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Face to (Virtual) Face with Joyce Carol Oates

Jpyce Carol OatesWe were incredibly lucky to have author Joyce Carol Oates join us for a reading from her short story “Where Is Here?” and a discussion drawn from audience-submitted questions.  What we didn’t know when we began planning the event was just how many people would be interested — it shouldn’t have come as a surprise given Oates’ titanic reputation, but we were equally delighted and nervous as the RSVPs kept flooding in!

As the designated interviewer for the event I found it hard to say which was more intimidating: talking to such a distinguished author or talking in front of so many people.  All that disappeared, though, once Joyce Carol Oates began answering the first question: how she had come to write a story that so vividly captured the strangeness of someone else living in your house.  It came from a daydream, she said, about what it would be like to return to her childhood home as an adult: it would feel like being “a ghost,” a visitor from a past world that no longer existed.  I was taken aback by how striking that image was, how beautifully it captured the story’s atmosphere.  Her insight into her own story shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course, but as an eighteenth-century specialist I’m not used to having authors around to talk to!  It was such a thrill to hear someone so extraordinarily skilled at her craft speaking about it.

From that point on, the conversation felt strangely natural — as the interviewer I felt buoyed along by the wonderful questions our audience had submitted in advance, and her thoughtfulness and candor in answering them.  Her thoughts on other writers were particularly compelling for me: for instance, that a realist novel is “like a house full of people that you come to know,” whereas the short stories of a writer like Borges are like “riddles.”

I would gladly have picked her brain about literary history for hours, but judging from our preselected questions the audience was overwhelmingly interested in her own process and the present: what inspires her, how she’s holding up in these strange times, and her sense of a writer’s place in the world.  Oates brought the insights of a career to bear on these questions.  The interests and questions driving her to write, she said, had changed over the years in different stages of her life.  Nonetheless, events in the wider world have filtered into her work — and sometimes rendered her early work especially prescient, as a feminist writer going back decades before the Me Too movement.

The hour flew by, and yet at the same time it felt like we’d covered an enormous amount of ground.  I wound up feeling exhilarated, lucky, and grateful — grateful to Dr. Oates and also to the audience who’d supplied such thoughtful questions and made such a positive impression of Rutgers as a community that’s passionate about literature.

Read other reflections on the event