She's pale and painfully thin, with enormous dark eyes set in a serious face. Earlier in her career she was known to decline giving interviews and public talks, and even today writer Joyce Carol Oates looks like a woman who would rather go to the dentist than stand in front of a large audience.
Yet, during a recent visit to Chapman College in Orange, Oates met with 100 students in an informal question-and-answer session, held a press conference with three journalists, three photographers and a gallery of faculty onlookers and talked to almost 1,000 people who attended her reading and lecture. In each setting, the Princeton, N. J. novelist, essayist and poet turned out to be self-assured, relaxed and disarmingly witty.
Oates, 48, is one of the most prolific (38 books in 26 years of publishing) of contemporary American writers. She came to Southern California with Raymond Smith, her husband of 25 years, to spend three days college-hopping: first to UCLA, then to Chapman, then to Claremont McKenna College. Afterward she and Smith, a former English professor who now runs the Ontario Review Press, spent a few days in the desert before flying back to the East Coast.
"This is a sort of a holiday for me," Oates explained at Chapman. Asked if she found it difficult to balance all her roles--writer, teacher (Oates is a lecturer in creative writing at Princeton University), co-editor (of the Ontario Review, a biannual literary magazine), public lecturer, wife, friend--she added that "I don't think I do anything more extraordinary than most people I know." Writing is "hard work for me, that makes me nervous, that makes me tense," but "I like to work with young writers, I consider that enjoyment."
Young writers had plenty of questions for Oates in the afternoon session, where the visitor confessed that she began concocting tales as a teen-ager, and "probably wrote a million pages before the first thing got published . . . I wrote novels just to practice, the way you practice the piano . . . One thing I tell my students is to find the subjects that are their own . . . I haven't thought about writing a novel in 18 months, because the last one ("Marya: A Life") was so difficult."
"What is your purpose in writing?" asked an earnest young man. "Are you interested in conveying your feelings to the public, do you write for yourself . . . or is it just bread and butter now?"
Crusts of Bread
"Bread and butter," Oates said immediately, dead-pan, startling her audience into laughter. "Crusts." Turning more serious, she added, "I come from a family that's not really artistic. My father plays the piano a little, but he's not really an artist . . . my mother raises flowers . . . (things that) are not really artistic or exportable, but they're creative. Everybody's creative." By channeling her own creativity into writing, Oates said, "I want to communicate with other people, and talk about the mystery of life, and the beauty and cruelty and complexity of life."
Asked how one can write good dialogue, she advised the mostly undergraduate listeners to pay attention to what real people say. "People say funny things. You can tape-record people, and blackmail them later," she joked. "Go around with your little surveillance kit." In a good story, she added, "the dialogue rises from the characters. If you write it in an artificial way, it seems to come from nowhere."
Her fiction mainly draws on what she imagines of other lives, Oates said, but "the poetry tends to be more personal . . . I use it for convalescent reasons. When I feel very (spiritually) weak, I read a lot of poetry. Music and poetry, they bring you back, they fill up the soul, like a well that has to be replenished."
To be a good creative writer, Oates mused, it helps to be a little odd, to be an outsider. "If you're completely normal and acculturated and integrated into society, there's not much to write about. But if you're excluded from things, you have the sharp eye and ear, the qualities you need . . . You can't write stories that are sweet and kind" and still be interesting, she said; writers need "an edge to (their) vision."
Oates grew up in Millersport, N.Y., a town too small to appear on maps. She won a scholarship to Syracuse University, earned an MA at the University of Wisconsin (where she met and married Smith), then taught at the University of Detroit and the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. Since 1978 she's taught part time at Princeton, living in a house in the country outside town and spending her mornings writing.
Wide Range of Subjects