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One of the most prolific writers of our time, Joyce Carol Oates has written more than fifty novels over her long career, as well as stories, essays, poems, and plays. Now, at age 77, the award-winning author has penned her first book dedicated to her own upbringing. She recalls her youngest days on a farm in upstate New York, marked by freedom, exploration, and her first encounters with death and loss. What emerges is a portrait not only of one young writer’s development, but of the ways in which public discourse has shifted in the decades since, on issues from gender equality to suicide to the freedom we give our children. Author Joyce Carol Oates on how her childhood shaped her six-decade writing career, and what she says growing up in today’s world could mean for the young writers of tomorrow.
From “The Lost Landscape” by Joyce Carol Oates Copyright © 2015 by The Ontario Review, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a voice treatment. In her new book, Joyce Carol Oates write about the paradox of the memoir. She writes "it's retrospective vision, which is its strength, is also its weakness." In this memoir, she explores her childhood and adolescence. She recalls the people and the places most significant to her. Looking back, she sees how different her early days were from those of so many young people today and she wonders how a technology-driven, over-protected world may affect the next generation of American writers.
MS. SUSAN PAGEHer memoir is titled, "The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of Age." And author, Joyce Carol Oates, joins me here in the studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. JOYCE CAROL OATESThank you.
PAGEWe invite our listeners not only to listen to us, they can also watch a live stream of this interview at our website, drshow.org. And later, you can call our toll-free number and join our conversation. That number is 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, this new book, "The Lost Landscape," has, on its cover, a picture of you as a little girl with a very particular look on her face. What is that girl thinking?
OATESWell, I think I was feeling very shy at the moment. My father was taking my picture and I just was overcome by shyness so I was sort of ducking my head.
PAGEYou look shy, but you're smiling.
OATESI'm smiling. Well, probably my father was teasing me. He was very funny and very sweet and warm and he liked to tease and he was probably just saying some funny thing to make me laugh.
PAGEYou have -- you titled this memoir, "The Lost Landscape." What is lost about this landscape?
OATESWell, I got feeling very, very emotionally engaged and maybe even a little upset in writing the memoir. It just took me back into the past and though I'm certainly no longer a young person, I felt very young, very vulnerable, very much like a child in writing it and in evoking so many things I'd lost. Well, the farm is lost, the farm house is gone. The land is now used for something else.
OATESAll my family's gone, except my brother. Basically, everyone is just lost, just gone.
PAGEYou write in this book that the effort of writing a memoir is fraught with peril. We have forgotten most of our lives. But I wonder if in the act of writing this memoir if you remembered things you thought you had forgotten.
OATESWell, the interesting thing is, and this may be true for all people, I have a very strong visual imagination so if I close my eyes and try to re-envision my childhood room in our house or the look from a window or the backyard or a swing that I once swung on that my father built, I can really see things in my memory that I couldn't remember in a more conventional way. In other words, I think there is some part of the brain that is evoked by visual memories.
OATESNot so much auditory, but visual. So it's almost like an exercise. If you close your eyes tight and try to imagine your childhood room, your bed, the little window and so forth, you probably can see it. And then, from that point, you walk to the door and turn left or right, walk into the living room or the kitchen or down the stairs, you can take yourself on a kind of virtual tour of your childhood house and you start seeing things that you would not remember where there until you actually see them.
OATESNow, that I'm speaking in a -- it sounds almost mystical what I'm saying, but I think it's perhaps just a conventional neurological memory exercise.
PAGEAnd, of course, different things can bring these memories back, right? Seeing a photo that reminds you of how something looked, or smelling a smell, I think, can sometimes evoke a memory.
OATESThat's right. I think even more primary than the visual is all the olfactory -- that's true. I'm glad you mentioned that. Yes, the smell of some flower, like lilac or hay, hay that has been in the sun, the smell of a barnyard, chicken feed and things like that for me, because I grew up on a farm, all these things really evoke a good deal. But it's quite amazing how you could actually start seeing things in your memory that you don't seem to know that you remember until you do this exercise.
PAGEYou mention chicken feed. There's actually this amazing chapter early in this book about your pet, and unusual pet, a pet chicken called Happy Chicken. And one of the things that makes this chapter especially amusing is that it's written from Happy Chicken's perspective.
OATESYes. I wanted to write about things that happened when I was about four or five years old from the perspective of the little girl who's only four or five. Very little could actually be communicated so I needed a perspective that was not the little girl, but was very intimate and very much in the family. So I chose to write about the chicken who was my pet chicken. Like, obviously, is a very fictitious...
PAGEHappy Chicken didn't actually write this chapter.
PAGEI think we recognize that.
