Joyce Carol Oates


“A novel can be very exhausting. You put everything that you have into the novel and do not even think that there will be another novel.”
What it is like to become a prolific writer:
A wife making dinner for her husband, not considering that she might be married to him for fifty years and that they will have countless dinners together

I first encountered Joyce Carol Oates in person when I heard her in conversation with Richard Ford last spring. Though I was only watching from the audience, I left the event feeling stirred: she had a voice I recognized. It seemed to be the voice of truth. While onstage, she openly confessed to her struggle with reading her work to an audience and explained that she had tried several tactics for bearing through: reading from the beginning, reading a central passage, or, as was the case on this evening, reading the end of her novel Mudwoman.

Oates’s work is vast—a prolificacy that flowers from her rigorous approach, fed by her pleasure in writing. She has published over fifty novels, and many volumes of short stories, poetry, children’s books, and essays. Her first was the novel With Shuddering Fall, published in 1964, when she was twenty-six. She is now seventy-four, and in her steady career she has won many awards, including the National Book Award (for Them, in 1970) and numerous honorary degrees, fellowships, and nominations. Since 1978, she has taught creative writing at Princeton University. And though I cannot pretend to have read all her work, or even most of it, what I have read consistently reveals her intelligence, courage, and willful awareness, which she uses in the service of both challenging and embracing American society.

I spoke with Oates at her home in the woods of Princeton. Our conversation veered between art and life. Hearing her appreciation for art and music, and their mesmerizing effects on her, suggested to me that writing is, for her, perhaps in part an extension of an open, meditative state—the same state as appreciating art. We spoke for several hours in her living room, surrounded by views of a landscape swept by Hurricane Sandy. The interior walls of her home are covered in art: dreamy landscapes by Charles Burchfield and Wolf Kahn, and myriad far-off lands photographed by her husband, Charles Gross.

—Agnes Barley


THE BELIEVER: A few months ago, I heard you in conversation with Richard Ford, and I was so struck because although I had read only some of your short stories, I felt I recognized you as a truth-teller. Do you see the purpose of your writing as truth-telling?

JOYCE CAROL OATES: Well, yes. I think most writers and serious artists are telling truths in different ways. I tend to think that the truth is enormously complex. There is a sort of superficial or surface “truth,” but it is the privilege as well as the obligation of the serious artist to get beneath that to see a myriad of truths. Human nature is, I think, enormously complex. That is why it is such a strange phenomenon to be watching these campaigns and elections. Because you have to vote for one person or another, and you vote yes or no. Whereas in our lives generally, we do not just like one person and reject another person. Much more is going on.

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Agnes Barley is a painter. She lives and works in New York.

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