The Last Word: Joyce Carol Oates
Interview by Stuart Mitchner
Recently asked to name his favorite living novelist by the New York Times Book Review, Larry McMurtry replied, “Joyce Carol Oates…a natural-born writer.” As John Updike once said of her, “If the phrase ‘woman of letters’ existed,” she would be “the person most entitled to it.” It’s good to know that the National Book Award-winner, who has been teaching at the University since 1978, will continue to make Princeton her home after her official retirement next summer. At the time of the interview, she was looking forward to Emily Mann’s “sure-to-be-controversial” McCarter production of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra.
What are your plans after you teach your last class? Will you stay in the area? How would you describe the changes you’ve seen in the college community since you moved here?
Though I am retiring from Princeton in July 2015, I am returning to teach a single workshop that fall. I will probably teach workshops here and there for a while, perhaps at NYU, UC-Berkeley, or elsewhere. I enjoy teaching very much, and love to work closely with young or not-so-young writers.
We have no plans to move from Princeton. The most obvious change in the area is in population density, construction, and traffic congestion. Not very good changes for the environment, unfortunately.
Can you say a bit about how you conduct class? Will you have more time for your own work now? Your thoughts on literary prizes.
My workshops are probably quite like other fiction workshops. Students have read their classmates’ work beforehand, have printed out stories, and are prepared to discuss them. These are like editorial conferences, and are usually quite intense, though all criticism is “constructive.” At the end of the workshop, students pass copies of the stories to the writers. Of course, I also meet with student-writers in my office. I usually have two seniors who are writing senior theses, and these students I meet with, as in a tutorial, in my office through the semester.
I don’t really need “more time” for my writing. My schedule is ideal for my purposes – if I have an unlimited amount of time, I will usually squander it. Most people feel that literary prizes are good for publishing. There is a long tradition of prizes for the arts dating back to ancient Greek theater… a tradition of some individuals singled out while many are ignored. Obviously this is not a good situation, but it is not likely to change in the near future.
Any current or upcoming projects of your own that you’d like to mention?
My next project is a memoir titled The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Memoir. I am just completing this and it is scheduled for fall 2015 publication. The memoir is mostly about my childhood, girlhood, parents and family background, rather more than about myself. It does not contain any Princeton material, unfortunately. My marriage to Raymond Smith is touched upon, but only minimally. (Since A Widow’s Story dealt with Ray and our lives together in great detail.)
You clearly enjoy tweeting. You have a nice sentence about Twitter: “Reliquary of lost thoughts, brilliant insights, fleeting hopes.” Does this medium of expression in itself qualify as a new art form?
Twitter is an intriguing new forum for communication and for abbreviated, sometimes Zen-like thoughts. Of course it is not always elevated, but we can avoid “negative” material. Twitter is particularly valuable if you are following a particular subject, for instance contemporary art, neuroscience, poetry, philosophy, feminism, noir movies, animal shelters and animal rights activism.
But can one live without Twitter? Yes! Social media are luxuries in our civilized lives that some have come to feel necessary. But they are not.
How do you feel about the future of the book, the durability of the print medium and the benefits or downside of devices like Kindle and e-books?
After some initial interest, my husband Charlie Gross does not use his iPad very much, for some reason. When we travel, the Kindle or iPad can be particularly valuable, but for much of the time we seem to both prefer books. I don’t find the e-book a negative experience, though it is not particularly positive either—rather more neutral, depending upon the material. But one does miss the aesthetic beauty of some books— covers, texture of paper.
Can you say something about what you find most exciting, interesting, or challenging in the arts right now?
One of the reasons that I enjoy contemporary films and some TV series is that I don’t have to write about them. If I admire Ida—Calvary—A Separation—A Touch of Sin—Five Broken Cameras— Ajami—Breaking Bad—Mad Men—The Fall and many others, I am not required to have any professional opinions about these interesting and engaging works, which is a relief. As a reviewer, primarily for The New York Review of Books, it seems that I am always presenting a case, a statement, an assessment, an “opinion”….
Speaking of the series as an art form, have you been attracted by the idea of venturing into that genre yourself? Blonde was a mini series back in 2001, and is being taken up as a film with Jessica Chastain. Any comments on that?
