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Interview with Joyce Carol Oates

No, no, I didn’t get to interview her (darn!). Goodreads recently posted a great ten questions interview with Joyce Carol Oates, which I was excited to read. The first question was my favorite:

Goodreads: You have earned a place among the great American writers of the last century. Do you feel that your writing is distinctly American?

Joyce Carol Oates: I consider myself a thoroughly American writer in the tradition of the great psychological realists—Melville, Hawthorne, Henry James—who nonetheless delve into the mythic and emblematic. Some of my “gothic” fiction is akin to Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote of the nightmare side of America while steadfastly refusing to acknowledge anything remotely historical, timely, or local in his fiction. Stendhal said famously of the novel that it is a kind of “mirror moving along a roadway”—this is true for my writing, but only partly true—I am obviously as much interested in the inner, unfathomable life of the individual as in his or her social identity.

I like thinking about Oates as a “psychological realist” that also dives into the “mythic and emblematic” — that’s a much more sophisticated way of describing Oates’ work than I’ve used.

In my review of The Gravedigger’s Daughter, I mentioned that reading Oates is sort of like a Lifetime movie — she delves into dark stories that have a sort of sensational plot. What makes her awesome is that she spins out her characters in such a way that the story grows much more epic than it starts. The other books I’ve read, We Were the Mulvaney’s and The Falls, both have some of those elements.

Have you read any Joyce Carol Oates? Do you have a favorite book? What do you think of Oates’ description of her own writing?

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  • Nymeth May 29, 2009, 4:05 pm

    For a second there I did think you had interviewed her 😛

    I’ve only read a handful of her short stories and a novel (The Tattooed Girl), but I loved everything. She’s one of those authors that make me think they can become favourites of mine if I devote enough time and attention to them. Anyway, judging by my limited knowledge of her work, that’s an apt description.

  • Steph May 29, 2009, 5:14 pm

    I haven’t read any Oates before, so I can’t speak to how apt her self-description is, but I definitely like it! If I wrote books, I’d like to to think that’s the kind of author I’d be too… they’re certainly the kind I like to read!

    I’ve been wanting to read The Gravedigger’s Daughter, but then I read some mixed reviews and got scared off it. Can anyone recommend a good starting place?

  • Julia Smith May 29, 2009, 5:54 pm

    I haven’t read any of her books yet, but I love your fangirl enthusiasm. There can never be enough fangirl love.

  • Lu May 29, 2009, 7:41 pm

    I read We Were the Mulvaneys and I thought it was great. It’s hard to say you love a book that’s about the complete destruction of a family, but it was a beautifully tragic book. I have Missing Mom and The Gravedigger’s Daughter on my TBR shelf right now!

  • Lynn May 29, 2009, 8:20 pm

    Wow, you got me excited with that title too! I went through a phase a few years back where I zipped through a ton of her books. I think I started with We Were The Mulvaneys. I liked it enough to keep going. Her book Blonde (fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe’s life) stands out as one that will still pop into my head at random moments years later. I thought it was really powerful.

  • Jodie May 30, 2009, 4:25 am

    If only you had got to interview her – I bet she’s one of those people who commands a room.

    I went through a big Oates faze around 16, which dropped off as it’s surprisingly hard to find her older fiction in the UK (now Borders has made it to a city near me it’s a little easier). My favourites have to be Blonde, Broke Heart Blues (which I’m going to reread this year) and Foxfire. I read Rape: A Love Story last year and was a little disappointed, I’m not sure Oates writing was made for the novella. But isn’t it fab she has such a huge back catalogue of work because it means you’ll probably never run out of books to read!

  • Louise June 2, 2009, 3:47 am

    The funny thing is that I actually like the kind of books Oates writes, but have NEVER understood why she was so good? I have tried several of her novels, and they’ve all felt flat to me. Flat and hard to read as well. Which is kinda strange since her topics and style really is the kind I like! I guess I jsut don’t like her and cannot explain why.

  • Elizabeth Moon June 2, 2009, 2:41 pm

    I used to try to read Oates, but quit…it was one of those “Oh, of COURSE you must like her” things with people pressuring me, and my gut reaction was “No.” Her stories didn’t work for me; they managed to be both depressing and boring. It was as if there were no clear days in her world, no real sunshine. I’m not talking about deep & complex vs. shallow and happy-happy…but not having the full range of light and shadow that works best for me…as if looking through a smudgy window.

    Then I read some (earlier interviews) and saw one on TV somewhere sometime (well over a decade ago, so can’t remember the details) and really disliked her on camera. It was an instinctive, not planned/intended reaction–I had watched hoping to find out more about her and why she’s highly thought of.

    We just aren’t wired the same way, is my guess. If we were next-door neighbors, we’d learn to smile distantly and keep to ourselves rather than rub one another raw with such different sensibilities.

  • Linda June 20, 2009, 2:02 pm

    I love Joyce Carol Oates. My first full novel was Missing Mom, which I thought had appeal for a wide audience. Maybe not…but don’t give up, there is a time and a place for an Oates’ novel. I find it strange how I can relate at times to a writer and at another time not.