Joyce Carol Oates On Writing About Differences Among People
This is KPBS midday edition I am Maureen Cavanaugh This does speak at the point Loma Nazarene symposium by the super this annual writers Festa celebrating its 20th anniversary. During that time many famous authors have joined the symposium to talk about their craft in the business of a writers life. Tonight point Loma concludes this year symposium on with one of the most prolific and acclaimed novelist in the last 50 years. Joyce Carol Oates has explored almost every kind of writing from novels, to place, to poetry. She is this your special guest at the writer symposium. I had a chance to speak with her last week. Here is that contribute. Joyce Carol Oates welcome to the program. Thank you. Let me start if I may by talking about your latest novelty sacrifice. It is a fiction based on the controversial -- case from the 1980s. You have been criticized for being a white writer trying to ascribe motives and mindsets to an array of African-American characters but that is not criticism that you accept is that? I have been praise for the same novel by lack critics so I would same that is a matter of somebody's opinion. Considering the racial atmosphere now as this book is being published, there have been so many demonstrations across the country, the outrage over racial bias and law enforcement that's what the country. Isn't it realistic to assume a book like this would be controversial? I suppose so but it is very much about white racism. It is 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 that I would be attacked for writing this novel in the somebody fills that it is her territory and that a white writer should not venture into somebody else's territory. -- You like the novel very much and we had a lovely interview. I can't take that criticism so very seriously. I think it was in bad faith. What you mean by that? It was not a sincere criticism. It was just a criticism that someone felt needed to be made? To make no, I think it was bias. I think the idea that we should be writing about people different from ourselves, we should be sympathetic about people who don't have a complete advantage that we have. We should bear witness for people who can't speak their own stories. If we're not allowed to write about people different from ourselves, we would all be writing about such a narrow subset of human life, it would not be of much interest. When Shakespeare for instance writes about a woman or writes about a black man, seems perfectly wonderful example of imaginative projection which is really the basis of all art. Reviewers who have defended and written wonderful reviews for the sacrifice have pointed out that all through your career you have used real incidents as a springboard for your plots. I am wondering what does basing your fiction in real events do for you as a writer? I usually take the events and change them significantly break that almost will not about the -- case at all if someone took the time to read the grand jury report, he or she would discover that the character of my novel is not Tawanna Brawley the correct of my novel really was raped, really was beaten, really was in fear of her life. The actual Tawanna Brawley has not been beaten , she has not been raped and was not in fear of her life. It is basically taking the idea of an event in the symbolic way and looking at it as if that is the alternative universe so to speak. Joyce Carol Oates too often have to explain as you did in your letter to the editor of the New York Times that what you are writing is action? No. I think that is a special situation. Usually reviewers are more careful at least for this finished publication, that they would take the time to actually read the grand jury report which is not that difficult to obtain. It doesn't really involve doing a lot of research. I would certainly have done that if I have been given a novel like this to review it would have looked up the real case, the original historic case and I would have seen how the writer changed it. Certainly most of the characters in the novel are fictitious. They do not have any analog in real life. It does seem a little silly and they have to be defending a novel as if it were anything other than fiction. One of your most acclaimed novels, blonde is a fictionalized version of a life of Marilyn Monroe. You said it is probably one of the books you will be remembered for, why is that? Is imitation really on celebrity and fame and death and male/female relations. It is more of the life of Marilyn Monroe. It is looking at the soil out of which a person like Marilyn Monroe -- looking at Norma Jean Baker was virtually an orphan. She spent some time in orphanages so she had a mother who could not take care of her. Looking at an archetypal American lost child and then relating that to the phenomenon of Marilyn Monroe with quotation marks around the name. Marilyn Monroe was a product of a studio and publicity, enormous publicity effort to make her into a box office star. Of course I'm interested as a novelist in the suffering and real-life woman inside the celebrity. Joyce Carol Oates and just about every interview you are asked about your incredible output of novels, short stories, no Beless etc. I'm afraid this interview is no different. Let me ask you is it true that you have three publishers to handle the volume and scope of your work? No, I do not think so. I write some novels that will recall -- shorter novels, the maybe mystery, suspense but fiction. There published by mysterious print. Then I have a mainstream publisher, HarperCollins publishers most of my writings. More than 40 novels to your credit as I write? I think so. Spec where do you think this wellspring of creativity comes from? I really just work and I love to write. I also love to read and I love to teach. I'm basically doing