Writer Joyce Carol Oates

The best-selling writer and college professor explains her new historical novel, set in Princeton, NJ.

One of the world's most distinguished authors, Joyce Carol Oates has been nominated for almost every major literary honor, including the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer, with work that covers a wide variety of genres, from Gothic to suspense, fantasy and children's literature. The New York native began telling stories as a child, communicating through drawings and paintings before she learned how to write and, at age 14, began writing novels throughout high school and college. Since 1978, Oates has been teaching in Princeton's creative writing program. Her latest novel, The Accursed, has been described as "genre-bending," eerie and unforgettable.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening. From Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight a conversation with award-winning novelist Joyce Carol Oates. She is, of course, one of the country’s most honored writers and most prolific, with more than 70 novels, novellas, and short stories to her credit.

But before we get to Joyce Carol Oates, this is our 10th anniversary season on PBS, headed now towards show number 2,000. So in honor of that, we continue to introduce you to some of the folk who make this program possible every day.

Joining me now is my man Lenny Graham. He’s our segment producer, the man responsible for all the research I have to read every night to get ready for these conversations. He’s also responsible for most of the visuals that you see on our program. So Lenny, we couldn’t do this without you, my friend.

Lenny Graham: Thank you, Tavis. It’s an empowering privilege to be part of a program this meaningful, with a crew this strong.

Tavis: Well, we’re glad you are a part of that strong crew. So thanks for being with us, and take it away, Lenny.

Graham: We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with writer Joyce Carol Oates, coming up right now.

Tavis: If you look up the word “prolific,” no doubt the definition includes the name Joyce Carol Oates. Since her debut novel back in 1964, she’s published more than 70 novels and novellas in addition to short-story collections, dramas, essays, memoirs and novels for young people.

Her latest tome is the best seller “The Accursed.” I love that title, “The Accursed.” Set in Princeton at the turn of the last century, it’s a soaring epic that combines elements of witchcraft, fantasy, history, and so much more, and somehow, it manages to put President Woodrow Wilson in the same story as ghosts and vampires. Joyce Carol Oates, always a delight to have you on this program.

Joyce Carol Oates: Thank you so much.

Tavis: You and I were just talking before we came on the air that you have been away from Princeton for a little while, out here on the West Coast, teaching at Berkeley.

Oates: Yes, yes. Yes.

Tavis: How do you like the West Coast?

Oates: Well, I love it.

Tavis: Yeah.

Oates: But who doesn’t love the West Coast? (Laughter) And my students at UC Berkeley are maybe just a little older and have more varied backgrounds than Princeton, so that’s been exciting for me.

Tavis: Yeah. Speaking of Princeton, I said to you when you walked on this set you’ve been such a blessing for this institution, Princeton, for so many years, and the word has come that in a couple of years you’ve announced that you’re going to retire.

Oates: That’s right, but I’m going to remain there and maybe I’ll teach somewhere else, like NYU or Columbia, in the area.

Tavis: What changes have you noticed in the discipline, in the students, in the culture, in the environment? I don’t want to box you in too much. You’ve been doing this for so long as a professor, just give me some top line of what your thoughts are as you look back on this vast career of yours.

Oates: Well, it’s an interesting question, and actually, the surprising thing is, because I have so many self-selected students. First they have to be selected by Princeton, and then they’re selected for the writing program. So the students that I would get in a typical seminar, like about 10 students, they’re pretty much rather like students I would have had in 1990 or 1970, because they’re book-oriented.

But I think overall, in a larger sense, young people are obviously much more oriented toward film and video and the different electronic ways of communication, much more so, obviously. These modes of communication didn’t exist in the past, and so they were more focused on the printed word.

Tavis: What about the creativity of the students that you have taught over the years. Has it gone up the chart, is the trend line going up, trend line going down, or kind of flat?

Oates: That’s about the same. People who teach in universities will all say an excellent student is an excellent student. Timeless. There’s a certain historical nature about the imagination. So a really good student, say, in 1949, is sort of like a really good student in 2013 for – they tend to be sort of self-motivated.