OATESWell, also the strange thing is that Happy Chicken was always considered a "he," like a little boy, but thinking about it now, obviously, the chicken was a hen because that chicken was not a rooster so it had to be a hen. Yet, the convention in our household, for some reason, was that Happy Chicken was a little male, like a little brother or something. Just one of these strange things about childhood. Then, another very, very strange thing, which I still -- I think about a lot is that obviously we were raising chickens and we were selling eggs and we were also eating chickens.
OATESBut I have no memory whatsoever of chickens being slaughtered. I have no memory. I have sort of a vague memory of a chopping block, I think, but it's almost psychopathological. I just can't remember. And my parents said, in later years, well, Joyce, we ate chicken all the time and you must remember that. I do remember eating chicken and I remember chicken soup, but I have no memory of the slaughter of the chickens. I guess it was just too horrific and I couldn't assimilate it.
PAGEAnd Happy Chicken, it's a hard life to be a chicken on a farm because you're not usually a lifelong pet, if you know what I mean. What happened to Happy Chicken?
OATESWell, in the chapter, Happy Chicken is allowed to fly away because Happy Chicken has been emblematic of my childhood and so much in my childhood just dissolves and flies away when I'm a little older and I start to go to the library in Lockport, New York. I'm reading books. I'm beginning to be more, you know, I'm an older child. I'm, like, six years old or seven years old. Then, when I was eight or nine years old, I was given Louis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass."
OATESAnd that was really a complete break because now I was in a -- catapulted into a very different world of the imagination in contrast to the world of the farm and the household.
PAGEAnd "Alice in Wonderland" as a really important book, the book in which you discovered the power of book and set you, in a way, on the course that you've followed your life. What is it about "Alice in Wonderland," do you think, that sparked that reaction in you?
OATESWell, I still have a great deal of excitement when I see the book. I still have the book my grandmother gave me. It's slightly over-sized. It's got a beautiful cover with illustrations of all the animals and Alice in the middle on the cover and the wonderful drawings by John Tenniel. And as soon as I opened it, I think I just fell in love with it. I memorized every page. If I shut my eyes now, I can see those drawings. I can see the print. I could recognize the font. Everything is completely very, very deeply imprinted in my brain.
OATESI had not anticipated anything like this. I may have had children's books before this that my grandmother gave me, but I have no memory of them at all. It's really just -- it's as if this is the first book that I ever saw in my life and it's very central.
PAGEYou write about going to the Lockport Public Library, drawing your forefinger across the spines of books. You've just mentioned still having that copy of "Alice in Wonderland" with the pages to turn. Is it different now, do you think, when so many people read books on devices, in digital devices as opposed to having that paper copy with a spine that you can run your forefinger along?
OATESWell, we're living in a very different era, one of multiplicity and mass production. When I was little, particularly in our farmhouse life, which was not a very literate life, there were almost no books. So when I went to a one-room schoolhouse, there were not very many books. So each book had a talismanic significance and was very special. As it happened, some of the books I had were literally special, like the "Alice in Wonderland," and a collection of stories by Edgar Allen Poe, "The Gold Bug," and other stories by Edgar Allen Poe.
OATESThose books were actually in my house. Now, as I said, they have a talismanic significance as an object almost of art or something that's sacred or reverent. I feel reverence for these. In a world of mass production and multiplicity, a single book would not have that value.
PAGEWe're talking with Joyce Carol Oates. She's the author of more than 50 novels, including "We Were The Mulvaneys," "Blonde," and "The Accursed." She is, at this semester, visiting distinguished professor of writing in the graduate program at New York University and she's also on the faculty at Princeton. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones. We'll take some of your calls and questions. You can call our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850.
PAGEYou can also watch video of this hour. It's live streaming on our website, drshow.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with us in the studio this hour, Joyce Carol Oates talking about her new book. It's titled, "The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of Age." And before the break, we talked about Happy Chicken, uncertain future that Happy Chicken may have had on the farm. In your book, you do talk about your first exposure to death -- both of animals on the farm but also of people you loved, like your grandfather. Tell us about how that shaped your understanding of death moving forward.
OATESWell, I think it must be the case for many children that death is so profound that there is no way to comprehend it. And so we look to the adults and try to see how the adults are dealing with it. And all I can remember is that my family is very reticent. They were warm and loving, my -- both my parents. But they didn't really talk openly about things. In a way, we may have had secrets in the family. I mean, I think we did have secrets. They didn't really talk openly. So I probably was just sort of adrift, shall we say. I probably didn't really know what to think.
OATESI remember my grandmother crying. I've never seen her cry before and it was so frightening. I think I actually ran out of the room. I just don't know anything more than that. But in subsequent years, of course, when I was older, my -- I talked about these things with my parents. But at the time -- the actual experience as a child, I think, was very confused.
