: I write for a dog magazine called Bark, and I recently wrote about some writers using dogs as devices and others as characters.

JCO: Oh, yes.

RB: They are in fact very vivid an expressive.

JCO: I don’t have a dog. But I am interested in different breeds and their different characteristics.

RB: What gives you a feeling of satisfaction or success after you have written something as large as a novel?

JCO: Well, with a novel like The Falls, which I wrote a few years ago…and then I put my long novels away in a drawer and I wait for a year, and I take them out and reread them and then work on them a little more, revise them. So it’s a process that takes some time. I almost never publish a novel immediately. There is always a lapse of some kind. I write another novel and then I go back to something—I have two novels in drawers right now that are sort of gestating. I will take them out after a year.

RB: So when you write, you don’t immediately start to revise, to get it ready for publication?

JCO: I revise all the time, everyday. I revise every page, all the time.

RB: So when you put a work away, what state is it in?

JCO: It’s finished, but I don’t trust that judgment. Like, to me, if that novel had to be published it would be fine, but I always wait for a year and then I look at it again, and I will add something or subtract something. I probably added five pages or crossed out some paragraphs. The changes are very minor after a year. And all that time, all of those months, I am reading and thinking about the novel in the drawer and having thoughts about it, and so there may be something I would like to add to it—the concept of environmental protection and litigation, protecting the environment, is relatively recent in history, people were not doing that, and the 1950s was sort of the beginning. The 1950s were too early for some of these [nascent environmentalist] people. Of course now we have a government that is not very friendly to the environment. So we may be going backward and losing some of our gains.


Our culture is very hypnotized and fascinated by extremes of success. Pop culture doesn’t really honor the people I think are selfless and much more worthy.


RB: So what signals success to you?

JCO: Successful? I don’t probably use a word like “successful.” To me, it is fully realized. I realized fully the dramatic possibilities of the material and the characters, and it can’t be too much. I can’t be repetitive. To fully realize material and characters—that’s the aim of the writer. A person could write a version of War and Peace in 20 pages, but it wouldn’t be fully realized. Because it’s going to take 2,000 pages.

RB: Late in the book, you introduce a new character partly to explicate the youngest member of the family, the daughter. Are you tempted to continue this story or make this story longer?

JCO: No, I think it’s finished. I became very interested in the character called Stonecrop, that boy. That we sort of feel is going to be a chef. He is going to have his life. I can’t follow these characters much farther. The dramatic story of their lives is finished—it’s ended.

RB: How close are you to the stories you have written?

JCO: In my own life? It depends on what the story is. My next novel is called Missing Mom. And it’s about a woman who loses her mother—that is, her mother dies—and this very close to my own emotional experience because I lost my mother in 2002. But the story is fictitious. The emotions are very much my own emotions and the consequences of losing a mother, who was a very wonderful mother, who is very well loved. In a kind of selfless way. Many of us have mothers, fathers, grandfathers who were very wonderful people in the family but they don’t leave any cultural monuments—

RB: They don’t leave a trail.

JCO: It kind of ends with the family influence. My mother was a wonderful homemaker. She sewed—she was just a wonderful mother and wife.

RB: No recipes that you continue to use?

JCO: Well, it wasn’t even that she was a serious cook. It’s just that these people are unheralded in the culture. Our culture is very hypnotized and fascinated by extremes of success. Pop culture doesn’t really honor the people I think are selfless and much more worthy. So my novel is about a woman who is a homemaker who did finish high school but never really was well educated. Just someone who is a very nice person—does volunteer work with senior citizens—things that my mother did. This is not Mother Teresa, or anything extraordinary, but the novel I have written about losing the mother is based on my own mother, and yet everything in the novel, almost everything, is fictitious. So that’s the way I write.

RB: You are an old hand in the literary book world. Are you encouraged, despondent, or disconnected from the chatter produced by the literary world?

JCO: Probably not too connected with it—I’m not sure I know what you mean by that.

RB: There is a whole ambient [to creating literature] culture, panels, awards juries, writer’s conferences, reviewing—

JCO: That depends on the degree of involvement that people have. In Europe, there has always been the tradition that writers have a civic role and that they are cultural spokesmen. They may be very political in Europe. That tends to be much less the case in this country. But in France, for instance, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and many others were extremely influential politically and very important. We have nothing like that in this country.

RB: I’m trying to think of someone.

JCO: This country is so diverse and so vast. Essentially, France is Paris and Paris was a city where everyone knew everyone else. When you look at the United States—a vast and enormous country with all these different regions—and some writers in different parts of the country, maybe the West or the Southwest, they get involved in environmental protection and they stand up and campaign for different issues. But I think it’s just as well that writers don’t interfere too much in politics. Because literature should ideally be above politics, like poetry, transcend the ephemeral and the fleeting. You ask about being on juries and book tours: That depends on the person’s personality.

RB: What about you?

