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Joyce Carol Oates: 2016 National Book Festival

Joyce Carol Oates: 2016 National Book Festival


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington DC.>>Ron Charles: Good afternoon. Hello I’m Ron Charles,
I’m the editor of the Washington Post Book Section,
I’m so glad you’re here today for the National Book Festival. First a word of thanks
to our co-chairman of the festival David
Rubenstein and many other sponsors who made this event possible. If you’d like to add your
support there is a note about how you can donate
in your program. We will have time for questions
after we’re done talking and I’ve been asked to
remind you that if you come to the mic you will become part of the library’s permanent
collection on video tape. So if you’re in like a
witness relocation program or something, just
stay in your chair. Today I have the great
honor of talking to one of Americas literary
giants Joyce Carol Oates. [ Applause ] She began publishing in 1964 and
she’s published more than 40 novels, along with dozens of
collections of short stories and poetry and nonfiction. If I listed all the awards and honors she has received we
would never have time to talk, but let me just give you a
sense of the breath of her work. Her short stories have won The
Rea Award, The PEN Malamud Award, The World Fantasy Award, The Bram
Stoker Awards, O Henry Awards. One of her novels was a Nobel,
was a National Book Award. She’s been a frequent finalist
for the Pulitzer Prize. The bookies keep telling
us she’s going to win the Nobel Prize some year. She won the Lifetime
Achievement Award from the National Book
Critics Circle, along with a National
Humanities Medal in addition to all the wonderful books like them
and Blonde and I’ll Take You There and The Falls, she’s taught and
encouraged generations of students at Princeton University
and elsewhere. Some of these people you know,
like Jonathan Safran Foer and Walter Curran and some
of them you don’t know like prisoners at San
Quentin Prison. Her latest books are a memoir
called, The Lost Landscape, A Writer Coming of Age and a novel
called A Man Without a Shadow. About a relationship between a
scientist and a famous amnesiac. It is so wonderful to
have you here today.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Thank
you, I’m very happy to be here.>>Ron Charles: Thank
you for doing this. I should mention really that you’re
most recent book came out this week, it’s a collection of
your critical writings.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yes, yes.>>Ron Charles: It’s called
Soul at the White Heat, Inspiration Obsession
and the Writing Life. Now that title Soul at
the White Heat comes from a Emily Dickinson poem.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yes
it’s an Emily Dickinson poem, typically very passionate Emily
Dickinson poem that it’s really about the making of poetry. You dare you see a soul at the white
heat, you know sort of come closer and see the artist at
his or her creativity.>>Ron Charles: And
what is that phrase mean in your own life and your own work?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well I think
it’s something that sort of ran through my mind, dare you
see a soul at the white heat, first of all that seems to
suggest that we have souls, that we’re spiritual beings, that
there’s something almost impersonal and transcendental about
us, that’s not merely petty and media, but something deeper. All those things that I think come
into play when we are imagining or we’re immersing imagination we
sort of move away from the pettiness and transience of life into
something more abiding and deeper, that has a kind of communal
feeling with other people.>>Ron Charles: In that
collection you mention that one of the first short story
writers that really turned you on to literature was
Ernest Hemingway?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Oh yes.>>Ron Charles: Which
surprises me, I love your books, I don’t think of you
like Ernest Hemingway. You seem very different. Very different.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well I
always teach Hemingway particularly at the start of a writing workshop and then the beginning
of a semester. A quintessential Hemingway
story like Indian Camp or Hills like White Elephants it has
almost like a skeletal structure, it’s very pure and very clear, often
characters don’t even have names. Maybe just a young
man or a young woman and they have an intense dialogue
and their lives are changed. And maybe one or two pages, three pages long it’s something
very beautifully wrought, almost a kind of calligraphy,
beautiful, beautiful writing of selection and emphasis. Rather than a maximum of most
that has a lot of detail, this is a minimus art
that is very beautiful. So for a writer who is
more of a maximalist who still have that
skeletal structure. I mean it may be three pages in
Hemingway but if you’re a writer who wants to put more of the world
in and describe people and so forth, you basically still need that
