You might not guess it from the cover, but Joyce Carol Oates has built her most recent novel, The Hazards of Time Travel, around a mordantly funny joke of an idea. The story opens in a near-future dystopia, whose cruelties Oates spryly dashes through, where young people—and especially young women—are taught never to stand out. Her heroine, a bright high school senior, can’t quite swallow herself back. Soon, for the crime of public thoughtfulness, she’s cast out of her society. Her punishment? She’s sent back in time to take courses at a Midwestern liberal arts college in 1959. The dystopia that fascinates Oates isn’t one of the future hellscapes that have reigned on best-seller lists. It’s the everyday life and education of American women some 60 years back, when Oates herself was a college student.
Oates’s first published novel, With Shuddering Fall, appeared in 1964. In the half-century since, she has written several shelves’ worth of novels, plays, and memoirs, as well as collections of stories, poems, essays, and criticism. A list of her awards and commendations would fill a shelf, too; she is arguably her country’s most distinguished living writer. What matters most right now is that the last few years have found her publishing urgent, compelling, of-the-moment books, fully engaged with the concerns that have always powered her work.
The epic A Book of American Martyrs, from 2017, plunges deep into the national divide, surveying the mind and family of a murdered Midwestern abortion provider—and then following the daughters of both the killer and the victim to study the fallout. (That novel also features scarifying passages about one of Oates’ great subjects, boxing: in this case, the brutal life of an amateur woman fighter.) The story collection Beautiful Days (2018) offers, among other surprises, a playful tribute to Donald Barthelme and the gripping dread of “Undocumented Alien,” a Pushcart-winning story told in the lab notes of a nasty scientific experiment. Experiments, both literary and terrifying, continue in 2018’s Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense, a collection of horror-inspired genre works that includes the story of a university lab tech arranging a surreptitious inter-species impregnation. Also in Night-Gaunts: “The Woman in the Window,” inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting “Eleven A.M.” and included in The Best American Mystery Stories 2017, and one suspenseful tale inspired by Shirley Jackson’s life rather than her art.
Oates and I discussed that story and much more last December, at a Guernica fundraiser at Bauman’s Rare Book Room in Manhattan.
– Alan Scherstuhl for Guernica
Guernica: For your entire career, you have been uniquely attentive to the vulnerability of many—perhaps most—American lives, that sense that an act of tragedy or violence or a shuddering fall could tear away everything that a family or an individual holds dear. And you’ve been especially attentive to the ways that women in America often have to arrange themselves, or their lives, to keep the men around them calm or placated, to avoid trouble, and never to seem too smart. Now, you’re just as aware of current events as any of us are. How do you resist saying to the world, “I told you so?”
Joyce Carol Oates: With my Book of American Martyrs, for example, I was working on it quite a bit before 2016. If I had had to guess who would be president when the novel came out, I would probably have guessed Hillary Clinton. So, I wasn’t really looking ahead to such a divided America. But I was looking around at the America that existed at that time, while doing some research for various reasons into the anti-abortion movement, which is very tied in with Evangelical Christianity. I found it all very interesting, and wanted to write about a family that was split in two because of the assassination of the father, who was an abortion provider and a really exemplary person.
I wrote about 100 pages of that novel from the point of view of the girl whose father has been assassinated. And I found myself identifying with her enormously, very emotionally. But when I wrote those pages, I thought, well, I really should balance the novel by writing about the other political half of the country. Well, not quite half, but about a very politically potent minority in this country. The man who is an assassin thinks of himself as a soldier of God, and feels he’s a good person. I got completely embroiled in their world, and ultimately, I think the novel has a good deal of sympathy that maybe most people don’t feel.
Guernica: Over the course of your career, you’ve been interested in a “them” that a lot of writers—especially those at your level of distinction—sometimes overlook. Your work is also often characterized by a psychological and sociological realism that you combine with an intense, even mesmeric, immersion in the consciousness of your characters. This new novel, The Hazards of Time Travel, opens as a genre piece of dystopian fiction. But then, when the character goes back in time, you steep us not in the adventure plot one might expect in dystopian novels, but in the protagonist’s lived experience as a young woman going to college in the upper Midwest in 1959, surveying the ideas that she would be studying, especially B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism. Can you talk about your commitment to that realism even in a genre work?
