Joyce Carol Oates webchat – as it happened

Last modified: 03: 05 PM GMT+0

The celebrated American novelist answered your questions – and covered everything from Charlie Hebdo to Virginia Woolf

That's it for today

That’s everything from Joyce – many thanks to her for spending two hours answering your questions. Her new memoir The Lost Landscape is out this week. For more webchat action, tomorrow we have Duran Duran discussing their new album and anything else you want to ask them.

methzzz asks:

If you were to eat yourself entirely, would you double in size or disappear completely?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

MrJohnsonJr asks:

How does one secure a lucrative deal with a prestigious publisher? Long term, of course. It seems it is beyond one, and everything is hopeless.

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

To set off hoping for a "lucrative deal" does seem rather hopeless. Most writers & poets begin when very young out of a wish to create, not to reap a harvest, & virtually everyone I know who is a writer or a poet would continue to write without being published.

"If prolific writers wrote for reputations & prizes, & not rather to express a personal vision, we would not publish so frequently"

LordBarrington asks:

Stephen King recently addressed a question about whether or not authors can be too prolific. What is your stance? Do more prolific authors become less well regarded by critics as somehow producing less ‘literary’ work and is there an unfair perception towards so called ‘genre fiction’ writers as being less concerned about the craft?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Yes, a prolific writer tends to be taken for granted, for obvious reasons. If we wrote for reputations & prizes, & not rather to express a personal vision, we would not publish so frequently.

An inventive writer, a writer of originality, can do remarkable things with any genre work – see Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, perhaps the greatest of gothic "ghost" tales. Much in the novella is formulaic, yet the vision & (of course) the language transforms all.

On the whole, perhaps unsurprisingly, the English tend to honor prolific writers, or in any case tend not to denigrate them for being prolific. Such great predecessors as Dickens, Trollope, Hardy, Lawrence among others have made "productiveness" a norm rather than an aberration, as it seems to be, to a degree, in the US.

Bryan Cooper asks:

Who would win in a MMA fight between a horse-sized wasp and Donald Trump’s toupee?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

I think it is "real" – not a toupee. Or "real" in some way.

Another, rather barbed, question about the controversy surrounding PEN giving a freedom of expression to Charlie Hebdo, which Oates opposed. tomtomtommy asks:

Do you still have absolutely no idea of what Charlie Hebdo is about and its cultural context but nevertheless give your totally uniformed opinion about it?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

I am totally informed of Charlie Hebdo which had a history of viciously excoriating feminists some decades ago. Why do you say this? Do you consider that your opinion is weightier than others' opinions, who don't agree with you?

If you are referring to the PEN award, some writers objected to an award on the basis of content. "Charlie Hebdo wandered into the realm of hate speech" – Garry Trudeau (the distinguished American cartoonist of whom perhaps you have not heard.) "Punching down" is not an admirable element of satire.

If the award is for courage in the face of great danger, & not for the actual content of the published work, then the PEN award is justified. I think that everyone has agreed on this.

However, there are sincere disagreements in adult life. The challenge is to respect others' opinions when they differ from your own. America is plagued with bitter, insanely vicious divisions springing from political/ religious sources. The image of Donald Trump, the quintessential bully, is very ugly in a democracy, yet has drawn much admiration. One would expect PEN to honor "freedom of expression" within its own quarters.

soixantehuitard asks:

Do you still use dreams for inspiration?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Dreams suffuse us with feelings, sometimes very strong, but largely inarticulate and unrealized. The "dream inspiration" is rare, & even then one must work with infinite patience to tease it out of the unconscious.

Dolores_Haze asks:

Your novella Zombie is one of the most intense and unnerving pieces of fiction I’ve ever encountered – would you ever consider adapting it for film?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Zombie has been made into a short film by Bill Connington, who also adapted the novella for the stage, quite brilliantly & chillingly. (Bill Connington, an excellent actor, has played Quentin.) This might be available on YouTube - I'm not sure. It was posted for a while.

