Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

with care

An Interview with joyce carol oates

Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl and John Lachausse

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of over 100 books, which include National Book Award winner them, Bram Stoker Award winner Zombie, Pulitzer Prize nominees Black Water, What I Lived For, Blonde, The Wheel of Love, and Lovely, Dark, Deep: Stories, among many others. She is the recipient of two O. Henry Awards, a PEN/Malamud Award, a National Humanities Medal, and the Stone Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement. Her most recent novel is 2017's A Book of American Martyrs, which focuses on America's abortion debate and has been called by Washington Post a "story whose grasp is so wide and whose empathy is so boundless that it provides an ultrasound of the contemporary American soul." You can find her on Twitter at @JoyceCarolOates and Facebook at @joycecaroloatesofficial.

TMR:  How does a book come into creation for you? What's the process from conception to final draft?

JCO:  It takes some time. Initially just thinking, meditating. A novel of some complexity has to be imagined with care. I never begin writing until I have amassed a large folder of notes—sketches, outlines, dialogue, description, research notes—and I never begin until I know the final paragraph, to the exact words.

TMR:  In an interview with The Paris Review, you said that "both Wonderland and The Assassins were difficult to write." What makes a novel difficult for you?

JCO:  The most difficult novel of my entire life has been Blonde. Enormously complicated (at least to me)—structurally, tonally, in terms of length, pacing. Ultimately the manuscript was 1,400 pages which I cut back to approximately 800. There came to be a number of stories fashioned out of excised chapters—some of them very close to my heart (like "Three Girls," which is set in the Strand Bookstore). Many of the stories involve the crossing of lives with the life of the iconic "Marilyn Monroe"—Norma Jeane Baker. It is a postmodernist "fictitious autobiography"—I suppose it might be called.

TMR:  Some writers, like Madeleine Thien, write to process their thoughts. What do you hope to accomplish when you write?

JCO:  Essentially I am creating texts which I hope will be self-sustaining, in a sense.

TMR:  In an interview with Tavis Smiley, you said that you began work on A Book of American Martyrs when Obama was still president. "The issues of the vulnerability of Planned Parenthood and social welfare and so forth, those issues were important and were debated, but they were not as tragic as they are now." With this being the case, what inspired A Book of American Martyrs?

JCO:  Initially I'd wanted to write about the experiences of a girl whose father is assassinated for his beliefs/idealism—how she confronts the mystery of her father's life and death. After about 100 pages of Naomi Voorhees, I realized that I also must give voice to the daughter and the family of the assassin; that it would be a very incomplete portrait of America if the other side, so to speak, were not considered.

TMR:  Regarding writing, do you ever struggle with self-doubt? How do you combat it, if so?

JCO:  I do have difficulty acquiring a "voice" suitable for a work of fiction—but I simply persist. I don't give up.

TMR:  In an interview with Mother Jones, you stated that you "feel a terrible loss when [you]... complete a work of fiction." Which books affected you the most upon completion?

JCO:  The Lost Landscape—a memoir of my young life, much about my parents. Very hard to complete this, and know that I had to leave much out. Finishing Blonde—finally!—was an enormous relief, though afterward I missed the intensity and sense of desperation, drowning. I so often return to manuscripts before they are published, the leave-taking is not abrupt but rather gradual. Then again, when page proofs arrive, I re-experience the novel another time.

Writing is as close to me as my dreaming life, it does not seem distinct from me.

TMR:  You've said that your parents didn't have "any great ambition" for you, but you believed this lack of parental pressure was liberating. Without any sort of external pressure to go out and do something, what drove you to writing as a career?

JCO: I don't recall being "driven"—I was not thinking of a "career"—my career has always been teaching. Writing is as close to me as my dreaming life, it does not seem distinct from me.

TMR:  In the Paris Review interview, you discuss some of your prime literary influences: "Thoreau... Henry James, O'Connor and Faulkner certainly, Katherine Anne Porter, and Dostoyevsky." In recent years, which contemporary writers have you found inspiration in?

JCO:  I should have mentioned James Joyce—obviously. Also Hemingway, the early short stories in particular; Virginia Woolf, but mostly the diary; Saul Bellow, not so much for his intellectual ambitions (or pretensions) but for the quality of his prose. I have often reread D.H. Lawrence, and parts of Thomas Hardy, Dickens, Kafka.

TMR:  You've said that much of your early unpublished work was "cheerfully thrown away." What brought you to doing that? Has anything you wrote come back to you in recent years?

JCO:  I thought of the early work as apprenticeship work, and it is lost forever, except for a few stories published and not collected.

TMR:  In an interview with Electric Literature, when discussing A Book of American Martyrs, you mentioned the book may evoke anger from "both sides." When asked if you cared about that reaction, you responded, "No, I can't really think about it." Is this your response to most criticism? How do you handle unfavorable discourse about your work?

JCO:  I don't "handle" it at all. Like many writers, I don't read most of my reviews; though if a review is particularly sympathetic, people will send it to me. (Even then, I might just file it away with some gratitude but not so much curiosity, oddly. It's young writers and artists who care much about reviews because the experience is new to them.)

TMR:  If you were to collaborate on a novel with one writer, living or dead, who would you
choose? Why?

I have enough trouble collaborating with myself—I can't imagine being yoked together with another headstrong person.

JCO:  I was invited by the literary executor of the estate of William Gay, to try to complete Gay's last novel, but I could not really see myself doing this. I have enough trouble collaborating with myself—I can't imagine being yoked together with another headstrong person.

TMR:  In a snippet from The New York Review of Books from 2007, it was stated that you don't watch television. Shows like Netflix’s Black Mirror, in recent months, seem to be exceptions. What is it about Black Mirror, and other shows you might watch, that appeals to you?

JCO:  I am more likely to watch television today—my second husband Charlie Gross introduced me to The Wire—a favorite of his—as well as Seinfeld (which I'd never seen, and would have thought bewilderingly inconsequential except for Charlie explaining it me as quintessential Jewish NYC humor)—and we have seen other excellent series like Breaking Bad, Homeland and The Americans. I do admire Black Mirror very much for its powerful, parable-like images and stories.

TMR:  Regarding the current political atmosphere of America, what are some of your worries for the coming years?

JCO:  It's difficult to foresee. Political prophecies are so often mistaken. If we could deal with issues of voter suppression—(six million voters disenfranchised in the last election!)—we would have a very different democracy; but probably this will not happen, since GOP gerrymandering is so entrenched in virtually all of the states, with the backing of enormously wealthy donors.

TMR:  Hisham Matar, in his New York Times opinion article "Books Can Take You Places Donald Trump Doesn’t Want You To Go," states that "books have invited [him] into different countries, states of mind, social conditions and historical epochs; they have offered [him] a place at the most unusual gatherings." Books offer an escape from our current reality and send us somewhere else. Are there any books that accomplish this that you would recommend?

JCO:  Hundreds—thousands of books! Of course. Virtually any classic. Any work of art will take us from our current (debased?) reality to another.
(I'm afraid that's a question for a non-literate age. T***p may actually be dyslexic—he seems restless and unable to focus, perhaps cognitively impaired. It is sad that such a broken and incomplete individual managed to excite the fantasies of so many voters—though indeed T***p did not win the popular vote, and if so many voters had not been disenfranchised, he would have lost by quite a margin and today we would be fretting and anguishing over other matters, complaining of Hillary Clinton and never guessing how fortunate we are.)  

TMR:  What would you say was the greatest struggle in your life? Did writing play a role in helping you overcome that?

JCO:  Greatest struggle? I'm not sure that I've had one.