structure and that trajectory of peoples lives being changed.>>Ron Charles: You start
that way with a novel? Do you have it that paired down?>>Joyce Carol Oates: I always have
the ending, I have the beginning and the trouble is the middle. [ Laughter ] Yeah. I’d like to have a title,
a beginning and an ending. The title, the title, the
beginning and the ending have a kind of triangular architectural
relationship so it’s like a center of gravity
that’s fixed. And you know what you’re doing, as you go through the novel
you have a destination and you know what you’re doing.>>Ron Charles: Your
publisher doesn’t come along and say no Joyce we want this title, this title didn’t pan well
with our test audience?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well
that hasn’t happened yet.>>Ron Charles: In one of those
essays you write the most serious and productive artists are
haunted by their material.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yes.>>Ron Charles: Haunted, were
you just being hyperbolic or do you mean haunted?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well
you can’t really write or have much art that’s
galvanized by emotion if you haven’t really
identified with it, you know in some unconscious way. So people all have true stories, they have their own true
voice and a true stories. And some people come to these
true stories immediately when they’re young. Others have to sort
of work toward it. I mean there are very well
known and brilliant writers, I think like Tony Morrison
maybe published her first novel when she was 40. Then there are some
writers who come along and they get their true subjects
when they’re 20 you know. I’m not sure why that’s
so different, sometimes the life intervenes,
especially for women. They may get married, have children
and then the sort of latency of what they have to say will
come out later when they’re not so distracted by real life.>>Ron Charles: Does
writing help exercise that haunted feeling for you?>>Joyce Carol Oates: I don’t
know if it exercises it, it kind of exercises it you know
and makes it, puts it in a context, some of the most thrilling
writing that we can read is, it comes from the heart and I’m
not sure that it’s cathartic, it sort of dramatizes
our human condition of interacting with one another.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Joyce Carol Oates: You
know like a typical play or Shakespearean tragedy, people
come together and they interact and out of their relationship
was seen as created. And out of our relations with
people stories are created, real stories in our lives. People who meet and then they
have these relationships, their whole lives may be bound
up together forever you know. It may have seemed like
an accidental meeting. So life is like a mimicry of a bar.>>Ron Charles: Speaking of
haunted, you are, you were, you may still be the only woman to receive the Horror Writers
Associations Bram Stoker Award?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
I’m not the only one.>>Ron Charles: You’re
not the only one any more, you were the first woman.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Oh was I?>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
The first woman? Oh I didn’t realize that.>>Ron Charles: And you’ve
edited HP Lovecraft’s work. You’ve written some
fantastic stories yourself, along with some terrific Gothic
novels I adored The Accursed. I just talked to Stephen
King he adored that too.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Oh that’s so nice.>>Ron Charles: Yeah. What draws you to horror? To the Gothic sensibility?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well Gothic
sensibility is almost entirely a literary sensibility.>>Ron Charles: What
do you mean by that? Explain that to us.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
There aren’t really, there were never really
any haunted houses so.>>Ron Charles: Oh no Joyce.>>Joyce Carol Oates: If
you’re writing a novel about haunted houses , vampires,
werewolf’s and so forth, you are not looking
back to an actual, you’re where these things happen. You’re looking back to literature. It’s the most traditional of all
the forms is Gothic literature, it pays homage to a predecessors. You’re probably looking back to
Edgar Allan Poe or Lovecraft. And so or you might be
looking back to Emily Bronte, sort of a little bit of the
Gothic in the Bronte writings.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Joyce Carol Oates: So it’s
a traditional literature that’s respectful of predecessors.>>Ron Charles: And
this attracts you to it?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yes I think if
we think of the image of the vampire for instance, we are probably
talking in psychological terms about a class structure in which
there are people at the bottom, disenfranchising and powerless,
they may have been peasants in Europe or [inaudible]. And up here you have the land
owner or you have the nobleman and this could be quote Count
Dracula and so the vampire saga or image or epic is
actually a social and psychological commentary
on human life. So the vampire who’s
Dracula is the nobleman, he’s sucking the blood
of the common people. He’s taking the life, he’s taking
the young people, this is just a way of talking about politics. But it’s a Gothic troll. Then the werewolf we think as probably a dramatization very
literal, you know like fur coming out of the face and so forth. Of the, what Freud would call the
id in human beings, the unconscious that comes out is rapacious
and can be quite evil and destructive and
self destructive. So the werewolf as a
symbol is a dramatization of something that’s
psychological and quite normal.>>Ron Charles: Would you admit that
there’s a certain element of comedy in some of your Gothic novels?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yes my novels
are postmodernist novels cause I’m writing at a time when I could not
write a Gothic novel because it’s, in literary history if we’re writing
about a vampire we can’t be writing about a vampire for the first time. You’re in a whole tradition.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Joyce Carol Oates: So your vampire should be a little
different from the other vampires.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Joyce Carol Oates: But the first
vampire in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, that first vampire was
partially like a bat, you remember you’ve seen
Nosferatu that film. He’s actually a human being but partly also an animal
a bat, sucking blood. Then the vampire image as it
was sort of modified became more and more a seductive image. Like there was nothing
seductive about Nosferatu. It was really pretty awful. But the idea of a seductive and handsome Dracula this would
be Bela Lugosi in the movies, some people may have not thought
he was terribly attractive but I’m partly Hungarian so. My expectations are a little
different from people. So that’s kind of interesting
that the Nosferatu image starts out as repellent and animal, but then it gets modified
in more romantic. So then the Twilight novels
for young readers I believe, the Twilight novels will
show a very handsome vampire. So that’s interesting
that that evolved.>>Ron Charles: And you add
elements of comedy to that?>>Joyce Carol Oates: In my novel
The Accursed yes the vampire is obviously a romantic figment
of womens imaginations, women are imaging this,
this person who is so incredibly handsome,
I mean it seems silly.>>Ron Charles: Yes but funny. Yes.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yeah it’s
funny, if you know any real men. [ Laughter ] It’s like.>>Ron Charles: Which
some of you do.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
I mean a real man, an actual human man doesn’t
look or act like this, this is like a silly
image or an idealized man but actually I’m getting
in trouble here. But my husbands not
actually here so. I mean that we, domestic realism is
probably the hardest genre in which to write because you’re dealing
with realism, real people, children and marriage and so forth. It’s a little harder to
write in that mode than it is to write these romantic modes where all the you know the negative
things are sort of airbrushed out, everybody is handsome, their
relationships are operatic, rather than what we get in daily
life which I won’t go into. It’s not operatic though.>>Ron Charles: Let’s talk about
that tension with the reality and fantasy, your two most recent
books except for the collection, your memoir and The Man
Without a Shadow both have to do with fragility of memory would you?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yes The
Man Without a Shadow is literally about a man who has
lost part of his brain and has been injured
with encephalitis. Which causes swelling of the brain
and part of the brain can be damaged and then your short
term memory is affected. But his long term memory
was not affected so he’s 37 when that happened. He has all the memory up
until when he’s 37 and then after that he has a
memory of only 70 seconds.>>Ron Charles: So it’s sort of
the opposite of the memoirs problem who can remember everything
more recently but has more trouble
remembering distant events.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well no the
memoirs the human brain is equipped to remember distant
things most accurately, you can’t really remember what
you had to eat last week much. You don’t remember your
dreams of probably last night, most of us have forgotten. But you will remember
your first grade class. Some people can shut their
eyes and go around the room and remember the sixth
grade classroom, where everybody sat in the seat. And that’s the what the brain
is, our brain is equipped to remember things that
go way way way back. Our first, our parents, our
first friends, things that happen when we were very young
and when we learn language.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Joyce Carol Oates: We have a
grip of language that’s very strong.>>Ron Charles: As you wrote
those autobiographical essays that you collected in that
memoir, didn’t you sometimes wonder if your remembered
things accurately?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well I
mention it often in my memoir.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
There’s a kind of amnesia between the ages I think of, well until a child is
five or six years old. There’s a time in there where we
really don’t remember anything. Some memoirs we pretend
to remember things but it’s not, it’s
not really likely. We can both jar our memories
by looking at snapshots. The photographs are very.>>Ron Charles: Are we
creating memories or bolstering?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well in my novel The Man Without a Shadow this
person has lost as I said his memory
for forming new. So the experiments with these people
which are being conducted mostly with HM you’ve probably
read about them. These experiments are
very interesting. For instance you put, you put a
wristwatch, you give a watch to one of these amnesiac patients and you
ask him oh where did you get that? Now he won’t remember, he doesn’t
really know how that got there, but he will say, oh
I’ve always had this. Or he’ll say somebody gave
it to me for my birthday, in other words we make
up, we make up reasons, we don’t really have the memory
but we make up a plausible answer. When people are interviewed, often
people have no idea how they answer. So we make up plausible
reasonable sane sounding answers. Unless we want to be really wild and
crazy and like running for president and make up all kinds of. [ Laughter ] But we sort of most of us make
up plausible answers and then after we’ve made them
up we remember those and so the next time
we give those answers.>>Ron Charles: Like tell me about
the inspiration for your book.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Yeah some things like that the inspiration
people often don’t know how to answer these.>>Ron Charles: So they
just make something up.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well why did
you follow, why did you fall in love with that particular
person and get married? Well you know in a way you
don’t know how to answer that so you say well the
first time I saw him or her, so you kind of make
a little narrative. But then the next time you’re asked
you have the narratives right there.>>Ron Charles: Seems
plausible even believable. Isn’t that what the memoirist does? Is project a kind of
reasonable narrative over the disordered
events of his life?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
That completely depends on a narrator and on the memoirist. Some people will go back and
assiduously and do a research. Some people just kind of make it up.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Joyce Carol Oates: There
are wonderful memoirist like Frank McCourt and
Mary Karr and some others, they’re really wonderful. But I notice they have
a lot of dialogue and remembering you know
with quotation marks. I’m not sure how realistic that is. But obviously they are
remembering an emotional atmosphere and the putting in what’s plausible.>>Ron Charles: Right. Now this is just one example the
kind of research you do for a book and a lot of your books seem to require this kind of
specialized research. Is that the case? You do research for
novels for fiction?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well it depends on pretty much on what the novel is. The Man Without a Shadow,
I certainly did research and my husband is a neuroscientist
so in his study at home our shelves of these books on neuroscience
and memory, the science of memory. Which is really interesting
to read about. And on HM, Suzanne Corkin’s book
on HM, the Permanent Present Tense, a person who living
in the present tense. That was a book that I read, I knew
Suzanne Corkin, though not well. But she is a distinguished
neuroscientist at MIT who died about a year ago or even less. So I’ve read that book, but basically when you’re
writing a novel you’re sort of populating a mythical world
with people who are acting out a story that’s plausible
in terms of yourself, you know like would I say this, would I do this, how
realistic is this? So my writing tends to have a
psychological realistic parameter. I don’t go outside the plausibility
of psychological realism.>>Ron Charles: But the characters in your novels frequently
experience things more dramatic than the events of your own life?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Yes that’s true.>>Ron Charles: Frequently?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yes. Yes.>>Ron Charles: Your
own life has been from the outside it
looks relatively pleasant and unviolated and successful.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well we all
suffer losses, you know the losses that we suffer in our families
are, can be catastrophic, they’re not unusual
because we all suffer them.>>Ron Charles: True.>>Joyce Carol Oates: But one loss in your life that’s profound
may be quite enough you know.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Joyce Carol Oates: It’s not, you’re not having experience
like Macbeth or Othello. It’s not a dramatized, you’re
not representative of an empire.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Joyce Carol Oates: But
it’s only domestic life but yet it can cut very deep.>>Ron Charles: Right. For a half century after the
pass to the Civil Rights Act, we’re still trying to create a
society where everybody’s treated with respect and equally.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
That’s so true.>>Ron Charles: You’ve returned to
this theme in many of your novels for a long time, what
draws you to that subject?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Have
returned to that in my Tweets. Well it is sort of astonishing
that after the 1960’s and people actually died, they
actually sacrificed themselves for, you know the idea of Civil Rights and everybody should
be treated equally. That still in 2016 we’re still
sort of working this out. It’s a little bit, maybe a little
dispiriting, however we persevere. It just seems very natural. If you are a woman writer, you
do have a natural proclivity to identify with women and girls so. Those stories are abiding and
are still being dramatized.>>Ron Charles: There’s a weird
tension I noticed in response to literature, authors,
white authors are encouraged to stop writing such monochromatic
books, to include people of color. And at the same time, they’re
brought up, they’re criticized for presuming that they
can imagine the lives of people not like themselves. How does a author negotiate those
two seemingly contradictory demands?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well it’s a good question. I know Jonathan Franzen
has been often criticized for writing only about white people. Especially white men, especially
people like himself I suppose. But he’s and John Updike for the
most part wrote about himself and James Joyce and some others. But the idea of writing about
yourself is a kind of safe thing to do and you shouldn’t therefore
be at risk for making mistakes because you know, what
your perspective is.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Joyce Carol Oates: But
then somebody will say oh but you only wrote about white men,
you know John Updike only wrote about these small number of people. And doesn’t matter so much
that he did write beautifully and Jonathan Franzen writes with
a certain degree of passion, but if they try to write
about other people, then of course they’d be
devastatingly criticized for daring to go outside that. But I think it’s just part of the
risks that you take being a artist. Most artists are transgressive and
they do bring a lot of criticism. A Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for
instance people were fist fighting, fighting on screen
and in the audience and the whole thing
had to be shut down. Now we hear The Rite of
Spring it’s actually thrilling and exciting music you
know it’s really exciting with those strange rhythms. But at that time it was offensive
to some ears and upsetting so people got in fist
fights in the audience. But Stravinsky persevered
and so his music exists now, people who are writing music that
was more comfortable to the ear, audiences didn’t fight,
those people maybe forgotten.>>Ron Charles: Right, that’s true. Do you think fiction has
some sort of social function, some sort of social responsibility
to bring about a more just society or does that sound awful to you?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Oh
all artists are individuals and I was prescribed for anybody. So I think what, I think the charge
of cultural appropriation comes from people who need to have
their perspective given attention and respect. So I wouldn’t say that writers
should write about anything. We should write about what
you want to write about. First of all you can only write
about things you care about.>>Ron Charles: Okay.>>Joyce Carol Oates: And if John
Updike really really cared very very much about his own family,
particularly his mother. He wrote often about his
own mother and his father, but he wrote so lovingly
and beautifully. It would be really wrong and almost
wasteful of him to have tried to write from a point of view
of you know Chinese American or lesbian women or something. And kind of dealing with something
else, it’s just not natural. So I don’t think people should
be criticized for what they write or what they don’t write. I think that’s something that
is very private in individual.>>Ron Charles: What about you? Do you feel some social
impulsing or fiction, some sort of argument you’re
making Upton Sinclair like?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well sometimes I do, yeah I feel that when
I write a novel, that I should from my own
self, not for anybody else, I feel I should dramatize a group of
people rather than just individuals. And I almost never write a novel
that’s only really very very intensely personal. But always be about some
representative people in a political and social context. So they might represent
more than just themselves.>>Ron Charles: We spoke a few weeks
ago you said, in the last decade or so, I’m much more interested
