Joyce Carol Oates: ‘People think I write quickly, but I actually don’t’

The prolific author on the unreality of romance, the fickle memory of Americans and how tweeting has got her into trouble

When Joyce Carol Oates, the 77-year-old author of well over 100 books, told the New Yorker last year that she thought of herself as “transparent”, before adding “I’m not sure I really have a personality”, the admission felt scandalous. We live in a time when the concept of personhood has been enshrined, in the monetising parlance of late capitalism, as “my personal brand”. To posit its non-existence is a kind of taboo. Especially if you happen to be someone often described as “America’s foremost woman of letters”.

Oates, a five-time Pulitzer finalist, might be “very intensely interested in a portrait of America”, but clearly she has no truck with the ego-vaunting, personality driven paradigm of contemporary celebrity. She appears more to belong to some other, long-passed era, with a pronounced gothic streak colouring much of her fiction, which tends to be peopled by powerful men and introverted women who frequently experience sexual shame. In the afterword to her 1994 collection Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, she seems to find a human truth within horror: “We should sense immediately, in the presence of the grotesque, that it is both ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ simultaneously, as states of mind are real enough – emotions, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs – though immeasurable. The subjectivity that is the essence of the human is also the mystery that divides us irrevocably from one another.”

At her home in rural New Jersey she serves mugs of herbal tea and when her bengal kitten, Cleopatra, settles against my leg, Oates says: “I see you have quite a conquest there. She assumes you’re here to meet her.”

I am here, of course, to talk to Oates about herself and her work, but “I’m not so interested in myself … ” she says. “I remember somebody saying that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton loved to go bar-hopping in New York, and the last thing they wanted to talk about was themselves – they were more interested in these characters in the bars. That’s the way I think many writers are. I feel that way. And it’s often said about Shakespeare that he was transparent, and Keats that he had this negative capability to be interested in other things.”

Specifically, I’m here to speak to her about her new novel The Man Without a Shadow, her 44th under her own name to go alongside her many collections of stories, essays and plays, her memoirs and her novels written under pseudonyms. It concerns the relationship between an amnesiac, Elihu Hoopes, and a neuroscientist, Margot Sharpe, for whom Hoopes is both enduring scientific subject and lifelong love object. She is a woman who “can’t bear herself except as a vessel of work”. She is also a person who wonders, “What if I have no ‘person’ – what will I do then?”

Oates is straightforward about the personal parallels. “I very much identify with Margot.” And not just for her workaholic tendencies and personality doubt. “I think,” she ventures, “we’re continually inventing narratives and filling in blanks and misremembering in ways that bolster our interpretation of something. So I wanted to write about this relationship between two people engaged in different memories.”

Since his memory extends no further than 70 seconds, Elihu experiences every meeting with Margot as a first. Accordingly, the novel is written entirely in the present tense, the state in which Elihu lives. In one sense then, their love is literally without foundation: how can you form any meaningful connection in a little over a minute? Yet there’s also something pure about their relationship: each encounter has the wonder of the eternally new.

Joyce Carol Oates and her first husband Raymond Smith
Joyce Carol Oates and her first husband Raymond Smith. Photograph: Eva Haggdahl/PR

“The relationship between them is always sort of unreal,” she says, “but I’m wondering if many relationships that are based on love and romance are not pretty highly charged with unreality. When you’re actually living with someone over a period of time you do get to know the person in a very complex and detailed way. But the romantic ideal is very much fraught with the possibility of conditioning people. Presenting your best self. Saying things to the other that will elicit a certain response.”

Oates was married for 47 years to Raymond J Smith, a professor and editor of the Ontario Review, which he and Oates founded together in 1974. After he died in 2008 from complications arising from pneumonia, Oates detailed her grief in an acclaimed memoir, A Widow’s Story. Soon after, she met and married Charlie Gross, a neuroscientist. Gross has been a particularly enthusiastic reader of the latest novel, which has come about, she says, directly as a consequence of writing A Widow’s Story and having to deal so rigorously with her own memory. Oates usually works on several projects at once, but it was only after she’d finished the memoir that she was able to return to writing novels and stories. “Writing fiction is hard to do when real life seems so much more important,” she explains.

