I picked up a copy of NUVO at Georgetown Market several weeks ago and leafed through it looking for fall festivals and special events around town. “Oh, wow!” I yelled to no one in particular. “Joyce Carol Oates is going to speak at Butler!” The free event was part of Butler University’s Visiting Writers series—all you had to do was bring a donation of rice or pasta for Second Helpings.
I’m always nervous about making it to something I’ve been looking forward to. What if it’s raining too hard or the car breaks down on the way? Out come the bus schedules and a plan for such a contingency. What if I spill soup on my blouse? In that unlikely event, there are sweatshirts in the backseat of the car.
We made it to Clowes Hall with no emergencies and found terrific seats in the twelfth row smack in front of the lectern. People filed into the main hall—lots of students, older people. I surmised many of the latter were also involved in academia. The two men behind us heatedly discussed the shortage of teachers in Indiana and what to do about it.
Professor of English Jason Goldsmith introduced English Literature major and budding writer Maddi Rasor, who had the honor of introducing Ms. Oates, the author of 40-some novels and almost as many short story collections, not to mention novels under a couple of different names, numerous plays, essays and memoirs, and children’s and YA fiction. (I am thrilled Oates still writes short stories, my favorite reading.) Monday night she read from her latest memoir, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age.
Oates is whipcord thin, taller than I expected, and spoke off the cuff very comfortably. She thanked Ms. Rasor for her gracious introduction and remarked it was “an achievement to be here,” joking about her longevity (she’s 77) and considering she is “always mildly anxious when traveling.” (I furiously scribbled down her impromptu comments—we were not allowed to record or photograph the presentation—and will reproduce them here as faithfully as possible.)
She confirmed she is the “innocent, shy-looking girl on the cover” of The Lost Landscape and noted that when editor Daniel Halpern invited her to write a memoir she was “self-conscious about writing about coming-of-age,” so she “basically just wrote a memoir.” She had a lot to say about memoirs: why do you remember “that weird thing, among all the other weird things that you’ve done” and noted “it’s hard to get into the memory of our actual child-self… Memory is discontinuous…” She wanted to write a book that would “address itself to the landscape of childhood… that is so much a part of our spiritual being.”
She grew up in a narrow area north of Buffalo and noted New York state is “this enormous place, in many ways a Midwestern state.” She called the book “a lament, a valentine to a vanishing way of life in small-town America.” Her father’s farm was “not very prosperous.” Her grandfather carried a jug of hard cider around, starting at breakfast, and made his own cigarettes.
Oates then read from the “Happy Chicken 1942-1944” chapter of her memoir, but first made a few comments. Her pet hen, Happy, was “handsome—like Donald Trump” and she made him an honorary boy: “Sexism begins right in the barnyard… there’s a patriarchal system right there in nature.”
The first characters—heroes—she drew were chickens and cats on hind legs standing like people at a cocktail party, not that she knew at the time what such a thing was. Happy would allow her to kiss him; “kissing the top of a cat’s head is not unlike kissing the top of a chicken’s head.” There was only one rooster in the coop—“the other males were of no use. Sorry.”
Oates told us she’s written two kinds of memoirs. The first is A Widow’s Story (2011). After her first husband died in February 2008 she kept a journal, “like a diary,” where “each day is the historical present, a record of those days.” It is “present tense, very accurate.” The second type of memoir “is recollected. You know the beginning and end of the story. It’s written many years later—it tends to be something in the past—it’s much more dreamlike.” The latter is the kind we’re likely to have read, she said, and remarked that “Mary Karr tried a lot of things before she hit on the right voice” (for The Liar’s Club, her 1995 best-selling memoir). Oates said, “We all have a story, a vivid memory of isolated things” and the memoirist must “create a probable context for isolated incidents.”
As she read from “Happy Chicken,” I closed my eyes—John told me he did, too—and the words carried us back to her hardscrabble yet wonderful childhood. She planned to read more but ran out of time after an hour. I would have been OK with spending the night there, listening.
She then invited questions from the audience. A young man asked, “What happened to Connie (the young heroine of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” forced to accompany a smooth-talking sociopath)?” and Oates confirmed “she is going to die… she’s a sacrificial figure.” (The enigmatic charmer has threatened to kill Connie’s family if she doesn’t come with him.) “She starts off egotistical and at the end is ready to accept her death.”
Next at the microphone was a woman who asked if Oates was concerned that “elements of story are lost in translation” to film. The young lady explained she took part in Hannah Fidell’s short film The Gathering Squall, based on the speaker’s short story. Oates assured her “the art of film is independent.” Elements “will be appropriated for the story.” She commented, “Filmmakers are so original and interesting” and asked questions about the film and wants to see it. (I have no doubt she was sincere. In line later, I overheard Maddi, the young lady who introduced Oates, telling friends “she’s really very shy” in person and would rather hear about you than talk about herself.)
Next up was a young lady who asked about stories based on actual events. Oates replied, “When most men are engaged in the work [of writing such a piece], they want it to be exemplary of the event itself” and cited “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and “Landfill” as examples of her own work where she writes “about the event, not the real people.” She is reminded of her childhood again: the chicken is pecking on your leg? She’s told, “Oh, it’s just a rooster.” Her grandmother answers her inquiries this way: “You’re foolish and naïve to ask these questions.” Oates noted, “We’re ethereal beings in a natural world. Out of that comes a lot of tragedy.”
As for structure? “You have to find a way of containing a story.” She admitted, “I spend a lot of time trying to figure out a way to tell a story.” She has 400 pages of notes for stories that are waiting for her to find the key. (John and I exchanged a look at this.) Through Happy Chicken, she created a “triangulated perspective” that allowed her to include past/present/future, child/parent/grandparent, young girl/teen/adult.
I was interested in her comments about finding the right way to tell a story—sure, this is a great idea for a plot, I tell myself, but what’s the best way to present it (thinking of my file cabinet bulging with folders)? Oates manages to find it. A few examples: “Do With Me What You Will” is all-dialogue. “Cousins” is told via letters. “The High School Sweetheart” is a murder confession in the form of an acceptance speech. None of these narrative takes are gimmicks—story comes first.
The next speaker asked about Blonde, Oates’ novel based on Marilyn Monroe. Why Marilyn Monroe? “Norma Jean Baker reminded me of my mother and a girl I knew,” she said. “I got the idea of a tragedy—an American girl turned into Marilyn Monroe who makes millions for other people.” Monroe certainly was not rich, or at least there was no ready cash, at the time of her death—Oates told us Monroe’s ex-husband Joe DiMaggio stepped up and paid her funeral expenses. “It’s the dark side of a glamorous blonde figure. She was an exploited person who tried so hard to be loved.”
The last questioner asked, “Do you still follow boxing?” Oates, who wrote On Boxing in 1987, said, “I don’t follow it as much as in the 80s. I was interested in the history of boxing. My father took me to Golden Glove events, where I was witness to experiences I had no name for. Boxing, for all its flaws, allows some… heroism and artistry. It is symbolic of the human spirit.” Mike Tyson, she said, “is a tragedy and a farce. Why does one have strength and heart and rise to a level, and not another?”
Professor Goldsmith then wrapped up the evening and we filed out to the impromptu bookstore displaying her many volumes. I finally chose 2014’s Lovely, Dark, Deep collection of short stories and we found places at the end of a long line for an autograph. Before we left the house I had grabbed Marriages and Infidelities at the last minute for her to sign, too, if possible.
Ms. Oates duly signed my book and looked up at me. “Are you a writer?” she asked. I nodded and said, “Of sorts.” She turned to Prof. Goldsmith and said, “You can tell when someone is a writer. There’s a look, don’t you think?” He agreed. As we turned to go Prof. Goldsmith saw Marriages and Infidelities (which I’ve always thought of as Marriages and Other Infidelities, for some reason) in my hand and said, “Would you like that signed, too?” “Oh, sure!” I said. “I’ve had this for forty years, I just grabbed it off the nightstand.” She signed that one, too, remarking that the front cover showing a gorgeous couple in a clinch was outdated. Then we left her to return to Princeton and her new kitten and we returned home to find a cat up a tree.
Is forty years too long to be reading a book? Probably, if that author is as prolific as Oates. Susan Neville’s Invention of Flight has also been on my nightstand almost that long, because she hasn’t published that much. When a writer is really good, you have to parcel his work out, like Mansfield. You can read her in one gulp and reread her whenever you like. But there’s nothing like your first discovery of a story. As much as you want to read it, you’re afraid to because you might read it too fast and miss something. I’ve promised myself to go slow with Lovely, Dark, Deep.