An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates

When I initially saw Joyce Carol Oates in person at a discussion with Richard Ford last spring, I was moved by her presence. It was as if I was hearing a voice of truth.

She admitted her difficulty in reading her work to a crowd, informing us that she had experimented with a few approaches such as reading from the start, or a key segment, or, as was the situation at this event, reading the finale of Mudwoman.

The prolific output of Joyce Carol Oates is a product of her dedicated efforts and fondness for writing. She has penned over fifty novels, and a plethora of short stories, poetry, children’s books, and essays.

Her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, was released in 1964 when she was twenty-six. Now seventy-four, Oates has earned many accolades, such as the National Book Award for Them in 1970, as well as numerous honorary degrees, fellowships, and nominations.

Since 1978, she has been a professor of creative writing at Princeton University. Though I have not read all of her work, the pieces I have encountered have revealed her intelligence, grit, and a willingness to confront and accept American culture.

On a visit to her home in the Princeton woods, I had a conversation with Oates which ranged from art to life.

Her evident enthusiasm for art and music gave me the impression that writing was, to an extent, a product of a reflective and contemplative frame of mind – similar to that which is experienced when admiring a piece of art.

We spent many hours in her living room, taking in the sights of the hurricane-struck landscape.

The walls of her residence were adorned with a collection of artworks, including dreamy landscapes created by Charles Burchfield and Wolf Kahn, and a variety of distant places captured in photographs by her husband, Charles Gross.

— Agnes Barley expressed that the most important thing in life is to be kind, compassionate, and understanding towards others. She felt that if each person made a concerted effort to be more considerate, the world would be a much better place.


After listening to you speak with Richard Ford a few months ago, I was so taken aback. Although I had only read a few of your stories, I perceived you as a reliable narrator. Is the purpose of your writing to be truthful?

JOYCE CAROL OATES has expressed her belief that it is the responsibility of serious artists to look beneath the surface of the truth to see the complexity of it. She believes that human nature is very intricate and this is revealed in the current election campaigns.

Even though you have to vote for one person or another, in everyday life there is far more at play than just liking one person and rejecting another.

BLVR: It appears to me that a great many authors accumulate words for the pleasure of it, and I observe that in your writing, however I sense a sense of urgency in terms of conveying a message.

My writing does not have an intentional message, but instead portrays the various states of mind and experiences that people go through. I commonly portray women who are in a flux and are acting as pioneers in the ever-changing culture.

I think it is important to express what their experience is like.

BLVR: Fascinating! I’m reminded of Nada from Expensive People, the Russian immigrant who was a true pioneer. Is this character based on your own life experience in any way?

JCO stated that there was not much of a connection between herself and Nada, the Russian immigrant writer in her novel, other than the fact that they were both writers.

She expressed that when people write reviews, they tend to simplify and make connections between her characters and herself that are not necessarily true.

Nada was portrayed as sardonic and sarcastic, and although the son loved her, he felt that she was not a motherly figure. The father was the one who took care of him and was described as a Detroit executive during a prosperous time in the city.

The son perceived his mother as practically non-existent and her role in his life was minimal.

BLVR: We can often overlook the importance of those close to us, not fully grasping their role in our lives.

JCO commented that many famous female authors and poets throughout history did not have children, such as Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, the Brontes, Jane Austen, and Emily Dickinson.

He then went on to name Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton as women from this country who did not have children.

He mentioned Toni Morrison as an exception, as she did have children, but then proceeded to list several other women who did not, such as Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop.

BLVR: Do you happen to have any kids?

JCO responded in the negative.

Do you think that writing was the perfect choice for you, or was it a deliberate decision to make it your primary focus?

JCO said that neither she nor her first husband were particularly keen on having a family. They were both very literary and were focused on their work, as they were both editors and professors.

She has a number of female friends who are also childless. She believes that, had she been living in a more traditional society, she may have had children, but, in the university setting she was in, it was a different time and the idea of a traditional family was not as prevalent.


As a painter, I employ repetition and deconstruction to give a sense of time to a static piece of art. Although language is not a static medium like a painting, I noticed that in Black Water and Them, there were moments that seemed to persist eternally.

For instance, the instant of Kelly Kelleher’s death is reiterated multiple times.

I have immense appreciation and adoration for painters, all kinds of artists, and photographers as they are able to capture a still moment in time. When I’m writing, I’m also trying to evoke this, as if I’m projecting a spiritual experience onto the physical world.

I’m attempting to express a sky, water, trees, and more in words. That’s why the landscapes of our childhoods have so much emotion imbued in them.

A perfect example of landscapes that come alive with a mysterious power are the later works of van Gogh, who has managed to transform the physical world with his passion.