Well, the trailer is:

karin_r asks:

I read We Were The Mulvaneys. Has a character ever got under your skin?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

I feel very close to the Mulvaney family & find it emotionally upsetting to visit certain kinds of farms – family farms – the very smells bring tears to my eyes... The farm is based upon my own family farm of decades ago, long lost. Muffin was my own beloved cat. Much was autobiographical in the novel, woven with much that was totally fiction. But the "real" elements leap out at me if I open the novel... My favorite passages involve Marianne & Muffin, at the very heart of the novel of an American family devastated by a crude, coarse American culture which would be even worse today with "social media" – "cyberbullying" – of young people.

Dolores_Haze asks:

I adore your short story ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ but do you feel it has been overanalysed or are you proud it is often studied on Literature courses?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

It has influenced a number of short films, some of them quite dazzling, surreal & inventive – the story is the jumping-off place for the young filmmakers' imagination. This is always fascinating to me.

"'Freedom of speech' is a phrase to be taken with a grain of salt"

Nada89 asks:

Do you think the credibility of PEN was damaged irrevocably when so many members failed to grasp the moral distinction between offending cultural sensitivities and the murder of satirists?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

No, PEN has already triumphed with a good deal of new membership & much publicity. By giving an award to a controversial cause, which had already garnered world-wide publicity, PEN was assured of much media attention, which would not have occurred if the award had been given to a little-known writer. What was disturbing to some observers was the lack of respect for the opinions of a number of writers who believed that Charlie Hebdo published "hate speech" – if this was their opinion, why should it offend someone else? Muslim writers felt this way, but no one asked their opinion. "Freedom of speech" is a phrase to be taken with a grain of salt, we should know.

markrizatt asks:

Do you think there is anything about your work that makes it particularly American? Aside, of course, from the fact that it is written there (I assume).

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

This is difficult to answer. Certainly I have been influenced by American writers – Melville, Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Faulkner predominantly – but also by James Joyce, Thomas Mann, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Kafka... Perhaps the wide range of subjects, or genres.... In essence I am a formalist & it is the forms of fiction that intrigue me.

TheShiftyShadow asks:

Do you prefer building sandcastles or snowmen?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

As a girl in upstate NY, in the notorious Snow Belt, I helped build snowmen with my young friends – this was much fun! As I recall.

"Twitter has remade the media from below"

MartaBausells asks:

You have an infamous Twitter account. You’ve gone viral with a dinosaur prank and been praised as one of the best authors on the social network, but also got called a troll and been asked by Gawker or Jezebel to delete it.

You’ve said it’s meant to be funny. Can you talk about how and why you use Twitter? Do you see it as an experimentation tool? Are you actively trying to provoke reactions from your readers? How does your Twitter activity relate to or inform your writing?

PS. Could you please explain this tweet? Please! Thank you.

"Land" phones ringing in the wilderness.

— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) August 15, 2013
User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Why should one care? The gossippy, troll-infested Twitter is the very quintessence of the ephemeral. The more enduring Twitter has virtually revolutionized our way of communicating & our forms of consciousness. For instance, in the US, more than 4,000 black citizens were lynched overall – yet one can assume virtually none of these atrocities was reported on, let alone brought to the attention of millions of people. There were no cell phones in those days, no videotaping! Local newspapers, their publishers & editors, as well as local radio & TV stations, had no need to report anything they did not wish to report. The media has been race-dominated from the very start. It has also exerted censorship. Local police departments could commit outrages against black citizens, disenfranchised or powerless persons, & no one outside the small community would know. The NYPD, the largest police department in the US, has been riddled with corruption & has been shamefully negligent in correcting police misconduct & brutality through its history. No one would know of these outrages if Twitter & other social media were not giving voice to persons traditionally without a voice & so without power.