in letting other people talk.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yes.>>Ron Charles: Whereas when I started I was
writing in my own voice.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yes.>>Ron Charles: Tell me about
what you mean other people talk? It all sounds, I mean
it’s all your voice.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well if
you’ll look at a typical novel by Henry James, particularly
a later work of Henry James is beautifully
written, the language is all Henry James. It doesn’t matter which novel
you read it will be Henry James’s narrative voice and that’s
a very beautiful voice. Then you look at James Joyce’s
Ulysses and there’s a certain rhythm of Joyce and language that prevails
in everything he writes about. Each chapter is pretty different
and as you go through Ulysses and the different hours of the
day, he takes you through a number of voices that are, that
are different and it ends with Molly Bloom which
is a very different kind of sort of female voice.>>Ron Charles: Yes, yes.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Possibly
based on maybe his own wife, who is sort of a nonintellectual
person. So those are two ways of writing. Hemingway, [inaudible] is
always Hemingway’s voice. But Louise Erdrich would have novels where each chapter is
a different person.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Joyce Carol Oates: And I’m
drawn to that kind of writing where each person in a novel
gets kind of voice of his or her own rather than
it all be my voice.>>Ron Charles: And you’ve developed
into that, it interest you more now than it did when you started?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yeah, well when I started I wouldn’t
have been able to do that.>>Ron Charles: Interesting.>>Joyce Carol Oates: For
instance in a play by Shakespeare or Bic Burghley [assumed
spelling] or Chekhov or you know really anyone
that’s a dramatist voice, there are different voices on stage. Cleopatra does sound
different from Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony sounds
different from somebody else. You know basically nobody would
expect them all to sound alike. But with a Henry James
novel or Faulkner, most of Faulkner there’s
one narrative voice you know and it’s quite a difference and if when you’re writing you’re
sort of choosing that voice.>>Ron Charles: So when you
are constructing a novel, you think of these different voices as separate consciousnesses
as you write? You’re like a playwright
or an actress.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yeah, yeah the
novel I’m writing now each chapter has a different character, there
are probably eight characters and I go through them all. And some of them are really fun to
write because they’re kind of nasty. And I sort of discover
this person is so sarcastic and really kind of funny.>>Ron Charles: Now wait
I have to stop you there.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
And that’s not me.>>Ron Charles: You discover that?>>Joyce Carol Oates: As I get into the character she’s really
getting nastier all the time but having fun. Yeah it’s a little bit of a
discovery after a few weeks. Then another person is a nice
person you know and nice people we like to have them around
but they’re kind of boring. They’re sort of boring in a
novel so you don’t want to stay with a nice person to long you
sort of move on to another person. And a person who doesn’t know what
he’s actually thinking or doing on a person governed by the
unconscious is very exciting to write because that person
doesn’t know as much as you know and he starts to discover. They’re all really different.>>Ron Charles: So if you’re
discovering as you work through the novel, then you go
back and rewrite the early parts of the novel knowing more
than you did when you started?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well no I
write each chapter is pretty much polished and I do a lot
revisions chapter by chapter.>>Ron Charles: Chapter
by chapter okay.>>Joyce Carol Oates: For instance
in my next novel that comes out in 2017, it’s called. A Book of American Martyr’s
and they’re two families, one is evangelical christian
family, they’re very antiabortion and they’re involved in
antiabortion activism. But then the other
family is a secular family and the father is a
abortion provider so. It’s basically two ways of looking
at America and there’s a young woman in the novel, a girl who becomes a
young woman who’s actually a boxer and she becomes, we see
here kind of training and she has her first fight. And that sensibility of a girl
of 18 or so becoming a boxer, so different from my
own life you know. For me to write about here was
so, so satisfying and so kind of wonderful like I got to
know a different person. But they’re other people in
a novel who are more educated and they’re maybe at
universities and more like myself, I’m a university person so. There’s a satisfaction in selecting
and enhancing a voice different from your own that
has its own poetry. Or she’s not that well educated but