When looking at them, one is almost mesmerized by a kind of enchantment. I’d like to be able to do that in my own prose.

BLVR: To kindle that enthusiasm?

Creating realistic visuals in order to evoke emotion in readers is the purpose of JCO.

BLVR: Absolutely. We have a tendency to transfer our human emotions and experiences to what we are perceiving.

The same thing happens to me when I read your writing. I often reflect upon what I am personally looking for in life and relate it to the content of your work, particularly when it comes to identity.

JCO: Could you tell me the style of your artwork? Are the pieces you create realistic or more like abstract art?

BLVR is an artist specializing in abstract painting. Their artwork expresses conceptions of place and the psychology of what makes a region special. To do this, they employ very precise forms and composition to create a setting.

It’s more difficult to be a representational artist compared to a figurative painter, isn’t it?

I find it liberating to focus on concepts and principles rather than concrete items. It allows me to explore ideas and ideologies without the restrictions of tangible items.

JCO: As I’ve mentioned before, I’m really fond of painting and I often take trips to museums to admire art. Although I wrote a book on George Bellows and wrote essays on art, I’m not especially well-versed in its intellectual and historical aspects.

What I find satisfying is the aesthetic pleasure it gives. My friend Steve Martin is a collector of art and he has a spiritual connection to it. I too, experience a similar feeling when I’m in a museum.

When I’m feeling down or anxious, I’m able to transcend my own emotions when I find a work of art. It’s remarkable, important, and beautiful.

Do particular pieces of artwork and time periods of painting draw you in?

JCO: I really appreciate many of the classics, such as Matisse and Cezanne. But I particularly like Rothko. His work is grandiose and filled with light. I would be delighted to have a piece of his work to simply stare at.

I am also fond of Helen Frankenthaler’s art, which has a transparent glow to it. Clyfford Still and Arthur Dove are very interesting too. And of course, Hopper stands out.

I find Hopper to be a master of capturing the essence of time in an unprecedented manner.

JCO commented that some people consider the Swiss painter, Ferdinand Hodler, a realist, but he’s more akin to the Surrealists. An exhibit of his work at the Neue Galerie has an allegorical quality that’s similar to the shapes of distant mountains.

While photography is highly detailed, Hodler’s paintings are stylized and evoke emotion rather than a scene. He noted that this produces a different kind of feeling.

BLVR: Does one experience the same sensation when reading, or is it a distinct feeling?

JCO commented that reading is quite distinct from viewing art because it lacks the same sensuality. Reading involves connecting with a character who is interacting with other characters. On the other hand, a work of art is typically static, without a narrative.


As an author, how strongly do you believe that your existence is related to your writing? Do you look at your writing as a single piece or as something that ultimately culminates in one finished work?

When I first begin a project, I experience a bit of difficulty. But since I relish writing, I find solace in the process and am content with a few pages a day. I usually start the next day by revising what I wrote the previous day, and this helps me keep momentum.

Although I have written a series of novels, I think of each one on its own. For instance, when I wrote A Garden of Earthly Delights, I was 26 and the effort to create it was exhilarating. Never did I think I’d have a long career or anything beyond the first couple of pieces.

BLVR: You certainly are very productive.

JCO noted that when he first had his book of short stories accepted, he was about twenty-two and the publisher delayed publishing until he had a novel. During this time, he wrote several stories without knowing that he would be so prolific.

He compared this to marriage in which the person does not think they will be together for fifty years and all the dinners they will have together.

He suggested that it is only when someone gets older that they start to have a larger view, citing Norman Mailer’s plan for a couple of novels even at eighty-years-old.

JCO went on to say that he rarely ever has the sense that he will write a series of books, though he may do a series of short stories united by a theme. He concluded that novel writing is very exhausting, as he puts everything into it without considering that there will be another.


The fourth individual to be discussed is Mark Twain. He is renowned for his writing and wit. His works are famous around the world and his influence remains strong.

BLVR: I have noticed that a lot of the novels you have written take place in the present day and that you have strong opinions on current issues.

However, I am interested in discussing your most recent work, The Accursed. This book is set in Princeton 1905, and it appears to be a major switch in your method of addressing human nature and the way our society is constructed.

Instead of tackling it in a contemporary way, you decided to focus on a past setting.

JCO: I have composed a few famous stories in the past – Bellefleur, Mysteries of Winterthurn, A Bloodsmoor Romance – and The Accursed belongs to that same genre of large, Gothic novels.

Mark Twain, who I have a great admiration for, is included in both A Bloodsmoor Romance and The Accursed, and I even wrote a short tale about him. I see a lot of myself in Twain, despite our fundamental differences.

Is it your feeling that he is someone who speaks truth?

JCO remarked that the individual in question was truly remarkable.

BLVR: I’m curious as to what draws you to him.