Of course, I have very little to do with this revolutionary aspect of Twitter except to retweet urgent bits of news. This is the true value of Twitter – not the silly squabbles & ephemeral feuds. It has remade the media from "below" – to to speak. Grass-roots populism makes the media available to all, not an elite few with a vested interest in the status quo.

Regarding the tweet – "Land" phones are no longer in much use, with the rise of cell phones. Thus the phrase is meant to evoke "voices crying in the wilderness"-- with no one to hear. The tweet means that an older way of life is passing into non-use, into oblivion. Twitter should mean that one does not need to explain an aphorism or a joke...

aalleessaannddrriaa asks:

I’m in college now and have been reading your work for nearly seven years. You’ve had a larger impact on my life more than anyone I know and I owe so much of my wellbeing to you. I truly believe I would be a different person if you were not writing and publishing. It’s cliche but I’m still curious: Is there any advice that you would give to your nineteen year old self?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

That is always a difficult question. We are less likely to be easy about ourselves as adolescents – well into our twenties, perhaps – because we have not yet established anything like a secure life for ourselves. Thus, younger people are edgy, prone to some anxiety – which I think is probably for the good, as it stimulates our brains into planning, plotting, imagining, thinking – as Sartre once said, "Genius is...what one does in desperate circumstances." (This is a paraphrase of a longer remark.) Younger writers may tend to be more experimental than their elders, which is also a good thing.

Kullus De Quertyman asks:

I got loads out of your essays about Saul Bellow and the city and his voice etc. That’s all ... no question, unless you have anything to say about Bellow and how he influenced voice-driven novels.

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Yes, I have admired Bellow enormously, especially his earlier, more vividly realized & less polemical novels. The "voice"-driven novel does not seem to be fashionable at the present time, however; at least not the highly intellectual, verbal, "talky" novels for which Bellow became famous.

More reading suggestions from Joyce, adding another reply to an earlier question:

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Recently I reread most of Joan Didion’s books – a wonderful experience – in order to review the considerable biography of her by Tracy Daugherty.

An underrated American novelist, born in South Africa, is Sheila Kohler, who writes beautifully – tightly structured, ingeniously imagined novels (Dreaming for Freud, Becoming Jane Eyre, Crossways) & a story collection, Stories from Another World.

"Some fiction seems to spring white-hot from the imagination, as if a dream were struggling into consciousness"

PaulaCappa asks:

Joyce, in your book “The Faith of a Writer” you speak about inspiration and cite Virginia Woolf (pgs 87-88) and the ‘necessity of surrendering to the unconscious.’ Woolf says the novel “exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross ....” Can you suggest ways for writers to tap into that unconscious (or subconscious) to reach the story on that far side? Sometimes I find that I have a story, a word, a scene, a character, and then nothing happens in my mind for weeks or months. How do you reach your stories on that far side of the gulf?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

This is a matter for intense meditation, in solitude. There are different sorts of writing – different gradations of consciousness. Some fiction is highly analytic, diagrammatic, “conscious”; other fiction seems to spring white-hot from the imagination, as if a dream were struggling into consciousness. The latter is most forceful if it can be realized. You can tell if you are “tapping into” (please excuse this cliché!) the unconscious if while writing you lost track of time & write until you are quite exhausted – this is not a common occurrence, but it is very wonderful if/ when it happens. But writing that is willed, even forced, can also be rewarding, in another way.

Recall that Virginia Woolf spent days, weeks, even months “lying on a couch” – not fully well, not fully “sane,” obviously in the grip of a work of the imagination struggling to be born. She did not have the distractions of daily life & a household as most of us do; she had servants, & no children. Day-dreaming, dreaming, scribbling into her wonderful diary – this was her way of plumbing the depths of her being. The results were remarkable works of art, but the diary is also an extraordinary accomplishment, all quicksilver insights and judgments, written quickly & with no eye for posterity.