PAGEYou write about both of your parents at some length and with great affection in this book. And I wonder if you would perhaps read us a section that you've written that talks about your father.
OATESYes. This is called Fred's Signs. My father's name was Fred Oates. '"Daddy! Can I try?" And your father will hand you one of his smaller brushes, its thick-feathery tip dipped in red paint, and a piece of scrap plywood, and on the plywood you will try conscientiously to "letter" as your father lettered -- precisely and unhesitatingly, with deft twists of his wrist. But in your inexpert hand the paint brush wavers, and the lettering is wobbly and childish. The bright red flourish of Daddy's letters, the subtle curls and tucks of his brush stokes, will be impossible for you to imitate at any age.
OATES"This evening after supper in a season when the sky is still light, when you have left your room in the farmhouse and crossed to your father's sign shop in the old hay barn -- not a shop but just a corner of the barn that has been converted into a two-vehicle garage with a sliding overhead door. The shop isn't heated of course. Your father seems virtually immune to cold. He never wears a hat even in winter when icy winds lower the temperature to below zero and he often doesn't wear an overcoat. Though he has to briskly rub his hands sometimes when he's painting signs.
OATES"When he isn't working at Harrison Radiator in Lockport -- 40-hour weeks plus time-and-a-half on Saturdays -- Fred Oates is a freelance sign painter whose distinctive style is immediately recognizable in the Lockport/Getzville/East Amherst area, particularly along the seven-mile stretch of rural Transit Road from Lockport to Millersport.
OATES"It's fascinating to you, to observe your father preparing his signs. Some are so large they have to be propped up on a bench against a wall, smooth rectangular surfaces on which he has laid two coats of shiny white paint. Then, bars straight-penciled with a yardstick, between which he will inscribe his flawless letters: Garlock's Family Restaurant, 5 Miles. Eimer Ice, We Deliver. Fullenweider Dairy. Kohl's Farm Produce, 2 Miles. Cloverleaf Inn."
PAGEEIMER ICE, We Deliver -- this is a reading from "The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of Age," by Joyce Carol Oates. Thanks for reading that. You wrote that your father was the quintessential American male of his time. How so?
OATESOh, and also of his place and his economic level. Well, he embodied all the traits that we associate with a traditional male. He was very, very protective of his family. He was extremely masculine in his interests. For instance, he liked boxing very much. He was friendly with a middle-weight boxer. He watched boxing matches on television. And I watched the boxing matches with him. He was a man who would not back down from a fight.
OATESAnd, in 2015, it sounds very extreme or even bizarre that a man would be fighting with his fists, but men in my father's world and in that time, in the 1950s, they did fight, actually. They went out to taverns, they drank, they got in fights and they fought with one another. So that's what I meant by quintessential male of a kind.
PAGEAnd tell us about your mother.
OATESOh, my mother was the sweetest person. She was extremely warm and loving. She, herself, had been given away when she was not even a year old. She was given away by her mother because there were nine children in the family -- or maybe 10 children in the family, and she had to be given away by her mother. Her father had been murdered in a tavern fight. This was a long, long time ago, I think about 1912, in Buffalo, N.Y., in the Black Rock section of Buffalo, N.Y., which was a Hungarian section. And they were all Hungarian immigrants from Eastern Europe. And I guess we could say, by our standards today, it was a very rough time.
OATESSo sometimes babies were just given away to people who wanted babies, because the families were too large. And when my grandfather was murdered, there wasn't -- just not enough resources. So my mother was given away. So all through her life, I think, she felt that deep wound and loss that her own mother had not wanted her. And she tried to see her own mother a few times, but her biological mother would not see her -- maybe out of embarrassment or shame or something. These are things that they didn't talk about. So I didn't really know anything about this until I became much older.
OATESWhen I was an adult -- quite an adult, maybe in my 50s -- is when I learned about some of these things. Really quite -- quite disturbing. Anyway, my mother, I think, more than compensated for the sorrow of her early life by being an extra-specially loving person.
PAGEThis was, in fact, an extraordinary secret that your family kept -- not first that your -- not only that your mother had been given away as an infant, which she knew but didn't tell you about for many years...
PAGE...but also that your grandfather was murdered.
OATESYes. Those things were not talked about. But many things were not talked about. You know, we have such an articulate society today and particularly when people are in an academic world, this is basically all verbal. And we have 24-hour news. And people are talking, giving their opinions constantly. We have to remember that there are parts of the world, even today, where people don't really talk a lot. They're working. They work with their hands, they do their jobs, and they live in the present. It would not at all have been normal in any way for my parents to sit around and reminisce about something that happened 30 or 40 years ago.
