Writer Joyce Carol Oates: ‘So much of life is accidental’


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Joyce Carol Oates is stunned to find me at the restaurant. Just minutes before, she was told that all the trains between New York and Princeton, New Jersey, had been cancelled. I found this out the hard way, and spent a woozy 90 minutes in a taxi instead.

“I really didn’t think that you’d be here,” she says. She later chalks my presence up to a journalist’s determination, whereas “writers and poets can be expected to vacillate, dither and postpone”. 

It is difficult to believe that Oates does any of these things. At 85 she is considered one of the greatest — and most productive — living American writers, and has just published her 47th short-story collection (she has written so many books that profiles often dispute whether an accurate accounting could exist, and Oates herself does not care to keep track).

Oates is a name that many recognise, even if they cannot identify one of her books. She has also written 62 novels, and 35 collections of nonfiction, children’s literature, theatre and poetry. She’s a torrent of ideas, her next two books already churning, and has won so many accolades and lifetime achievement awards that prizes are now named after her. Others may know her from her exuberant presence on Twitter. 

We are meeting two weeks before the release of her latest, Zero-Sum, a short-story collection that is startling, underline-entire-paragraphs well written, and bleaker than a derelict dustbowl truck stop at 3am.

Yet the university town of Princeton, where Oates has taught writing since 1978, is clinically pristine, all fresh paint and bright awnings. On the terrace of Mediterra, a Mediterranean-ish restaurant she frequents and describes as her “local pub”, a fountain murmurs as she sweeps off her sun hat. 

“Everything here is good,” she tells me, pointing at the menu. “I almost always have a soup and a salad.”

Oates orders the gazpacho to start and the small New Jersey greens salad, a bottle of sparkling water and a Diet Coke. I order the seared tuna Niçoise and gazpacho, with iced tea. It is almost 90 degrees, and so humid that water streams off our glasses whenever we lift them to drink. 

Oates is slight and walks like a schoolgirl, arms swinging and swaying. Her fingers tap in time on the table. I ask about her rings, which she wears on almost every finger. There are two Celtic braided bands — her wedding ring and her late husband’s. The others were sent to her by friends, some from Twitter. “I don’t really know them, I’ve never met them, but they’re nice,” she says. 

She joined the platform in 2012, and there are “five or six” people she has forged deeper relationships with; they write each other emails and exchange books.

In the days leading up to our lunch, she was engaged in spirited discussions about the traumatising effect of fireworks on pets, AI, trigger warnings, cats and gardening. I once saw her tweet to help Margaret Atwood remember the name of a book that was escaping her. Later that night, she will tweet about the peculiarity of interviews.

I ask her if she has plans to join Threads, the new Meta challenger to Twitter — oh, no, she says. “I was sort of hoping — well, not hoping — that Twitter would end. It’s just something that has maybe run its course,” she says. 

But she would be a bit sad. “A typical person like myself does have a lot of friends on Twitter, so I don’t really want to miss their posts. I will miss them.”

Oates leans forward, her deer eyes boring into me. Her eyebrows are pencilled in dark purple and match her lipstick. She talks with her wrists, like a dancer, as she bats away my next question. I had asked how she felt about the word “prolific”, an epithet that recurs in light of her massive body of work. “Writers never think about these things until some interviewer asks the question,” Oates says. “I don’t have any feelings about that. I’m neutral about lots of things.”

I first encountered Oates through her 1966 short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, a dark mainstay of university creative writing courses. A blistering line about a 15-year-old girl who “knew she was pretty and that was everything” has been circled/highlighted/seared into my psyche ever since. This is what the precision of Oates’ sentences can do, and she has written so, so many of them.

Our gazpacho arrives, and Oates coos after the waiter if we are to have spoons, too. The soup is mercifully chilled. Prepared differently today, Oates says. The garlic burns on my tongue.

