FACE TO FACE
One of the most obvious characteristics of Joyce Carol Oates, as a writer, is the combination of quantity and quality in her work. She’s published six novels, four collections of short stories, plays, and at least three volumes of poetry. She had won the O. Henry Prize Story Award before she was 30, was awarded the impressive National Book Award for her novel Them in 1970 and has been described as “the most significant novelist to have emerged in the U.S. in the last decade.”
Born in rural New York in 1938, Ms. Oates has been living for the past six years in Windsor, Ontario, where she and her husband, Raymond Smith, teach English at the university. It became evident as we talked that her
teaching not only provides pleasure and rewards, but is an arena where she is able to test ideas. Invariably, she spoke of her students, and of people generally, with enthusiasm and compassion.
While setting up the tape recorder in her office I remarked that I was always nervous at the beginning of interviews: possibly it was the machinery. She replied that she couldn’t recall the last time she had been nervous, and as the afternoon progressed — particularly when I took her photograph — 1 began to sense why she is able to say that.
Through the camera one is struck by the calmness of her face, a calmness that gives little if anything away. It isn’t a mask because that is something one puts up between oneself and the viewer —
rather I had the sense that she doesn't like being photographed and consequently gives to the photographer only what politeness and pregmatism demand. And while it is presumptuous, and probably useless, I found it fascinating to set this public equanimity against the fierce energy of the imagination she displays in her writing.
Let me begin with a question about being an American writing in Canada. JOYCE CAROL OATES
I’ve tried to do a little writing that deals with my experience in Canada — I hope to do more of that, the experience of being a landed immigrant in a border city. I think that a writer probably can
JOYCE CAROL OATES IN CONVERSATION WITH GRAEME GIBSON, FIRST IN A MACLEAN’S SERIES
Graeme Gibson, author of Five Legs and Communion, is one of the most exciting of the new Canadian novelists. Joyce Carol Oates is an American of the same generation, a writer with a stupendous international reputation. A few weeks ago, he talked to her for Maclean’s in an interview that juxtaposed two special sensibilities and produced some good talk about expatriatism, the new spiritualism, women, drugs and Canadian -U.S. dissimilarities.
set up housekeeping almost anywhere, and the places I would not want to be are, curiously enough, those that other writers like, New York and San Francisco, any big city. I have no interest in that. I think, for one thing, there is so much going on that one would be drawn into it. Imagine being in New York, you know, saying, Tn an hour this starts and tomorrow night we have to see that.’ I feel that I’d just be going out to art galleries all the time.
Are your books received as well by Canadian readers as they are by readers in the United States?
JOYCE CAROL OATES Oh no, I don’t think I have much of an audience in Canada.
Do you have a Canadian publisher? JOYCE CAROL OATES
No, but there’s a publisher in Toronto who distributes them.
Do you find this satisfactory?
JOYCE CAROL OATES
Well, I may sound strange but I’m not terribly interested in pushing myself. I think that if people want to read my books, then fine, but I don’t want to suggest that they should, and Canada has its own writers. Canadian writers are experiencing .. . the Times Literary Supplement spoke of an Elizabethan age. I think it is really a wonderful time for Canadian writers And I’m not certain that an American writer is a necessity,
you know, for you right now.
What do you think about such things as our growing sense of cultural nationalism?
JOYCE CAROL OATES
I think it’s very necessary and healthy to have a sense of nationality, and even patriotism, as long as it doesn’t become aggressive. It’s unfortunate that the United States, and possibly England too, are temporarily suffering a loss of pride or a loss of identification with their nations. We should identify with our community and our families, our nation and our culture, and when we don’t identify, that to me is not natural. That’s what’s happening in the United States. It has happened largely, I
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think, because of the Vietnam war. It’s very hard to identify completely with a government that’s doing something that you know in your heart is against nature or immoral. Now Canada has not had that problem. I know Canada has its own problems, but they are not that grave, not that destructive. And I think that Trudeau is marvelous. Oh, if we could have Trudeau instead of Nixon! I think we should work out some kind of exchange policy.
GIBSON: What about the obvious differences between Canada and the U.S., you must have some sense of that? OATES: From what I’ve read in Canadian literature, and Margaret Atwood’s Survival, I think that the Canadian attitude of man, the human species, surviving in nature and getting along in nature harmoniously, that’s far more valid psychologically and scientifically than the erroneous concept that Americans have had about conquering nature. With the frontier mystique of the United States, you have a typical little town in the southwest, with vigilantes hanging people, maybe every day, shooting at Indians, shooting at black people, and doing anything they like and, of course, dying young. This idea of the masculine ego conquering nature is not only erroneous it’s self-destructive. There’s a definite contrast in the literature of Canada, because for man to survive in nature, that is the psychologically valid and sane attitude to take. We are here surviving in nature, many of us are surviving very well. We’re happy and no matter how difficult our civilization is, we’re making a way in it. But it’s wrong to think we have conquered nature; we never conquer nature.
