WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Ms. Oates. I’m very thankful you’ve agreed to answer some questions for us today. One question that keeps popping up, given the extremely different topics you’ve written about, is whether there’s anything that’s too taboo for you to touch or go near?
Joyce Carol Oates: That’s an interesting question. I think so, yes—but I will not identify it. (We all have areas that are “taboo”—unspeakable. Full disclosure is not possible for human beings. Poe spoke of an utterly frank document that would be called My Heart Laid Bare—but doubted that anyone could ever write such a book. Of course, that is the title of one of my postmodernist American Gothic novels, about a family of skillful confidence-men.)
MT: I wanted to mainly focus on two of your major works—both the longest and the most expansive and beautiful. I’ll start with Blonde. I read somewhere that you intended for the work to be a novella, but it eventually grew into a grand work that’s around one thousand pages. At what point were you able to say, “This is going to be a lot longer than I thought,” and do you feel you had control over the work, or did the work have control over you?
JCO: Yes, you are correct. The novel began as a projected novella of about 120 pages. It was to end when Norma Jeane Baker was given her magical name—“Marilyn Monroe.” The name was to be the final line of the novel. But when I reached that point, I saw that the greatest challenges lay ahead, & refocused the novel as an “epic.”
MT: How much of this novel is based on truth, and how much of it is based on fabricated events and characters you created for plot/storyline purposes?
JCO: The basic life of Norma Jeane Baker provides the grid for the plot. Most “events” in Norma Jeane’s life are historically authentic, but her impressions of her experiences, dialogue & introspection, are all fiction of course. Some sequences are obviously dreamlike, hallucinatory. Especially in the latter chapters when Marilyn is in thrall to barbiturates & amphetamines. Still, the fundamental circumstances of her life are observed.
MT: We talked about one of my favorite books of yours, My Sister My Love, which is only less strictly based on true events. In this case, you focused on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. How often do you write about true events, and how do you decide which viewpoint to focus on?
JCO: My interest in this novel was its “tabloid” dimension. What would be one’s life, if one were the child of a notorious criminal? (Originally I’d been thinking of O.J. Simpson, & one of my young adult novels, titled Freaky Green Eyes, was inspired by this case.) The brother of the slain child figure-skater is the narrator of the novel, & it is from his beleaguered perspective that the tragedy unfolds. Of course, the novel is also a sort of evisceration of a certain sort of American obsession, parental domination of a child for a parent’s own glory.
MT: I don’t want to give away the major spoilers in Blonde, but one of the tragic and distressing realizations Marilyn Monroe faces at the end of the novel deals with letters from her father. How much of this was based on truth—how much of any of this was based on truth—and did you plan this twist well in advance, or was it something you came up with as you wrote?
JCO: Yes, Marilyn Monroe did try to contact a man she’d been led to believe was her father. She called him, allegedly, and his wife answered the phone; the man did not wish to speak to her. This was after she’d become famous as “Marilyn Monroe”—so it was not likely he’d thought she might want money from him.
MT: Another important question I have for you is referring to A Book of American Martyrs. This seems like your magnum opus, in my opinion, but based on your publishing history, you could come out with something even greater next year. What drove you to write about abortion, even though this is by far the only subject in the novel, and how did you decide to give the novel a “happy” ending?
JCO: I’d wanted to write more about the “martyred” individual who dies for a principle, with the consequence that his family suffers terribly. (The Falls deals with this phenomenon as well, in a very different way.) After I’d written Naomi’s first section, I realized that there is another “martyr”—the abortion assassin. Gradually the novel expanded to be about two dissimilar families with many parallels between them. I did imagine it as a portrait of our polarized America but it was completed before the contentious election of 2016, so I’d had no idea how truly polarized the country would become after the election of Donald Trump. Much that had been suppressed—hatred not only of immigrants & blacks but liberals, for defending them—and a sort of collateral hatred of minorities of any kind, & of women—suddenly emerged, with devastating results. But I did intend to express sympathy for both families, & for the martyred men. It is a pity that Luther Dunphy never realizes how he has been manipulated by politicians in thrall to wealthy capitalist donors, but it would be unlikely that Luther would ever have this realization. He goes to his death more or less untouched by doubt or cynicism or despair.
MT: What do you think of people who commit crimes in defense of other people (in this case, someone who is anti-choice murdering an abortionist)? What was the point in showing how these two families begin intertwining, and what do you think the book’s ending represents, not just in response to abortion but also the human’s will to survive at all odds?
