Joyce Carol Oates is a ledge!

Joyce Carol Oates at USF

For those of you not from Edinburgh, a “ledge” means  a legend. I saw Joyce Carol Oates yesterday at the  EIBF and make no mistake she is a legend. The first story I ever read by Joyce  was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I loved everything about it: the place, the characters, the tension, the story, the style, everything. It was published in 1966 and since then Joyce has written absolutely masses, including 57 novels, 20 collections of short stories, various poems and essays. Also, as of 2008 Joyce Carol Oates is the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities with the Program in Creative Writing at Princeton University, where she has taught since 1978. She has been nominated for and received many literary prizes and is an incredibly clever person with strong political opinions. Her two lastest books are a memoir called A Widow’s Story  (written after she lost her husband after 47 years together), and a novel called Mud Woman. Mud Woman is the story about a very successful woman’s breakdown and her recovery from it, albeit scarred (it is also a very political novel).

What to say about this legend? Well, first of, while I was sitting in the sun having my coffee, waiting to go into the book festival tent to see Joyce, she sat on the chair next to me and read the Financial Times and the Scotsman. I was tempted to ask her a quick five questions (hem!), but did not, there’s a time and a place for everything and this was neither. Before she left I did let her know how much I appreciated her writing and she very graciously thanked me.

'Catalunya és la joia de la corona', segons el Financial Times

Now back to the event:

Joyce  read from Mud Woman and talked about the structure of the novel – she likened discussing the structure a novel to examining the working behind a clock face.

The title Mud Woman came to her in dream: she dreamt of a sorrowful woman, who looked as if she had mud on her face. The image was so emotionally charged that when she woke up she started writing about it immediately.  She then couldn’t stop thinking about the image and was compelled to write about it some more.  This is the first time she has used an idea/image from her unconscious for a novel.

The novel is not so much autobiographical, it is, rather, her grandmother’s story – her grandmother was almost killed.

Ideas for novels/stories can’t be forced. It’s like falling in love. You can’t make yourself fall in love with someone, you either do or you don’t. It happens or it doesn’t. It’s the same with story ideas. You can’t write without that emotional charge.

Joyce  referred to a discussion at The Edinburgh Writer’s Conference  (the theme being Style versus Content) and said style in literary fiction is everything.

Joyce usually has the first and the last line of her novel when she begins. She then ‘constructs’ the bit in the middle. In Mud Woman she moves back and forward in time until the past catches up with the present. She also mixed styles – using at times a “fairy tale”style and at other times a  “realistic ” style.  And as with time in the novel, the styles also catch up with each other.

You can’t write without an evolving landscape and the landscape and setting (or place) are like characters.

Referring to style once more, Joyce praised the modified stream of consciousness style in  James Kelmans’s writing. She said she could not put down his latest book,  I think she was referring to Mo Said She was Quirky.

She said Kelman’s style was transparent and clear like water. James Joyce’s style, on the other hand, is like a rich and heavy liquid (she’d never been able to get past the first 50 pages of  Ulysses for that reason). Hemingway’s writing style meanwhile is simple, like chiseled ice and Faulkner’s style is rather like a long drunken but rich and sumptuous Southern drink.

It was great event. I feel very lucky to have been there and a big thanks again to Clicket for the ticket 🙂

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8 Responses to Joyce Carol Oates is a ledge!

  1. Nina Martyris says:

    Dear Marianne,

    Enjoyed your post. Thanks for writing it. I wanted to know if it was at this session that Oates made her remark about the US being a dinosaur with a large tail and small head? If she did, could you tell me something of the context and what it was she said. I read the quote in a tweet by the Guardian Books Editor and was intrigued.
    Best wishes,

    • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

      Hi Nina, thanks so much for stopping by. Yes, it was at this event she made that remark. She said such a lot about so much I focussed my post only on her comments to do with writing. She made the dinosaur remark towards the end of the event, when she was talking about politics again. She talked about how most of the US was Republican with only a few small patches of liberal thinkers or Democrats dotted in between. She said no right thinking person in the US could believe the US had gone to war again after the Vietnam War. She likened the US to a giant, lumbering, very dangerous dinosaur causing havoc around the world with its very large tail and tiny head (the tiny head suggesting “no brain”). It was not complimentary. She talked a lot about politics and political areas of neglect in our lives, as well as personal areas of neglect in our lives – a sort of psychological and physiological avoidance of doing things. It was really interesting (and this, I suppose, is what Mud Woman is really to do with). Hope that makes some sense? Thanks again for dropping by:)

  2. Very interesting blog post, nice insights into how she writes. i like her comments on style too!

  3. Carrie says:

    Great blog post! I have to admit that I have not heard of Joyce Carol Oates before (I know, I know…) and you have inspired me to get reading her work! Thank you.

    Also, very interesting point in the comments above about the US being likened to a dinosaur. I’ve just read A Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs and found the pressure he felt to conform to religion and religious thought in America quite unsettling (although I did love his beard!)

    • Marianne Wheelaghan says:

      Hi Carrie,lovely to hear from you here! There are so many really wonderful, interesting writes out there we can’t know them all, well not us normal, ordinary people anyway ;o)

      The AJ Jacobs book sounds fascinating, I might look it up – his beard sounds a tad intriguing too ;o)

  4. Marianne Wheelaghan says:

    yes, she is such an intelligent person, if not a little intimidating! And, a great writer, of course, in an accessible way – if you see what I mean 🙂

  5. Nina Martyris says:

    Hey Marianne,
    Thanks so much for replying and giving me all that info. I was really intrigued by what she said. And thanks for posting. For those of us who longed to, but couldn’t make it for, the Edinburgh festival, it’s wonderful to be able to read ring-side views and get a feel of the literary buzz.
    You’ve also made me want to read Mudwoman.

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