Fictions of the New Millennium: An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates
Johnson, Greg, Michigan Quarterly Review
Since the year 2000, the fiction of Joyce Carol Gates has been as varied, as ambitious, and as abundant as ever. In the sixyear period between January of 2000 and December of 2005, Gates published an astonishing nineteen books, and four more are scheduled for 2006 publication. Her novels of this period are Blonde (2000), Middle Age: A Romance (2001), I'll Take You There (2002), The Tattooed Girl (2003), The Falls (2004), and Missing Mom (2005). During these same years she published two novellas, Beasts (2002) and Rape: A Love Story (2003); two story collections, Faithless: Tales of Transgression (2001) and / Am No One You Know (2004); one novel under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith, The Barrens (2001); two novels under the pseudonym Lauren Kelly, Take Me, Take Me With You (2004) and The Stolen Heart (2005); four books for young adults, the novels Big Mouth & Ugly Girl (2002), Freaky Green Eyes (2003), and Sexy (2005), and the story collection Small Avalanches (2003); a children's book, Where Is Little Reynard? (2003); and a collection of essays, Uncensored: Views and (Re)views (2005). She also produced revised versions, for Modern Library editions, of her early novels A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967) and them (1969). And this list does not take into account the plays, short stories, poems, essays, and book reviews published during this period; her work as an editor for the small press she and her husband, Raymond J. Smith, founded in 1974, Ontario Review Press, and their literary magazine Ontario Review; her full-time teaching at Princeton University, where she is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of Humanities; and the dozens of talks, lectures, and readings she gives each year around the country and internationally.
At sixty-seven, Gates clearly remains a major force in American writing. Nonetheless she recently found time for an interview, conducted during the spring and summer of 2005 from her home in Princeton, New Jersey.
GJ: You've published over 650 short stories in your career, yet I'm impressed by how each collection is organized carefully around a central theme. Your most recent volume, I Am No One You Know, explores (as its title suggests) the theme of self-identity and the identity of a mysterious "other"-as in, for example, the college teacher's dramatic confrontation with a student who is a former death row inmate in "The Instructor"; a young girl's memories of a sexually threatening uncle in "Upholstery"; two college students' discovery that they are in a bookstore at the same time as Marilyn Monroe in "Three Girls." Do you consciously write a batch of stories focused on a theme in this way, to collect them together, or do you write each story independently and then go back and discover the unifying theme? And please say anything else about the process of selecting and ordering a story collection.
JCO: My story collections are always organized around themes, and usually presented in three sections. Generally, the stories move from what might be called realism to surrealism; there's a bending of perceived reality toward the meaningful distortion of the unconscious. This isn't so much the case in I Am No One You Know which is more or less realism throughout, though ending with "The Mutants" which seems to peer into the future, but it's always the case with its predecessors Faithless and Will You Always Love Me? and especially The Collector of Hearts (in which the fifth, final section is a single story that adumbrates the "journey" of the writer who is, or has been, writing The Collector of Hearts and other, preceding books). Heat, which has four sections, begins in realism and bends into the surreal in the third, final section, and even into the dystopian future in "Family" (which is one of my favorite stories of my own, though seemingly unknown to anyone else!). The sections within each collection tend to be tonally and geographically and class-related (i.e., social class), and with the rural stories in the second position. …