"I can’t write about anything without having been struck by it, even haunted by it"

axlsgirl asks:

From the book Them right through to Blonde and My sister, My love, you never seem to write about the same subjects. So it becomes harder to classify your work which I love. Do you go through a process of choosing subjects or do you read a news story and think it would make a good piece?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

It’s difficult to answer this. I don’t really know. I can’t write about anything without having been struck by it, even haunted by it – in some way. Reading of incidents can be stimulating & inspiring, but over all, the fiction has to be 99% invented & imagined. I am particularly interested in exemplary events & not usually so interested in the actual persons who perpetrate them.

Jonnie Griffiths asks:

I’m interested in how you got started as a writer. Were you nervous? Did you write as a child? What do you think of your early stuff? What advice do you give to young budding writers?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Yes, I have always been writing, to a degree. My new memoir The Lost Landscape is about the origins of writing, in childhood. Practically speaking, writing emerges out of reading; it is a kind of mimicry of what we read, but transformed into our own voices & personalities. The first great book of my life was Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass – this made an enormous impression on me, & was wonderfully inspiring.

"My greatest regret? Having been born without the capacity to understand math"

NigelSafeton asks:

What is your single greatest regret?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Having been born without the capacity to understand math in the way in which (I think) I can understand poetry & literature… I have tried, but my brain is just not equipped for math… it’s a great loss, & I am sorry about it. Also, though I took piano lessons for about 14 years, I am not a very good pianist – just good enough to realise the brilliance of the great pianists.

bowloforanges asks:

Reading your book We Were The Mulvaneys, I became deeply attached to the characters, so much so that I still think of Marianne Mulvaney and her cat Muffin some years after finishing the book. Which of your characters do you feel most attached to? And is it hard to say ‘goodbye’ to them on finishing writing a novel?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Muffin was my own, much beloved cat; his name was indeed “Muffin.” In the novel I tried to give voice to emotions some might condemn as sentimental & nostalgic; but they were, & still are, very genuine. I feel enormously close to some of my fictional families, like the Mulvaneys, & don’t really think of them as completed or absent.

sethy123 asks:

Can you ever imagine The Accursed being dramatised? Do you think it’s possible? Personally I think it could be wonderful, the characters are so vivid.

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Yes, I think there is an option on The Accursed. Someone is attempting to write a screenplay, but I am not personally involved.

RochelleSpencer asks:

1) I remember seeing you at the World Science Festival with the late E.L. Doctorow, and I wish there could have been more questions about the role of science in your work. How do dreams and psychology inform your work? Do you spend a lot of time reading psychological texts?

2) You’re making some kind of an interesting statement about race and class, but I’m not sure what you’re saying. I’ve noticed, for instance, that some of your “white” women characters have these physical descriptions that sound, to me (I’m a black woman), as though they’re black. Why is that? Are you demonstrating a sisterhood between white women and women of color?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

1) I have spent some time in recent years reading in neuroscience with a
particular interest in memory. (My next novel is about a woman neuroscientist whose life’s work is in the field of memory/amnesia.)

2) Yes, that is probably so. I had not thought of it in those terms. I feel a distinct “sisterhood” with many women based more upon economic class & experience than on skin color & ethnic identification. My novel of some years ago Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart is a sort of valentine of those years when white/black children & young teenagers lived together in urban neighbourhoods before the inflammatory politics of the 1960s.

guevara1968 asks:

Your collection On Boxing is my favourite of your writings. Do you keep in touch with Tyson ? Any plans to write more on this subject ? I’d love to read your impression of Mayweather etc

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

I have seen Mike Tyson just once in recent years when I moderated a panel consisting of just Mike and a documentary film maker who had created a film based on his life. Mike Tyson is a highly complicated individual about which there has been much said, perhaps too much; yet more will surely be written about him. The “posthumous” life of a champion athlete in America is a fascinating phenomenon.

