Photo courtesy of Beth Garrabrant.
by Jason Waddle
Widely known for her short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”, Joyce Carol Oates has written multiple novels, novellas, plays, books of non-fiction, and poetry. A master of the short story, she is considered by literary critics to be one of the greatest living American writers of the 21st century. Not only a successful author, Oates is a noted scholar. Having retired from teaching full-time as the Roger S. Berlind Professor Emerita at Princeton, Oates now teaches creative writing at NYU. Her latest novel, Breathe, is about love, loss, and the pain of learning to live with it. Elixuer had the pleasure to interview her about Breathe, gain insights into her creative writing process, and seek advice from her for aspiring writers.
One of your most recent novels, Breathe, is beautifully designed. The book even feels good in one’s hands. Can you tell me a little about the cover’s photograph and how it relates to the themes of the book?
The photograph is taken in Bryce Canyon in Bryce National Park by my late husband Charlie Gross. Its dreamlike nature was created by the publisher’s art director, who took the strikingly detailed photograph and made it “dreamlike,” as if about to dissolve. The ectoplasmic-like bars at the right are to suggest this dissolution. (Also, we do not want beautiful landscape on our book covers because such striking beauty signals something like a travelogue.)
Breathe almost reads like poetry in some parts. The writing has a calming effect on the reader. Do you think writing can be therapeutic for writers?
The earliest section is “Hospice/ Honeymoon,” which was imagined as a prose poem, composed in a dreamlike way, as if each phrase is floating. In a situation of extreme anxiety and loss, it is natural to create language that seems to be “in suspension.” The novel tracks a mind deranged by loss, uncertain what is “real” and what is “imagined.” It is also constructed so that, if one interprets the italicized chapters as symptoms of a fever dream, it’s possible that Michaela is the one suffering the fever, and her husband is the person holding her hand and assuring her that she will never be abandoned.
You’re one of the most prolific and influential writers of the 21st century. Which writers have influenced your writing style?
I don’t think that I have a writing style but rather I experiment with varying styles in accordance with the work I am writing and with the character or characters whom I present. To me, the interest in writing is the mediation of voices — I am the “mediator” between the inward voice of the character and the reader. The writers who first engaged my interest were Hemingway, Faulkner, Kafka, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Mann, Dostoyevsky … really too many to name — a treasure trove of great imaginations.
As the creator, how does your writing affect you? Are you able to visualize characters and settings, and do the characters in your stories linger in your consciousness even after the stories have been completed?
Yes, characters linger in the way that memories of actual persons linger. We have a “feeling” for them — we can “see” them as in dreams — though the vision is fleeting and incomplete. I have a strong predilection for settings: physical places. I find it difficult to write if I don’t “see” the setting that the characters are seeing. In most of my writing, the landscape or cityscape is actually a sort of “character”— a presence.
You’re an intelligent, witty, and strong author. What advice do you have for young aspiring writers wishing to follow in your literary footsteps?
Well, no one follows in another’s “footsteps!” First of all, writing and publishing today is quite different from the 1960s when I first began writing and publishing my work in small literary magazines of some distinction (Partisan Review, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Hudson Review) and “glossy” magazines (Mademoiselle, Saturday Evening Post) — some of which no longer exist; or, if they exist, are now much altered. My first published story was in either Southwest Review or Epoch (Cornell) — they are both still publishing but look very different.
The primary difference between the mid-20th century and now is that publishers decades ago would keep young writers in print and continue to publish them if they admired their work, regardless of sales; now, if a book doesn’t do well, it is not so likely that a publisher will continue to publish more work by the writer. It was the tradition then — drawing upon experiences with writers like Faulkner, for instance — that a writer was an investment for the future. You lost money now but might recoup it later. You were, if you were a serious publisher, looking to the future: the “back-list.”
At that time publishing houses were likely to be, literally, “houses,” quite small, family-owned, and not large conglomerates as they are now. However, the internet now exists, and young writers can publish online in some cases and be read by hundreds of thousands of readers. Print culture is somewhat awkwardly related to online culture; it’s good that each exists at the present time, and there is much commerce between them. Narrative Magazine is an excellent online publication, for instance, while most print magazines have both print and online publications available to readers.
As for general advice, young writers are usually advised just to read widely. This is true for any generation, and not to become discouraged — this is also true for any generation. Taking writing workshops with instructors and fellow writers whom you admire can be very important too; indeed, life-altering.