What Oates does have strong opinions about are strong opinions. “In real life we don’t have definite opinions like a leading sentence or a paragraph,” she says. “When people tweet, including me, you find yourself making a statement that’s much stronger than you really feel. Then, because you made that statement, you support that statement, so there isn’t room for the nuance.”

We are talking about prestige TV (while she once said that television was for people with nothing better to do with their time, “that was before HBO”, and she loves The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Oz) when we return to the subject of her work ethic. 

She never had children, she says, and thus has fewer interruptions than many other, especially women, writers. “So I seem more prolific than other people. But they, in my position, would probably be equally prolific.”

29 Hulfish Street, Princeton, NJ 08542

Heirloom tomato gazpacho x2 $20
New Jersey green salad, small $9
Rare ahi tuna Niçoise $27
Diet Coke $2.75
Lurisia water $6
Iced tea x2 $3
Total inc tax and service $89.15

The salads arrive before we finish our gazpacho, and Oates requests salt for her tuft of greens. My tuna is tender with a fine limbal ring of sear. We begin talking about Irish poets and writers, the way the country’s oral tradition seeps into its literature. “Ulysses has this wonderful buoyancy and ebullience of the street . . . I often look at Ulysses, a chapter here and there, it’s a kind of comfort food, really.”

What one book would she bring to a desert island? She asks about anthologies. I’ll allow it, single author only. Emily Dickinson for poetry, she says, despite a tough head-to-head with Walt Whitman. Dickinson’s introverted mystery means puzzling over her poems could keep Oates occupied for many long island years. 

“If I could bring just one novel, I’d probably bring Ulysses, because it’s a novel about language and about discovering new ways of expressing things,” she says. As she’s thinking about it, the desert island ideal grows in its appeal: “I should really go away somewhere and just take Ulysses.

“If you look at James Joyce you see a very pure artist,” she says. “You can deduce a kind of a political leaning or sympathy in Joyce, but it’s not explicit . . . I don’t really like polemics.”

But are writers as brave now, as provocative, as they used to be, I ask. She returns to the mention of trigger warnings, which she was bemused by on Twitter. “It’s probably something I shouldn’t care about, because they’re for people who see themselves as fragile, and so they’re really not for writers,” she says. 

Such warnings cannot distinguish between art and true sadism, she says. Moby-Dick would almost certainly be slapped with a trigger warning about brutality to animals. “There are descriptions in Moby-Dick that are heartbreaking, which I can barely read. And yet, Moby-Dick is a great work of art. You wouldn’t want to say, well, don’t read Moby-Dick because the whales are slaughtered, you know?”

It’s easy to forget that Oates is in her mid-eighties. I am wondering if there is anything she wishes she had known sooner about what it would be like to grow this old.

“I don’t think intellectual knowledge makes any difference,” she says. “I mean, we study logic, and that all men are mortal. Socrates is a man, Socrates is mortal. It doesn’t really prepare you for losing your parents.”

The waitress comes to fill our water glasses and Oates pauses until she turns to the next table. She doesn’t think the 20-year-old Oates would have been able to internalise that information, so it’s not communicable. “But there is a day — there is a day after the death of someone, where that person is gone.

“If there’s an option where you can spend a little more time with your mother or your father . . . spend time with people you love because when they’re gone, they’re gone for ever.”

Oates grew up on a farm in upstate New York, a region where many of her stories are set, and studied — briefly — to be a journalist before giving it up “to write stories with more meaning . . . that weren’t rooted in the temporal”. She switched to studying English literature, and hoped to teach at a university. “I never thought that I could be a writer.”

Her first book was published in 1964. Since then, her writing has earned her a reputation as powerful and exacting in her dissections of discomfort, taboos and the macabre. Many of her stories examine, layer by translucent layer, the complex territory between violence and evil. “Mr Stickum”, a story in Zero-Sum, follows a group of young girls luring men who are attempting to have sex with trafficked children, trapping them on a giant flypaper and leaving them to die.

For writers who plunge into such cold darkness to work, anchors in their personal lives can help bring them back to themselves when the pages are put to bed.

