Joyce. Carol. Oates. Y’all.
I didn’t realize I would get to go to the Decatur Book Festival Keynote, but I am so glad I did. It’s not often you get to hear from an author who’s in most of your college textbooks. God bless the Salcedos for letting me crash at their place for the weekend. (BTW they are the hosts with the most. Not only did I have a place to sleep, but Nicki washed my GRW shirt for me, loaned me a hair band AND two pairs of socks because I’m a dork and all of my socks were still in the dryer when I left. But I digress.)
I’m sure someone was chagrined that I was texting while she spoke, sitting there with that eerie iPhone glow about me, but I assure you I was taking down notes because I didn’t have the bars to live-tweet the Keynote. SO here are the highlights from the 2014 Decatur Book Festival Keynote with Joyce Carol Oates:*
1. Joyce Carol Oates spends most of her time at home, writing where it’s quiet and her main companion is her cat. She said, “Sometimes I have interruptions…like this.”
2. JCO (Her abbreviation henceforth) once lived in a high rise and found that conducive to writing because “I never wanted to go down.”
3. Biographer Greg Johnson asked her if she was a window person or a wall person, and she said she was a window person. Johnson then pointed out that she has an essay called “My Corner” all about having a card table facing the wall and writing while looking into the corner. She laughed and said that was the problem with doing an interview with a biographer who could call her on things, that she’d written that essay a long time ago and she could vaguely remember it.
4. Johnson, the straight man in this interview, said that the academic environment had been conducive to her writing. Then he went on to cite her 40 novels, plays, novellas, and almost a 1000 short stories. Wanna see why his statement is funny? Just take a gander at this list of The Books of Joyce Carol Oates: Full List.
5. Talk went on to how JCO felt about being a writing professor. She cited Updike as having felt that young writers sucked the vitality out of him but said that she feels just the opposite and enjoys teaching that “there’s something wonderful about someone who cares deeply about writing. I love reading prose from people I’ve met.”
6. JCO won the National Book Award for Them in 1970, and Johnson asked her why she liked to set her stories against actual events. She said, “Shakespeare, for instance, was always working with some residue of history.” Then she pointed out that Tolstoy liked to write about individuals who represented the sides of a larger conflict. She said she liked to use an “imagined but not invented world.”
7. JCO spoke about how different authors wrote about the real life events that affect them and pointed out how Emily Dickinson only alluded to the Civil War while Walt Whitman jumped right in there and addressed the conflict.
8. Then JCO spoke about form, how as an academic she’s used to “fiddling with form.” She told the story of how Oprah chose We Were the Mulvaneys as a book club selection. What surprised her most about that experience was how the readers of Oprah’s book club responded to her work. As an academic she was used to analyzing works and having her works analyzed with an almost clinical precision, but readers in Oprah’s book club wanted to hug her and to get her to sign the book because they really connected with her characters and her. People would say things like, “If my daughter had read your book then she wouldn’t have committed suicide. (This is in bold because this is one of my favorite things that JCO said)
9. From there, Johnson returned to her almost 1000 short stories and asked her both what she liked about the form and how she went about writing so many. JCO said the first step was to start with a feeling (ex. how someone broke your heart, how much you loved your grandmother, how much your grandmother loved you). The second step was to determine how you would write the story to express that feeling (long or short, poetic or sparse, dialogue or monologue). Step three? Execute.
10. JCO read from Mastiff, and I learned something very important about doing readings for the public: stop where a character is bleeding and potentially dying. Then people will be forced to buy the book to see what happens. Well played, JCO, well played.
11. JCO then spoke of Prison Noir, a collection of short stories from prisoners. She served as the editor. She said that one of the stories was contributed by a woman who was in prison for killing her husband in self-defense. JCO asked why she was in prison if it was self-defense and was told that the woman didn’t have a very good lawyer. JCO mused that life isn’t fair. That it could just as easily been her in prison and the prisoner editing the anthology. (She earned a lot of brownie points from me for this compassion and understanding of how chance can override ability.)
12. JCO has a short story about Robert Frost that caused a stir because he comes across as a lascivious old man who called other poets like e.e. cummings “fakes.” Well, JCO took all of the quotes directly from Frost. (I must get her new short story collection so I can read this story in its entirety) Best thing JCO says in response to the haters? “[Frost] didn’t believe in the New Deal. He didn’t believe in any deal. He wanted people to be poor…so they could write poetry. But it’s all authentic.” (from Lovely, Dark, Deep)
And then we came to the part of the program where folks could ask questions.
13. Dude asks for advice. JCO says, “Oh, you want some advice? The best advice is no advice. I don’t think people actually listen to advice.” She did back up and agree with “Persevere” but only because “You can’t tell people to give up.” (At this point, I’m a little in love with JCO. Not gonna lie.)
14. Another person pointed out that as much as she likes teaching, teachers don’t come across too well in her works. JCO goes back to her discussion of Updike and says it’s all about personalities. She likes to teach, likes to pair older authors like Henry James with newer authors like Lori Moore. She added, “That’s another reason people teach. They learn something by teaching.” and that her older students were such empathetic readers.
15. Apparently, JCO has an essay on running and writing. She spoke of long walks and getting ideas from those walks referring back to folks like Dickens, Wordsworth, and James who would also go on long walks as a part of their writing process. She said that she would run up Bayberry Hill and know there were ideas up there waiting for her. (Among the cattle and the sheep, I might add. Cow reference #FTW)
So clearly not a sock puppet.
16. The next question came from a audience member who’d been involved with a play called Recent Tragic Events. Apparently, Joyce Carol Oates is a character in the play but portrayed by a sock puppet. He asked if she’d seen the play, and she said she was afraid to go because people would say, “You’re a sock puppet!” and had previously stated that “If there’s any craziness written about me, it should be my own…it’s not fair.” Then, keeping the upper hand, she said to the man, “I know. You just came tonight to see if I’m a sock puppet. Happens all the time.” (And JCO completely won me over. Because she had such a complete sense of self, such complete control of the audience.)
17. The last question was if JCO believe more in fate or free will, to which she responded, “You sound like one of the demonic characters in my stories.” Once the audience had quit laughing and she had us once again eating from the palm of her hand, she added, “Let us not underplay the role of chance in life…You have to have absorbed your life from models, mentors who exude an air of love, protectiveness, and authority. Those people will always be with you, and you will have them internalized with you forever…Now what if you’re an orphan? I don’t know what happens, but these things come together to form a complex human being.”
And that is how I fell in love with Joyce Carol Oates.
*All of the quotes are taken down as quickly as my little thumbs could type so please don’t quote me as 100% accurate. The English major within does her best, but she isn’t perfect.