Self-Interview: Joyce Carol Oates Vs. Joyce Carol Oates (Part 1 of 3)
In which I take on my toughest and most unrelenting interrogator.
Edited and arranged by Robert Friedman
Has the interview become the predominant literary genre of our time?—many a writer has suspected so, uneasily. Persons with no evident interest in books may read, with a modicum of interest, an interview with a writer; it’s a genre more readily skimmed than even a book review. Usually short, presented in dialogue form, an interview may give the visual impression of a play script. The interview subject may feel a dismaying sense of repetition, for the same questions are asked frequently; though we answer a question 1,000 times, it remains, in a sense, unanswered, a fresh query each time, since no one remembers previous interviews, and nothing like an accumulation of knowledge gathers in the vast honeycomb of cyberspace. (Yes, in the interview below, beginning with the very first question, will be found some actual questions put to me over the years by a variety of interviewers.)
My personal sense of an interview is that it is akin to a canoe trip with a stranger: each of us has a paddle, each of us is responsible for keeping the canoe moving through the water at a decent speed. Sometimes the water is reasonably calm, sometimes the water is turbulent. Both of us—interviewer, interviewee—are responsible for keeping the canoe from capsizing. That’s to say, the interviewer and the interviewee are plunging along the river together, and it's in the best interest of both to keep afloat until the trip—the interview—is over.
Q. Miss Oates! Do you write in a trance?
A. In a—trance? You are asking me—seriously—if I write in a trance?
Q. Well, do you?
A. (faltering) I do not write in a trance! I write—in a conscious state…usually.
Q. Some very notable writers and poets claim that their best work comes to them “in a trance”—“automatically.” Allen Ginsberg said, famously: “First thought, best thought.” Comment?
A. That’s terrible advice for most writers. Revision is the essence of writing.
Q. Yet, it’s said that Mozart didn’t revise. Yes?
A. Mozart was unique!—other composers, including Beethoven, certainly did revise, and most writers will acknowledge that as much as ninety percent of their writing is revision. Inspiration may come in a “white-hot” rush (see Emily Dickinson) but revision is supremely conscious.
Q. In your novel, The Man Without a Shadow, you wrote about memory, amnesia, the inexplicable phenomenon of “falling in love”—aren’t these primarily “unconscious” or “semi-conscious” experiences? How are you equipped to write about them if you are, as you implausibly claim, “conscious” all the time?
A. Did I say that I was conscious “all the time”—?
Q. Why the title The Man Without a Shadow?
A. The amnesiac subject of the novel, who is studied by a woman neuroscientist for more than thirty years, is perceived as a man “without a shadow” because he suffers from total anterograde amnesia and partial retrograde amnesia… He can’t form new memories as a consequence of an injury to the part of his brain called the hippocampus, which is essential in forming new memories; he has a “memory” of new events of only seventy seconds.
Q. Seventy seconds! Isn’t that more or less the memory span of many—most—people, in our distracted time? Is your novel some sort of scientist-satire, like Frankenstein?
A. Well, Frankenstein isn’t a satire—you would probably describe it as a Gothic romance/tragedy in response to Milton’s Paradise Lost—but it has become a paradigm of “scientific cautionary tales”—how the hubris of scientists leads to “Frankenstein monsters”—catastrophes.
Q. But The Man Without a Shadow is not one of those?
A. N-No… It is a non-judgmental, or mostly non-judgmental, portrait of how science is actually done, by serious, in this case highly dedicated neuroscientists; it is not at all a satire…
Q. What’s wrong with satire?
A. Nothing is wrong with satire but I am not interested in “satirizing” anyone or anything – including the academic world—in a work of fiction as long as a novel—it just doesn’t seem worth—
Q. (interrupting) Why should we read your novel, then? We expect novels about scientists to be harshly—funnily—exaggeratedly—“satirical”; we are not prepared for novels about scientists as if they were human beings like ourselves, except smarter.
A. The “realist” novel depicts people as they are, not as stereotypes or caricatures…
Q. This is a “realist” novel, then? Who behaves like this?
A. The Man Without a Shadow traces the life of a young woman research neuroscientist who has devoted herself to her career—she is twenty-three at the start of the novel, nearing sixty near the end, when she is being honored as one of the predominant neuroscientists of her generation…
Q. But does this woman, for all her success, behave ethically? She seems to fall into a relationship with her mentor, and, eventually, she falls in love with her research subject, the “man without a shadow”—how ethical is such behavior?
A. “What is done out of love is always beyond good and evil.”
Q. Who said that? P.T. Barnum?
A. Nietzsche. (Pause) I always quote Nietzsche in a tight spot—I recommend Nietzsche, or Wittgenstein, for such occasions.
Q. You could also quote Stendhal.
A. I was about to quote Stendhal! The novel is a sort of “mirror traveling along a roadway”—the intention of realist fiction is to dramatize the way things are, not as they should be. The reader is invited to draw his or her own conclusions: Should a scientist be held to fixed standards of behavior, from which no variance is allowed? Is it possible to legislate every aspect of one’s personal, emotional life…
Q. That sounds like making excuses for scandalous behavior. Is this novel of yours not politically correct?
A. There is no serious novel that is politically correct.
Q. That sounds mutinous, in an era of Groupthink. Are you sure you would like to be quoted?
A. “The crowd is a lie”—as Kierkegaard said. Artists tend to be lone visionaries, for better or worse. Temperamentally incapable of propaganda.
Q. If so, an artist may be in danger of being cancelled—yes?
A. That is a danger the artist must accept.
Q. Really! You are suggesting that Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Melville, Woolf—were not concerned with being “correct” in terms of the morality of their time?
A. Probably, they were most concerned with writing something original and memorable, that had not been written before.
Q. “Something original and memorable, that had not been written before”—that’s the essence of prose fiction?
A. Fundamentally, yes.
Q. Why are you so prolific, Miss Oates?
A. I—I don’t think of myself as—“prolific”… (Pause) As I spend most of my time revising, and deleting most of what I write…
Q. Yet, quantitatively speaking, you are—prolific. Yes?
A. In the eyes of the world, evidently so. How this has happened, I have no clear idea and can’t understand.
A. Each day I work for hours, for a very meager advancement in whatever I am doing. The first chapters of my novels are rewritten continuously. Thousands of pages are required for one hundred pages. I am often despairing, stymied. No one in her right mind would want to be a novelist voluntarily.
Q. Yet, no one has asked you to write, have they? It is voluntary.
A. Novelists complain constantly, but only to one another; no one else wants to hear. When Russell Banks was writing his very long, exhausting novel Cloudsplitter, a fictionalized life of John Brown, and I was writing my very long, exhausting novel Blonde, a fictionalized life of Marilyn Monroe, we could only complain to each other. Fortunately, our offices at Princeton University were directly across the hall from each other.
Q. Didn’t both of you vow never to undertake another long novel?
A. We did! And we kept that vow, more or less… (Pause)
Q. How long is your recent novel Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.? Just out of curiosity.
A. I—I’m not sure. Not so long as Blonde, which was 1,440 pages before being cut back, in revisions, to approximately 1,000 pages. (Pause, timorously) Have you read either of these novels?
Q. All right, let’s cut to it, Miss Oates!—our audience, curiosity whetted by the ubiquitous social media, wants avidly to know, What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you lately?
End of Part 1