she has her own sharp sensibility.>>Ron Charles: And you respect her?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Absolutely.>>Ron Charles: What about those
evangelical antiabortionists? I imagine they do not line with
your own particular attitudes. How do you keep from treating
them in a pejorative way?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Oh but they’re point of view they are very idealistic.>>Ron Charles: How do
you in the novel keep them from looking like buffoons?>>Joyce Carol Oates: I don’t think
they are, I think they’re acting from their own idealism
which is some cases extraordinarily courageous. It’s different from others,
like a person who goes out to assassinate someone
for a political or idealistic or religious reasons and throws
away his own life, that is something that we don’t want to do
when we don’t think it’s, it’s not good to do, it’s
illegal and so forth. From that point of view though
the person is basically a martyr. You know like that’s what martyr’s
did and that’s what martyr’s are. They threw away their
own lives for some ideal. And while I don’t think I would
ever do anything like that, I’m very fascinated by that kind
of strange perhaps tragic courage.>>Ron Charles: So the novel works to the extent you can extend your
own sympathies to each character?>>Joyce Carol Oates: I
wouldn’t’ write about people that I didn’t like and respect.>>Ron Charles: About 40 years ago, 40 years ago The Paris Review asked
you about the burdens of fame. And you said.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
40 years ago wow.>>Ron Charles: You said I’m not
really aware of being famous, I enjoy a certain degree
of invisibility.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Yes that’s true.>>Ron Charles: You do not now,
I mean you are truly famous now. Is it fun? Is it a burden?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well when
I go home and my cats are there and the cats are so unimpressed. [ Laughter ] I think there are two kinds
of people, it doesn’t matter if you’re famous or not, but
dog people and cat people. Now the dog people
are always famous, you walk in the dog comes licking and you can be the most boring
person, the dog is just kissing you. On the other hand you
can be very famous but the cats just they’re
yawning you know they’re washing, they have other things to do. But they come, finally they come
over and purr a little bit you know. Kind of slowly and just
to humor you, they purr. So I think anybody who’s a cat
person never really gets a swollen head, but we’re always
kind of humble.>>Ron Charles: Nice, very nice. You wrote a very funny piece
in The Post a couple years ago.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Yes that was fun. That was for you I think.>>Ron Charles: It was, it was. A woman stopped you
in the grocery store and said are you some
kind of writer or what?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: And you,
you said I shook my head no as if I had not heard.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
At the moment I was just in the grocery store you know like the moment I really wasn’t
ready to talk about anything.>>Ron Charles: You, I mean we think
of you as a writer but you said that when you’re given a form to
fill out you always write teacher.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Teacher.>>Ron Charles: What is it you’ve
enjoyed over career as a teacher?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well
I always loved school, when I was really little
like six years old and first grade I absolutely loved
my teacher and I loved the world of school with books and
seats and desks and all that. So I think I always wanted to be a teacher before I
knew about being a writer. And I’ve always really admired
teachers especially the kind of teachers who do really
exhausting teaching. Now I teach in a university and my
students are actually all wonderful. I have wonderful students,
it’s a pleasure to teach them. So I’m thinking about teachers
who really have to work, who have students struggling
with literacy.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Struggling with problems at home, teachers who give so
much of their lives and teaching everyday
like five days a week. And most university professors
may teach two or three days a week or one day a week you know. So I’m very admiring of
that kind of teaching.>>Ron Charles: And you took on
voluntarily sort of adventure in teaching, to go
teach in San Quentin.>>Joyce Carol Oates: San
Quentin that was interesting.>>Ron Charles: What drew
you take on that adventure?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Well please don’t think that I was terribly naive but
I thought I would like to work with women, incarcerated women. And so we went out there
to San Quentin and I found out they’re no women in San Quentin.>>Ron Charles: I didn’t know that.>>Joyce Carol Oates: And my
husband who is a neuroscientist since he was teaching with
introduction to biology. So I was a little bit surprised but