Oates was married to her first husband, Raymond J Smith, for 47 years. When Smith died in 2008, she wrote a memoir, a raw accounting of grief and its horrible novelties. “I was surprised that I was so weak. I mean, physically weak. I was sort of knocked out,” she says. She wrote: “Always Ray has been . . . the spouse who, with a gentle tug, holds in place the recklessly soaring kite, that would careen into the stratosphere and be lost, shattered to bits.”

Teaching gave her a new tether. “The students are not aware of the teacher’s emotional life . . . so the focus shifted from my internal self to the students’ work,” she says, and I think that is a very nice way to reframe the inherent narcissism of teenagers. 

“I would just eagerly read their stories and focus on them because I knew what was waiting for me back home was just this, this emptiness.” 

She reaches for her necklace as she forms her thoughts into words. “The one thing about grief and dealing with it is if you have a job and get out of the house, even though it’s exhausting, it’s worth it.” 

She remarried — Charles Gross, another Princeton professor, of neuroscience. It was a different kind of relationship — she was older now, established, clear about who she was. “More like people who are completely equal,” she says. They were married for 10 years before he died in 2019. 

Finding love again, she says, is analogous to friendship. “They don’t cancel each other out,” she says. 

What does she think underscores the longevity and happiness she has found in love? “So much of life is accidental,” she says. “The best marriages that I know of are ones in which the people are actually friends. If you keep looking, you can usually find someone who will be a good friend.”

Oates is quietly distracted, annoyed by a group of loud young men sitting near us. I feel it in her longer pauses and sidelong glares. The afternoon heat presses down, the ice in our glasses long gone. 

Her thoughts on love shift into the dynamics of power within relationships. She was close to both her parents, she says, but her father was the dominant voice. “It’s something that just happens, like one tree is just bigger than the other . . . I never really saw my mother except with my father,” she says. When there were stories to tell, he told them. 

It wasn’t until Oprah Winfrey asked her to interview her mother for a magazine feature that she discovered how much she had missed. Her mother told her about being given away to a childless couple at nine months old, after Oates’s grandfather was murdered in a tavern. “My mother started talking about this as if it was yesterday. It happened 84 years ago and she was crying on the phone.”

“It tore my heart out,” she says, and the experience inspired her novel Missing Mom. “That was one of the revelations of my life. And all because of Oprah.”

She goes into a kind of enthusiastic trance talking about her stories, thrilled by words on a cellular level as great craftspeople are. Her next book, Butcher, is about misogyny in early medicine and gynaecology. She is having “a fantastic time researching”. 

“I’m not thinking that a whole lot of people are going to be reading this,” she says. “The text itself has its own integrity.”

The title story in Zero-Sum is about a troubled prodigy desperate for the validation of her professor, loosely based on the late Harvard philosophy professor Willard Van Orman Quine. Quine’s philosophy is “like reading advanced mathematics”, impossible even for Oates.

“Quine’s family can’t read his work . . . so 90 per cent of that person’s life is sort of unknown to them,” she says. “Quine’s daughter said that about him, ‘Oh, he was the man who had dinner with us.’”

The plates are cleared and I wonder if my interest in Oates, the 10 per cent of the person beyond the work, is missing the point entirely. 

Oates asks the waiter for the bill. She’s wilting, she says. “I think that I’m just going to . . . slip away.” She nips inside to freshen up before I take her picture, but when she comes back, she is bouncing — there was air conditioning in the bathroom. 

She shows me pictures on her phone of her cats, her friend Padma Lakshmi singing a duet with her dog and what I am almost certain is Susan Sarandon smoking weed in a rooftop gazebo. 

She says I remind her a bit of the road not taken — who she might have been if she had become a journalist. I decide not to read too much into this, and she thanks me for the lunch. 

“I think it’s so wonderful that you got here,” she says as goodbye, and walks in her sashaying way, towards home.

Madison Darbyshire is the FT’s investment correspondent in New York

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Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

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