Interview with Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys and Blonde (a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and the New York Times bestsellers The Falls (winner of the 2005 Prix Femina Etranger) and The Gravedigger’s Daughter. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. In 2003 she received the Common Wealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature and The Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, and in 2006 she received the Chicago Tribune Lifetime Achievement Award.
TSM: Tell us about your new short story collection.
JCO: High Crime Area is a gathering of thematically related stories of crime, mystery, and suspense—though with literary aspirations as well. TSM: I was intrigued that the title story, “High Crime Area,” was set in Detroit. What served as the inspiration for that?
JCO: Perhaps you don’t know that I lived in Detroit for some years in the 1960s, before moving to Windsor, Ontario, in 1968. The experience of the Wayne State campus—where my husband taught English for several years in buildings and in circumstances not unlike those of the story—has been evoked in memory. TSM: Many authors shy away from short stories and prefer novels, yet you have written so many; what is your secret?
JCO: Is it a “secret”? I love short stories—to read and to write. I never tire of the form, which can be so compact yet range so far in emotional power.TSM: Who are some of your favorite short-story writers of today and all time?
JCO: So many! All writers revere Chekhov, James Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner; in recent times, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Lorrie Moore, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, George Saunders, and many more.
TSM: What is the next project that we can expect to find in our bookstores or on our Kindles?
JCO: My next novel is titled The Sacrifice. It is a fictional revisioning of the Tawana Brawley case of the late 1980s, which was never entirely resolved despite a grand jury’s highly publicized findings. It is narrated in a succession of voices.
TSM: Do you think the future for print publishing is as bleak as many experts are forecasting?
JCO: It’s hard to say. There are still enormous runaway bestsellers.
TSM: Going back to the subject of Detroit, how often have you been to Detroit since you taught there? Have you noticed that things are getting better?
JCO: I’ve returned to Detroit numerous times, but not recently. It’s good to know that things are improving, despite articles in The New York Times focusing upon the city’s bankruptcy and abandoned neighborhoods. I have many very good memories of living in the Palmer Park area (Manderson Road), the residential neighborhood just south of Eight Mile and west of Woodward, and Sherwood Forest, the residential area north of Seven Mile Road near Livernois.
TSM: Where do you get the inspiration to write so much? One is never disappointed by your work.
JCO: This is hard to answer. Like the Surrealists who wandered about Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, taking photographs that struck them as inspiring, I think that I am just open to disponibilité, or availability/chance.
TSM: I understand you taught in our neighboring town of Windsor, Canada. It has really changed from the ’80s when I was a kid. The city is dominated by a casino that seems to have snuffed out many thriving little cafes, shops, and restaurants.
JCO: I had heard this! So very sad. Who could have anticipated that such a revenue-generating enterprise would have such a stultifying effect upon a city’s street culture.
TSM: What would you say is the best part of being a writer?
JCO: Telling stories—creating, composing characters, taking time to revise, teaching gifted and enthusiastic students (as I have done at Princeton for some time and, this term, in the NYU graduate writing program).
TSM: If you could name one book that influenced you the most, which would it be?
JCO: Again, this is very hard to say. Essentially, the first real book that I read, reread, and reread—Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland; and also Alice Through the Looking-Glass.
Photo by Marion Ettlinger