Joyce Carol Oates, THE (OTHER) YOU

Joyce Carol Oates, THE (OTHER) YOU

Zibby interviewed literary legend Joyce Carol Oates as part of Temple Emanu-El Streicker Center’s ‘Women on the Move’ series. Their recorded conversation, released here as a podcast, touches on Oates’s two newest releases, American Melancholy and The (Other) You, as well as how she has approached writing during the pandemic.


Marjorie Shuster: Good morning. I am Marjorie Shuster. I am the coordinator of literary events at Temple Emanu-El. Welcome to our series, Women on the Move, where we talk to female authors. We hear all about their lives, their choices, and their books. Today is very special for us as we have the great honor of hosting the esteemed author Joyce Carol Oates. Joyce really needs no introduction, but I will offer a few highlights. She is the author of fifty-eight novels, thirty collections of short stories, eight volumes of poetry, plays, and other nonfiction works. Her literary awards are huge. They range from Pulitzer Prizes to PEN/O. Henry and PEN/Faulkner Awards to several Lifetime Achievement Awards in literature. Today, she’s here to talk about her latest books, American Melancholy, a book of poetry, and The (Other) You, a series of short stories all about life’s choices. That theme has been at the heart of our series. Our moderator is Zibby Owens, creator of the podcast “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read” and recent author of the book Moms Don’t Have Time To. As usual, please type your questions in the chat feature. I’ll read them to Joyce towards the end of the conversation. Now it is my great pleasure to turn the conversation over to Joyce Carol Oates and Zibby Owens. Welcome.

Zibby Owens: Thanks, Marjorie. Thanks for having me.

Marjorie: Welcome, Joyce. Welcome, Zibby. I will turn off my video. Enjoy your conversation.

Zibby: Hi. How are you? I feel like I can’t just call you Joyce. That seems way too informal.

Joyce Carol Oates: Joyce is fine.

Zibby: Okay. I’m delighted to meet you. Thank you for doing this program with the Streicker Center. I am a huge fan of yours. Your latest works were truly unbelievable, American Melancholy and The (Other) You. I was hoping that as an introduction you could talk a little bit about why you decided to write these two, especially as they released the same month. Why these two now? Maybe we could start with the poems, which I know came from a lot of different places. You decided to aggregate them. Let’s talk about that if that’s okay.

Joyce: For me, my primary means of creative expression, I suppose one could say, is prose fiction. I don’t write poetry every day. Usually, my periods of writing poetry are very intense interludes of emotional crisis or stress where everything is distilled and very concentrated. The kind of energy that you need, perhaps for most people, to write a novel is sort of like a long-distance runner. Sometimes you have energy for short sprints and things that are much more concentrated. I don’t really write poetry continuously. The poems in that collection were written in very intense interludes. Really, American Melancholy is drawn together by the fact that my husband, Charlie Gross, passed away in April 2019. The book that I’ve collected these poems have very much to do with a concentration of emotion of grief and loss and looking back at our culture in the twentieth century and focusing on subjects like — I have a little section of poems of what we could call scientific malpractice or scientific misconduct and some quintessential famous research experiments. The book, it’s actually bookended with poems that are about the loss of my husband. A book of poems, I think for many poets, is an occasion for some intensity and distillation. I can’t really imagine that I would have another book of poems. It’s my first book in twenty-five years.

Zibby: Wow. The way you wrote about your husband’s — I’m so sorry for your loss — was absolutely beautiful, per usual. Even the way you wrote about the hospice experience in the poem at the end — do you mind if I read a line or two from it? Is that okay?

Joyce: That’s fine.

Zibby: First, you have it from your point of view. You alternate, one, two, three, four, etc., with his point of view. I’ll start here. “And so on the brink of too late when no one else was in the room, for a hospice room can be crowded — by crowded, meaning more than two people — you tell your husband that you love him so much. What a wonderful husband he has been. And he says, but I failed you by dying. And you protest, but why are you saying such a thing? You are not dying. We are talking here together. And he says, because I am dead, as after the final biopsy, he’d been incensed. They took my soul from me. They took me to the crematorium. I saw the sign. Don’t try to tell me I didn’t see the sign.” Then you say, “Trapped in this bed like a prison. Is the car out front? Drive the car around. Where are the keys to the car? Joyce, don’t leave. Joyce, we need to get the car. Where are the keys? I want to go home. Take me home, Joyce. Don’t leave me. What did we do with the car?” Then at the end you say, “After such struggle, you must love the unrippled, dark water in which the perfect cold O of the moon floats.” It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. I’m so sorry.

Joyce: Thank you. When you were reading that, I almost didn’t remember that I had written some of that. I probably am afraid to look at it. I shouldn’t say that. I’ve looked at it many times, but maybe not for months. Some things, though we write them ourselves, we can’t really bring ourselves to read them. That’s been true of a lot of my writing where the emotions are sort of pushed away by time. Then if you see them again, it becomes very fresh. I almost couldn’t believe I had written that. Of course, it’s pretty much real life.