Another contrast between Canadian and American ways of living, which I think Americans could learn a good deal from, is that Canadian and English politicians come to be very responsible to their nation. American politicians, except for those who are extremely idealistic, tend to get exaggerated and melodramatic. They become showmen. They’re seduced into a kind of Hollywood show business dramatization of personality. If a wonderful man, such as Gene McCarthy, goes into politics it’s tragic, because he has to either sell himself on television or he will not get the vote. So for a really moral human being the predicament is impossible. I do hope that Canada will not be influenced, any more than it already is, by the most flamboyant aspects of American life. There is a side of American life that is very humanistic and democratic and Americans characteristically love their fellow man. It’s just that the many less attractive aspects have gotten control recently. But don’t give up on us — I think we’re not really all that bad. GIBSON: Have you ever considered be-
coming a Canadian citizen?
OATES: Yes, we talk about that. We don’t quite know what to do because our families are, of course, American, and one of the things it would involve is an apparent, symbolic rejection of our parents. Each person knows what it’s like, to go against your father and mother. And then I think about what my destiny is — I was born in America and maybe it would be too easy and too enjoyable to be a Canadian. So many people want to become Canadians because Canada is in some ways such a more pleasant country. I think it takes more stamina to remain an American. Yet I must say the idea is very attractive, and other people in this department [of English at the University of Windsor] who were landed immigrants have become Canadian citizens and they say it feels very good. So ... I don’t know.
GIBSON: Do you anticipate going back to live in the States?
OATES: No, no we’re very happy in Windsor.
GIBSON: In much of your writing there’s the feeling that society, or group, or an individual, is coming to the end of something.
OATES: Yes, I’m interested in a whole new field of psychology that concerns itself with death and possible transcendental experiences in dying people. Some people, as they’re dying, experience great calmness and serenity as if they were detached from the person they had been. You know, we think we are ourselves, and then some extraordinary accident happens or you’re almost dying, and some people claim to experience being out of their bodies, watching what they thought was themselves dying. Some of these people are pronounced dead, but they have some other point of reference and observation outside the body. So it seems that what we think we are may be a very limited and mortal expression of something more permanent... My husband and I almost died in a car accident, and yet nothing happened. We were completely out of control on an icy patch on an expressway where we were whirling end over end, right across lanes of traffic, and we weren’t hit. We could see these
trucks coming by. We had no more control than if we were children in some sort of an amusement ride, and the feeling I had then has always been with me, because if we had died at that moment I don’t think either one of us would have protested ... It was just something so absolute. It could have been a 52-car pile up, but nothing happened and we just landed up on an abutment or something and we sat there, just sat without a word. There was nothing to say. GIBSON: Did you find yourself
changed by that?
OATES: Yes. I’ve had a couple of experiences that allowed me to see that all of our lives are completely a gift. I think of myself whirling end over end across that expressway, and I think of how we just sat there for quite a while, and I don’t even know that we were thinking — there was nothing to think about. Maybe when a woman has a baby, it’s an experience like this too. I haven’t had a baby, but you’re no longer just that little person, and all the selfish and trivial things you were worried about, they’re all gone. You don’t think about anything, about what you’re going to have for dinner, or income tax or anything. You think about nothing except this mystery of living. You feel your heart beating and you look around and you see some grass and you see some birds and, in fact, they’re the first birds you’ve ever seen, and you see a tree, and it’s like you’re Adam and Eve on the first day of creation. We drove home very slowly, not on the expressway, but on other streets, very small ones, and we’ve almost never talked about that since. GIBSON: There’s a sense of people being damaged in your writing. It crops up again and again. In your novel, Expensive People, it appears in the mother’s story of people being molested. Other times it appears as genetic damage, or as what people have done to them. OATES: I think we all get damaged to some extent in our lives, depending on how well we manage. I think everybody who has ever lived has had very traumatic experiences. They’ve experienced pain and suffering, horror and grief, and what makes us human is how well we can channel these emotions and rise above them. And some of my characters, like people in real life, don’t know how to handle it because they haven’t been instructed. Some of them somehow know how to handle it and they become more interesting people — they become more complex. I believe that experience is necessary for us to change, and the socalled bad experiences like grief and pain, that we have to have — it’s the way we accept them, I truly believe that. saw it in my own life. The most educational experiences in my life have been so painful, at the time, and if I’d known that they would lead me to a
more — oh, knowing more about life, that would be all right. But when you’re having a bad experience, you just don’t know that. You have to take it on faith that life is still worth living, and maybe six months later you’ll look back and you’ll think, I really learned so much from that.
