Exclusive Q&A: Joyce Carol Oates


Joyce Carol Oates is one of those rare literary luminaries whose creative output has matched her critical praise. Sure, her endless catalog of novels, short-story collections, plays, and poetry can come across as a bit daunting, but Oates is really just a storyteller obsessively dedicated to her creative outlet. With the publication of her latest novel, Little Bird of Heaven

, the National Book Award winner explores familiar themes of emotional turmoil, violence, and small-town social dynamics. After the jump, Oates chats with us about the importance of a sense of place, balancing different literary genres, and her love of running.

Boldtype: Little Bird of Heaven revisits themes of violence and passion, but it’s more character driven than plot-heavy. What is it about creating a dramatic external context that facilitates a more nuanced internal exploration? In writing this, did you begin with the catalyst or with a character?

Joyce Carol Oates: The novel is about loss — grief, loss, memory, being haunted. As we are all “haunted” by the past, which we recall in differing ways, this seemed to me an essentially dramatic situation that would erupt into — from time to time — scenes of both violence and redemption. I tend to begin my fiction with place — “setting” — I feel a very strong, even mystical identification with the landscapes of upstate New York and even, since I’d lived there for so long, Detroit, Michigan. People are born of specific places — they are “representative” of their times. Most novelists write of specific regions and would be utterly lost without them — for instance, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy.

BT: There have been several parallels drawn between Little Bird of Heaven and your classic story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” — was this a conscious choice? In what ways do you think of them as being similar or different?

JCO: Some readers have pointed this out, but I wasn’t aware of it and am not even now sure where the parallel is. I think of Krista as so much more an aspect of myself, a daughter haunted by the loss of her father — my father Frederic Oates died in 2000; and of Connie as a much younger adolescent with a very different identification — in fact, no emotional connections to her family at all, as the story dramatizes her experience.

BT: Are there any other stories from your oeuvre that you find yourself going back to? If so, is there any pattern among them?

JCO: I will have to think about this — it may be that the patterns of a writer’s life are not accessible to him/ her. We may think that we’re creating something highly original, but others will see the resemblance with previous work.

BT: How do you balance your work in so many different literary genres — from poetry to playwriting, short stories, and criticism? Are you drawn to a specific form for a given idea or does it just take shape as you write?

JCO: Each of the genres exerts a considerable spell. Right now, I am working on a memoir — The Siege: A Widow’s First Six Months — and I am trying to be as forthright as I can be in recording details of my personal life. In fiction, I evoke “representational” or “symbolic” situations, and use my personal life very sparingly. I love playwriting — I was thrilled to open a package today and see copies of the Samuel French publication of Wild Nights! (adapted from my collection of stories of two years ago). I hope to write more plays, and, of course, I am always writing short stories and reviews, mostly for The New York Review of Books. The memoirist essay is fascinating both to read and to write — the employment of the pronoun “I” is actually very challenging, for me at least, since so much has to be left out.

BT: In addition to being a prolific writer, you’re also a teacher and editor — how do you shift between these different roles? Or are they all connected?

JCO: I suppose they are all connected. Writing is so very solitary and obsessive; teaching is wonderfully communal, social. But both require great concentration on “texts” and on language — this is the binding force.

BT: You’re famously devoted to running; what is it about this physical activity that encourages your writing and imagination?

JCO: I wish that I had more time to run. I love running, but also walking — fast — and bicycling. I think that any form of locomotion alerts the brain to new, fresher thoughts. I just feel better when I run, as if my metabolism were now normal. Many of my characters are addicted to running, but somehow, in prose fiction, it’s difficult to communicate any realistic sense of their being in motion.