I so often mistaken about things in life that I sort of pretend. You know oh of course. Of course I’m happy
to teach these men. And they were mostly
lifers and they’ve turned out to be really interesting people.>>Ron Charles: Really?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
And very serious.>>Ron Charles: Serious students?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Serious students. In California in the prison system
is something called the Prison University Program. With capital letters, that is a
degree granting program probably unique to the California
prison system. You won’t find that
in all the states and some states you won’t find
even you know any courses. And so they, the prisoners who
get this degree it’s equivalent to a community college degree.>>Ron Charles: Oh nice.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
So all the prisoners in the program are very
serious and hardworking.>>Ron Charles: They were literate? They could read?>>Joyce Carol Oates: They were
in this program but we didn’t see, we didn’t see everyone
in San Quentin.>>Ron Charles: No I’m
sure, you know as we heard, the terrible statistics
about literacy but and how, it must have been kind of
contrast from Princeton students to these people who
have very rough lives. How did you find them as students?>>Joyce Carol Oates: Well it’s
a different kind of situation for a person in San Quentin which
is a maximum security prison, who’s maybe, he’s a lifer,
that like 30 years to life, it doesn’t mean they’re in for
life, it means that they might be but they’re all working for parole. They’re working hard
for parole and they’re, none of them thought they were
innocent, they didn’t pretend or claim to be innocent,
they come to terms with the fact they made mistakes. Some of them made mistakes
when they were like 17 or 18 and now they’re 30, five or
40, my oldest student was 61. They have a long time to think
about the mistakes that they made so they was serious students. Very different, I mean much older
than my Princeton students so. The comparison is very,
it’s a difficult comparison because the Princeton students are
very young and they’ve had lives in which they’ve always
been in school.>>Ron Charles: And
they’ve always done well.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
They’ve always done well. Yeah and the prisoners have
had probably tragic lives and from broken homes and
discontinuous school and different.>>Ron Charles: What an
opportunity for both of you. Both groups, you and these men.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Yeah and then when I edited Prison Noir a
few years later I used a story by one of my former students.>>Ron Charles: From the prison?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
From that prison.>>Ron Charles: That’s
great, that’s great.>>Joyce Carol Oates:
Then I looked at stories from all the many many
prisons in the United States and Michigan is a very
good state for education. Many many of our applicants and
submissions came from Michigan. And there were many states
where there was nothing, like there was no, no
courses in writing at all. New York State has some but you, not surprisingly not as
much as other states.>>Ron Charles: It’s been such
a pleasure to talk to you, would you take some questions
from the audience now? Would you mind? There are two microphones here. One, we have time for one question. Guess it will be sir.>>I thought I actually learned
something in one of your novels. About a man I thought I knew
something about, Woodrow Wilson.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Oh
yes quite a character.>>Quite a character and I
wondered how much license did you give yourself? Did you give yourself
fictional license? Did you merely embellish? This is the man, how much of you, your visceral reaction
to Woodrow Wilson? And to what he represented
then in how he acted?>>Joyce Carol Oates:
That’s a good question, this is what my novel The Accursed
in which Woodrow Wilson at the time in 1906 was President
of Princeton University. Well I did a lot research
and I read his letters. And his, some of his letters I
take and sort of change the words around a little bit but
those are his words. You know he was, I don’t want
to completely criticize him because he was a man of his time. So he was a sexist, he was a male
chauvinist, he was anti Semite and he was a racist okay. That’s just the way they were
but he was also a reformist, he was intelligent, he
reformed Princeton University. He did a lot of things, I
mean it’s shocking today that somebody who’s a racist
also did some good things but at that time it wasn’t, it more
or less the way people were. So a lot of things that are funny
that he says he actually said.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Thank you.>>Joyce Carol Oates: Thank you.>>Ron Charles: Been such a pleasure
to have you here, thank you so much for coming to the festival. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of The Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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