GIBSON: Let’s talk about violence in your writing. There’s external violence, the riots in Detroit at the end of Them, but usually it appears in more personal ways. The used car salesman in Marriages And Infidelities who’s just working away one day when suddenly he feels weak and he goes home to bed and he never gets out of bed, he’s carried out at the end.
OATES: Yes, but I know why these things are happening as the writer . . . GIBSON: I think I know as the reader, but you don’t pin it down to simple psychological cause and effect. One isn’t sure if this is a personal thing happening to the salesman or whether he’s caught up in something more public, like the riots, the violence, the chaos of life. OATES: I’m very interested in psychology — I would say that probably, if I weren’t so much interested in writing, I would go into clinical psychology. So I have definite ideas about these things, and each story or novel deals with the phenomenon of what is happening to individual psyches in that context. Now, for instance, if you and I are exercising ego control, we are in our identities and we’re relaxed and content. But if we were caught up in some strange mob action, I think for a while we would definitely retain our identity. We’d try to get out of that situation. But if we couldn’t get out, and time went on, we’d probably start to feel an erosion of our own identity, and this mob mind exercises a powerful sway over us.
So I believe not in the permanence of the ego, but that our egos are in the context of constant change.
GIBSON: An awful lot of your characters seem to be part of the mob mind even though they’re in ordinary situations — the used car salesman, again. They lose their egos, sometimes at the drop of a hat, because of some negative perception. How does this relate to the mass mind — are they part of this? OATES: Yes, there are many different individuals and they have different levels of psychic control. It’s our responsibility here on earth, I think, to come into some very strong relationship with ourselves, with our deepest selves, so that we don’t suddenly change into animals or a lynch mob. We have to have within us a definite centre of gravity, by which I don’t mean we are self-centred, but that we don’t suddenly, like a chameleon, turn into what everybody else is.
We have got to get the human spirit centralized inside the self, inside the
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soul again. Many of the people I write about are not bad people, but they haven’t a sufficient sense of identity, so they’re swept along by social change. GIBSON: Do you consider yourself a religious writer?
OATES: I would say yes, but I don’t want to be tamed by it. The real hero of Do With Me What You Will is Mered Dawe, and one of the measures of his heroism is that he is so innocent, he hasn’t got a chance. It is often the case with people who are very, very innocent and idealistic, that they just don’t have a chance. They’re playing right down on the ground, right in the arena, so there have to be others of us who will come forward to defend them, to explain them to the middle class. The transformation of values has to come from certain people who are, let’s say they are Christlike in their behavior — they can be men or women, anybody. But they have this love for their fellow man, regardless of who this other person is, and we educators and writers and others, who are more realistic, we should not allow these innocent people to be simply destroyed. We’ve got to assimilate them into some context.
GIBSON: What is Mered’s virtue? Is it his innocence? Is it his love?
OATES: He’s someone who possibly through drugs, or just through experience, has had an awakening of the divine or universal level in himself as many young people have; and they become Jesus Freaks or they become very interested in Buddhism, or Yoga. They’ve experienced things in their minds that awaken them to some feeling of love for all of the universe. GIBSON: Do you find the various explorations of spirituality that the young are pursuing a promising sign?
OATES: Yes, in a wide sort of evolutionary sense. At the same time, when there is an evolutionary gain it’s very, very difficult to live through that time — it’s a time of crisis. In evolution, there’s always been a certain loss for every gain, so there are young people, and they already exist, who have fallen by the wayside, who can’t take it, who have gone wrong, who have lost their mental capacity, because they’ve taken drugs. There are others who have taken drugs and have sworn off them, and now they’re doing Yoga or Zen or something; these people seem to have made a step beyond the other level, and I speak really as an observer, because I’ve never in my life taken any drugs. And you’ll probably laugh at this, I don’t drink — it seems that I don’t really exist, I’m so strange. I suppose it’s because I have such faith in the imagination that I feel I don’t need any stimulants.
The phenomenon of all the drug abuse is pathetic. It means that a whole generation is so cut off from what should
be a natural religious experience. I don’t know why they’re cut off from it, but they have to use artificial stimulants to get back to it.
GIBSON: Do you see this moment we spoke of where people lose their egos and give over to mob response as an aborted mystical experience?
