Close Encounters of the Literary Kind, Part VII: Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is American literary royalty. Since the publication of her first novel, With Shuddering Fall in 1964, she has published a novel or a book nearly every year. To date she has published 37 novels and numerous short story collections, a memoir, and introductions to the works of others. She currently teachers at Princeton, and is a recipient of more awards than one can count. For the past several years her name is always mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Oates read from her latest novel, Mudwoman in Cambridge, MA. It was the first time that I had the opportunity to see her in person, and I have to admit, I was slightly nervous. There are not many American heavyweight writers left, as all seem to be aging. Oates herself is now in her seventies, yet she still maintains a vigorous professional schedule. As I sat in a pew in the First Parish Church waiting for the event to begin, I caught snippets of conversations from all sorts of people. Joyce Carol Oates had attracted an extremely diverse crowd, and the thing that seems to bring them all together was a love for her writing.

The first thing one notices about Joyce Carol Oates is how slight she is. In fact, she very much takes on the aura of a ghost, sliding through reality quietly and with ease. Her uncanny resemblance to the actress Shelley Duvall is even more striking in person. When she approaches the podium to speak she looks as if she might collapse from fatigue at any moment. Yet, her semblance of a physical frailty is just that, a semblance. Known for being a longtime runner, her body is therefore not frail as one first perceives, but actually constitutes a model runner’s frame. There is absolutely no fat on her. The physical suggestion of a kind of frailty disappears as soon as she begins to speak. She speaks with a confidence and ease that demonstrates her professionalism as a public figure. Certainly her teaching gig at Princeton has prepared her for this type of public speaking, which, incidentally, even some of the best writers fail at.

Those who have read Joyce Carol Oates know that she writes from a gothic, Poesque tradition. Her books, for the most part, are very good as well as disturbing. Her imagination tends to dwell in the darker recesses of human predicament. In fact, it’s a bit surprising to realize that such dark thoughts can come from such a slight, soft-spoken woman. She is, quite simply, far more normal in person that I would have thought. Her latest novel, Mudwoman, deals (she tells us) with the anxiety that comes from mental breakdowns, and how one pulls oneself out of them.

Once she begins to speak Joyce Carol Oates is all ease and grace. She jokes with the audience and tells us about how the novel came into being. I have seldom seen a writer so at ease with her audience. It’s once she begins to read, however, that one gets the sense that she is perhaps a bit unsure of herself. But after a few moments one realizes that this isn’t true: she hesitates as if she is mentally revising what she is reading to her audience. At first I found this a bit distracting, but as it happened a bit more I began to appreciate the breaks in the narrative. When the question and answer period began she answered questions fully and politely. In fact, she seemed to take a special interest in the questioners, all of whom, by the way, were young students interested in creative writing. She slyly offered words of encouragement and inspiration. To one questioner she stated that one should never write right away. That the writer should always go over what one wants to write in one’s mind for some time before putting pen to paper. She went on to state that once the words are down on paper the writer is sort of trapped by them. Speaking about her own writing process she stated that she writes in long hand first. This is something that I fear is becoming increasingly rare.

When I finally approached her myself she was gracious enough to speak with me on a few topics. She asked if I was a student, and when I informed her that I was actually an associate professor at a university she looked surprised and remarked that I “looked far too young to be a professor.”

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