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Joyce Carol Oates from both sides of the Iron Curtain

Have you ever noticed that once you start paying attention to something – or someone – you seem to bump into it/him/her everywhere? Some call it Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon; I prefer the term “frequency illusion.”

In August 2019 we at Summer Tales. selected the fascinating story Where is Here? for our reading list allowing me to reminisce about old times during long runs. After the post announcing Joyce Carol Oates at Rutgers in November 2019 on the Books We Read blog, her name kept coming up in the most unexpected contexts, such as in a Hungarian text mentioning her Hungarian grandparents on the mother’s side.cover art It triggered memories from a different world, where there was a single anthology of contemporary American literature published in 1973, i.e., classified as “tolerated” (not quite “supported” but better than “banned”) under the Communist regime, bizzarely entitled The Siege of Chicago (sic!). The Dead by Joyce Carol Oates was one of the chosen stories. No wonder Oates was included, after the 1973 publication of the Hungarian translation of Expensive people (Luxusvilág) — another great candidate to sport a “tolerated” label.

When the opportunity knocked to host an author talk for Summer Tales, we decided to think big and invite the renowned author to our local virtual book club. It felt like we had been preparing for this for a long time. After our interviews with renowned scientists and authors who significantly shaped their field and agreed to share their wisdom, it was clear that we should benefit from everything we had learned researching their background, preparing for oral history interviews, and bracing ourselves for all options. All but failure. Failure was never an option. We had plans from A through E, but no F. Failure is never an option.

The interviewer is always key to conduct a successful interview, even though the prep work is always team work. Nick was an obvious and fantastic choice up front with his educational background, vast knowledge in literature, and engaging style. As Jenny and I were moving forward with the preparation and support, there came more serendipitous discoveries, such as the latest issue of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine my father-in-law was reading. It had another intriguing story, Cardiff, by the sea, from Oates’ new book to be published in September, inspiring more retrospection and self-analysis in all of us the night before the event

And the day has come. According to anecdotal evidence, 33% of online events have sound or other issues. So did we on the day of the talk we dubbed Summer Tales with Joyce Carol Oates. However, we remained strong and devoted to not let technology rain on our parade. With the author present only via phone instead of the planned live video, Nick breezed through the hour as if nothing had happened, setting up an atmosphere of a friendly literary chat in a cozy café conversing casually about meaningful stuff, not betraying the difficulty of the yask at hand: flying blind with no feedback from facial expressions or other non-verbal clues.

Our illustrious guest might easily be considered a formidable discussion partner. That day she was simply amazing, from all perspectives. As a natural/born educator with her authentic personality as a writer, she proved to be more than receptive and responsive to the carefully crafted questions that we pre-selected from over the 500 sent in by pre-registered guests and adapted to our idea of a conversation between a professor-author and a student.

The verdict is that no technical difficulty can blur the sparkle, no calamity can ruin the experience, no fading voice can take away the wisdom shared. A rare moment of real job satisfaction for me and a job well done for all. If only we could publish the interview.

I wish I could remember who called her the “voice of the American working class” in Hungarian! I might as well outsource it to social media. How appropriate that would be. I bet it didn’t take the comrade nearly 50 years to figure that Joyce Carol Oates is so much more!

Read other reflections on the event

Pinterest images
A collection of inspirational images created by Summer Tales participant Gabriella Oakley on Pinterest – winner of the Summer Tales Creative Contest in the “images” category.