Zibby: Do you feel like it helps you when you’re in the moment? Does it help you sort out your feelings when you write scenes like this and put them in poetic form?

Joyce: I’m really haunted by certain subjects. I would say I’m literally haunted in the sense that my thoughts just careen around in a whirlpool and I try to, through a meditation or other attention, to draw away from these areas of gravity, this intense whirlpool. Sometimes I can do that. Sometimes I can’t. I concentrate on expressing what seems to want to be expressed. I think that’s true for many writers. Looking back at twentieth century famous writers like Eugene O’Neill, he was obviously obsessed with his parents. He wrote so much about his father. Hemmingway wrote about, obliquely, women who were maybe like his mother. We all have areas of being haunted. Writers are those people who focus on it, maybe trying to exercise it or maybe just trying to explore it.

Zibby: I found it interesting that you not only delved deep into your own loss — just to clarify from the chat, I was reading from American Melancholy, the book of poems. Not only did you do this, but you literally inserted yourself as the subject in many psychology experiments. Having been a psychology major way back in the day, to read these from the point of view of the subjects and to even get more information on some of the researchers themselves and your thoughts onto why they were even doing this, the relation of the Holocaust — maybe you could talk a little bit more about Maslow and the Holocaust tie-in to what you were talking about in the poem. I’m sorry, not Maslow. Milgram. Not Maslow. I knew that didn’t sound right.

Joyce: Maslow was another person that I could write about maybe some other time. I’m interested in him also. Stanley Milgram was Jewish. He was a young assistant professor at Yale. Like many Jews, he was haunted by the phenomenon of the Holocaust. I would surmise many of his European relatives probably perished in the death camps. Stanley Milgram, as a young psychologist, wanted to try to understand that phenomenon. We know that Hitler was insane. He was a homicidal maniac. Maybe the high-ranking Nazis were. The Nazi phenomenon could not have taken place without the cooperation of average people, average German citizens. It’s almost an industrial apparatus of the so-called final solution. That required many, many, many people, thousands or hundreds of thousands of cooperative Germans. Stanley Milgram, as a young research psychologist, wanted to understand how anybody could follow orders the way these people did. The famous or infamous series of experiments called Studies in Obedience that made Stanley Milgram very famous and very notorious — he didn’t get tenure at Yale. The backlash against him for exposing something about human nature that people didn’t want to accept, he really suffered in the backlash. He actually wasn’t kept on at Yale. He may have gone somewhere else equally prestigious. I’m not remembering if he went to Columbia or someplace. Correct me if I’m wrong. Stanley Milgram I thought was astonishing just as a psychologist, very interesting. At the same time, we feel in looking at his experiments that he too was experimenting with people. He wasn’t telling them quite the truth at all. He wasn’t telling his subjects that they were being experimented on. Maybe, in a way, he was trespassing. That’s probably the bottom line of that poem that I wrote, is questioning Milgram himself.

Zibby: I think that’s one of the themes that you touch on in so many of these poems. Who has the right to exert their own theories on other people and their own will on other people, whether it’s a man not treating a woman right in a relationship or a science experiment or any of these ways? I feel like you’re meditating on the meaning of power and what makes someone a victim as well. I feel like it’s just coursing, and then, of course, as you said, bookended with your own loss to make a very powerful package of reflections designed to really make the reader think through all of that.

Joyce: You said you were a psychology major, so you obviously studied the famous experiment, Little Albert.

Zibby: Yes.

Joyce: The conditioning, how easy it is to condition really anyone.

Zibby: And the loud noise, yes.

Joyce: You can condition anyone of any age, but particularly an infant who had no volition and had no protection. His mother really gave him over to this experiment. Of course, his mother was a cleaning woman. She was paid like one dollar. It was very sad. Little Albert, he was a victim of an experiment we would consider incredibly cruel today.

Zibby: Of course, you point out nobody deconditioned all the subjects in all of these studies. No one took the time to get them back to normal. Instead, they just let them into the world to fend for themselves.

Joyce: It is amazing. John Watson is considered the father of advertising. Advertising was a commercial replication and application of the ideas of Pavlovian conditioning on human beings where you condition them to purchase your Cadillac or your deodorant or your shampoo. You’re doing that with images that are usually visual. It’s usually in a magazine or, later, on television, whereas the original experiments, of course, were in the lab. They were actually with living people.

Zibby: Wow. The other poem I loved in this collection, by the way, was, you called it “Too Young to Marry, but Not Too Young to Die” about the couple. You said, “Together behind the ice in each other’s arms, Jean Marie’s head rested on Troy’s shoulder. Their hair had floated up and was frozen. Their eyes were open in the perfect lucidity of death. Calmly, they sat upright, not a breath.” Just so beautiful. Then you said, “Yet you could believe they might be breathing, for some trick of scintillant light revealed tiny bubbles in the ice, an emotion like a smile, and Jean Marie’s perfect fate.” It’s about a couple that fell into the ice. This couple is young. You said they weren’t even old enough to get married. Yet they were hugging each other. They seemed so happy and eyes wide open as they faced death together. It was the image. It reminded me of the scene in the Titanic movie when the couple is sort of spooning in bed and the water is coming. They’re just at peace clutching each other. It was just a perfect poem of love in all its form.

Joyce: Thank you. That appeared originally in a New Yorker. It had the narrative look to it that it’s like a story that unfolds. We are told by somebody reminiscing about when he was in high school. Everybody was in awe of these very beautiful, handsome — this couple. They were very beautiful. They were the most popular couple and very envied. Then they had a kind of suicide pact because they weren’t allowed to get married so young. The boy drives them out into the ice, which becomes thinner as you move away from shore. Then the car broke through the ice. They sink down. They drown together in this perfect union. Then the ice closes over above them, so they could be actually seen through the transparent ice. It’s like the way we freeze memories. Romance and nostalgia are frozen back in time. Probably, there are no emotions quite as strong as our adolescent emotions. They’re frozen back there connecting with our high school. The corridors and the stairways and the lockers and the classrooms of a high school for people who had gone there are just fraught emotion, all kinds of adrenaline. Somebody else looking at it sees nothing. The people who were once there and once teenagers, they feel so strongly.

Zibby: I’m glad you said that because my kids who are in kindergarten and first grade go to my same school where I went to high school. I often find myself lost in my own memories walking through and have to be jolted back to the fact that somehow, I have kids next to me. How do I have kids? I feel like I’m fourteen whenever I walk through the hallway. Yes, there is something about —

Joyce: — That’s a wonderful image. I could see writing a poem about that. You’re with your own children in this building. They are forming their memories and their emotions. You’re right beside them. It’s the two generations and different decades. It’s such a rich subject for a poem.

Zibby: I’m not such a poet, but maybe I’ll try writing an essay about it now that you’ve inspired me to do that. You can write a poem about it. You take it.

Joyce: You could write a poem from the point of view of the person thinking it who’s not necessarily you. Anybody can write poetry from a narrative voice perspective. It’s not you. It’s not lyric poetry, but it’s like a narrative monologue. You could certainly do that.

Zibby: That’s the question, really, about poetry that I wonder and I was wondering while I was reading your collection. What necessarily makes it a poem? Could I take a paragraph that I wrote in an essay and if I change the form, would it become a poem? How do you know it’s poem? I know that sound ridiculous. Some lyrical language, if you morphed the form of it, I feel like could be more poetic. How do you know when you have a poem versus a paragraph?

Joyce: That’s a good question. Poetry is essentially very experimental. Working with language, I think that you can take any passage that you care about — you have to have some emotional investment. That is the secret of poetry. When we read poetry like Shakespeare or Mary Oliver or Sharon Olds or , we’re reading this encapsulated intense emotion that’s been really polished maybe like a stone that’s been smooth and aesthetically beautiful. It’s not raw emotion. It’s not like somebody screaming. It’s been sort of shaped. Anything that you personally care about, you could work into a poem if you took time. It’s a meditative act. Much of my writing time is spent walking or running and thinking. In other words, maybe eighty percent of writing is thinking beforehand of the tone that you want and just trying to choose the sort of vocabulary. The actual writing time is secondary.

Zibby: Tell me about your running. How much running do you do?

Joyce: I try to run every day. When it’s cold, I don’t go out as much. Sometimes I run and walk, and run walk, walk very fast. If I’m with other people, I walk. I have some women friends with whom I go walking. In the pandemic, we meet two or three times a week. We just walk no matter how cold it is, we bundle up, just to get exercise. When I run alone, it’s more beneficial for my writing. When I’m with other people, we tend to be talking, which of course is distracting. In warm weather, I can run quite a bit. I would go out every day, usually in the late afternoon. I think about my writing. I live outside Princeton, about four miles. It’s a semi-rural area. There are country roads. I can be running past pastures of sheep and cattle. There are farms here.

Zibby: Do you listen to music, or you just let your thoughts gestate?

Joyce: No, I wouldn’t listen to music. You have to think and concentrate on your writing.

Zibby: Wow. You don’t have any pain? I’m astounded by this running. It hurts my knees, and I’m in my forties.

Joyce: No, I don’t have any pain. I’ve found that if I have pain in a knee a little bit, if I just don’t run on it for a couple of days, it goes away. I think we have to be careful. If you have a little bit of pain in your knee, many people just want to keep on running and saying, I won’t let this stop me or it’s nothing. I think that’s a mistake. I think the best thing is to stop running for a couple of days.

Zibby: Then your other recent book, The (Other) You, the opening story in this collection was so interesting. It was literally what I think about all the time. What could my life have been like? What if I hadn’t have had kids? Of course, you pin it on a moment where a woman ends up not taking this exam that she should take and that she would have aced because she was super smart. It becomes “Youville” versus the other alternative of life, which everybody must think about from time to time. What if? What if this had happened at this moment? Would I not have had my kids? What would have happened to them? What if? What if? What if? Tell me about this.

Joyce: It’s amazing. Being in quarantine and isolation for a year has made many of us really think about alternative lives. It’s not only that, but you — I don’t know how you met your husband. Say you met your husband at a university or you got introduced by somebody. It would be very easy not to have met. What would your life be? Obviously, we’d still be alive, but we would have lives that were radically different from the lives that we have.

Zibby: I’m divorced and remarried. Sometimes I keep marveling at the fact that my life has become the other life that I wondered if I could have. I literally sometimes drive down the same street with my second husband and the two kids I had later in life living in a different house. I think, I can’t believe it was just me ten years ago driving down this street in a different car living in a different house. It’s really crazy.

Joyce: Where do you live?

Zibby: I live in New York City, but I was talking about in Long Island out in the Hamptons where I’ve been going since 1979. I’ve been traveling the same streets this whole time.

Joyce: I have a similar situation because the house I live in now with my second husband is only about three minutes away from the house that I lived in with my first husband who died, Ray Smith. He died in 2008. I go by that house all the time. I go out of my way to go by that house. I remember my life there. I have a kind of dreamlike nostalgia how I could actually walk in that door and that house would be there. All the rooms come back. Then my first husband would be in his office where he was. He was an editor. Everything is like a hallucination. Then it’s actually 2021. Not only have I lost that first house, but I lost my second husband. I’m in this house alone. Life seems to be so like a dream partly because of the isolation of the past year. Yet we’re still here. We’re still living our lives.

Zibby: Wow. It’s crazy that on top of all of this and the loss and everything that then everyone has to be thrown into this period of time where you have to rethink everything because you’re alone with your thoughts for so much of it as well. It’s like a cruel joke in a way.

Joyce: For you, you’ve probably been in quarantine with a family. Probably, you have a lot of attention paid to the children. You haven’t been alone as much as somebody else. You probably have had a radically different kind of experience.

Zibby: Yes. There have been moments where I would have loved to be alone. My kids have mostly been in remote school for this whole time. I have four kids. It’s a lot. I have not had a lot of time alone. Everyone’s plate has been sort of rearranged. We’ve all had to learn how to eat again, if you will, during this time.

Joyce: I would guess that you as a mother have found time maybe late at night or early in the morning when people are sleeping, that you found some special, sacred, quiet time for yourself.

Zibby: Honestly, that’s part of why I love doing these interviews and why I love doing my podcast and meeting people like you and having conversations. While this isn’t alone time, per se, when I talk to people, that’s how I get in touch with who I am when I’m not picking up toys or doing the laundry or all these day-to-day things. This is such a gift. This connects me not just to the person I’m talking to, but to myself. I don’t know if you feel that way when you talk to others.

Joyce: I remember my friend Toni Morrison, when she was my colleague at Princeton, she had a busy life. She was teaching and so forth. She would get up at five in the morning and do her writing. She would get up early and do her writing working on novels like Beloved. In other words, she found a time. Probably, she would’ve rather been asleep like most of us. Toni found the time that was the sacred time. I try to do that too. I find that because I don’t have a domestic schedule, I can waste a lot of time. When my husband was living and we had more of a schedule, we would do things together. Of course, we were out in the world at that time. My life was a matter of a daily schedule, so I would get a lot of writing done. Now with an open timelessness, you think, I have all day long to work on my novel, so maybe I’ll do this chore first or answer some emails. In other words, if you’re more busy and connected with other people in the world, I think you actually get more done.

Zibby: Give a busy person something to do, and it’ll get done in two seconds. Are you working on a novel now?

Joyce: Oh, yes. I have been working on a novel very intensely since the pandemic began. I think that it’s been a great solace. Putting together the poems for American Melancholy and using — the photograph on the cover of the book is a photograph taken by Charlie, my husband, of Lake George, which was his favorite place in all the world. There are two little ducks. You can just see a duck couple. It’s so melancholy. This little couple of ducks on this choppy lake is sort of symbolic of the marriage, I suppose. It seemed like just the perfect cover for that particular book. The predominant tone is melancholy, but there are some poems that are meant to be funny like the one about the cat, the different kind of cat . The one about Marlon Brando is supposed to have some humor in it. It isn’t all melancholy. Then also, with The (Other) You, the story called “The Unexpected” where the young — the woman writer. She’s not young any longer. She goes back to her hometown, which is the hometown of the first story, “Youville.” Then she meets these people who went to high school and grade school with her. They’re all so jealous and mean. They keep asking her these awful questions. Are you sorry that you didn’t have any children? Are you alone? Could you do your career over again? The questions that they put to her are really niggardly and nasty. All that is meant to be somewhat funny in a dark, humorous way.

Zibby: Even the one about the friend waiting for her friend to show up late at the restaurant, at the vegan place. You’re like, they didn’t even really like vegetarian food, but they thought they should be there. Even how you kind of joke that one of them had another child because the other had another child, funny.

Joyce: I think that women friends who have known each other a long time are really like sisters. They’re very supportive emotionally. There’s kind of a quiet intensity. The friendship goes on for so many years. They know each other so well. Some of the bonds are even stronger than between a husband and a wife because the wife doesn’t always want to tell the husband some things. You’re more likely to tell a woman friend. My friends and I, we call ourselves the girlfriends. It’s hard to believe that we’re well beyond being girls because there’s a kind of girlish connection of, often, humor and teasing and playfulness that you’ll find among women friends. The women friends, that story is one of my favorites. There are three stories in the collection all set at the same vegetarian restaurant. It’s a place that I knew in Berkeley that Charlie and I would go to, one of these menus with lots of kale, lots of organic, and things that don’t sound — they don’t really sound very appetizing, but they’re politically correct.

Zibby: Although, you end up having a bomber show up at this restaurant in the past. There’s a lot of history to the restaurant in the story. It’s not exactly like a Sweetgreen.

Joyce: He shows up some way in each story. In one story, he seems to be there. Another story, he has been there. Another story, you sort of hear what he’s thinking. He himself is so dissociated. He wants to set off a bomb. He wants to cause a catastrophe, but he doesn’t really comprehend that he’s going to die. He sort of thinks to himself, well, this isn’t really going to happen, is it? I didn’t do very well in chemistry and science in high school. I’m really not going to be successful. I think probably a lot of people who do desperate things, maybe including suicide, part of their brain is thinking, well, this is not really going to happen. I’m just going to play through the gesture, which is somewhat theatrical. Suicide bombing is so theatrical. It probably rarely achieves any kind of goal at all except to destroy human life. There must be some element of dissociation that the person doesn’t really think he’s dying. With some politically religious-oriented suicide bombings, they actually think they’re going to go to heaven. They’re going to be in some other dimension. They don’t really think they’re just going to be annihilated. With any kind of suicide gesture, there must be some element of hallucination and fantasying.

Zibby: When you start a new project as a living literary legend who’s won all these awards — you must feel a sense of accomplishment and confidence in your writing. When you start something new, do you ever feel worried that it’s not going to be good or your luck has run out? Do you approach everything knowing what you want to say? What is it like when you start a new project like the novel you’re working on now?

Joyce: Let’s say that writing is a kind of activity. It’s cerebral and also emotional. You know that you’re going to do some writing if you’re a writer. Next Monday, you’re going to be writing. You have a ferocity of yearning to be creative. What are you going to do with that? It’s like harnessing some power. Are you work on a poem? Are you going to work on a short story? Are you going to work on a novel? You’re choosing what to do with this yearning to write or to compose something. If you’re haunted by a subject, you’re probably going to be limited to writing about that particular subject. If you look at the very last paintings in van Gogh’s life, which are very thick — the brush strokes are very thick. They’re all natural scenes of the sky and the landscape and the sun or flowers. It’s everything very thick. You can feel that the artist of van Gosh was totally in the throes of a kind of dreamlike intensity of emotion that maybe he couldn’t really control. It’s a kind of benign compulsion. I say it’s benign because it’s productive. It’s not somebody who’s just washing her hands over and over again in a non-productive way. I’m friendly with Margaret Atwood. We’re almost the same age. We came of age in Canada. When I lived in Canada, Margaret was a very rapidly rising poet. I was writing prose fiction books. Margaret Atwood probably shares with me this feeling that you never really have mastered anything. You do know from the past that if you work at it diligently every morning as long as you can, you will achieve something, but you don’t know how hard it will be. You don’t know how long it will take. You don’t know how miserable you might be.

To answer your question, it’s both something that is familiar because you’ve done it before, but unpredictable because you don’t really know what it’s going to be. A writer who has written novels is challenged not to repeat herself. Each novel should be stylistically different. I try to make my novels different from one another. If I have a long novel like — Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. is my most recent long novel. I can show you this. This is a really long novel. This is a family novel with the parents and about five children. My next novel, which is coming out in August, is much shorter. It’s about a marriage after the husband has died. It’s very much a memoirist novel which is really only about two people with some people in the background, whereas this long novel is about seven people, and I’m moving from one person to the other, and has a lot to do with politics in America right now. The new novel is very intense and limited to two people, really almost nothing at all about politics in America, mostly the emotional intensity of losing a spouse, being unable to save the spouse in any way, and then being haunted. Most of the novel is about the aftermath of a loss and how we’re haunted by grief, but in the novel, literally haunted by thinking she sees the husband. Maybe she really sees the husband. We don’t really know. That’s an example of how, because you’ve written one thing, the next thing you do might be much shorter. The next thing you do might be a book of nonfiction. It’s sort of reacting against what you’ve done most recently.

Zibby: It sounds like it could be a play. Can’t you see it?

Joyce: No, it really couldn’t be a play because it has a lot of hallucinatory passages that are very dreamlike. They’re in this unfamiliar setting. I think that losing somebody takes you to a new world. Literally, they’re in New Mexico. They’re in a place sort of like Santa Fe. It’s not Santa Fe, but it’s like Santa Fe. The landscape is the beautiful landscape of New Mexico, which is really inhuman. It’s an austere, red, mountainous landscape without much green in it like Georgia O’Keeffe country, very austere and sort of lunar. It’s like you’re on the moon or on Mars or someplace. That’s where this novel plays out. Whereas the novel that I’ve been showing you, much of it’s set right in the room I’m in right now because it’s very much an autobiographical novel. The widow in this novel is living in a house like my house. I’ve done some Zoom interviews about this novel, which is so weird because the woman in the novel is in this room a lot. I’m literally in the same room.

Zibby: What is the title? Someone’s asking in the chat. What’s the title of the novel going to be? Does it have one yet?

Joyce: Yes, it’s called Breathe.

Zibby: That’s going to be great.

Joyce: We all have the hospital vigil. I don’t feel I’m the only one who’s ever gone through it. I have actually written about the hospital vigil in The (Other) You, the hospice. We all go through it. You’re at the hospital all day long and leave at night and come back in the morning. You get to know the elevator you take and your walk down the corridor. You go in a certain room. It’s a universal experience. Each person suffers it or endures it alone. We are all alone. At the same time, it’s universal.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for someone just starting out who wants to be a writer or trying to be a writer?

Joyce: I teach a writing workshop every semester. In the fall, I teach at NYU. I teach at Princeton. Right now, I’m teaching a course at Rutgers. Of course, they’re all Zoom. In my course at Rutgers, I have about fifteen, just by accident, all women. In fact, Margaret Atwood is going to visit our class today. Writers are people who’ve been reading. I think that we become writers because we read when we’re very young. Maybe our parents read to us with children’s books with pictures. The parent reads this little text. After a while, the child has heard the story many times. The child starts to read. I think that’s how parents teach their children to read in literate cultures. Did you do that sort of thing, reading to your children?

Zibby: I still do that type of thing just like my mom did to me. Yes, I love it.

Joyce: They love it?

Zibby: They love it. Usually, I’m so tired at that point of the night. I’m like, why do I always save this for the night when I’m my most tired? Why don’t we read at three in the afternoon when I’m full of energy? They’re like, “One more book.”

Joyce: Don’t they like that?

Zibby: They love it.

Joyce: They’re all cuddly in bed. Then they fall asleep. Their mother’s reading to them. I think that’s really lovely.

Zibby: Yes, it’s nice. I try to remind myself when they ask for a second book, it’s not like they’re asking for iPad time. I should give them a second book. It’s a second book.

Joyce: I wish I had my children’s book here to show you. I’ve written a number of children’s books. They’re in another room, so I can’t. They’re all about kittens. Each book is about a kitten.

Zibby: Love it. I will stock up on your children’s books. I think Marjorie’s here for question time.

Marjorie: I am. Thank you very much for that lovely interview. We’ve had lots of people ask us questions. I will start with a couple of the interesting ones. Somebody asked, when did you first know you were going to be a writer?

Joyce: I never really thought I would be a writer. I don’t think it was ever a moment like that, ever. When I was really little before I could actually write, I was scribbling in notebooks. I did a lot of drawings. We lived on a farm, so I’d draw chickens a lot. I’d do a lot of chickens and cats. They were not very good drawings. I seemed to be very eager to work with a pen and a pencil on tablet. I have all these scribbles. It’s sort of like, Tolstoy couldn’t write, but he wanted to write War and Peace even though he wasn’t literate. It’s just page after page of scribbles. I guess I started writing in a pre-literate state where I had no idea what I was doing. Then later on when I was in high school, I was encouraged to write by teachers who were very sympathetic. I think that they identified me as a very enthusiastic reader. I did a lot of reading. I always would read for extra credit. We’d write little reports if you wanted to do extra credit. I don’t know if that exists anymore in schools. I always did extra credit. I think I was encouraged by very wonderful English teachers.

Marjorie: On that note, Pilar, it’s an interesting question, do you think a writer is more of an introvert or an extrovert? She’s talking about the differences between her and her family members.

Joyce: We all have a degree. It’s like being on a spectrum. Some people are extremely introverted. I think we can assume that Emily Dickinson was extremely introverted in a productive and fertile and exciting way. It wasn’t that she was terrified of life. I think she preferred her own solitude. Many of her poems talk about turning the key in the lock and being alone in her room after a long day with the family and taking care of somebody in the house who might be ill. She would be one extreme. Then another extreme would be a typical politician. There’s a gregariousness, this expansive spirit. I don’t know any politicians personally. It’s said that Bill Clinton, for instance, was a quintessential politician, that he remembered everybody’s name. He would meet people over a period of years — I met people who met him. If he came back, he would say, “How’s your son? How’s your father?” He could remember people’s names and also what they talked about. That degree of extroversion is most unusual. Most people don’t have that. Many people are in the middle. They don’t necessarily remember faces. Extreme extroverts are gifted with a neurological apparatus where they remember faces and names just like that. Introverts are often — they’re thinking their own thoughts. They’re shy. They may have social anxiety. Then they may turn out to be brilliant painters or brilliant artists. It’s kind of compensatory. If you’re going to be president of your high school class in high school, you’re probably an extrovert. If you’re the class poet, you’re probably an introvert.

Marjorie: Where did you fall in that category?

Joyce: I was always interested in sports. I was on sports teams all through high school. I was on the basketball and the volleyball team and also the field hockey team. That suggests a kind of extroversion. At the same time, I was also a writer. I may be an extrovert for limited periods. There are people who are mostly introverts. All my colleagues at Princeton, my writer friends, we’re all introverts. The extroversion is something you can do for a limited period of time. Then you want to come back to your own solitude.

Marjorie: Thadis had an interesting question. Is there any novel that is your favorite?

Joyce: Of my own?

Marjorie: Of your own close to your heart.

Joyce: Or just anybody?

Marjorie: No, yours.

Joyce: We tend to feel what we’re working on at the present time is the most intense and immediate. This novel that I’ve been holding up is very close to my heart. The widow who is the subject of the novel is pretty close to myself except she’s not a professor. She is a mother of five children, which is most amazing. I consider four children very ambitious and wonderful. Five children, I can’t even imagine it. Yet it’s, in some ways, a very personal novel.

Marjorie: Zibby, I believe we spoke before, you wanted to talk a little bit about the upcoming film.

Zibby: I know that your novel, Blonde, is becoming a movie. I just wanted to hear your thoughts on that.

Joyce: I have this somewhere too. This is the twentieth anniversary of this novel, Blonde. In 2021 on Netflix, there is supposedly — I mean, there is, I guess, a movie adapted and directed by Andrew Dominik, a very excellent, very artistic, and idiosyncratic director. Blonde, I have seen it. I saw it. It’s quite riveting. It’s an odd — I don’t want to say odd. It’s a very imaginative — Andrew Dominik wanted to create a movie that was from the perspective of a woman though he is man. He is a straight man. He’s a straight white male. He wanted to create a movie that was unique in that it was from the point of view of a woman. It will be interesting to see what feminists, what actually women think about it. I saw it. We talked on the telephone. I did not write the screenplay. He wrote the screenplay. I said, “You know Andrew, this movie that I’ve seen is so frightening that I actually had to turn it off a couple of times and go away and come back.” I think I remember him saying that he had given it the intensity of a horror film. He saw this novel as a kind of horrifying, terrifying work. That’s his interpretation. I’m not sure that I would say that. Of course, the movie is an adaptation. It’s not literally the whole novel. The novel’s very long. It’s 1,400 pages in the manuscript. It was a real epic of Marilyn Monroe’s life and all the world around her, her family and all the movies she did. I talk about the movies. What Andrew did was focus on just a thread of her relationship with her mother and then later on, her relationship with some men.

Marjorie: This might be a silly question based on how prolific you are, but do you ever get writer’s block?

Joyce: As Ian McEwan said, we get periods where we’re not ready to write. You’re not prepared. That’s why I said it’s very important to go out for walks and be alone and just think quietly. You can’t just say, I’m going to go and write next Monday and start writing a novel. You have to do a lot of quiet thinking beforehand. I would guess people who have writer’s block are just not quite ready yet. Basically, you have to think about it.

Marjorie: Jeff had a question. Do you ever have a dream that turns into thematic material in your novels?

Joyce: Very rarely. I have had a whole novel that evolved out of a dream, but it was very difficult. It’s much harder to replicate something than it would be to make it up. My novel Mudwoman completely evolved out of a dream. For years, literally five, six, seven years, I wanted to write that novel based on that dream. It took a long, long time to find a story and find a voice for it. I did feel haunted by the dream and wanted to explore it, but it was very difficult. It would have been easier just to make up a new novel.

Marjorie: We had a question from Louise. She said she’s Canadian. She’d like to know about your experiences in Canada.

Joyce: That was a wonderful time in my life. I lived in Canada from 1968 to 1978. My husband, Ray Smith, and I were avoiding a virulent America of the Vietnam War and the war between the generations. Those who were in favor the Vietnam War tended to be older. Those who were against it tended to be younger. It was a lot of overlap and so forth. We didn’t really want to live in the United States. It was such a terrible time. The country is divided now, but it was equally divided then. I don’t remember right now when Malcom X was assassinated. There was a good deal of turbulence with the Black Panthers, the Civil Rights Movement and backlash against it. We were living in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Many of my students — by many, I probably mean five or six — were conscientious objectors. They were Americans who came to Canada. They’d become Canadian citizens. They never went back. They loved Canada. Ray and I loved Canada. We lived on Riverside Drive East in Windsor on the Detroit River. I loved my colleagues at the University of Windsor. My students were great. Overall, they were better prepared than American students. Canadian students were good students compared to American students. I’d been teaching in Detroit before that. It’s an interlude in my life that is very positive. I have a predilection for Canada and for Canadian writers, just a prejudice for Canada. As I said, Margaret Atwood is a friend whom I don’t see very often, but I’ve been following her career all my life. I was following Alice Munro’s career when she first began writing also, and Margaret Laurence and Michael Ondaatje, Barry Callaghan, and other Canadian writers.

Marjorie: That’s wonderful. A few people would just like to know a little bit about your day during the pandemic. You say you walk. You run. Do you watch Netflix? Tell us a little more about your life.

Joyce: I tend to write all day long and intermittently. I start pretty early in the morning. I should say that I’m so dominated — I’m really bullied. I have to say I’m bullied by two cats. They’re not in the room at the moment. These two cats, they’re very bossy. They wake me up at five thirty in the morning. They have to have breakfast. Then my day begins much earlier than I would wish. I can start writing around seven or so. Then I write all day long intermittently. I’m doing other things, household chores. I try to do some shopping, eventually. I just have had the groceries delivered because we have a really high degree of contagion in New Jersey. Even right now, the county is high alert for new cases. New Jersey was very high immediately, one of the highest along with New York City immediately a year ago. Eventually, I had the groceries delivered. Ordinarily, I like to go out. I like to shop. I would like to see people.

Marjorie: Have you had the vaccine?

Joyce: I had the first shot. The question about what I do in the evening, in the evening, I’ve been watching classic films, mostly. Some are on Netflix. Some are on Amazon Prime. With a friend virtually — we’re not in the same room. With a friend, I’ve been watching classic American films. Last night I saw Born Yesterday. I’ve seen every classic Cary Grant movie, and Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, all these great actors of the twentieth century, Clark Gable. I’ve been watching all these movies. That is something that I probably would not be doing without the pandemic. I work all day long. At eight thirty, I stop. I stop around eight thirty every night and have a late dinner. Dinner is when I’m watching a movie.

Marjorie: I always like to ask this to people. Other authors that you particularly like to read?

Joyce: I do a lot of reading. I have Margaret Atwood’s new book of poems, Dearly, here. I do a lot of reading just of new books that come to me. I do a lot of reading of review books. I have projects. I’m going to be writing the introduction to a collection, selected Dostoevsky short stories, the best stories of Dostoevsky. I’m rereading Dostoevsky. I’m reading the Philip Roth biography by Blake Bailey right now. My reading is sort of what comes in the house.

Marjorie: One of my all-time favorite books, I’ll just tell you on a personal note, is We Were the Mulvaneys. I’ve had a copy of that with me for a very long time. I’ve moved probably four times. It always comes along with me. It’s on my bookshelf. Just wanted to let you know about that one.

Joyce: That was an Oprah selection. Oprah’s back. She’s in the news right now. She’s amazing.

Marjorie: Yes, she’s definitely in the news right now. I want to make sure we answered all of these questions. Do you see any other ones in there, Zibby? One question that’s not on the chat but a friend texted it to me, she was curious how you get your titles. Do you make them up, or does the editors make them up?

Joyce: Editors never make up titles I don’t think for anybody, none of my writer friends. No, I’ve never heard of that. An editor might not like a title or might ask to see another. No, somehow, it’s a mystical thing. I think the title comes to you when the novel has coalesced. When you know what the novel’s about, then you get the title. Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. is a line from Walt Whitman. It just was perfect for this novel. Then the novel called Breathe, breathe is what you’re saying to the person that you don’t want to die, the breath of life. Just that one word was always that title.

Marjorie: Thank you. Thank you very much. There’s a lot of great thank yous in our chat. It’s just wonderful to hear from you and to hear about you. Our audience enjoyed it. Zibby, as always, what can I say? Your interview style is fabulous. You really bring out the best in everybody. I can’t thank you both enough. This concludes this four-part series right now of Women on the Move. I’m telling this is to our audience. We will start this again. We always like to find all the wonderful female authors to talk to. Please watch our website. You’ll be hearing about our next ones. Thank you, Joyce. Thank you, Zibby.

THE (OTHER) YOU by Joyce Carol Oates

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