About Me

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I Spoke With Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates. If I were a man, I'd be in love with her. At 70, she is beautiful, gracious, and authentic. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak yesterday. She read from her newest collection of short stories, Dear Husband, (Harper Collins, c2009). It was a transformative experience, watching the writer's mind at work as she used expressive hands, graceful wrists and long fingers to delineate the rhythm and tone of her words as she spoke them, convincing me my theory is correct: that all good writers are actors, even though most writers have never acted on a stage.

Oates spoke at LitLive, a Day of Literary Feasts, in a large auditorium 3/4 filled, bemusedly, with people mostly over the age of fifty. (I'm being generous, mostly over the age of sixty.) It was not intended to be a performance; it was a reading. Oates spoke about her writing and her writing process for about ten minutes, and then, in a pleasant, modulated, melodic voice she communicated the personality of her first person, present tense narrator in the story, "Suicide by Fitness Center," and her hands, during particularly complicated sentences, illustrated the rhythm in a way that I suspect was unconscious. At one point, a character touches their forehead, and so does Joyce Carol Oates.

What I noted most as she read the humorous story was the intertwining of events with the character's interior thoughts, what she thinks about the people at the fitness center, which is how the reader gets to know the narrator and her foibles, and Oates use of specific detail to make the fitness center, and the characters live in the reader's mind.

Without reading the story yet (I own the book now, and I'll get to that later), from hearing selections from it (she didn't read it in its entirety) this is what I remember: Oates focused on the locale of the fitness center, focused in on the fitness center itself, describes it a bit, the employees, and the people who go there, focuses again on the place, and then builds the story around the place, the events, the people, all filtered through the first person narrator.

Later, in the brief question and answer session, she said the story is in the digression, not in the five events that happen in "Death by Fitness Center." The story's genesis was a real fitness center, that she and her husband used to go to. She also said the story was even more relevant in the waning days of the Bush administration (not meaning to get political, she said), comparing the Bush administration to the darkest middle ages, in a way that made the audience laugh; and that in an Obama administration, where there is more hope, some of the references will lose their relevance.

On a scrap of paper I happened to have in my purse, I scribbled down her words of wisdom about writing, which I paraphrase and consolidate here: Writing is a lonely process. Writing is a sisterhood and brotherhood. Writing doesn't get easier, no matter how long you do it. It is a challenge to find a period of time to direct your thoughts and directly channel them into your work. She believes "writer's block" is really too many thoughts coming in (that conflict with your thoughts about your story).

In the question and answer period, she said this about her writing: She always knows where she is going. She always knows the first line and the last line, before she begins to write; that for her, the first line, the title, and the last line form a triangular relationship. I wish so much, she'd had time to expound upon that concept.

I bought the book, Dear Husband, and a copy of my favorite of her four Young Adult novels: After the Wreck, I Picked Myself Up, Spread my Wings, and Flew Away. I stood in line for my autographs, wondering what I would say to her, knowing what I wanted to ask. I handed her the books, tongue-tied, and gave her my name. "What do you do?" she asked me. This was my opening to speak. I told her, and I asked her my question, a follow-up to what she had said. "Always knowing the last line. Is that true of your novels, as well as your short stories?" She said that it was, and as she also said during the questions and answers, that is her method, and there are other writers like D. H. Lawrence who write without knowing their ending.

Joyce Carol Oates' husband died last year. She has a novel, and the story collection published this year, and many more writing projects in the works. I'm going to post more about her, links to recent articles profiling her life, links to relevant web sites, and my assessment of a book she published on writing in 2003, that somehow escaped my search for meaningful guides, maybe because it was cataloged as biography.

I am still in awe. I got to hear her voice, and speak with a writing icon, and I found her to be amazing, and ageless. In her photographs, she looks somewhat scary. In 3-D, she is an engaging heroine, and comes across as a woman in her fifties. Did you know she grew up in poverty and her first eight years of school were in a one room school house in upstate New York? Before she learned to read in first grade at the age of six, she wrote her first books, by telling the story in pictures.

The book I hold in my hands, Dear Husband, she touched with her hands, and autographed. I didn't know until I got back to work yesterday, the volume will not be sold in book stores until March 31st, so I own it ten days early, on my son's fifteenth birthday. When she earns the Pulitzer Prize, I will smile, knowing I looked into her eyes. I'm smiling now.


  1. It all sounds wonderful. Such a fine experience. Good for you. I'd smile too.

  2. I hungrily read every word you laid down here. How amazing. She is so very amazing, one of the most important authors for me. I'm happy for you Annie !! What a special experience. I didn't realize that she was 70, or that her husband had died last year. She is quite the formidable person. I like your description of her reading.

  3. What a terrific post!

    I, too, had the opportunity to hear Ms. Oates read at a writer's convention. You are dead-on in how you describe her persona. She is one of my favorite writers and, after hearing her in person, one of my favorite speakers.

    She is amazing! After her reading, I stood in line nearly twenty minutes to have her autograph my copy of, "The Faith of a Writer". She was, as you said, very gracious.

    I realize that I'm gushing, but Ms. Oates remains of my favorite authors. I'm so glad that you were able to hear her!!

  4. Hi Elle,
    The Faith of a Writer is the biography I mentioned that I never knew existed until yesterday. I've just started reading it.

    I'd love to take one of her classes, or hear her speak at a writer's conference!

  5. I'm so happy that you had this wonderful experience. But I have to admit...I am jealous! Joyce Carol Oates is one of my favorites. But I am glad that you had this opportunity, so now I can read about it.

    Your post is excellent! Your writing has put me right there with the crowd, and that is the next best thing to being there.

    You bring up some very good points. I'm especially intrigued by what she said about her beginning and ending lines. I read an interview with her recently, and she said she always rewrites her intro after she finishes the book. The triangular relationship you bring up is quite interesting.

    Congratulations on a great experience, and thanks so much for sharing it here. Excellent post.

  6. Jack, Maggie, Elle, and Julie,
    I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you all for your comments!