Joyce Carol Oates is often described as America’s foremost woman of letters. Since 1963 she has published more than 50 novels and a great many short stories, plays, essays, poems and children’s stories — all of unusually high quality. Her productivity has been legendary, almost from the start. When her former Syracuse University classmate Robert Phillips interviewed Oates for the Paris Review in 1978, he recounted a rumor that circulated campus about how she would finish a novel, turn it over, and begin composing another one on the other side–only to throw the manuscript away when both sides were covered and begin again. Oates didn’t deny the rumor. “I began writing in high school,” she said, “consciously training myself by writing novel after novel and always throwing them out when I completed them.” But sheer volume was never the point, as Oates told Phillips:
Productivity is a relative matter. And it’s really insignificant: What is ultimately important is a writer’s strongest books. It may be the case that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones — just as a young writer or poet might have to write hundreds of poems before writing his first significant one. Each book as it is written, however, is a completely absorbing experience, and feels always as if it were the work I was born to write.
Oates has won many honors for her work, including the National Book Award, the Pen/Malamud Award, the National Medal of the Humanities, and a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle. Her latest novel, The Accursed, is a Gothic tale of a supernatural curse visited upon Princeton, New Jersey, the town where she lives and teaches. Last month the New Yorker visited Oates at her home in Princeton. The short film above offers a rare look inside the writer’s private world. Oates talks about her work routine, her interest in language and structure, and her sense of her own personality. “I can basically write almost all day long with interruptions,” she says in the film. “It’s not really that I sit down to write as if it were some extraordinary act. It’s basically what I do.”