Joyce Carol Oates spoke at the University at Albany on October 11, 1994 as part of the New York State Writers Institute's Visiting Writers Series. The following article by Claudia Ricci appeared in the Spring 1995 issue of Albany, the University's magazine.
But when she visited the University at Albany last fall as a guest of the New York State Writers Institute, Joyce Carol Oates said she was between major projects. "My mind is sort of open," she said. "I feel very free, as if I am hoisting a sail and waiting for the wind to take it in some direction." For Joyce Carol Oates, that direction is almost impossible to predict. One of the most prolific writers of modem times, Oates has written in so many genres and on such a wide array of topics that she leaves readers breathless. Critics are often puzzled about how to categorize her. Oates's work ranges from gritty social realism to romance, from gothicism to gentle satire. How does one makes sense of her extraordinary output, her breadth, her ability to write with equal authority about auto racing and academia, boxers and suburbanites, migrant workers and girl gang members, intellectuals and inner city life?
Asked how her ideas arise, Oates talked about many influences: her own experiences, those of others, her voluminous reading, her memory, her research, her unconscious. In the end, though, the source of Oates's inspiration is as elusive, as hard to pin down, as her imagination itself. Inspiration, for Oates, is very much connected to the literal meaning of that word: the act of inhaling. Joyce Carol Oates inhales the world. And when she breathes out, she exhales the world in her writing. Indeed, in one of her early interviews, Oates admitted to a "Balzacian" desire "to put the whole world into a book."
Oates said she always begins a novel with characters, characters she knows "very well, very intimately" before she begins writing. Although fiction always incorporates some element of personal experience, be it as a "vision one has had, a description of a scene, or thoughts that fleetingly pass through the mind," Oates says her characters "tend to be fictional, or composites of people. Typically, to create a character, Oates combines herself with another person.
"It's a kind of a strange hybrid," she observed. "If I write about a man, as I do in my new novel, obviously this is a person antithetical to me. And yet it's as if I'm absorbed in him, so that there is him, but I'm also part of him, and my consciousness of what he's doing or what his life is transcends his own vision of himself." In effect, Oates is always just one step ahead of her characters, leading them through the events of their lives. "I'm guiding them. I know a little more than they do so when they see things they have a certain ironic cast. But it's as if I were combined with (the characters)." Oates believes that it is the lure of creating characters that inspires fiction writing. "I think that's why we all write," to gain access and insights into the emotions and experiences of others. "Each work of fiction is a window into another alternative universe," she said, "one that we are not in fact living but we might have been."
After Oates creates her characters, she then creates a structure for the novel, and sets the characters in motion. But at that point, a bit of magic takes over. "I'm like someone who's embarked upon a river journey, I really don't know what's going to happen," she said. "You know you're not going to go off the river, that the river has a certain course and you're going to follow the course, and you know your destination. But you don't know how you're going to get there." Stories, Oates says, even highly realistic narratives, frequently turn out to be re-enactments of ancient rituals or universal myths. "I think that there are rites being worked out in narratives of our own lives, but we don't recognize them necessarily," she said. "Sometimes one can write a whole novel or certainly a short story and not even realize it embodies a rite or ritual. Some mythic situation has been examined and dramatized without one's even being aware of it."
What are these mythic situations? "The most obvious story in human experience," Oates said, "has to do with evolution, with the drama of the generations, the rising of the young generation and the falling away of the older generation." This passage, Oates said, produces great turbulence, "turbulence that is greeted in each epoch with dismay, astonishment, anger and fear." Another example of an enduring ritual, she said, is the sacrifice of the savior and the rejuvenation of a community. "We see these sacrificial rites in all sorts of seemingly realistic novels, like those by Henry James or Edith Wharton. We certainly see them in Faulkner and I suppose they are in my own writing, too." Oates said she isn't conscious of inserting the mythic stories into her fiction. "It's not that I put these things deliberately in there, but still, I think I'm always writing about these areas of conflict. To me it seems very obvious that Darwinian evolution in personal history and cultural history is the underlying drama, whether anyone wants to acknowledge it or not. Nobody can say history stops with me because the oceans, the waves are just going to keep on moving and splashing and cresting and falling back and so forth. No one can stop them." Pressed for specifics about how she got her inspiration for her most recent novel, about a serial killer, Oates spoke of her fascination with the pathological personality of a serial killer, someone who loves to kill, who loves to torture, who feels no remorse about killing, no regrets about his actions except for the fact that he or she is caught. Another part of the inspiration arose from a series of news reports describing controversial experiments by the U.S. Department of Defense during the 1950s, in which government scientists gave boys at a school for the retarded outside Boston food laced with radioactive substances .
Oates, a tall, willowy figure with delicate hands and a sweet, high-pitched voice, said she found "an apt metaphor," a direct connection, between the fact that a serial killer feels perfectly justified in killing helpless victims and the fact the government felt justified in experimenting on helpless retarded boys in the 1950s.
The 160-page short novel that resulted from this metaphor took Oates only about eight weeks to write. But not all of her projects proceed so quickly and effortlessly. Oates says What I Lived For, the novel she published last fall, was the most difficult and laborious experience of her writing career. "I had many weeks of hell," she said, "many false starts," when she would begin the first chapter, and then, lacking the proper narrative voice, she would lose momentum and have to put the project aside. She accumulated about 1,000 pages of notes, "sketches for scenes, descriptions of characters, people talking," before she was able to begin writing in earnest.
Part of the reason What I Lived For was so difficult to write was the novel's length (608 pages) and because the events take place in only four days. "Everything is interlocked, so that almost every sentence, and certainly every paragraph, hooks into other points of the novel." Because she structured the book like "a great jigsaw puzzle," Oates said she couldn't write the first page until she knew what was going to be on the last page. "So I had to have it all in my head and memorized, in a sense, before I could start writing it at all." Another problem, Oates said, is that she felt the book should be a "very important novel," and that caused her considerable anxiety.
Oates tried and rejected a word processor because she found it too hypnotic. Instead, she minimizes anxiety by writing her first draft in long hand, setting her paragraphs down on long thin sheets of scrap paper (eight-and-a-half-by-eleven inch sheets, cut in half vertically). Later, she numbers the paragraphs, arranges them and puts them on a typewriter. "It's a wonderful way to write, very casual," she said. Using scrap paper, "you don't feel that it's anything too important or too significant."
Curiously, Oates usually feels relaxed between large projects. Anxiety starts to rise, she said, as soon as she gets inspired by a vision, a new project. "When I start work on a project that I consider important, I get extremely tense and tighter and tighter like a rubber band pulled very tight, so that's the state I find difficult." Over the years, Oates has changed the way she assembles a novel. Originally, she wrote a complete first draft, and then she went back and rewrote the manuscript. "I would work in sequence, in chronology, and then I would have that manuscript and then I'd go back and revise it."
Now, she revises as she goes along, continually rewriting "every paragraph, every page, every chapter, over and over again." Typically, Oates writes in the morning hours, sitting down at her desk as early as 5:30 a.m. In the afternoons, Oates may go out jogging or biking. Ironically, she produces almost as much writing when she's busy traveling and lecturing as she does when she has an open schedule. The key, she says, is efficiency. "Last summer when I had a complete day yawning before me I would be very slow getting started, and take a lot of time off. (But) when I don't have much time, well, then each minute is precious. So I get up a little earlier and I don't read the newspaper and I go immediately to my desk." The result? "I can almost get as much done when I'm very busy as when I'm not busy. You really only have a certain number of hours in the day when you can write."
Does Oates ever worry that the wellspring of her inspiration might dry up, that new ideas won't be there? No, she said, that really has never been a concern. "I won't live long enough to execute all of my ideas," she said, referring back now to that drawer full of sketches she has, just waiting to be fleshed out. But she is nonetheless always casting about for something fresh, some new inspiration, "something," she said, "that takes my breath away."
Joyce Carol Oates
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“Hill was on his horse, taking aim at enemy soldiers behind a tree and he said, ‘Let’s take ’em,’” Foote recalled, in a voice a writer once described as the sound of molasses over hominy, every muscle of Foote’s remarkably vital 80-year-old body acting out the fatal scene. “The ball ripped through Hill’s left thumb and lodged in his heart.”
Here, Foote paused for effect, as his listeners nudged a few inches closer, drawn in by the intimacy and power of his story, feeling as if the hot lead had just pierced their chests, too. “He was dead before he hit the ground,” Foote said.
His story done, the eminent Southern man of letters sidled off to a corner of Ristorante Paradiso to light up a bowl of his special blend tobacco and sip a Dewar’s on the rocks.
So it goes with Shelby Foote, acclaimed novelist and historian, who has, more than any other literary figure, given us the flesh-and-bones human story within the historical facts of the Civil War. “It’s become attractive to put a shine on that war and to forget there were more than one million casualties,” Foote told an audience of 600 people during his visit to the University in March as part of the New York State Writers Institute’s visiting writers series. “I don’t know how we’d do today under a great test like the Civil War. It seems like the nation might fly apart.”
Foote is best known for his three-volume historical masterwork, The Civil War: A Narrative. The volumes move with a novel’s immediacy and visual quality, as if Foote were in a bar, telling you what happened to all the characters as he acted out the battles. He had a lot of stories to tell the Albany audience about his Civil War trilogy, a project he likened to “swallowing a cannonball.” What Foote anticipated might be a four-year project turned into a three-volume Herculean effort that consumed two decades of his life, topping 1.6 million words and a total of 2,093 pages when published.
At an afternoon writing seminar before his public reading, Foote offered a simple motto that guides his writing, borrowed from a John Keats letter: “A fact is not a truth until you love it.”