JCO: This is too vast a question to answer….the answer would be the novel itself. I tend to believe that younger generations don’t carry on the misunderstandings, grudges, & feuds of their elders, & so an embrace of sorts between Naomi and the daughter of her father’s assassin, Dawn, does not seem unlikely to me. After all, no one understands what either has endured so much as the other.
MT: You often write about women who undergo extreme crimes committed against them in sometimes even more extreme circumstances. I remember reading an article a long time ago in which you claimed (referring to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar) that women/people who survive these circumstances have a greater effect on you than people who, like Plath, commit suicide. How do you feel about this now?
JCO: It’s hard to say. Plath did not behave reasonably, but she was clinically depressed, one might say mentally ill. Truly a pity that she didn’t survive—imagine what brilliant work she would have written by now…
MT: When you “solve” crimes in two of your novels, My Sister My Love as well as Blonde, do you truly believe that the answer to the unmasking of the killer is the true answer to these real-life stories?
JCO: No. The fictional world isn’t equivalent to the actual world. It is still debatable , among reasonable people, if Marilyn Monroe died of an accidental overdose, a purposeful overdose, or if she was murdered. Since evidence was removed from the crime scene, so to speak, her bedroom, by the time L.A. police officers arrived, there was no real investigation. (Who removed possibly incriminating evidence from her bedroom? It’s thought possible the FBI by the directive of a high-ranking official protecting the Kennedys.) Conspiracy theories are so tempting, I deliberately did not advance the novel beyond Marilyn’s death. It ends—just ends—when she draws her last breath.
MT: I know that Toni Morrison, as well as many literary luminaries like yourself, have claimed that in writing a novel, you should write what you want to read but have yet to find on a bookshelf or library. Do you feel you’ve done that with one of your many books? If so, which one?
JCO: This is a familiar quote, but it is not helpful. How could anyone—even a moderately talented writer—ever write anything of the magnitude of, for instance, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot? This is tantamount to saying that we would “know” what vitamins we are lacking, & so could provide them ourselves without medical intervention or advice. To the contrary, great works come out of nowhere—no one knew that we “needed” Moby Dick, & no one but Melville could ever have written Moby Dick.
MT: Which authors do you look to, both in the past and in the present? Especially, what crime authors (past/present) do you refer to when writing your many crime novels/story collections (Evil Eye, Give Me Your Heart, High Crime Area, Jack of Spades, The Corn Maiden, We Were the Mulvaneys, The Museum of Dr. Moses, etc)? What current authors do you think are advancing this genre the most?
JCO: I don’t focus on crime fiction much. I am often reading for review—usually at the New York Review of Books-- & for three literary competitions for which I am a juror (Anisfield-Wolf Awards, Capote Prize, Simpson Family Foundation Literary Award)--& if in this mix there are crime novels, that is serendipitous; but usually I am reading for quality, not genre.
MT: Years ago, I remember when being interviewed, you stated which books you were most proud of. Many years have passed since then, and many books have been written. So I will ask for everyone who’s wondering: Which books are the ones you’re most proud of?
JCO: I am not “proud” of anything—really. I find the notion discomforting, that one should be “proud”—pride does not seem to me a worthwhile virtue.
MT: There was very recently a prize going around acknowledging books that don’t present violence against women. Knowing that many of your books have women who experience great amounts of violence, could you explain how you feel toward this type of award?
JCO: This sounds like literature for children or very young adults. Literature isn’t sociology, still less propaganda. Virtually all of Shakespeare’s tragedies would be exempt from this award, not to mention the greatest novels. Perhaps it’s a well-intentioned bid for attention.
MT: What advice would you give new and aspiring writers who are trying to make their way/space in the literary world? How about, more specifically, women writers, or queer writers, or writers who are people of color?
JCO: Just read, widely. Buy books, buy literary magazines, and read!
MT: Which of your books would you give to the current president of the United States? Why would you give it to him? What would you hope he would gain from this book?
JCO: The current POTUS? I would never sully a book by giving it to one who is so proudly illiterate & anti-intellectual. I doubt that T***p could read a graphic novel unless it were quite short & had no nuance or subtlety.
MT: Thank you so much for joining me for a brief discussion, Ms. Oates. I really appreciate all of your answers and you taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer some of these questions. Feel free to add any thoughts or comments here, as we’d love to hear what you have to say.
JCO: Thanks for your excellent questions! They all seem somewhat unusual, which is welcome.