Tavis: Let me jump now right to the book. I just want to get your sense of the profession, since you’ve been teaching for so long and you’re moving toward retirement here. “The Accursed,” I said a moment ago I love the title. How’d you come up with that?

Oates: Well, first the title was “The Crosswicks Horror,” because (unintelligible).

Tavis: No, I like “The Accursed” better.

Oates: “The Accursed” I think is better.

Tavis: Yeah, so do I. (Laughter)

Oates: Well, I started working on this in 1983, a long time ago, and I finished the first draft in 1984. It was called “The Crosswicks Horror,” but that’s an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote a novella called “The Dunwich Horror.” But then when I rewrote it over the years, and particularly a couple years ago, I thought it needed a new title. So I’m glad you like the title, because I can’t –

Tavis: I love it.

Oates: – put the old one back.

Tavis: No, I love it. (Laughter) Tell me how – I think I’ve asked this question of a number of guests, but it’s always amazing to me how you get this creative spark in ’83, you finish the first draft of the book in ’84, and we get it in 2013.

Oates: That’s right.

Tavis: What was happening all that time?

Oates: Well, I would go back to the manuscript with new ideas and new research, because it’s a historical drama, and much of the history is absolutely true. There’s a supernatural element and obvious elements of fantasy and fiction, but the bedrock is kind of a reality.

So I was able to do research over the years, and new things come along, not to mention the election of Barack Obama. So we have now a Black president, and this is a novel about racism, pretty blatant hypocrisy and really bad behavior among the lily-white inhabitants of Princeton, New Jersey, in 1905-’06.

So the idea that now we have a different president is really stunning. The irony is so exciting and stunning; the people at that time could not have believed anything like this. Just the fact that women have the vote, that there’s a woman who’s president of Princeton University today, all these things are absolutely outrageous in terms of that era.

So it’s kind of fun to sort of look ahead and see these rapid changes, and the novel’s really about that conflict between the generations, and like an old world that’s hanging on, like an old sexist and racist world, sort of looking back towards slavery.

Many of the people in the novel are sort of not that unsympathetic with the Confederacy. It’s like that old world. But then a new world of the 20th century, new scientific ideas, Darwin’s ideas, new ideas about the geological dating of the Earth, all these new ideas are in the air, and union labor, unionizing the workforce.

So the novel’s really about that conflict and the amount of energy that’s released by the conflict between these two.

Tavis: I think it was NPR that did a wonderful piece on the book, and they used this wonderful line that the book is about conscientious people who can’t find their conscience.

Oates: That’s right.

Tavis: It’s a great line.

Oates: Yes.

Tavis: Conscientious people who can’t find their conscience against that backdrop. Just give me a sense of what the story is that you are telling here in “The Accursed.”

Oates: Well, the whole story sort of emerges from the first chapter. Woodrow Wilson is the president of Princeton University, which is a great university, and he is a good president. He’s a reformer.

A young man who’s a seminary student comes to see him. He’s very agitated because the night before there’s been a lynching in Camden, New Jersey, which is not that far away. It’s a different world from Princeton, very different economically and culturally, but it’s not that far in geographical terms.

He’s basically saying to Woodrow Wilson, please will you use your position to say something about this awful, these horrible things that are going on, and basically, Woodrow Wilson, like many good white Christian people, many ministers, even, just sort of turns a proverbial blind eye.

He hears him, he can’t pretend he doesn’t hear him, but it doesn’t – there’s no measure in his heart. Like he hears him, but it doesn’t go anywhere. So because of that hypocrisy, the novel then, the whole plot follows from that first scene, which I wrote with great excitement, because I really like the seminary student.

Then you learn later on that he’s actually a Black person. He’s very light-skinned. But the whole idea that Woodrow Wilson has invited him in his home and this racist person has really almost embraced him, and now he finds out the true background.

So it sort of sets in motion a number of grotesque but somewhat comic episodes. The novel has comedy in it, too – the comedy of seeing hypocrites unmasked.

Tavis: What does it do for you to have a piece of work that is, in fact, about racism, about classism, about sexual sublimination or subordination. You’ve got a book with race, class, and sex.

Oates: That’s right.

Tavis: As a writer, I don’t know, that’s got to be a lot of fun to work on.

Oates: Yeah. I wonder what was left out?

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) How in the writing of this, then, do you take – this is inside baseball, but let me ask anyway – how do you take the historic part and weave in the fiction?

Oates: The fiction?

Tavis: Yeah, how do you do that? What’s the process for that?

Oates: Well, I don’t think it’s that difficult. There was a lot going on at the turn of the century and maybe up until and then through World War I. There was really a lot going on. I mentioned some of the things, like just the unionizing and the labor and unionizing of the workforce.

Children as young as five or six were working in mills on the Delaware River and elsewhere, and people were trying to help the working people. Then sexism, women were hoping for the vote, they were politicking, they were trying to get a movement, and then there were advances and a revolutionary spirit in science.

That science would be more open to questioning the dogmas of Christianity, because science had always been a little bit anxious about questioning the dogmas of religion.

So all these things are really just happening. So if you’re a historian or like me, an amateur historian, you sort of read about the period and these events are just happening, that there are real people like Woodrow Wilson. He really said many sexist and racist things himself, so I didn’t have to make them up.

Then literally what I do is I had maps and I had graphs and charts, like the historical events are listed, and then the fictitious people and the real people, kind of like a graph with intersections. So you could just sort of see where you’re moving in terms of chronological time.

Tavis: Is there a critique to be made of you or any writer who takes a historical moment and weaves fiction in and around it? Does it in any way – I’m trying to find the right word here – does it in any way do a disservice to the historic, to the factual?

Oates: Well, that’s a very good question. We also might say that many historians weave fiction in.

Tavis: That is very true. (Laughter)

Oates: No, historians have always been very biased.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Oates: There are anti-Semitic historians, and there are racist historians who write about the American South, and they’re sort of not that critical of slavery. But others writing from another perspective are very critical. So there isn’t any objectivity of history, they’re interpretations.

As far as writing goes, well, we all know, for instance, Shakespeare used history. Shakespeare and many other writers use history as material, but not writing historical documents. I wrote a novel called “Blonde,” which is about Norma Jean Baker, who becomes Marilyn Monroe, which I called a fictitious biography.

That uses the material as if it were myth – that Marilyn Monroe is like this mythical figure in our culture. I’m not writing a biography, I’m writing a fictitious like an allegory or an epic about someone who stands for something.

So I called my novel “Blonde,” meaning it’s about blondeness rather than a person. But many writers write about, say, war, they might write about Vietnam War. If you did that as a fiction writer, you’d probably have real generals and a real president mentioned.

It’s hard to have a completely fictitious portrayal of a complex cultural situation where there are no real people in it.

Tavis: Yeah. What you said a moment ago, though, Joyce Carol Oates, though, does raise a curious question, at least in my mind, because you’re absolutely right about the fact that history is written by historians who offer their own interpretations –

Oates: Absolutely.

Tavis: – of history in their work. Hence, some of us are maltreated in that history, some of us are left out of that history.

Oates: Absolutely.

Tavis: So I totally agree with you.

Oates: (Unintelligible) left out.

Tavis: How suspect, then, ought we be of historians and the stuff they put out?

Oates: Well, you would probably want to read a number of historians.

Tavis: Right.

Oates: But to give an example, Woodrow Wilson’s racism, which is he felt, probably completely unconscious, when he was in Europe as president and he was asked to talk about the United States, he mentioned all these ethnic minorities – Italians, English, all these different minorities in the United States.

He didn’t say one word about African Americans. It was like this president of the United States had actually forgotten – it’s stunning. Can you imagine a president today doing anything like that? Especially not our president right now.

But that is so stunning because it’s almost unconscious. The racism is so deep that it’s almost unconscious.

Tavis: Princeton is not just a setting in this story; it’s a character in this story.

Oates: Yes.

Tavis: Does that make sense to you?

Oates: Absolutely.

Tavis: Tell me more about that.

Oates: Very much, yes. Well, often in gothic novels there’s a large house, an estate, and it’s symbolic of that culture. Usually it’s sort of moldering or rotted or something, and sometimes it’s a whole community.

So Princeton was a very affluent, it’s still very affluent, and then it was a very lily-white community and extremely what we would call selective, prestigious, with old families who came over, probably, on the Mayflower, and people who had been involved in the Revolutionary War whose names are famous, like Aaron Burr, for instance, is a good example.

People who dined with George Washington, and people whose houses George Washington slept overnight in, people like that. So I was writing about that community as a kind of exemplary community of privilege, very privileged people who are, as you say, conscientious Christians, but in this very narrow way. They really only granted full humanity to people like themselves.

They didn’t think that workingmen or immigrant workingmen or children, as well as African Americans, they didn’t really think those people were fully human beings like themselves, and they didn’t think that women should have the vote. Even women, many of the women didn’t think that women should have the vote.

Tavis: I know you’re not a psychologist, but you’re an expert, obviously, at what you do. I wonder if you might offer your own thoughts – there are actually two questions here. Let me ask them one at a time.

If you might offer your own thoughts on, back to that phrase, what prevents, at least where your characters are concerned, what prevents these conscientious people from being able to connect with their conscience? What’s the blockage about?

Oates: What’s the blockage? Well, I think it’s simple cowardice. Really just – first of all, number one, cowardice, but two is a little more interesting and even more subtle. I think that when people don’t speak out against anything, whether it’s terrorism, when they’re not speaking out against something like that, I think there’s a secret complicity.

I think there’s a secret sympathy, where these white people are actually sort of saying well, the Ku Klux Klan – and the Ku Klux Klan is in the novel – the Ku Klux Klan has methods that we don’t agree with, they’re very vicious and so forth, and they’re white trash, but they have the right idea, because we don’t want the races to mingle either.

I think it’s something like that. The idea of miscegenation or what they call “race mongrelization,” that was the taboo, and they were all afraid of that. So when the Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing Black people to, quote, “keep them in their place,” I think the white leaders sort of felt well, maybe we don’t want to criticize them because there was a secret sympathy.

So I think there was the complicity. So when there are acts of terrorism, people should be speaking out against the terrorists. People should speak out clearly. But there’s a lot of silence about terrorism. We speak out against it, but naturally we would because we’re the objects of terrorism.

But you would expect Muslims to speak out much more clearly against the extremists in their own midst, and we sort of wait for that, and there’s a sort of strange, unnerving silence. The novel is very much about that silence, and the consequence of the silence, there are these supernatural eruptions, which I call the (unintelligible). The (unintelligible) comes to punish you if you’re not acknowledging the situation.

Tavis: My grandmother, who had a, what, second, third-grade education in segregationist Jim Crow/Jane Crow Mississippi.

Oates: Wow.

Tavis: Never got anywhere near Princeton, of course.

Oates: Wow.

Tavis: But she always used to say to me, Joyce Carol Oates, that when you know better, you ought to do better.

Oates: That’s a good (unintelligible).

Tavis: Tavis, when you know better, you ought to do better.

Oates: You ought to do better. Very nice.

Tavis: I raise that because – and I’m not naïve in asking this, but it goes to the heart of your novel, “The Accursed” – how is it that the people who know better can’t seem to find a way to do better?

When you think of academic settings like Princeton, you think of privileged communities, elite communities like that Princeton community at the heart of this novel.

Oates: Of the novel, yes.

Tavis: You say to yourself, well, how couldn’t they get it? Why or how could you look the other way? How could you not have your conscience pricked? How could you not revel in, connect to the humanity of the other, because you know better.