JCO was an incredibly brave individual. During the 1900s, he was a champion for feminism and fought against all forms of anti-Semitism. He was also bold in his support for black people, even going so far as to advocate for anti-lynching laws.

Despite this, the majority of white people surrounding him did not share his same level of commitment.

BLVR: I stumbled upon a book named Letters from the Earth written by him. Did you happen to read it?

JCO: Indeed, his outlook became very pessimistic. His disposition darkened as he aged. The death of his treasured daughter Susy, who was around ten when she succumbed to meningitis, was a tragedy that he never recovered from, and his life effectively concluded at that juncture.


BLVR: I’m interested in learning more about Marilyn Monroe and her role in your admiration for pioneering females.

JCO: At first, it began innocently enough, where I was looking at some pictures and I saw a photograph of a sixteen-year-old Marilyn Monroe. She wasn’t a classic beauty, and she didn’t have blond hair, she was a brunette. But I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is Norma Jeane Baker’.

I realized that within ten years she would become a worldwide name. She got plucked up, became a model, and then was transformed into a star. They gave her the name Marilyn Monroe because Betty Grable was getting old.

This alternate version of the story is that she would have stayed where she was and married, but instead she made her way far and became famous. But never was able to integrate her public self with her private Norma Jeane self, so she was lonely and incomplete.

Despite being an excellent actress, she was sadly seen as a joke, and made less money than other actresses. I wanted to write about someone who was living as an underdog and was underestimated, who then had an amazing legacy after her death.

I was writing about the struggle of women and the poor, as well as cold war America and popular culture. I also wanted to show how Marilyn Monroe was very professional and always taking classes, like dance and acting, while other famous actresses were not doing anything.

So I wanted to depict her as someone I could relate to, a very working-class person.

Do you find yourself increasingly drawn to interests outside of the United States? Is your thinking now taking a more global outlook?

JCO: Not really. It is concerning everything that can be done in this country. I was writing about the nation as a whole in The Accursed, which focused on the transitional phase before WWI.

At that time, many younger women were becoming restless with the traditional methods of doing things. They had to wear corsets and were attempting to break free.

A few of them even learned to ride bicycles and wear bloomers, which made the older generation appalled. The feminists, called “suffragettes,” started to become politically active and gave speeches, getting some supporters.

Mostly just women, with a few men. This became part of the public discourse, when it hadn’t been before.

The main idea of The Accursed was the failure of the white, affluent Christian society to treat blacks as equals and safeguard them from extremists like the Ku Klux Klan. Numerous good, Christian, white people were not racists, but didn’t do much.

The KKK was lynching people, and lynchings still occurred until the 1950s. If the majority of white people had done something, it may have ended earlier or not happened at all.

The novel is really centered around this. Woodrow Wilson, the president of Princeton, is an example of a good Christian, who didn’t do enough.

BLVR: Is the significance of those issues still applicable in the present day? Are you conveying a statement on our current circumstances?

JCO: Indeed. My story focuses on current racial issues and provides some context from the past, referencing such figures as Jack London and Upton Sinclair.

Additionally, certain characters in the novel are depicted as having a more modern outlook, such as the two young women who have a feminist outlook, but who, unfortunately, do not have any support system.

One of the young women in my book moves to New York and is an artist, although her family disapproves. Consequently, they are similar to the pioneers of our day and the generations before us.

BLVR: It is essential to be mindful of the ever-changing climate. My comprehension of feminism may vary from yours because I may not consider certain points as much, and I would not want to separate myself as a female or male. I just want to be.

Nevertheless, lots of effort needs to be put in to reach this point.

JCO commented that had the right-wing won the election, many aspects of women’s rights would have been in jeopardy. It was thought that young women would be shocked to know that this was even a possibility.


BLVR: Maybe I should share with you some more quotations from Them…

I’m delighted that you read the new edition of my novel, which I had recently updated, as it is one of my personal favorites. It’s much better than the earlier editions.

Reading this version has brought me joy.

JCO remarked that when he created Them, he was living in Detroit, but he was unaware of the discrimination and mistreatment black citizens were facing from the police force, firemen, and other power structures.

He learned of this history later on, which ended up being a major factor in the Detroit riot. During the riot, white policemen had been acting very unjustly, even shooting black people in the back with shotguns.

JCO noted that if he were to rewrite the novel, he would have to include a great deal more of this information, but at the time, he had not been aware of it.

It’s very interesting to me that you have the capability to rewrite the work.

JCO: I had considered the option of including additional chapters and scenes of Loretta going places and interacting with people on public transportation.

There is much more to her life than I had the capacity to include in the novel. Jules, who is the protagonist of the story, got much of my focus. I devoted a great deal of time to him.

