Originally published in Mia Funk’s Portrait of the Writer column on TinHouse.com

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

If I were to go into your online browsing history, what would I find?

 

JOYCE CAROL OATES

A hodgepodge of many things, I'm sure.  

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

It’s said you never have writers block. So what feeds your imagination? What gets you going writing in the morning?

 

OATES

Though I am never exactly "blocked" I do have difficult periods.  I am led by a fascination with material -- the challenge of presenting it in an original & engaging way.  I have no problem imagining stories, characters, distinctive settings & themes–– but the difficulty is choosing a voice & a language in which to present it.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Which books of yours came to you naturally? And why?

 

OATES

"Naturally"?-- none.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Which ones were more of a struggle?

 

OATES

Blonde, which is my longest novel, was a considerable struggle simply because of its length & complexity.  It is a "fictional biography" of  Norma Jeane Baker, who becomes "Marilyn Monroe" encased in a sort of American postmodernist epic.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

What do you find most challenging to write?

 

OATES

The novel is the most challenging form if you are trying to create something original. Obviously, all genres can be written "to form"...

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

When you are creating characters, do they already have a strong presence in your mind’s eye?

 

OATES

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.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You’re a writer who has so many ideas. Do your ideas ever keep you up at night?

 

OATES

But I really concentrate on just one work at a time.  (At the present time, a novel told from several perspectives, so that the tone of the chapters changes considerably from person to person.)

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You’ve said the idea for Mudwoman stemmed from a dream. Do your novels often come to you that way, as a pure image?

 

OATES

It is very rare for me to get such a powerful idea from a dream. I wish it happened more often-- it is quite magical, challenging, unsettling-- though it is also a good deal of work, the attempt to contextualize the image and give it a plausible presence in the world.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Is it too much to ask...what was the last dramatic dream you had?

 

OATES

Dreams are intensely emotional & "retelling" them is misleading.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

What elements have to be in place for you to commit to a writing project? What convinces you that an idea is strong enough to work as a book? What questions do you ask yourself?

 

OATES

Before I undertake a lengthy project, I have usually given much thought to it over a period of years.  my files are filled with likely subjects-- which perhaps, one day, I will develop.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Have there been times when all the elements have been in place, but the writing itself proved challenging?

 

OATES

Yes, usually this is the case, in the first several weeks especially.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

How do you think the experience of being born on a farm influenced your work?

 

OATES

Yes, there is something very special about living in the country, the fact of solitude, being able to spend much time alone––though cities are fascinating & filled with vitality & diversity, the country seems to provide a deeper sort of solicitude for the soul.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

What was one of your most significant memories of that time in your life?

 

OATES

I've written about my childhood & girlhood in a memoir titled The Lost Landscape, which Ecco will publish in fall 2015. All of my memories of those years seem about equal...though I have one chapter that is narrated from the perspective of my pet chicken, Happy Chicken, when I was about five or six years old.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You’ve spoken of your upbringing, the importance of discipline and the encouragement your family gave you as a writer. What about the way they expressed themselves? Do you find echoes of it in your writing voice?

 

OATES

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.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Because of the subject matter of your books I feel I have to ask...what was your first exposure to death?

 

OATES

My first exposure to death was the abrupt, unexpected death of my grandfather when I was a young girl.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You have spoken before of the effect receiving the book Alice in Wonderland as a young girl had on you. Which edition of the book did you have? Did the illustrations in it affect your reading of the book?

 

OATES

Which edition? Grosset & Dunlap (?)  w/ illustrations by John Tenniel.  

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

What places and symbols reoccur most in your work? And what do you feel draws you back to them?

 

OATES

The landscape of upstate New York, including the Adirondacks, is haunting to me; I have set many of my short stories & novels there.  Obviously, it is the place of childhood, that exerts a powerful spell over us through our lives.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You have spoken of crime as being a metaphor of society and the country in which we live. As our society has changed, how has the way you’ve written about crime and violence changed over time? Are your concerns different than they were at the beginning?

