I do develop my books in scenes, and write a lot of dialogue – though book dialogue is different from stage dialogue, which is different from TV dialogue – and that is different from radio dialogue – I’ve explored all these facets. I think I am covertly a playwright and always have been – it’s just that the plays last for weeks, instead of a couple of hours. An astute critic said that A Place of Greater Safety is like a vast shooting script, and I think that’s true. It shows its workings. When I am writing I am also seeing and hearing – for me writing is not an intellectual exercise. It’s rooted in the body and in the senses. So I am part-way there – I obey the old adage ‘show not tell.’ I hope I don’t exclude ideas from my books – but I try to embody them, rather than letting them remain abstractions.
In my reading of him, Thomas Cromwell is not an introspective character. He gives us snippets of his past, of memories as they float up – but he doesn’t brood, analyse. He is what he does. But that said, you are right, he is at the centre of every scene. With the weapon of the close-up, it was possible for Mark Rylance, on screen, to explore the nuances of his inner life. He is very convincing in showing ‘brain at work.’ He leaves Cromwell enigmatic but - in a way that’s beautifully judged – he doesn’t shut the viewer out.
We all inhabit interior landscapes & these are mediated to us through language. It might be said that we are the thoughts we are thinking. What engages the writer/ poet is the individual’s response to the “situation”—what she or he makes of it. That is the essence of the human drama, & why imaginative literature is so much deeper, more intense, & more memorable than objective history with its impersonal perspective.
–JOYCE CAROL OATES
All artists are seeking to create a modified world that conforms to their emotional and artistic expectations, and I am one of them, though, of course, as we grow and age those expectations are continually in flux. [...] Yes, like all of us, I have experienced disillusionment with the limits of human life and understanding. Perhaps, because I live so intensely in the imagination, this has hit me harder than most––I really can't say. But the mythos that underpins all societies is transparent, and that transparency, once seen through, is crushingly disappointing. I wish we were more than animals, I wish goodness ruled the world, I wish that God existed and we had a purpose. But the truth, naked and horrifying, stares us down every day. Ideals? What do they matter in the long run? What does anything matter? As I point out in the preface to T.C. Boyle Stories II, I went (at age twelve or so) from the embrace of Roman Catholicism (God, Jesus, Santa Claus, love abounding) to the embrace (at seventeen) of the existentialists, who pointed out to me the futility and purposelessness of existence. I've never recovered.
The thing is, our culture has started to think about writing and the humanities as if they are peripheral and negotiable – just a dusty sideshow set up alongside the real project, which is making money. But the only way people move toward freedom is to come to some understanding of what is enslaving them, and that, in essence, is what the humanities are: a controlled, generations-long effort to understand and defeat what enslaves us. So we marginalize that process at our own peril. That process is (and has always been) important to cultures.
I think for those who have crossed borders––the artificial beginning is interesting to me. There is a clear-cut: old life, that'sold country, and here's there's new life, new country. It is an advantage. You are looking at life through an old pair of eyes and a new pair of eyes. And there's always that ambivalence––Where do you belong? And how do you belong? And I do think these are advantages of immigrant writers or writers with two languages or who have two worlds.
I think I might be an old-fashioned writer. People often comment that I'm a 19th-century writer. And I think maybe it's true. I think there are different ways to look at the world.
Looking back on the books in a retrospective overview [...] I've written a number of short stories from a first-person POV but I guess with novels I felt that this was too restrictive. What worked for me was a third-person approach that was somewhat suffused with the personality of the character. So I'd be free to describe and note things that my characters would not necessarily be describing or noting, but the emotional texture of the prose would be coloured by their attitudes and limitations. [...] It was important not to switch suddenly from one sensibility to another, as this would have called attention to the art as well as possibly causing confusion. So, I used action-free, dialogue-free connective passages as a way of smoothing the transitions from one character's reality to another's, to give you time to adjust to no longer getting emotional cues from the character you'd been with. As soon as I judged that you would feel yourself to be on "neutral" narrative ground, ie., no longer in the spirit of a particular character, I would then take you into the sensibility of the next character.
Creativity is wonderful and comforting. I don't know if fiction writers are more spiritual than people who enjoy gardening or who run soup kitchens for the homeless. Any activity which asserts that there is some point to making things happen, despite the inevitability of death, decay, the vanishing of empires and the eventual extinction of our solar system, is spiritual, don't you think?
