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Joyce Carol Oates On Writing About Differences Among People

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Photo credit: Point Loma Nazarene University

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates.

Point Loma Nazarene will close its 20th annual Writer's Symposium by the Sea on Thursday night with acclaimed author Joyce Carol Oates.

Oates has published more than 40 novels in addition to short stories, plays and poems. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2010 and other awards, including the National Book Award and O. Henry Awards.

Oates latest novel, "The Sacrifice," is based on the 1988 Tawana Brawley rape case in New York. Brawley, an African-American teenager at the time, said six white men abducted and raped her. The claims turned out to not be true.

The book received some criticism, including from one New York Times reviewer who described Oates as a white writer trying to ascribe motives and mind-sets to an array of African-American characters as a "creative experiment."

Oates spoke with KPBS Midday about her latest novel, her writing process and gave some advice for young writers.

Question: Considering the racial atmosphere now as this book is being published and the outrage over racial bias in law enforcement that has swept the country — isn't it realistic to assume a book like this would be controversial?

Oates: I suppose so but it is very much about white racism. It’s basically a very sympathetic portrait of a community basically under siege with white police officers who are very difficult. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for writing this novel unless somebody feels that it’s her territory and that white writers should not venture into her territory.

I think the idea is that we should be writing about people different from ourselves. We should be sympathetic about people who don’t have complete advantages that we have. We should bear witness for people who can’t speak their own stories. If we were not allowed to write about people different from ourselves, we would only be writing about such a narrow subset of human life it would not be of much interest.

Question: Reviewers who have defended "The Sacrifice" have pointed out that all through your career you used real incidents as a springboard for your plots. What does basing your fiction on real events do for you as a writer?

Oates: I usually take the events and change them significantly. The novel really isn’t about the Tawana Brawley case at all. If someone took the time to read the grand jury report, he or she would discover that the character in my novel is not Tawana Brawley. The character in my novel really was raped, really was beaten, she really was in fear of her life. The actual Tawana Brawley had not been raped, she had not been beaten, she was not in fear of her life. So it’s basically taking the idea of an event in a kind of symbolic way and looking at it as though it is an alternative universe, so to speak.

Question: You've written more than 40 novels. Where do you think your wellspring of creativity comes from?

Oates: I really just work and I love to write. I also love to read and I love to teach. So I’m basically doing things that I love to do.

Question: You're also very disciplined about writing.

Oates: I’m not sure that I even need to be disciplined. It’s like saying that you need to be disciplined to have your dreams at night. Basically, it’s very pleasurable. Writing is a challenge, and I think it exerts a kind of neurological exercise in the brain so one is solving problems of structure and choosing words and rearranging sentences and rewriting. There’s a lot of thinking about it and meditating and calculating. So a writer does a lot more than you know sitting and writing actual words. You spend a lot of time thinking and daydreaming and planning.

Question: You'll be speaking to university students at the Point Loma Nazarene Writer's Symposium. What do you think young writers need to know as they begin their careers?

Oates: Basically, writers read the way artists look at other art and musicians listen to music. You sort of get to know your own craft by wide reading. That’s really the secret, just reading and re-reading.

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