JCO: I have always been a teacher. I have been a professor for many years. Many writers don’t teach. They don’t feel that they have enough energy. They don’t want to meet that many people. I feel that I want to meet people and I enjoy meeting people, and I can go back to my study and I can work and I haven’t had any erosion of my spirit. But I have some friends, I won’t say their names, who wouldn’t dream of even going to the local Barnes & Noble and giving a reading—they are so shy. They don’t understand that meeting people is enjoyable. It’s actually nice to meet people. They feel that they are going to lose something


The students get to really, really like one another. They are good friends and we read their work with eagerness and interest. I’m always interested in what my students are going to write. That’s not the case once they leave the university. And they send their stories out to magazines. People are not waiting to read their work. They are probably going to reject it.


RB: There are many writers who teach out of economic necessity.

JCO: That’s right. One very prominent writer who lives in the Boston area, he said, “How can you teach, Joyce? I taught for a year and it seems that the students wanted to take something from me. They wanted to take my wisdom from me.” I don’t see it that way at all. A teacher doesn’t feel that students are taking anything. You are giving, and it’s also reciprocal. A teacher learns from students, too. But that attitude, that if you teach or if you go out and shake someone’s hand, that people will take something from you, is antithetical to my personality. I don’t feel that way.

RB: One can muse on the fact that many writers are introverts—

JCO: Some of them.

RB:—who are thrown into the public eye and required to be charming and friendly—

JCO: They don’t have to do that. Anne Tyler never goes on a book tour.

RB: She thinks there are too many writers [in an essay that was anthologized in the NYT Writers on Writing].

JCO: Well, nobody wants to start with herself. [both laugh]

RB: Princeton doesn’t have a graduate writing program.

JCO: Just undergraduates.

RB: The kids who take creative writing are aspiring to be professional writers?

JCO: [No, they’re taking it] because they want to. Most of them are just gifted young people, and they might be talking other courses in photography or drama or music. Some of them are natural-born writers, and I can sort of distinguish who they are.

RB: Do you encourage people to continue on writing programs? Are you a believer in the efficacy of graduate writing programs?

JCO: Do I encourage people? I almost never interfere in people’s lives. If somebody comes to ask my opinion, I’ll give an opinion. But I never go out and encourage or try to persuade people. I don’t see that as my personality. I don’t try to coerce or even influence people very much. I usually encourage them to go to graduate school or to take a writing course because writing workshops are so friendly and supportive and there is a wonderful atmosphere, at least in my writing workshops. The students get to really, really like one another. They are good friends and we read their work with eagerness and interest. I’m always interested in what my students are going to write. That’s not the case once they leave the university. And they send their stories out to magazines. People are not waiting to read their work. They are probably going to reject it.

RB: Why?

JCO: Have you ever seen the office of a magazine? Stacks and stacks—if 500 stories come in every week, you can’t give each the attention that you give—

RB: I was thinking of PloughsharesDon Lee, who mentioned that small literary magazines get exponentially more submissions than subscriptions.

JCO: Many more. Ploughshares, that’s a very good magazine. But they probably get thousands of stories.

RB: What does it say that so many people want to be writers?

JCO: What does it say? I don’t know—they have the leisure time and relative affluence. It must be something like that. And that there is a natural craving in our species to tell stories and express ourselves, if not in words, maybe in paintings or music. It seems very natural.

RB: For past 50 years, it seems that declinist theories have had some currency—pop culture is suffocating high culture, the visual is overwhelming the written word.

JCO: The internet is very much verbal. You have to be able to type. To me that is very surprising. There is supposed to be so much illiteracy in the United States, but to handle the internet easily, you have to know how to spell. In fact, you can’t even make one little mistake, or it won’t work. There must be a cut-off point. There must be many, many millions of people who can’t use the internet because they are not literate. Maybe our culture is dividing into two—the internet culture and then other people. It used to be that people who couldn’t read could make their way in our society somehow; they got to know what a word looked like on a bus or a street name or something. But they actually can’t read. And they couldn’t work computers.

RB: I think it’s odd that the computer ends up affirming language and text.

JCO: It’s surprising. Because people of an older generation, many of them find computers very difficult. I have a Macintosh laptop. It weighs just a couple of pounds. I don’t write on it. I write in longhand. I like to write in an old-fashioned way.

RB: [laughs]

JCO: That’s the way I write.

RB: How far do you look ahead in your life?

JCO: How far ahead?

RB: Yeah.

JCO: Umm. As a writer I tend to think in terms of books. Like the books in my drawer. And what will be published in 2005 and maybe something in 2006. That’s as a writer. Publishers are always looking to the future. As a person—I look at my calendar to see what’s down. But beyond that I am not looking that much into the future.

