The Writing Life of Joyce Carol Oates

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.”

You can read online Oates’ ear­ly short sto­ry, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”. It was writ­ten for Bob Dylan in 1966.

via Page-Turn­er

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