BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Joyce Carol Oates visited the Bloomfield College campus Monday evening, Nov. 6, for a one-hour Q & A with BC writing professor Angela Conrad. An audience of 100 at the Van Fossan Art Center listened in.
It was more like a chat over a medley of topics with the famous author, and perhaps part of the discussion, since Oates is a writing instructor at Princeton University and was being questioned by another writing instructor, could have been on whether the craft can even be taught and how so?
Nonetheless, what one learned was that Oates was a good conversational companion and knew an immensity about the development of the novel.
She spoke about her youth, saying that her handwriting was very clear, and of the Palmer style; that she attended school in a one-room school house; had a solid, basic education and a great love for books. She grew up on a farm in Erie County, NY.
“When you’re alone, you have to make your own stories,” she said. “Being alone with your own imagination requires some effort.”
She developed an interest in families unlike her own and in people unlike herself.
Oates said she had a sister, 18 years her junior, who was extremely autistic; who has not spoken since she was 14 and does not look at people or acknowledge them.
“You could look at a chimpanzee and they look human,” she said of making eye contact with the animal. “With a severely autistic person, the connection isn’t there.”
Oates said she did not know how her sister occupies her time. “I don’t know what she does. Maybe she makes a bed.”
She said she never experienced any prejudice because of her sex and her male teachers were very encouraging. But when she first began writing for publication, she signed her work J.C. Oates.
“I didn’t want my sex to be an issue,” she said. “I wasn’t writing ‘feminist.’ Publishers are looking for the next new voice.”
In response to a question by Conrad, Oates said that not much description is needed for the modern reader, unlike those in the 19th century.
“Hemingway doesn’t describe much,” she said. “Not even how people looked. This was thought of as somewhat revolutionary. The young adult wants dialogue, drama and something that’s swift.”
She likened this approach to moviemaking.
“You want to move a little faster than your audience,” she said.
For her, changing voices in a story, from character to character, is not difficult. She said that comes naturally to anyone.
“I knew Mike Tyson as a 19-year-old,” she said. “He had a natural way of mimicking white people.”
Oates, who is an enormously prolific writer of novels and short stories in a variety of genres, was asked how she keeps from being repetitious.
“Writers just go deeper or use different techniques,” she said. “I try different things. My next novel is about time travel.”
She never thinks about creating suspense for the reader because for her, suspense is not a separate element from storytelling. She only wants to tell a story, she said. And her stories do not necessarily have a resolution.
“In Stephen King, someone has ‘hung on,’” she said. “Not in my work. That’s why he’s a big seller.”
It was generally good advice, she said, for someone to write what they know. But she has written stories around images seen a dream or ideas that come to her while jogging.
“Run every day,” she said. “You’ll get ideas when you run. Focus on an image; think; daydream. The more you can do this, the more it helps you to be a writer.”