Joyce Carol Oates

By Rampell, Ed | The Progressive, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Joyce Carol Oates


Rampell, Ed, The Progressive


Joyce Carol Oates ranks among the great American authors. The New York Times-bestselling fiction writer has been honor d with innumerable accolades, including the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Art of the Short Story, the National Humanities Medal, and repeat Pulitzer Prize nominations.

Oates was born in 1938 at Lockport and raised at Millersport in upstate New York. Oates's prodigious output often focuses on female protagonists, as in 2005's Missing Morn, the semi-autobiographical 2007 The Gravedigger's Daughter, and 2008's My Sister, My Love (an evocation of the Jon Benet Ramsey murder). In Oates's longest novel, the 700-plus-page Blonde, the writer brilliantly imagines Marilyn Monroe's internal life, adapted as a 2001 CBS miniseries.

Blonde touches upon the conspiracy theory that the superstar was assassinated, and Oates's work is often political in nature. Her 1987 novel, You Must Remember This, is a recollection of the McCarthy era. Race is a recurring theme of hers, featured prominently in them and Black Girl/White Girl.

Oates's latest novel combines the writer's race and politics obsession with her love for Gothic sagas that dates back to her 1980 Bellefleur. The Accursed is sort of horror story meets proletarian literature. (Oates has actually won the Bram Stoker Award twice.) In The Accursed, monsters mingle with historical figures including Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, socialist Jack London, muckraker Upton Sinclair, and a variety of fictional female characters, as racist hate crimes let loose a curse upon Princeton.

Having written more than forty novels, the protean Oates is known primarily as a writer of literary fiction. However, this wordsmith is also a poet, memoirist, essayist, short story writer, and playwright--and a professor at Princeton. On September 5, Oates attended the premiere of a revival of her 1990 drama Tone Clusters, and after the curtain came down, she moderated a panel discussion with the cast and crew. The play and panel took place under the stars at L.A. County's most exquisite theatrical venue, the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, located in a Topanga Canyon amphitheater just outside Malibu.

Oates has a cerebral and ethereal presence. Beneath the night sky, her skin seemed alabaster-colored, in contrast to the ruby red of her lipstick. She has wide dark eyes and curly brown hair.

In this interview, which the author stipulated she'd do via e-mail, Joyce Carol Oates reflects upon literature, politics, race, revolution, America, Princeton, Obama, mass media, her works for the stage, and what readers can expect from her upcoming books.

Q: What do you make of President Obama?

Joyce Carol Oates: Barack Obama is the only President of the United States whom I am likely to meet-ever who actually shook my hand and told me, warmly, sincerely, that he "admired" my writing. (The occasion was the awarding of the National Medals in the Arts and the Humanities.) If I am somewhat disappointed--or rather perplexed--at President Obama's decisions and leadership in subsequent months, it is not a subject of which I care to speak at length. The historical fact of Barack Obama's Presidency is perhaps the major, extraordinary phenomenon. We must continue to rejoice in that.

Q: You write about race relations in such books as Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. How do you assess the progress we have made, and not made, on this front?

Oates: Well, of course since the 1950s (when lynching was still "allowed" in parts of the South, and no jury would ever find KKK members guilty), there has been inestimable progress. Race and racism will always be with us, for such propensities seem to be hard-wired into the human brain--"xenophobia" can be tested in infants, as a fear of or repugnance for individuals who look different than we do, whose skins are a different-seeming color, and whose eyes are differently shaped.

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