Nevertheless: “I don’t have any anxiety about writing. Not really. It’s such a pleasure, and our lives are so relatively easy compared to people who are really out there in the world working hard and suffering. The art comes much later in civilisation, when you’ve dealt with other things like poverty and strife. People think that I write quickly, but I actually don’t. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Am I still working on this novel?’ It’s such a slow evolution. The point of anxiety is lost in all that. You can’t be anxious every minute of every day for eight months.”

Oates’s extraordinary work ethic – she writes eight hours a day – is such that we now have a virtual sub-genre of literature that we might call “where to start with Joyce Carol Oates”. It’s a phenomenon she mocks wryly in The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973–1982: “The list of my books ... is overwhelming. So many books! So many!”

Her very first was By the North Gate, a short story collection published in 1963, but it was her fifth book, them, a 1969 novel, that won her a National book award and confirmed Oates as a major writer. Blonde, her 2000 fictionalisation of Marilyn Monroe’s inner life, is often regarded as her best novel (it was nominated for both a Pulitzer and a National book award) although many readers first encounter her through the repeatedly anthologised “Where Are You Going Where Have You Been”, a nuanced story of a young girl’s rape, in which every sentence is taut with something lethal.

And then there’s her criticism: lengthy, dispassionate and thorough pieces for the New York Review of Books for which she reads each author exhaustively. She recalls, for example, “sitting in Dallas airport with all these books of Cormac McCarthy – literal books, I wasn’t reading on a Kindle – and I thought I’m dragging all these books around, and they’re so depressing! But he’s such a good writer ...” This is where I confess to her that, in this case, I failed to adhere to my usual rule of reading a writer’s entire backlist before an interview. “Well, you can’t possibly … ” she murmurs. “Maybe that was asking too much of yourself, just in general.”

The JCO completists in this world must be few. “There’s a man named Greg Johnson who’s written a biography of me,” she says. “And then maybe a few other people.”

I ask whether JM Coetzee’s job description of a writer as “a secretary of the invisible” resonates with her. (Coincidentally, Johnson’s 1999 biography is titled Invisible Writer.) “I’m obviously creating,” she counters. “Coetzee is somewhat coy ... A secretary is someone who takes notes, but a novelist has a strong will, and is creating narrative situations, bringing people together, telling a story. It’s a very wilful thing, and Coetzee is a very wilful person as an artist. There’s a will; it should be invisible. No one should really know about it.”

Then I broach the subject of another form of writing. Oates, who has nearly 140,000 Twitter followers, has become notorious for missives met with derision or collective “huh?”s. When she asked, “All we hear of ISIS is puritanical & punitive; is there nothing celebratory & joyous? Or is query naive?” it prompted the actor Molly Ringwald to respond, “Okay, who got Grandma stoned?”

Most egregious was a tweet that seemed to conflate violence against women with Islam. “Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed & rape is epidemic – Egypt – natural to inquire: what’s the predominant religion?” I venture that this was Islamophobic. “Well, some of the reactions are sympathetic ... It’s all sort of political. But my fundamental focus is the rights of women and girls – and patriarchal religion, no matter what it is, I’m not sympathetic to. I have confessed that often on Twitter, that I don’t believe in patriarchal religion – to me it’s delusional, so if that’s Islamophobic, I suppose that could be true. It’s more like religion-phobic, or patriarchal religion-phobic. What I had to say was actually much, much longer than could be said in a tweet. But nobody makes anybody write tweets, so the negative response that one gets is … basically, in a way you deserve it. I’ve tweeted other things that I’ve meant sincerely, but sometimes people misinterpret it.”

She adds, wearily: “I don’t really care that much. I write something nice about Homeland, but a bunch of people write back to say ‘Oh, we hate Homeland, it’s Islamophobic.’ I literally don’t care. I don’t even read them. They’re sort of attacking a tweet, then it’s gone. The fickle memory of Americans is something you can rely on. The literary world is very different, and I’m much more serious about the literary world. I write these reviews which are quite long and nuanced for the New York Review of Books – that’s really like my real life.”

When I’ve thanked her and we’ve both stood up there’s a moment of mutual uncertainty. Oates surely wants to get back to work, but the car I’ve yet to summon will probably take 20 minutes to arrive. I gesture at a small floral couch by the front door and suggest I’ll just wait there. Upstairs, I can hear the sound of Oates’s contented humming receding as she moves towards her desk.


Hermione Hoby

The GuardianTramp

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