I am not involved in this project though I’ve read the excellent screenplay adaptation by Andrew Dominik, the director. It is quite a challenge for a young actress to try to impersonate Marilyn Monroe, so I wish this young woman much luck. (Poppy Montgomery, in the CBS TV movie, was excellent. I think it may have been her breakthrough role.) In her later films, like The Misfits, the unhappy Marilyn Monroe was forced to try to impersonate herself, a dilemma.
This is Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary. Would you rather read the plays or see them performed? Any memorable productions you could mention?
I don’t think it’s realistic to make this an either/or proposition. Most people who see the plays have probably read them. Directors edit the plays so that, in some cases, you might have difficulty knowing the sequence of scenes. The most memorable production of Shakespeare recently was the Kenneth Branagh Macbeth at the Park Avenue Armory, a few months ago.
You met President Obama when you received the 2010 Medal of the Arts. What was your sense of him in person? Was this your first visit to the White House?
It was a very nice occasion not yet overcast by quite so much political ill-feeling as we seem to have at the present time. Both Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are gracious individuals, quick-witted and funny, exuding what is called charisma. President Obama was personally involved in the National Medals ceremony in that he seemed quite familiar with the careers of the recipients – especially those in music. It was not my first visit to the White House since I’d been a guest at the National Book Festival some years before hosted by Laura Bush, who was most gracious also, a wonderful promoter of libraries and books.
Fifty years ago the Beatles film A Hard Days Night came out. Did their influence musically and otherwise affect your perception of the sixties?
Though I admire the Beatles, I was not greatly caught up in their work at the time. I played classical piano—that is, I tried to play classical piano. If/when I played piano, it was classical music—Chopin, Beethoven, Bach. The piano is my favorite instrument.
Can you comment on your second marriage? Your husband is among other things a gifted photographer. Have you taken it up as well?
My husband Charlie Gross is retired from the Psychology Department at Princeton, where he taught neuroscience and was a research scientist for many years. He is indeed a talented and energetic photographer who loves to travel; he has been to China a dozen times, and is returning in November to teach in Shang-hai. He is drawn to places in the world we are not supposed to call “exotic” any longer—but they are certainly far from Princeton.
As editor of New Jersey Noir and now Prison Noir, does this reflect your interest in the Hollywood genre and old movies in general? Influence of noir on your own work?
My work is often called noir—perhaps it is a helpful term since it seems to have a poetic ring. Most noir movies are somewhat plot-driven and present noir heroines, or anti-heroines—they are somewhat misogynist fantasies, though often very entertaining. Recently we attended a femme noir festival at the Film Forum in New York where the 1953 Niagara was outstanding—Marilyn Monroe in her last complex, noir portrait. The studio would not ever again allow their blond actress to portray an evil woman.
Your interest in boxing is well known. How did you get to know Mike Tyson? Did he read your book?
When I was researching my book On Boxing, I became acquainted with Mike Tyson and his wonderful manager, the late, much-missed Jimmy Jacobs. I had also been asked to cover Tyson’s first championship fight, against Trevor Berbek, for Life in 1986. Tyson, whom I first met when he was 19 and rapidly ascending the heavyweight division, is a far more complicated individual than his popular-culture persona would suggest; but like so many other young athletes, and young celebrities, he was more or less corrupted by success and fame. As Floyd Patterson, another young heavyweight champion, once said, “When you have millions of dollars, you have millions of friends.
I have to ask about cats. If you had to speak up for cats in the great cat-dog debate, what would you say? What is it about cats that enhances your life?
What is there to say about cats? The felines among us are absolutely beautiful, irresistible, and untrustworthy. As a long-ago farm girl, I grew up with barn cats and just one dog, a sweet mixed breed named, for some reason, Toby. I’ve always thought that I would like a dog also, but cats are much easier to live with; if you are often traveling, a cat can more easily be taken care of by another person.
(My cat Cherie was a 9/11 kitty—born a few months before the terrorist attack and adopted by my husband and me from the Hopewell Animal Shelter about a week after, as a way of helping to bolster our morale. Like so many others, we were feeling crushed, and terribly helpless. A new young cat in the household, all innocence and unknowing, and very affectionate, was therapeutic.)