RB: Do you see any big changes in your life? You’ll continue to teach at Princeton and write—




Oates, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005


JCO: I don’t anticipate any large changes, but of course something could happen from the outside. We live in such a time of sudden disruption. After 9/11, people in my part of the world cannot really take anything for granted anymore. It seemed that world was almost ending on the morning of 9/11. We were looking at television and all these airplanes were unaccounted for, and we sort of sat there, “Where are these airplanes?” One crashed into the Pentagon and so forth. But there were some hours there when everything was suspended. “Are we under attack? Are we going to go up in flames?” Many people felt that way. At least in the area I live in, around New York. I don’t think people felt that way in Oklahoma.

RB: They might have already experienced that since the federal building bombing.

JCO: That’s right. I should have said “the farther you get away from the 9/11 area.” But of course the Oklahoma City bombing seemed to be the work of a single or a couple of nuts who—

RB: If I recall correctly, the news chatter brought up Arab terrorists.

JCO: Was it? Right away? Well, that’s interesting. I don’t remember that. I was actually at Yale that day. I was giving a reading at Yale and the first news reports came in about a day care center being bombed. And everybody was thinking why would you bomb children? And then later on it developed that they were not the target. It’s kind of interesting the way news breaks. And there is this flurry of interpretation that later is completely discredited.

RB: What are you reading these days? Do you read contemporary work?

JCO: Oh, sure. I am reading contemporary all the time. Literally at the moment I am reading The Collected Short Stories of Jean Stafford—I’m going write an introduction to the reprint. And I am reading for the best American mystery stories, 2005.

RB: The Otto Penzler series?

JCO: You know Otto Penzler?

RB: I know the series and his imprint and bookstore.

JCO: Yes, he’s the series editor and I am the guest editor. So I’m reading wonderful stories. Lots of stories that are coming in. I love mystery stories. So this is great. I’m enjoying that.

RB: Houghton Mifflin has turned the Best American into about nine titles.

JCO: Best American Sports [Writing]—

RB: Travel Writing, Essays, Science Writing, Non-Required Reading—

JCO: The short stories [1915] was the first. I did the essays one year and I did the Best American Essays of the 20th Century. That’s the kind of reading I do like. To be editing a big volume and to read and get a whole lot of material. That’s pleasure.

RB: What do you make of the recent NEA study that claims a decline in reading and the reaction to it?

JCO: I’m not sure how valid it is. The Harry Potter books aren’t counted. So if you had a survey where they aren’t counted that doesn’t seem like a survey that is very scientific. The Harry Potter phenomenon not only brought in children, but older people were reading it, too. I am just guessing, maybe a billion people or more have read that book. If you have survey that doesn’t acknowledge that, it’s not very helpful. In the survey, literature was fiction, poetry, and drama. But almost nobody reads dramas. I don’t read drama either. So that’s kind of irrelevant. And biographies were not counted. Some of the great books of our time—so it’s one of these things that gets in the news but if you look at it carefully—

RB: These surveys are like exit polls

JCO: Something’s wrong you know. Something is very wrong with polls. I have never actually been contacted myself.

RB: Me neither.

JCO: And I have never met anyone who has—none of my friends. So who is being contacted?

RB: The same 1,200 people out of 270 million—the usual scientific statistical random sampling.

JCO: Yeah, something like that. I’m very skeptical. I mentioned Henry David Thoreau at the beginning of our conversation. Henry David Thoreau was always questioning authority and thinking who is telling me this and why? Who’s trying to manipulate me? I read Thoreau when I was just 15, 16 years old, and I think he’s very beneficial for a young person.

RB: It’s unfortunate that the distinction between skepticism and cynicism has been collapsed. Asking critical questions is a healthy pursuit. That’s not being cynical. Being negative and dismissive of everything is and that ultimately is not useful.

JCO: That’s right. Well I’m sure that you are naturally skeptical. You have that aura.

RB: [laughs]

JCO: You don’t seem credulous. I’m not a credulous person. I don’t think I’m a cynical person. I feel that people manipulate others who are well intentioned.

RB: Could be a function of late-model capitalism that employs marketing in everything, in every everything.

JCO: So true.

RB: You have a few novels in a drawer and you still write short stories, and essays. You don’t do drama.

JCO: Yes, I have a play coming out in January.

RB: What? [laughs]

JCO: I have written plays. A play I adapted from my novel The Tattooed Girl is going to premiere in Washington in January.

RB: Why did you do that?

JCO: Well, why does one want to write anything?

RB: Right.

JCO: Plays are very exciting. You work with actors and directors.

RB: You might have said, “Because I can.”

JCO: Well, it’s such a collaborative effort. The first draft of a play undergoes so many changes. Many playwrights don’t feel that confident without taking it to the theater and hearing it. I would never write a play and then think that was it. It changes so much. So actually you have to be pretty modest.

RB: You had said that you didn’t read drama. I can’t read plays. I can’t read Shakespeare, but I love to see the plays performed.

JCO: Shakespeare is relatively easy to read on the page, and Shaw and Chekhov, but to see them performed is the ideal.

RB: Well, thank you so much. Perhaps we’ll meet again.

JCO: I hope so.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum