American author Joyce Carol Oates, 73, published her first book in 1963 and has since written more than 50 novels as well as short stories, poetry and plays. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey, whre she has taught since 1978.
Your new novel, Mudwoman, is about a woman, abandoned on a rubbish tip as a young child, who goes on to become president of an Ivy League university. It has a kind of mythic, subconscious quality; is that how you see it?
Unusually, it did come that way. I was at the Edinburgh festival some years ago and one night I had this dream about a woman who had put way too much make-up on her face and it had dried and cracked and she made a spectacle, a fool of herself. She seemed to be someone at a university with an exalted rank. When I woke up the image seemed quite profound to me. I wrote five or 10 pages very excitedly. I always wanted to go back to find out who the woman was.
One of the themes of the book is that however far we travel, we don't escape our past. Do you have a sense of that yourself?
I do. I grew up in a place not dissimilar from the character in the novel, except that I didn't have her murderous mother. It was a place very different from the one where I live now, which is Princeton, New Jersey. To me the disparity remains a source of wonderment. I think anyone who has made a great leap of class, as many of my generation did, feels something of a yearning for the place and family they came from.
Do you think the need to write is born in those big shifts, the insecurity they bring?
I think all art comes out of conflict. When I write I am always looking for the dramatic kernel of an event, the junctures of people's lives when they go in one direction, not another. Somebody might come along and say "Joyce has a sense of darkness and violence and tragedy", but that is not at all the sense you have when writing. The writing is thrilling.
Is part of that thrill still the fear of failure?
That is always with you. But when you are in a book there is a turmoil and excitement. And though when you get to the end you may feel you have failed with it, while you are in it you don't feel that.
When do you write?
Early in the mornings, at seven, when the house isn't awake, and there are no new emails, and I can work for an hour or two before the day begins. But the little heartbeat of the novel keeps going all day, even when I am teaching or doing other things.
Do you still run every day?
I do. I do a lot of thinking while I run. I usually manage about 40 minutes.
Your career is a great testament to the printed word; do you feel the engagement it represents, as a writer and a reader, is threatened by technology?
I'm not sure. I have read on a Kindle. But the Kindle we had only worked for about eight months then it stopped working. You don't have to get books repaired.
Do you mostly still write longhand?
Well, I write a lot of emails. When my husband died in February 2008 email became extremely important to me; I wasn't often up to using a telephone but I needed to communicate, so I would email some insomniac friend at two or three in the morning.
You wrote about that period in your memoir A Widow's Story. Do you feel that part of your life has ended now?
It is like it is at the back of the room and I have turned away. A lot of widows feel that they have betrayed their spouse by continuing to live. It's deranged thinking. I know that, but that doesn't stop you feeling it.
Mudwoman is dedicated to your second husband, Charles Gross, who you describe as your "first reader". Why so?
My first husband never read my work. We had an understanding. Charlie is a neuroscientist, not a literary person; he says: of course I am going to read it.
Do you like him to?
I never really wanted people who were close to me to read my work. I mean, what if I saw him fall asleep?
Have you ever considered not writing?
Not writing? No, the thing is, we all love storytelling, and as a writer you get to tell stories all the time.
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