Exclusive Q&A: Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is one of those rare literary luminaries whose creative output has matched her critical praise. Sure, her endless catalog of novels, short-story collections, plays, and poetry can come across as a bit daunting, but Oates is really just a storyteller obsessively dedicated to her creative outlet. With the publication of her latest novel, Little Bird of Heaven, the National Book Award winner explores familiar themes of emotional turmoil, violence, and small-town social dynamics. After the jump, Oates chats with us about the importance of a sense of place, balancing different literary genres, and her love of running.

Boldtype: Little Bird of Heaven revisits themes of violence and passion, but it’s more character driven than plot-heavy. What is it about creating a dramatic external context that facilitates a more nuanced internal exploration? In writing this, did you begin with the catalyst or with a character?

Joyce Carol Oates: The novel is about loss — grief, loss, memory, being haunted. As we are all “haunted” by the past, which we recall in differing ways, this seemed to me an essentially dramatic situation that would erupt into — from time to time — scenes of both violence and redemption. I tend to begin my fiction with place — “setting” — I feel a very strong, even mystical identification with the landscapes of upstate New York and even, since I’d lived there for so long, Detroit, Michigan. People are born of specific places — they are “representative” of their times. Most novelists write of specific regions and would be utterly lost without them — for instance, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy.

BT: There have been several parallels drawn between Little Bird of Heaven and your classic story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” — was this a conscious choice? In what ways do you think of them as being similar or different?

JCO: Some readers have pointed this out, but I wasn’t aware of it and am not even now sure where the parallel is. I think of Krista as so much more an aspect of myself, a daughter haunted by the loss of her father — my father Frederic Oates died in 2000; and of Connie as a much younger adolescent with a very different identification — in fact, no emotional connections to her family at all, as the story dramatizes her experience.

BT: Are there any other stories from your oeuvre that you find yourself going back to? If so, is there any pattern among them?

JCO: I will have to think about this — it may be that the patterns of a writer’s life are not accessible to him/ her. We may think that we’re creating something highly original, but others will see the resemblance with previous work.

BT: How do you balance your work in so many different literary genres — from poetry to playwriting, short stories, and criticism? Are you drawn to a specific form for a given idea or does it just take shape as you write?

JCO: Each of the genres exerts a considerable spell. Right now, I am working on a memoir — The Siege: A Widow’s First Six Months — and I am trying to be as forthright as I can be in recording details of my personal life. In fiction, I evoke “representational” or “symbolic” situations, and use my personal life very sparingly. I love playwriting — I was thrilled to open a package today and see copies of the Samuel French publication of Wild Nights! (adapted from my collection of stories of two years ago). I hope to write more plays, and, of course, I am always writing short stories and reviews, mostly for The New York Review of Books. The memoirist essay is fascinating both to read and to write — the employment of the pronoun “I” is actually very challenging, for me at least, since so much has to be left out.

BT: In addition to being a prolific writer, you’re also a teacher and editor — how do you shift between these different roles? Or are they all connected?

JCO: I suppose they are all connected. Writing is so very solitary and obsessive; teaching is wonderfully communal, social. But both require great concentration on “texts” and on language — this is the binding force.

BT: You’re famously devoted to running; what is it about this physical activity that encourages your writing and imagination?

JCO: I wish that I had more time to run. I love running, but also walking — fast — and bicycling. I think that any form of locomotion alerts the brain to new, fresher thoughts. I just feel better when I run, as if my metabolism were now normal. Many of my characters are addicted to running, but somehow, in prose fiction, it’s difficult to communicate any realistic sense of their being in motion.