[on the line between fact and fiction in his memoirs.] In a way, I sometimes think that it’s when the divergences from what really happened are quite small that it calls for the services of a very scrupulous and clever biographer. Certainly the stuff you get about me from my books it’s not–how can I put it?–it’s not reliable as evidence in any court of law. I’m very conscious that I’m not under oath when I’m writing.
[on his biographical writings on writers and musicians] I remember a line from an essay of Camus’ where he talks about “those two thirsts without which we cannot live, by that I mean loving and admiring.” And I feel that I have zero capacity for reverence, but I have a great capacity for loving an admiring.
These are questions that interest me very much. You know there are certain particular times when certain books can be written and it’s very important to realize, you really can see, Well, I should have done that back then. [...] One the striking things about going to places, there was that brief window when I went–Oh wow, suddenly it’s going to be possible to visit Leptis Magna, the greatest roman ruins on earth. And it turns out that was a very, very brief window.
I sort of think we’re all kind of a swirl of everything we’ve read, the art we’ve looked at or heard, the life we’ve led, the people we know, the stories we’ve heard, the stories we’ve lived through and the stories we’ve heard secondhand, the fears we’ve had, the desires we’ve had, it’s kind of just swirling around, so when you’re writing it’s not that you’re channeling it in a completely unthinking way, but when I write I’m just sort of moving fence to fence and seeing what bubbles up and then I can shape it in the editing process and make it into what I want, but in the beginning I’m kind of feeling my way through so all those influences, whether they’re literary influences or life influences or influences from other arts are just kind of pulsing through me.
Gordon Lish taught a seminar that I attended for two or three years. [...] When I published a few pieces in his magazine,The Quarterly, which he was editor of in the late 80’s into the 90’s, I was just bowled over by his ability to hear what I was trying to do and to see and suggest better ways to do it. Also, point out moments where he thought I was strong and moments and where he thought I was kind of falling away. [...] He taught me a tremendous amount. One of the greatest things he taught was how to listen to yourself. You can be your own Gordon Lish.
Ithink that’s the misconception about Gordon. That’s what he did for Raymond Carver because that’s what he thought Raymond Carver’s stories demanded, that’s not what he thought everything needed to be. There was a period when lot things were like that, but the larger thing was about actually just not evading whatever it is you’re writing about. It wasn’t necessarily about compression or stripping down or being minimalist. It was about not evading your objects. Well, it was about being a writer. It was about teaching yourself not to run away from what you want to write about.
You know, years ago, I wrote a thing called A Writer's Prayer. [...] in about 1989, when I could see there were two futures.[...] "Oh Lord, let me not be one of those who writes too much, who spreads himself too thinly with his words. Diluting all the things he has to say like butter spread too thinly on a piece of toast, or watered milk in some worn out hotel. But let me write the things I have to say, and then be silent ‘til I need to speak. Oh Lord, let me not be one of those who writes too little. A decade man, between each tale, or more, where every word becomes significant and dread replaces joy upon the page. Perfection is like chasing the horizon, you kept perfection, gave the rest to us. So let me know when I should just move on. But over and above those two mad specters of parsimony and profligacy, Lord, let me be brave. And let me, while I craft my tales, be wise. Let me say true things, in a voice that's true. And with the truth in mind, let me write lies."
When I was about 5-years-old I saw the Mary Poppins book and it had a picture of Julie Andrews on the cover and I got my parents to buy it for me and I took it home and discovered that Mary Poppins was so much darker and stranger and deeper than anything in Disney, so I may have read it as a 5-year-old hoping to re-experience the film that I remembered having loved, but what I found in the Mary Poppins book which I kept going back to, was this sort of almost Shamanistic world, a world in which Mary Poppins acts as a link between the luminous and the real, the idea that you're in a very real world, you're in this London, cherry tree lane, 1933, except that if you have the right person with you, you can go and meet the animals at the zoo. You can go to the stars and dance with the sun, you can, you know there's, you can watch people painting the flowers in the spring, just, it was very, it was deep. You know, Mary Poppins is very smart and deep and weird and P.L. Travers was smart and deeply weird and writing smart, deep, weird fiction. The Narnia books–running intoNarnia–while I loved the stories I loved what he did to my head even more. The idea that anything could be a door, the idea that the back of the wardrobe could open up unto a world in which it was winter and there were other worlds inches away from us, became just part of the way that I saw the world, that was how I assumed the way the world worked, when I was a kid that was the way that I saw.