Regret asks:

Entering your world is a very particular space; your characters and landscapes are drenched in a violent despair. Is this a conscious decision, do you even recognise this perennial view? In the last thirty years I have read most of your novels but as I get older and possibly saner, I find I am no longer strong enough to withstand this lack of hope. I would be so interested to hear your views on your personal out look on life, do the books act as a container for the harsher feelings, leaving you to lead a happy, more positive life?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

You must not have read Mudwoman which ends on a very strong & hopeful note, or Little Bird of Heaven & The Accursed which are quite positively resolved. “Drenched in violent despair” does not seem to me applicable to most of my fiction, but perhaps you are thinking of a particular novel or short story that embodies this. Of course I am not writing propaganda but trying to present a nuanced vision of the world as it is, filtered through the lives of distinct individuals.

Hyosho asks, slyly referring to the aforementioned Spielberg picture:

Like you, I am very concerned about the degradation of our natural environment, particularly the sport hunting of Ceratopsids - is there anything that can be done or should we concentrate on preserving what few specimens are left in safari parks?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Big game hunting/trophy hunting should be allowed if the hunter hunts his prey with just his hands & “wits.” In the animal’s natural habitat.

Yakarina asks:

In the late 1960’s you were the first female to publish a fictional story in Playboy. It was loosely parodied on the English faculty at the University of Windsor. You exposed many scandals, involving trysts, including adulterous activities that ruined many families. Do you take creative inspiration, and conceptual ideas, from your students essays (a recurring accusation), and the life situations you may find yourself in??

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Not at all. I don’t think that I have ever been inspired by a student essay. It has been a long time since I’ve written satirically or comically about academic colleagues – those stories were of an era (the 1960s) that lent itself to academic satire. At about this time, or a little later, David Lodge began writing his very funny but warmly sympathetic novels about academic life.

arfurarf asks:

Who is really answering our questions? Is it you, Ms Joyce? Or is it you, Cleo the cat?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Cleo is much too skittish & restless to sit still to answer questions. She resembles a very small ocelot & alternates between being extremely affectionate & extremely “playful.”

onalongsabbatical asks:

I’ve come to your work rather late, but having read your very good memoir A Widow’s Story recently, I’m now reading Blonde, which I think is astonishingly good. I read somewhere that you felt you were channelling Marilyn Monroe as you wrote it, and I think that’s one reason it’s so effective; your ability to subjectively become your character, and therefore evoke identification and empathy in the reader, is exemplary. Do you find that in order to sustain your concentration and immersion in a piece of work like this you have to shut large parts of the world out, at least while you’re writing intensively? Or have you evolved a way of compartmentalising so that you can daily ‘get into’ the flow without too much effort?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

I am not sure that I’d ever spoken of “channelling” Marilyn Monroe – this is a metaphorical way of speaking, if so. The language of Blonde is a heightened speech that is not “naturalistic” but rather an approximation of an interior language proportionate to the intense, complex feelings of characters who may in fact not be very articulate. My approach to Marilyn Monroe was through the child Norma Jeane Baker whose gradual metamorphosis into “Marilyn Monroe” constitutes the drama of the novel, & its irony.

"On Twitter, irony is very dangerous and parody even worse"

zendik asks:

Did you really not realise Spielberg was crouching next to a dinosaur, or was that ironic??

This question is referring to the below tweet, with Oates’s reply, which some people took at face value.

This guy thinks it's cool to kill defenceless animals then take a selfie. Jerk.

— Chris Tilly (@TillyTweets) June 9, 2015

So barbaric that this should still be allowed... No conservation laws in effect wherever this is?

— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) June 9, 2015

Here’s Joyce’s reply:

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

One of my previous tweets was of a flying dinosaur/ bird ancestor taken in the Natural History Museum in NYC, which I posted as “New Jersey State Bird at our feeder.” Some respondents thought the savage-looking creature was actually a New Jersey bird & I did not correct them under the assumption that one should not have to explain a joke; or, if one does, it is not funny.