The mystery of what occurred to the female who discharged the gun at him, Nadine, remains unsolved.

JCO remarks that Nada has a name that is familiar to them and she is a neurotic and self-centered person who is attractive to men, but she is a divided character. The writer is able to go off in a new direction at any point in their work, while a painter may never go back.

In fiction, however, one still remembers their characters and even wonders what they are doing now and if they could write a story about them.


In Them, BLVR found something beautiful: “My physical form is like that of an animal, or of a single-celled organism, very small, which contains within it all of its past and is constantly the same age.”

This made the writer consider how, to some extent, our recollection is associated with our outlook on destiny and purpose.

JCO: It’s amazing how humanity is born with so many ingrained inclinations. I believe that great artists, like van Gogh, are able to tap into this shared recollection. Every time one looks at his art, there is an immediate sense of familiarity, even if one is unfamiliar of the painter.

This is the same with music. It has a captivating effect, like it is bringing back some forgotten memory that one can’t quite put their finger on.

BLVR asked if [I] believe that our futures are predetermined or that the future is open. To which [I] responded in Them that “everything was there, waiting” implying that the future has already been laid out.

JCO: It’s a great query, and quite perplexing. I’m not sure what the answer is. At times we seem to be quite liberated, and it appears that everything is rather unpredictable.

On the other hand, you can find that somebody knew about you or they were going to meet you, and it looks like there is something like predestination and a plan. I usually inquire of my students at Princeton how they came to be there.

Generally, there are two responses. The first one is: “My whole family went here. My mom, dad, and grandparents all studied here, so it was constantly expected that I would go to Princeton.” That is a typical story, and it holds true for many pupils.

The other is that certain students, particularly ethnic minority students, got a scholarship and wouldn’t have gone to Princeton if it weren’t for that program that did not exist a few years ago.

In other words, they were taken from the ghetto and put in this incredible Ivy League college that was beyond their reach in the past. This situation appears to be more a matter of luck, while the other is more orchestrated.

I think financial security makes it possible for people to have these more controlled lives and be more confident and mentally relaxed.

On the contrary, people who are less fortunate depend on their luck and pray for a miracle, just like a dice roll. Periodically, things appear like predestination, while other times everything looks very disconnected and haphazard. I have had experiences of both.

Is decision-making a factor in either circumstance?

JCO: It’s challenging to give an answer, as at the molecular or cellular level, it appears as though there is no choice in anything. Everything appears to be without purpose except replication.

On the other hand, people make decisions on a daily basis, such as where to go, what to study, and so on. These choices depend on financial freedom and education. I have written about individuals whose choices are limited due to their economic situation.

However, even then, there are a few matters in life where choice does not seem to be an option, such as love or close friendships. There are some people I know where I feel a certain ease, while with others there is more awkwardness, suggesting that certain relationships are on an unconscious level.

BLVR: Absolutely. In most of your works, the characters appear to focus more on enduring than permitting themselves to enjoy the comforts of their feelings and their individuality.

Indeed, that is correct.

BLVR: Once the basic necessities are met, I am curious to know if love is something that has a fundamental role in your craft.

JCO expressed that they appreciate crafting stories about individuals who are progressively developing.

BLVR: Does the process of self-exploration occur while working?

JCO: I can definitely see the connection between my current and former self. Though I’m taking on new challenges, like writing The Accursed, which I never would have imagined doing at 25, my short stories don’t vary much.

Writing for me is a journey without answers, much like my students. Even though they may not know the answers to their questions yet, if they keep writing, they will come to know themselves and the world better.

BLVR: Therefore, it returns to the realm of art. In Them, Maureen interrogates a figure with your name, inquiring: “What made you believe that novel about Madame Bovary was so crucial? All those novels? Why did you explain to us that they were more important than life?”

JCO: I viewed the situation more so as a paradox or irony–a fictitious character who is antagonistic to the notion of art as being meaningful. In contrast to this, Maureen’s very existence is built upon mere subsistence.

Thinking of people who are destitute and living in dire circumstances, without access to electricity or heat, huddled in shelters, any mention of the beauty of Shakespeare’s plays would be met with a “Go away, we are just trying to survive.”

There is something that is maddening and disturbing about discussing art in this context. But if we weren’t to have art, there would be no solace for these people when they do get out of their situation.

Other Possibilities You Could Consider

The effects of climate change are becoming increasingly evident as temperatures and sea levels continue to rise. As these changes become more pronounced, it is becoming evident that it is having a damaging impact on the environment.

This is leading to a range of issues, such as melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and extreme weather. Furthermore, it is also impacting ecosystems, disrupting food production and contributing to the spread of disease.

As a result of these changes, it is essential that action is taken to mitigate the effects of climate change.

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