Joyce Carol Oates: I find the act of writing to be act of immersion in some sort of reality, one that has a setting you can feel and has a historical sense. What interests me about this setting is that, in the 1950s, people were working in science, writing poetry, writing novels, and much of what they were doing was dead ends. In science, there were some people who had the idea that there might be multiple universes, but they were marginal. Poetry was primarily rhyming poetry. There were glimmerings of the beatnik poets, but they were considered barbarians.
I just look around at the world and think of how many people toil very passionately, convinced that what they’re doing is the right thing and worth their effort, but it turns out to be a dead end. I have to wonder: Are they any less noble than anybody else? Humanity is filled with those kinds of failures. So, in writing this novel, I looked back at these people and just felt tremendous sympathy for them.
Guernica: When I read The Hazards of Time Travel, I couldn’t help but think of your recent memoir, The Lost Landscape, in which you write about going to college in Wisconsin in the same time period. In that book you describe not succeeding on the PhD track, but then returning to the college later in life as a visiting author. You write that you were “honored at the age of 61 as a circuitous serendipitous consequence of having failed at the age of 22. I love it that our lives are not so crudely determined as some might wish them to be, but that we appear and reappear, and again reappear, as unpredictably to ourselves as to those who would wish to oppress us.” The word “oppress” really stands out there. It’s almost dystopian language. But that’s actually not the word I wanted to ask you about. That word comes in the next two sentences: “I think we are all cats with nine lives or even more. We must rejoice in our elusive catness.” What is your “catness?” Has it helped you against oppression?
Joyce Carol Oates: It’s something I think we all have. It’s the idea that you’re not so easily defeated; that you may be thrown down, but then you get up again; that if you fail in one way, that failure could turn out to be a positive thing. I have had a number of failures, for some reason or another, that turned out better than they would have been originally. To give an obvious example, I’ve sent a poem to an editor only to have it rejected. But then I revised it and made it better. It’s sort of like a challenge, to make things a little better. In one case, something I wrote came back, and I decided it was really a play. I rewrote it as a play, and it became a play of mine that was performed many times.
Some of you probably know that James Joyce’s first novel was rejected. It was a conventional coming-of-age novel about a young man. But because it wasn’t published, he took that material and turned it into A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, which is an extraordinary novel. The first of its kind. If James Joyce, at the age of 21 or 22, had been published, who knows what would have happened. Faulkner also had early failures. It makes a person fall back on a different kind of intuition.
I’ve had students who had early successes. They became best sellers of a genre, literary or commercial fiction, and then they can’t really get out of that. When you’re quite young, that kind of success seems attractive. But then other people who are your same age are working on something more lasting, and later on they are the ones who win the National Book Award or something. It’s a kind of a “catness” of life. You can’t really be defeated, because failure is like a preparation for something else.
Guernica: I’m reminded of a poem reprinted in your 1985 essay collection, A (Woman) Writer, called “The Luxury of Being Despised.” In an essay accompanying it, you wrote: “The woman writer who imagines herself assimilated into the mainstream of literature, the literature of men, is surely mistaken, given the evidence of centuries and the ongoing, by now perplexing, indifference of male critics to female effort.” In the three decades since you wrote those words, has the situation for women writers improved?
Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, I think it has improved. I think that literature has kind of broadened. There are just more kinds of people writing today. When I started writing, which was so long ago, there was what we called “mainstream literature,” which was really white, male, straight literature. There were people at the margins who were maybe writing what we now call “gay” or “lesbian” literature, but they were really writing in the shadows, so to speak. Back then, Black Studies didn’t exist. Women’s Studies didn’t exist. Many things didn’t exist in those days. Domestic violence didn’t exist as a category that police officers would respond to. A man seemed to have the right to beat up his wife or children, and police officers often wouldn’t even come into the house. They considered it a sort of sacred domestic space.