 

OATES

Writers evolve in ways not always obvious to them.   I don't write about crime per se-- I never have--but about individuals who may have encountered "crime"--violent domestic incidents, in particular-- that has affected their lives.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You’ve written family sagas, suspense novels and books for young people. You’ve written about Mike Tyson and Marilyn Monroe. That’s an extraordinary range. So what draws you to these subjects who on the surface don’t seem to have much in common? And can you share with us a little of your process of getting in character when the character you are writing about has life experiences which are vastly different from your own?

OATES

Really impossible to answer! I write about what excites & interests me.  

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

What’s striking about your writing is how you take gritty situations and damaged characters but somehow through your prose manage to give them a state a grace. Is there something about these contrasts which attracts you?

 

OATES

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.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

It seems you’ve found the perfect balance between your writing, teaching and private life. Can you think of any particular moments where you have lost touch with the experience of life, with certain people around you, because you were so busy writing? If so, how did you manage to maintain this balance?

OATES

I have always had a job, & so I have never experienced a time in my life when I was not connected to others.  I've been teaching -- at one or another university, predominantly Princeton-- (but right now I am Stein Visiting Writer at Stanford) -- since the age of 22.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

In Blonde you wrote: “If there was music in this scene it would be a quick staccato music.” Music also features strongly in We Were the Mulvaneys and many of your novels. So is music important to your creative process?

 

OATES

Over all, probably not.  But I feel that there is an appropriate, essential music beneath some scenes...

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I read that you sometimes like to draw. What was the last museum exhibit you enjoyed? Whose paintings do you admire and why?

 

OATES

This would take hours to answer adequately!  I admire much of art.  Last museum?  one of the Picasso exhibits in NYC at a gallery

.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Recently Princeton University held a retirement gala in your honor during which your former creative writing students paid tribute to you. So many of your students, now published authors, mention the inspiration and sense of self you gave them, describing your classes as life-changing.

What do you think being a teacher has given you? What do you feel being a teacher has taught you about writing?

 

OATES

This is too vast to answer...

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You have written about being an observer, at times feeling invisible? Is that feeling still true today?

 

OATES

It is much better for the writer to be an observer than a participant, at least in situations about which he/ she hopes to write.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

You’ve talked about an early displacement in your mother’s life, how it opened up a different life for her, but also set up a kind of mystery about the life she might have led...What would you say was your most significant displacement? And how did it inspire you?

 

OATES

My most significant displacement of recent years-- or rather, of my life, I suppose-- was the sudden death in February 2008 of my husband of forty-six years Raymond Smith.  But it is still too profound a loss really to define except at length....one never comes to the end of accessing such losses, I suppose.  it is like some sort of deep wound that somehow is not lethal, over which a thick scar tissue eventually grows.  it is always there, but you persevere.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

What do you feel about the expression Women’s Writing?

 

OATES

It does seem patronizing, since there is no Men's Writing.  But perhaps some attention is better than none.  I am undecided-- attitudes toward this subject have evolved over the years & are not fully defined even now.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Which books of yours would you recommend to readers just coming to your work? And if you could condense the message of everything you’ve written into a few lines, what realizations or feelings would you like to leave your readers with?

 

OATES

My work is various, & so if a reader prefers a long novel, or a novella, or a story collection-- that would determine a choice.  Blonde is a novel of mine people often mention, but it is quite long, & ambitious; it is a postmodernist experiment of a sort, mediated by a (posthumous) Norma Jeane Baker.  Zombie is a short novel narrated by a psychopathic serial killer-- it is certainly not for everyone.  Missing Mom is a novel written in a non-literary, readily accessible voice-- it was imagined as a novel that my own mother might have read & enjoyed.  (It is, in fact, a novel in homage to my mother Carolina Oates.)  The stories in Lovely, Dark, Deep take up relationships of individuals--grandson/grandmother; lovers; wives & husbands; daughter, father & father's fiancee; young woman interviewer interviewing elderly Robert Frost.  If the reader is interested in memoir of loss, A Widow's Story  would be appropriate. (In fall 2015 The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of Age, which focuses on my childhood & girlhood in rural upstate New York was published.)