A good proportion, perhaps more than half of my tweets, until recently, have been jokes. The first person whom I followed on Twitter was Steve Martin, the second, The Tweet of God. I’d thought that Twitter was a jokey, surrealist, playful phenomenon where people posted ephemeral thoughts of little consequence – but have since learned that most tweets are taken literally. Irony is very dangerous & parody even worse.

Rich Wharton asks:

‘On Boxing’ is a book I have repeatedly recommended to any new or casual boxing fans... The preponderance of opinion tends to lie in favour of the essay collection when it comes to choosing, for want of a better word, ‘meaningful’ boxing reading. My question, which by now may be over-laboured, is if you also believe this to be the case, and if so, why it is so? I possess the opinion that boxing, while perhaps not a metaphor for life, is yet too serious and multi-layered a subject for a fictional novel to deal with adequately, and too wide-ranging and difficult to be encapsulated by a non-fictional book which attempts to present the crux of the sport as microcosm - “Here is Mike Tyson/Muhammad Ali/Joe Louis; The Personification of Boxing!!”

I would also like to ask whether you believe that your previously stated views on the roles of women within boxing still hold true, especially in light of Ann Wolfe, Kathy Duva, Holly Holm, and others like them?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Yes, I am sure you are correct. A novel could only focus upon one kind of boxer – a Joe Louis, a Mike Tyson – while ignoring another kind of boxer – Willie Pep, Sugar Ray Robinson; it could only focus upon one era, & not others. There are so many fascinating boxing stories – so much to say about the redoubtable “sport” – that only an essay collection, a gathering of numerous occasions, can do justice to the diversity. (You might have mentioned Mailer’s wonderful The Fight – a masterpiece of its kind.)

Yes, I’ve since learned more about these excellent boxers, who happen to be women. (A novel I am just completing, titled A Book of American Martyrs, includes a lengthy section on a young woman boxer & is a sympathetic portrait over all of that often desperate world; a kind of subterranean world, largely unheralded.)

bizrank asks:

Years ago I read a haunting story of yours, about a young couple who are morally compromised by their actions following an automobile incident involving a menacing stranger. What I thought was the central thematic scene takes place in an overturned house-trailer on the sandy beach of a lagoon--a place of confusion and discord on both literal and symbolic levels. Could you remind me of the title of the story, and tell me where I might find it?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Let me think about this. I believe it is not one of my stories, & I will try to recall whose it is. It does sound familiar – but there is no “lagoon” in my fiction.

"Writing is a process, and not a product. You should enjoy the experience, even of being frustrated"

ID2176877 asks:

You are a prolific writer. Have you ever experienced block and, if so, how did you overcome it?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Thinking, day-dreaming, plotting, meditating – these come first, & might involve months, before a writer actually writes a first sentence. Being “blocked” only means that you are not quite at the place at which you are poised to begin. Recall how pre-production is most of film-making – pre-production can take years, while filming itself is just a few months. Writing is a process, and not a product. You should enjoy the experience, even of being frustrated and “blocked,” as part of a process which no one has forced upon you, and which will very likely not be lamented by anyone apart from you, if you abandon it.

"My life was made possible – my life as a writer, I mean – by the emotional support of my family"

choitohora asks:

I’m fascinated by the transformative power and transforming values of objects in narratives of grief, mourning and loss.

In ‘Mother, Missing’, I see Nikki proceeding through her pain and grief by moving into her mother’s house, using her mother’s things, inhabiting her mother the best way she can looking at her mother’s calendar and (against her nature) ‘doing good’ as her mother had done on days marked for taking seniors swimming or visiting elderly relatives... In what way do you think the objects in this narrative act as agents for Nikki’s grief?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

The novel is so close to my heart, and to my experience of losing my dear mother some years ago, it is hard for me to write about it. However, I am at this very moment surrounded by some of my mother’s things, and have only to glance up to see photographs of her, my father, and my grandmother. I feel often that my life was made possible – my life as a writer, I mean – by the emotional support of my family, & so Missing Mom (as it is titled in the US) was my effort at paying homage to a mother who was also a complex human being who deeply touched many persons in her lifetime. I wanted to write this novel in a language which my mother would have understood.