The consciousness of women was raised in the 1960s and 70s, and today, many men are feminists. Many are trying very hard to be equitable and fair-minded. I think that many men are genuinely surprised sometimes to learn about how difficult some women have had it, and I think when they do learn that, they change their minds. In the world of science, women have had lots of difficulty, and still do. The world of literature is much more independent. You don’t have to be in a lab at a university to be a writer. You could be like Emily Dickinson, writing your unique and extraordinary work all by yourself. To be in some sort of institution, well, that has been harder for women. But things are definitely better now. Do you think so, too?
Guernica: I think so. And that essays like yours certainly helped, as well as, you know, your entire career, which lays claim to so many different modes and approaches and genres, all of which you bend to your interests and purposes. Your recent story collection, Night-Gaunts, is touched with terror or horror. There’s one story in particular that seems like a genre premise: It involves two women, two cups of tea, and some poison. But then, you invest that premise with that fully realized social and psychological realism that offers a penetrating portrait of one woman’s marriage. I was surprised, when I heard you speak at the Morristown Book Festival recently, to learn that the woman in the story is based in some ways on Shirley Jackson.
Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, yes! I was the editor for the Library of America book on Shirley Jackson. I read or reread all her work, including a lot of work that’s not generally known and maybe wasn’t really finished. A lot of secondary material. One of the stories she wrote is based on her own experience with her husband, who was a well-known philanderer and adulterer. She had no choice but to put up with it. She was this dutiful housewife of the era. So I wrote a story about two girls coming to visit her, and one of them is maybe the girlfriend of the husband. The woman just can’t believe the audacity of these girls. She finds out in the course of conversation that this girl, who is very beautiful, is actually very troubled and needy. She lost her parents, and it turns out that the husband had been nice to her. So she suddenly starts seeing a human in front of her, instead of the threat of a long-legged, beautiful girl. In some weird way, she sees that this girl isn’t so different from herself. At the end, the girl just sort of leaves. They had been drinking tea, and the girl had her choice of cup. Maybe it’s the poison cup. The end does seem like she’s having a kind of poisoned, toxic experience.
To go back to Shirley Jackson for a moment: it’s funny that “The Lottery” is so famous, because it’s not typical of her writing, which tended to read as much more Jamesian, more fleshed-out and stylistically beautiful. “The Lottery,” meanwhile, is very direct and kind of blunt.
Guernica: Well, with that, let me say that I’ve read you most of my life and can pay you a compliment I can say to no one else: There is no writer I have read more of.
Joyce Carol Oates: [Laughs] Thank you very much.
Guernica: Now let’s turn it over to the good people here.
Audience member: What’s your process, or discipline, to create and write? I love your work, especially Blonde.
Joyce Carol Oates: Oh, well, thank you. I almost always begin my writing with a person, a character. You mentioned my novel Blonde. For that one, I definitely began with Norma Jean Baker. I imagined her as a child, who’d been born to a mother who couldn’t physically embrace her, and who didn’t have a father. I saw a picture of Norma Jean when she was sixteen, in high school. She had brown hair. She wasn’t glamorous, but she had a look of yearning in her eyes, and I so identified with her. I wanted to write about Norma Jean and what happens in a life or in a country where she can become Marilyn Monroe, who’s all bleached hair and dead at the age of 36. For me, it was like a great adventure and a mystery to follow her through a metamorphosis, where she becomes literally the most glamorous woman of the twentieth century, the most sexy woman of all time—but also dead. Like, what does it mean to have that kind of celebrity, but also be dead? Focusing on her was a great meditation. I was obsessed with that character. I focused on characters in other novels, too, but that was kind of an epic novel that I was with for a couple of years. I think, when you meditate on a character long enough, you get to be the character, and you find out what represents that person best. Then that might be the first scene in your novel. So, my work comes out of becoming acquainted with, and then immersed in, a person who then is presented in a dramatic way.
Audience member: You mentioned how a poem was rejected and then you turned it into a play. Do you do the reverse as well? Let’s say you have a completed book and it’s published and people love it. Do you ever think that you could then turn it into poetry?
Joyce Carol Oates: That sounds like a very interesting idea, but I have not done that. Usually writers move on. Some writers, like John Updike, have had a sequence of novels, but mostly people move on because they’re changing all the time.
Guernica: You’ve written a sequence, too: your series of gothic novels that started with Bellefleur in 1980. They seem especially prescient today, as they smash genre rules and literary conventions in ways that what we think of as literary fiction is still catching up to. Do you have another big gothic novel in you?