We’re all making decisions all the time and in the process of those decisions, a lot of them at that moment not quite clear to us which is the good and which is the bad decision. Right and wrong, we’re kind of navigating in the fog all the time [...]but the sum of those decisions as we go on is who we are, so I’m very interested in the process by which people createthemselves by this constant act of deciding and doing this thing rather than another thing. I don’t start off to create a moral in telling a story, but there are certainly consequences to the decisions that we make and some of those will no doubt have what we call a moral dimension to them. I don’t respond very enthusiastically to fiction that I can see that sum on the scales and I can see that it’s a sermon in disguise, if you will. I’m more interested in writing that explores rather than proclaims.
My father was a businessman in Chile. He was running a mine for an American company. And this was during the time of Allende and they eventually nationalized the mine. But yes, he admitted to me, actually the night before I went off to Trinity, we were sitting in this Japanese restaurant downtown. My father was a very difficult guy, but there was this sort of[...] interesting Brooklyn charm to him and he got very drunk that night on saketini [...] and he suddenly came out with all this stuff, you know: ‘I've been working for the [CIA] down there.’ And I wasn't shocked or mortified or morally repulsed, I just thought, God, that's interesting.
I think you've struck upon something crucial [...] the humanities, culture, in real terms, cost very little and does so much. Culture is my passion. [...] Today, the book is very much menaced by the screen. One of the things we really need to do is get new readers. I feel very strongly that education is the most crucial thing in the world. Education subverts ignorance. Education allows people to think in a more nuanced way. Fundamentally, literature has no frontiers. Curiosity is a very underrated virtue and it’s so crucial. You have to be curious. You have to be interested. Curiosity is an essential thing in life. It keeps you young.
When I compare novelists to short story writers or very short story writers, I can’t compare them, but one thing for sure, the purpose is different. I think that someone who writes tries to create or document a world. And when you write very short fiction you try to document a motion, some kind of movement. It’s not even time. Let’s say if you try to draw a picture of, let’s say, a lake, you know? A lake and trees next to it, then this is like writing a novel. But if you, let’s say you know I throw a stone in it and I don’t want to draw the lake, I just want to draw the ripples in the water. So it’s basically, I think there is something I try to look for in a short fiction, that it won’t be encumbered by it. But you know, it won’t be physical, it will just be some kind of a... It’s like if I move my hand, then it’s like if you don’t draw my body, but you just draw... [Keret makes a movement with his hand]
When I grew up, basically a lot of the people around me spoke Yiddish. Both my parents spoke Yiddish and a lot of the other people we knew. And they would always tell each other jokes in Yiddish and laugh really, really out loud. And then I would ask––what is the joke?––and they would translate it to Hebrew and it wouldn’t be funny. And they would always say, “in Yiddish it is very funny.” So I always had this feeling that I grew up with an inferior language. That I was living in a language in which nothing was juicy and nothing was funny and that basically there was this lost paradise of Yiddish in which everything seems to be funny. So when I grew up and I started reading I always looked for Yiddish writers. Writers like Bashevis Singer or Sholem Aleichem because I already knew there is something powerful hiding under that Yiddish.
I think part of what I was thinking about with this project was to build the fact that [my character] Yunior is a writer and that with Yunior being a writer we get to check in with his maturing and changing perspective, so that in fact part of the game of writing Yunior is the notion that he’s going to be quite different from book to book and also that occasionally I’m going to in This is How You Lose Her write Yunior from a perspective that’s a period that’s a bit far off from the period he’s writing. Therefore built into the story there’s a perspective that might not otherwise be available if I was writing far more closely to the events he was narrating. These are the weird nerdy decisions one makes as one writes where one has to decide the events that are occurring in your text. You have to decide what’s the distance between the event and the point of telling where the narrator stands, looking upon and reflecting and retelling those events.
I think many of my stories work on this principle: everything is just as it is in our world (they physicality, the psychology, etc) except for one distorted thing. The effect, I hope, is to make the reader (and me) see our "real" world in a slightly new light. Kind of like if you woke up in a word where, every few minutes, peoples' heads popped off. But otherwise everything else was normal. What would that story be "about?" Well, it might be about, for example, our reaction to illness, or to trouble, or about coping mechanisms. And it would be about those things because, other than the heads popping off, people behaved just as they do in this world. A little like a science experiment where all of the variables are held constant except one. We are trying to look into the question of what a human being really is, and a story can be an experiment in which we say, "OK, let's destabilize the world in which this creature lives and then, by its reaction to the disturbance, see what we can conclude about the core mechanism.