The Keats quote offered a coda to Foote’s remarks, which addressed the general theme of the novelist as historian. Born in 1916 in Greenville, N.C., and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a literary prodigy along with his classmate Walker Percy, Foote published several highly regarded novels — including Tournament (1949), Follow Me Down (1950) and Love in a Dry Season (1951) — before he turned to nonfiction. Foote believed learning the craft of storytelling, instead of simply training as a prodigious accumulator of historical fact, was critical to his tutelage as a writer.
“My point about writing history is that the facts must be told with the art of true narrative,” Foote said in his seminar, acknowledging he could be construed as attacking scholarly history texts. “The prose of academics is often so dismal that the footnotes are not an interruption, but a welcome relief.”
In his introduction to Foote’s reading, Kennedy, the Writers Institute director and founder and a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, put Foote’s writing in context. Kennedy talked of Foote, the precocious teenager, selling poems to magazines for 50 cents apiece, infatuated with his literary idols, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner and Walker Percy’s uncle, Will Percy. Foote started a novel in his late 20s, but World War II interrupted and Foote served in the European theater under General George Patton as a captain of field artillery. After the service, Foote returned to fiction and sold his first short story to the Saturday Evening Post in 1946. Then came a succession of novels before the first Civil War volume in 1958.
Kennedy noted that scores of television viewers were introduced to Foote during Ken Burns’s 1991 PBS series “The Civil War.” Looking like “a cross between Sigmund Freud and Robert E. Lee,” Foote’s insights “conveyed the subliminal authority of an eyewitness,” according to Charles Trueheart of The Washington Post.
With a thick head of silver hair, heavy-lidded eyes and craggy face framed by a beard and mustache, Foote stood before the large evening crowd in gray suit, white shirt and maroon tie and mesmerized his listeners by reading the epilogue to his Civil War masterpiece. “All things end,” he began, reading a 20-minute passage in a drawl that moved like the Mississippi River on a windless August afternoon. The powerful summary to Foote’s 2,093-page work ended thus: “Time plays its tricks . . . Memory smooths the crumpled soul. Did it not seem real? Was it not as in the old days?”
Foote was at his most captivating when answering audience questions or spinning impromptu yarns in response to comments.
How did he meet the great Faulkner, for instance? Foote was 19 years old and he and Walker Percy were planning to drive from Foote’s hometown, Greenville, Miss., through Faulkner’s town, Oxford, Miss.
Foote: “Let’s stop in Oxford and meet William Faulkner.”
Percy: “I’m not going to just knock on his door.”
Foote: “I will then.”
Percy: “Go ahead. I’m staying in the car.”
Foote recalled the walkway to Faulkner’s house was lined with cedar trees and he was greeted by three hounds, two fox terriers and a Dalmatian in the yard. Soon, a small man, shirtless and barefoot, naked save for a pair of shorts, and seemingly drunk, appeared and asked Foote what he wanted. “Could you tell me where to find a copy of Marble Faun, Mr. Faulkner?” Faulkner grunted for Foote to contact his agent. Faulkner was gruff and abrupt during that unannounced visit, but later befriended Foote, who walked Faulkner around the Civil War battlefields of Shiloh.
Driving Faulkner back to Oxford on one such outing, Foote, a precocious young novelist, announced to the acclaimed master: “You know, I have every right to be a better writer than you. Your literary idols were Joseph Conrad and Sherwood Anderson. Mine are Marcel Proust and you. My writers are better than yours.” Foote’s childhood milieu also helped him develop as a historical writer. “I’m from Mississippi and there’s very little to do there but be interested in history,” Foote said. “Our glory is in the past. I was an only child who did a lot of reading. I read a lot of Civil War books that were in our house and my great-grandfather had fought at Shiloh. He got the tail shot off his horse and came home.”
Foote said his writing, both fiction and nonfiction, is deeply informed by his geographical legacy. “Southerners have a sense of tragedy and we know defeat is waiting for us,” Foote said. “Vietnam didn’t come as a deep shock to Southerners. We had been whipped before and we had that perspective.”
Being a Southerner also gave Foote an appreciation for life’s paradoxes and complexity, past and present. “I love the Confederate flag, which my great-grandfather fought for and believed in,” Foote said. “It’s a sad thing because to my black friends, that flag represents extremely painful and horrible things. At one time, the flag stood for law and order and I regret it came into ill repute. Those racist Yahoos who wave the flag today know nothing about the Confederacy and what it stood for. I still wouldn’t take it down because I know what my great-grandfather fought for. It was right and yet it was wrong.
“This nation has two great sins on its very soul, as far as I’m concerned,” Foote continued. “The one is slavery. And we don’t know how we can ever wash that stain off. The other is emancipation. They told four million people to hit the road, you’re free. Three-quarters of them could not read or write. They did not have a trade. It was an outrageous form of emancipation. An utter disaster.”
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