things that I love to do. You are also very disciplined about writing. I'm not sure that it need to be disciplined. It is like saying that you have to be disciplined to have your dreams at night. Basically it is very pleasurable. Writing is a challenge and I think it is a neurological exercise in the brain so that one is solving problems in structure and choosing words and rearranging sentences and rewriting. There's a lot of thinking about it and meditating and calculating. A writer does a lot more than just sitting in writing actual words. You spend a lot of time thinking and daydreaming and planning. Most writers say their personal lives and relationships speed their work, is that the same for you? I am sure it does in many ways we don't always understand the whole unconscious flood of emotions and impressions in us at any time we're not really aware of. I think that must be true. You are not the kind of a writer that would say, basic. On someone in your family or something like that? No. I have never done that. I try to choose, to to write about people who are emblematic, who stand for more than just themselves. Many of us --, but the blacker Lewis been, raped in front. In my double the sacrifice. I was writing about the many countless young like women and girls who have suffered that kind of abuse. Basically I'm trying to write about a person but also about a number of people. I read this to you plan to formally retire from teaching creative writing at Princeton? Is that right? I am retiring as a full-time faculty member but I'm still going to be teaching at Princeton. What have you enjoyed about teaching writing classes and seminars? To make right now I'm teaching at Stanford. I have great students. They are really imaginative and interesting and serious about writing. If I didn't have such great students are probably wouldn't enjoy it. I have always had really nice students. Mixture will be teaching at UC Berkeley the same kind of course what is called advanced undergraduate fiction. What would a course like that consist of? These courses are pretty common. What would it consist of? Students would be reading from anthology I have the book of American short stories and we look at classical stories by people like, Melville or Henry James and then look at contemporary stories like people are living today in them they write their own fiction and they write three or four stories. Stanford is in the corner systems are celebrating to stories. Stomachs to be speaking to university students here at the point Loma Nazarene symposium. It seems real interesting. Whitey think young writers need to know as they begin their careers? Public a lot of them have been writing already since high school. They have been reading, basically writers read the way artist look at other art and musicians listen to music. You get to know your own craft by reading. That is really the secret. Just reading and absorbing maybe reading and rereading. There are many writers that say with the new technology and the changes in the publishing world, it is really becoming increasingly difficult to earn a living as a writer or to see things about the modern publishing landscape that distribute? I am not so sure that it is more difficult than it ever was. There are enormous bestsellers today that never existed before like JK Rowling and 50 shades of gray and the twilight series and all the novels such as mentioned are by first-time writers. Basically they had no reputation, they had no background and enormously successful. There are many like that today. It is actually oddly enough it is a little easier for a first-time writer to be published today in to be enormously successful. That is because things go out on social media. A novel like 50 shades of gray which maybe I have been told that was well written it probably wouldn't have been published/published 1950 apart from the subject matter but there were certain standards of just the writing. Today it is a different world and people are interested in subject matter coming interested for instance in vampires and zombies then werewolves and so forth. I think strangely enough it is much easier for some writers and publishers today who had no prior experience as writers. To think that is a good thing that as you say perhaps the standard of writing is not as precise or as uniform in its excellence with people being able to self publish and get published a little bit more easily? I don't think it matters in the long run. People who are reading the twilight series are reading 50 shades of gray would probably not otherwise be reading Henry James or Balzac. We're not losing them as readers of literary fiction. They would it be reading these novels anyway. You are undoubtedly working on your next book can you tell us anything about it? My next novel that will come out maybe in the fall I'm not sure that it has a publication date is about a woman scientist who is involved with first professionally and then emotionally with a man who suffers from extreme amnesia. I am married to a neuroscientist and I read a number of books on the subject of Abkhazia and brain damage and atrophy of memory. It is a novel about memory and how I personality are made up of our memories and how personality begins to alter when we lose our memories. It is a love story actually, oddly enough. It's really a love story but it becomes one-sided because the man is losing his memory but the woman continues to love him. It was no exploration of something I find quite fascinating, disturbing it in a way somehow redemptive because I think love can even triumph over some loss of memory. It is a no look at is called the man without a shadow. Your book that has been released already is called the sacrifice. Joyce Carol Oates thank you for speaking with us. Thank you.
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.