Frank3 asks:

Did you ever have second thoughts about your views on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo? You joined a protest to stop PEN from honoring this publication. Most all of the people who signed seemed obviously unaware of the publication’s sophisticated political commentary.

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Yes, this was a difficult issue. Both sides of the debate were persuasive but I decided to support the dissenting writers because they were being attacked, in some quarters quite rudely, by prominent PEN members. (Not by PEN officials, however.) This was unfortunate, and ironic – that PEN, which prides itself on being about “freedom of speech,” really harbors such censorious personalities.

If a number of writers sincerely believed that Charlie Hebdo had published “hate speech” – surely they had the right to disengage themselves from the award. What was so outrageous about this? There was never any doubt that the award would be given. Staying away from a fund-raising banquet (arguably the most unpleasant way of spending an evening) is hardly the same thing as preventing it from occurring.

Also, the self-congratulatory nature of the award seemed embarrassing and hypocritical to some writers. I think that Russell Banks spoke most eloquently on this aspect of the controversy. (Paul Auster spoke most eloquently in favor of the award.)

Ironically, no one seemed at all interested in what Muslim writers & readers thought – the entire debate was a phenomenon of First World white writers, predominantly male. They did not set out to garner publicity for themselves, but that is more or less what ensured.

From the same questioner:

Oh and also: given the aforementioned productivity, do you actually end up doing much reading? If so who do you rate amongst young American writers and why - and is there anyone underrated or unknown who we should be reading?

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

Yes, I read constantly, & am in fact a fairly frequent reviewer for The New York Review of Books.
Many of the outstanding new writers are former students of mine – so it might be a kind of nepotism to name them.

Joyce is with us now

Joyce is answering your questions now, live from her Princeton home. First up is this from clareyesno:

Hi Joyce – your editor Daniel Halpern once said (in the Guardian): “In cars, in airports, on planes, if she’s at party and no one’s talking to her she’s writing. She’s completely focused, and makes use of every moment.” How have you crafted this level of focus? Is it natural or something you worked at? I suppose my broader question is: how on earth do you manage to keep writing at such a constantly productive rate??

User avatar for JoyceCarolOates Guardian contributor

I do write – at least, I am taking notes – while travelling, but I also do a good deal of reading while travelling. As for writing at a party – I think that Dan might mean that I am thinking about writing – not actually writing.

Writing – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, journalism – is a matter of problem-solving, essentially. It’s a matter of experimenting with lead sentences, and with endings; it’s a matter of pacing, structuring, finding the most effective tone and “voice.” These challenges are infinitely intriguing to me and exert a spell far greater than the somewhat casual attentiveness we pay to transient environments through which we pass when, for instance, we are travelling.

However, I should say that the most productive times in my life occur when I am running, walking (swiftly, and alone), & bicycling. There is something about being in motion that stimulates & abets thinking.

Post your questions for Joyce Carol Oates

While some writers are novelists, poets or essayists, Joyce Carol Oates simply writes. Born in 1938, her work has encompassed hundreds of short stories, numerous plays, reams of verse, essays on everything from Mike Tyson to Philip Roth, and over forty novels – plus those for children and young adults, and more besides under a pair of pseudonyms adopted for mystery novels.

It adds up to a formidable body of work that constantly unpicks the cruelties and joys of everyday American life. “Racism, misogyny, poverty, political corruption, bullying and the tyranny of hierarchies are her prime subjects,” wrote the novelist Rose Tremain earlier this year, reviewing her novel The Sacrifice, in which she explored civil unrest through the story of an African American family in a fictional New Jersey town. This month sees another memoir published – The Lost Landscape, about her time growing up.

Oates is joining us to discuss these and anything else in her life’s work in a live webchat on Monday 7 September, from 2pm BST onwards – post your questions for her in the comments below, and she’ll answer as many as possible.


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