OATES: I think we can pretty definitely say that there are at least two kinds of mystical experience. One which is very famous, makes the person extremely moral, and let’s say he goes a little higher. But there’s another kind that can make a person go lower. In other words, he identifies with the less attractive elements in nature. He starts to idolize animals. He thinks that the brute instincts are superior to civilization. The whole cult of Nazism is based on a real mystique of the brute forces that overcome us. And I would hate to dignify that by calling it mysticism. So I think that at the moment when somebody loses his ego he feels some great power, but what he puts into it is a result of his intellec-
tual and moral development. And that’s the danger when someone goes off into the desert like Charles Manson in California. He fasts and he takes drugs, and he gets the message that he’s Christ or he’s divine and this is definitely very disturbing. It doesn’t make him a better person because he doesn’t have the moral and intellectual structure to bring to it. On the other hand you take a young man the same age, who’s been in a Zen monastery as a Zen student for months, or years. He has a guru, somebody helping him. He’s been given lectures — he’s been reading. He comes to his moment of enlightenment with all this preparation, so that when he experiences it he knows what it is and he doesn’t go crazy. This is the importance, the need we have for some structure, and tradition to help young people, or people of any age, to understand and evaluate psychological experiences so that they don’t go completely crazy. GIBSON: Do you find you rely on people you have met or conversations you’ve overheard? Obviously I mean rely on using the material, transforming it into fiction.
OATES: Yes, I get very interested in personalities, particularly of people who
seem to represent something culturally significant, like a doctor, a lawyer, people like that who are in the corridors of power. I’m fascinated by what kind of personalities survive there and what kind do well there and what kind cannot survive.
But I think that I create a fictional character who is, at the same time, recognizable and very real and in some cases based loosely on people I’ve met, sometimes my own experience. For instance, many of my friends ... of course we talk about our experiences. And I can work with the experience someone else has had, and then my own, and in merging them together, I make some kind of common experience. This is what many women do in women’s writing, feminist writing. They’ve reached the point where there’s a definite communion between many women who have had the same experiences. They’ve had these experiences with different people, different men, in different parts of the country, but it comes awfully close to being the same experience. GIBSON: What about the Woman’s Movement? Have they taken up your work, do they like it?
OATES: I think it varies with individuals. Somebody has done an article on my writing in terms of women’s liberation, but I’ve not read it yet. Generally speaking, I’ve stayed away from the politics of the Feminist Movement, but I’m really sympathetic with its general goals. And incidently, Do With Me What You Will is dedicated to Patricia Burnett, who is Chairman of the International Committee of NOW [the National Organization of Women in the U.S.]. She’s a close friend of mine, and an artist. So I have that connection and I’m very sympathetic with everything Patricia has been doing.
GIBSON: Certainly Elena, in that novel, is a good example. The men, particularly her husband and also her father — her mother, too, for that matter — they’re not much concerned with her individuality, they see her as a doll. OATES: I chose a woman who is sort of unusual — she’s extremely beautiful and extremely passive, and I exaggerated her with those qualities. Most women are not extraordinarily beautiful, nor are they that passive, but I think that men, some men, and some women themselves, would like them to be that way. So we are conditioned to be physically attractive, even though we might not feel like it, and we’re conditioned to be submissive and passive even though that might not be our nature. So I wanted to deal with that strange phenomenon. I have known at least one very, very beautiful woman, who had been a beauty contest winner, and her life was made so difficult, impossible, simply because of this extraordinary physical beauty. She
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was not even that interested in it. She was not vain, she was rather modest and girlish. She always had, curiously enough, the sense of inferiority which many beautiful women feel. They believe they’re not beautiful, but obviously they are and are rewarded for it. And this woman had so many experiences just because she was so beautiful, and men approached her, caring not at all for her, but for a sort of prize that she represented.
GIBSON: Do you find the book world, by that I mean publishers and critics, treats your work differently, or in a prejudicial way, because you are a woman? OATES: It’s difficult to answer that. I think probably there has been a little of that. When I first started writing novels that had a great deal of sociological content, I did detect in the male reviewers a slight disapproval of that. A woman is supposed to write novels like Virginia Woolfs that are all subjective, rhetorical passages . . . But I’ve never let any criticism really mean much to me, because in fact I have met many critics and they’re just people. They may have had a bad day or they may be irritable, and so what they type out does not mean what they necessarily feel now. So I don’t take these things too deeply, and I never remain angry.
GIBSON: Do you think, apart from your own experience, that publishers treat women writers differently? OATES: Now they do, yes. Now it’s easier for a woman to get published, but this may not last. A woman with a first book of poems today has a greater chance of getting published than a man. GIBSON: Because she’s a woman? OATES: Yes, because there’s a demand for it. I was at the Modern Language Association meeting in Chicago, where the booksellers have all their booths. I was talking with publishers’ representatives, and they said that women’s anthologies and women’s literature are very popular right now, particularly in paperback. College courses are using it, and they can move this stuff off the shelves. Now a coupk of years ago it was black studies and these books are no longer moving. So you can see that some of this is extremely commercial and a fad. I think we have a short period where women will have it very good, but then the gates will start to close again unless we work to keep them open.
GIBSON: How would you describe yourself as a writer?
OATES: Very, very succinctly, I think I’m a psychological realist — I take the area of the human psyche, or mind, as the centre of all experience of reality, and I try to work with that. I don’t believe in surrealism or the kind of nouveau roman that the French are writing. I try to stay within the human psychology. ■£?