Oates: Oh, I agree.

Tavis: And you ought to be able to do better. But there’s a disconnect.

Oates: I agree. Well, there’s a disconnect, but they were also very conservative. So the conservatism has to do with new scientific ideas and with women’s suffrage, too. It wasn’t just racism.

So let’s just say sort of general conservatism, which is fear of change, fear of radical change. But then at the same time in the novel there’s the socialists and the sort of revolutionaries and the young radicals, like Upton Sinclair and Jack London and some others.

They represent this new, really energized, very exciting and sort of a youth movement. It was like the socialist collegiate organization that Upton Sinclair was involved in, and Jack London was the president of that.

So it wasn’t all white people. Not all white people were like that, because the socialists felt that all people were brothers, and probably brothers. I think they also felt that women should have the vote. But they believed in free love, which is extremely revolutionary and radical and a taboo subject.

So it wasn’t just these – the white people were more than just these white people. There were some other people as well.

Tavis: I want to come away from the book. As you can see, I’m fascinated by this notion of conscientious people not being able to connect with their own –

Oates: Yes.

Tavis: I want to come away from the book for just a second, and speaking of the accursed, as I was going through this the other day on a plane, a couple plane rides, I put the book down. I’m reading your book and I’m reading a couple newspapers and a couple magazines. I’m on the plane, just doing a bunch of reading, and I started, things just started criss-crossing.

Oates: Oh, that (unintelligible).

Tavis: I’m thinking about “The Accursed,” and I’m thinking about how as a nation, as Americans who make up this country, that we are going to find ourselves one day being accursed if we don’t connect to our own consciousness about things that are happening that we’re turning a blind eye to.

Be it Guantanamo, be it the use of drones, be it the exponential growth of poverty. I wonder if you might come up from the text for just a second and get you to offer your thoughts on the challenge to us in this historic moment to connect to our own consciousness and humanity. Does that make sense?

Oates: Yes, I think so. Well, I think that our nation, over the generations and over the decades, has been pretty good, pretty liberal and pretty generous in terms of sending foreign aid all around the world and doing many things.

So we have a really good record. Of course, we have a negative record of imperialist expansion and wars, but basically I think of our nation as sort of enormous, and maybe blundering. Like an enormous creature that can make a mistake.

For some reason, voters can be brainwashed, and they vote sometimes against their own best interests, let alone voting against the interests of people who need them, like people who are disenfranchised and people who are poor and so forth.

People who are disenfranchised politically and people who are poor often don’t vote. They often don’t elect politicians, so the politicians who are supporting them are really being very charitable, because they’re not going to give them billions of dollars in campaign funds.

It’s like being an animal rights activist. If you’re nice to animals and you support animals, animals are never going to vote for you. Animals are never going to give you any money. It’s sort of something that you’re doing out of the goodness of your heart.

Tavis: But charity and justice are two different things, though.

Oates: Charity and –

Tavis: Charity and justice –

Oates: – and justice.

Tavis: – are two different things, though. Philanthropy and justice, throwing them a bone is different than reveling in their humanity –

Oates: Absolutely.

Tavis: – and treating them as they ought to be treated, as fellow citizens.

Oates: Absolutely. Well, I think that American – foreign aid, probably, though, as an attempt to help people reestablish their economies. Throwing somebody a bone I agree is not the best way of doing it. The idea would be to give them some sort of employment so they can buy their own bones.

Tavis: There you go, I like that. Teach them how to fish, and not just throw them some fish every now and then, as they say.

Oates: Absolutely.

Tavis: The new one from Joyce Carol Oates. Every time she writes one, it’s an automatic instant “New York Times” world best seller. This one’s called “The Accursed,” a novel, and I think that you will find it juicy and delicious to read. Joyce Carol Oates, good to have you back on this program.

Oates: Thank you so much.

Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: May 9, 2013 at 6:08 pm