Joyce Carol Oates: I’d love it if I had another gothic. I was so exhausted by the Marilyn Monroe novel, but then I missed it because I actually had heart palpitations while writing it. It was very intense, and when it was over, I was finished with it, I thought, you know, I kind of miss the misery. [Audience laughs] It was like having a very powerful dream that’s upsetting, but then when you wake up you sort of miss that intensity. It made me feel like this is meant for me to do.
Audience member: You’ve talked about your thoughts on the past, so now I’d like to hear your thoughts about the future. Do you think that robots can be writers? [Audience laughs]
Joyce Carol Oates: No, that’s a good question! I’m not sure I know enough about the robot brain to answer that. The robots have to be programmed, don’t they? I guess I’m not sure why the robots would want to go to all that trouble. [Laughs]. Would they submit their work to a robot editor? To a robot slush pile?
The more I think about, the more I think—and maybe I shouldn’t say this, because I don’t mean to sound pessimistic—but I’m not sure that a great writer like James Joyce would have put all that enormous effort into his writing if he were writing today. Maybe somebody might disagree with me, but the printed word isn’t as primary now as it was when James Joyce was writing. To write a novel of great innovation and beauty in those days was to make a gesture that was really grand and eloquent, an attempt to take your place in some sort of Pantheon. Today, that’s probably not the case, because there are so many competing kinds of creativity. We see many series on television that seem, in some ways, to rival a kind of Dickensian exuberance and imagination. Somebody liked Dickens or even Kafka—if they were writing today—could be writing in a different mode.
Many things that are online seem to be almost anonymous. People read them and miss the writer. I sometimes read things online and then look back and see who wrote it—because I had no idea—and realized, oh, of course the writing is wonderful, it’s by so-and-so. But for the most part, there’s a feeling that people keep scrolling, that they get to the end of something and then go on to something else. Whereas when you have a book—a book such as these wonderful books here at Bauman Rare Books—it’s this artifact of beauty. Over there in the cabinet, you can see a book by Hemingway. There’s one by D.H. Lawrence. These are beautiful artifacts. Electronic literature seems to be expendable and people seem less individualized. Do you feel that way?
Guernica: I definitely feel that. In your new book, when your protagonist is back in 1959, she is overwhelmed by the library of the university.
Joyce Carol Oates: And confused by it! I have a former student named Jonathan Safran Foer. One of the books that Jonathan did involved taking a short story by Bruno Schulz and sort of blacking out some of the text. That kind of work had to be a book; it couldn’t have been an online phenomenon. He was a young writer defiantly moving against that sort of thing.
Audience Member: What is your relationship like with your editors? What do they contribute?
Joyce Carol Oates: Well, speaking very generally, some people give an early draft of a novel to an editor to see what the editor thinks, and sometimes they get a contract on the basis of it. I’ve never done that. When I’m finished with a manuscript I do a lot of revisions, so by the time I send it to my editor it doesn’t really need a lot of editing. But not all writers work that way. I was having a conversation with Amy Tan recently. Amy said she’s always had a contract for a book. I’ve never had a contract in my life. I’ve only had the finished book, and then I send it to an editor who purchases it. People think that I’m strange, whereas I’ve always felt that I don’t want to be contracted.
Audience member: Do you remember the first book that really knocked you out? That you couldn’t get out of your head?
Joyce Carol Oates: Oh yes. The first books that really completely changed my life were Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass. I still have the actual books. To me, they’re sacred books. I got them from my grandmother, who gave them to me when I was about eight years old. I totally fell in love with Alice, because Alice has adventures that are terrifying and very tragic and horrible. Like, there’s a lot of cannibalism in Lewis Carroll. But Alice never, ever registers terror. She never panics. She never bursts into tears. She never runs away. She’s sometimes concerned, but she’s much more mature than all the adults, who are saying things like “Off with their head!” and yelling at one another. The adults behave very childishly, but Alice is a mature little girl. For a girl of eight or nine to read that, I think, is very empowering. Alice in Wonderland shows the triumph of a really integrated personality over a chaotic and disorganized adult world, and we all need that.