I feel like anybody can make a church or a garden spiritual, but for me the more interesting thing is to see if you can make holy or spiritual things that are just very ordinary. I also think that’s kind of the truth. I think if God exists it’s everywhere, not just in a church. But in an ugly spot. In a spot where atrocities happen. There’s all sorts of places that are holy, not just the ones that are defined that way by the culture. That’s always been a part of my work. From the very beginning.
I think the historical novel is plural and multiform and at the moment, in good creative shape. But the kind of historical novel I write – which features real people, rather than using historical events as a backdrop – is less favoured. It imposes a burden of research, which can be difficult at a certain point in a novelist’s career – because to do it properly takes time.
You can write that kind of fiction first – before you’re even published – or you can do it when you are established – but when you are in mid-career, your publishers don’t like it if you say, ‘My next book will take five years.’
I don’t see myself as confined within genre. The people I write about happen to be real and happen to be dead. That’s all. It’s interesting to think what expectations people bring to historical fiction. Particularly with the Tudors, it’s hard to avoid the expectation of romance, and of pre-digested narrative that conforms to the bits of history that people remember from school. And so some readers find it’s too challenging, and post abusive reviews. They don’t locate the deficiency in themselves, or like to have their prejudices disturbed. The form tends to conservatism. So you can find that you have, in fact, attracted the wrong reader. Correspondingly, if you manage to break down a prejudice against fiction set in the far past, that’s very positive.
I think it’s important not to confuse the role of the fiction writer with the role of the political journalist. You need distance to see the shape of events. So for me, near-contemporaries like Mrs Thatcher can only have a walk-on part.
In the course of writing a novel I will sometimes lock myself away. During most of my previous novels there comes a point where I just go to the country and hide for 5 or 6 weeks. Sometimes it’s the first draft, sometimes it’s the second. There are periods when I feel like you just have to cut out the world and listen to the voice in your own head. [...] The first time I really remember getting excited about writing was when I was in 9th grade, when I was about 15 and I discovered the work of Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet. That really got me interested in language and in fact for quite a while I wanted to be a poet rather than a fiction writer. It was only when I got to college, when I started reading Hemingway and James Joyce and people like that, then I changed my focus to fiction. [...] Story of My Life was entirely from a woman's point of view, although it was first person, not second person. But that’s the kind of book that I feel like writing now, something that’s very voice-driven, whether it’s first or second person. Something that is carried by the power of the voice. And that was certainly true of Bright Lights, Big City and that was true of Story of My Life. In some ways those books felt like they wrote themselves. I mean, obviously I worked hard, but I felt like I was often just carried along by the rhythm and the power of these voices that I had gotten hold of.
Donc mon écriture est métaphorique par nature, je crois. L’angoisse, par exemple, est une expérience très banale qui peut altérer profondément la vision, l’ouïe, même l’odorat, l’équilibre corporel… Le personnage de My Phanton Husband voit les molécules du mur se dissoudre, par exemple. Ou la lampe pendre du plafond avec une modification de la verticalité. J’ai toujours, dans ma vie privée, aimé les scientifiques et ils m’ont apporté un énorme réservoir d’images. La physique quantique est très romanesque, par exemple. Ou le paradoxe de Fermi. Et j’ai lu beaucoup de science fiction dans mon adolescence.
My writing is metaphoric by nature, I think. Anxiety, for example, is a very mundane experience which can profoundly alter vision, hearing, even one’s sense of smell, one’s entire equilibrium...The character in My Phantom Husband sees the molecules of the wall dissolve, for example. Or the lamp hanging from the ceiling with an alteration of its verticality. I have always, in my private life, loved scientists, they have brought me a huge reservoir of images. Quantum physics is very novelistic, for example. Or the Fermi paradox. And I read a lot of science fiction in my adolescence.
Characters begin as voices, then gain presence by being viewed in others’ eyes. Characters define one another in dramatic contexts. It is often very exciting, when characters meet—out of their encounters, unanticipated stories can spring. [...]
Yes, my parents’ voices do emerge from time to time in my writing. My father was particularly funny, had a sharp wit & sense of humor, & I am often drawn to presenting such men in my fiction, an unusual blend of the sardonic & the tender.
–JOYCE CAROL OATES
The interviews are currently being transcribed and annotated. Full-length interviews will be published across a network of university and national literary magazines in the coming months. To find out how your university or magazine can participate in the interlinking online exhibition, please contact us.