OATESBasically, we didn't have that kind of world. It wasn't that kind of consciousness. The idea of therapy, for instance, where you're dragging back over the past and raking around in your early years, that just didn't exist. Maybe because this is a more of like a pioneer world where there was so much work to do. On a farm, there's always work to do. And in the household, there was always work to do. There wasn't really the opportunity for people to be mulling about the past. So these things became secrets in a way de facto because they weren't talked about.
PAGEBut, you know, sometimes I think there can be a secret in the family that is never acknowledged or discussed but which has a huge impact. And especially with kids, there'll be a secret -- they don't even know exactly what the secret is -- but it affects them in ways that they could spend a lifetime trying to figure out. Was that the case with you with some of these things that just were not discussed in your family?
OATESWell, that may have been. I think there were -- there are a number of things that happened, which I talk about a little bit in the memoir. But I've also written about them in fiction, usually disguised. I think that's true, but maybe it's quite common. Maybe everybody's family has secrets. And writers are sharply attuned to absences, like things not said. I do remember coming into rooms and people -- adults stopping what they were talking about. So that was something I do remember. And of course that's an absence of speech. So what's not being said? Well, the imagination is stirred by that. It may have been that what they said was quite banal and ordinary and it would not have been that significant.
OATESHowever, because they stopped talking, it made me wonder. And I was quite a quiet little girl really. And so I did a lot of imagining. And once I had my "Alice in Wonderland" books, I started drawing and I had tablets full of drawings of cats and chickens, and they all had their own complicated, secret lives. I had a Tolstoyan fervor. I just covered pages after pages in my drawings and my scribblings. I couldn't write yet, but I was scribbling ferociously. So my mother saved these tablets and I looked at them years later and I thought, it's almost as if this little child who can't write is scribbling out "War and Peace," but she had no idea what she's doing.
PAGEWell, it's a remarkable -- that's a remarkable story because you became such an accomplished writer and such a prolific writer. And I wonder, with your -- would your parents ever have thought: Oh, here's our little girl, I bet she'll grow up to be a famous writer.
OATESNo, no. Not at all. My parents didn't even graduate from high school. I think they dropped out in eighth grade. Nobody in our family went to high school and nobody really had books. Only my grandmother, who turned out to be -- we didn't know it at the time -- she was Jewish. She didn't -- that was a secret also. I only found out that my wonderful, beloved grandmother, who gave me so many books and gave me a typewriter, she was Jewish. She was from Berlin. But I didn't know that until after she had died.
PAGEDo you have a theory on what makes a writer and what made -- given that background -- not even books in the home, no expectation that you would go to college or perhaps even graduate from high school -- what makes you a writer? What made you do this?
OATESWell, writing I think begins out of reading. And reading intensifies our experience. We suddenly feel that we're catapulted into another world. We have the real world in which we're living but then you open the book and you step through a magical doorway, you're in a different world and it's language that draws you in. So I think that almost magical, mystical experience of reading is what makes a writer. That the writer then replicates or mimics that experience. So I'm not reading children's books any longer but I could possibly write a children's book. In other words, you have a model before you and then you imitate it in some way.
OATESOur species -- like maybe all primates -- are very likely to imitate. We have a predilection for imitating. You know, the truism is monkey see, monkey do. That's very much a primate attribute.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. And in fact, let's go to the phones and talk first to Walter, who's calling us from Providence, R.I. Walter, you're on the air.
WALTERHello. Thank you for taking my call. (unintelligible) , I'm a huge fan. I've loved your writing. I think it's exquisite. And I wanted to ask you about your short stories in particular, because I just feel like your such a master and you develop these characters that are so vivid. And I think of stories like "Little Wife," "April," "Curly Red," "In the Warehouse," and another one I just reread recently, called "Hostage." And I don't know if you can recall, Bruno Sokolov, a character in that short story. You spend about two-and-a-half pages describing him in such a vivid detail and I wonder how you do that.
WALTERI know you rewrite a lot. So are you, I mean, it's all put together so beautifully and seamlessly. Do you have to reread the paragraph over and over to make sure it all fits together. How do you do that?
OATESWell, as I was saying a few minutes ago, I think I have a really strong visual imagination and maybe that everybody does. So if you were to describe something in words that you see, you'd find that the language that you use to be very precise and you might revise it and make it sharper. That's basically what I'm doing. I also have very -- a sharply realized settings. I like to see where the people are, I like to describe the landscape or the interior of a house. I find that very exciting and very thrilling. And that's one of the reasons that I write is to sort of replicate things that might exist. Of course, they're also imagined. They're partly real and partly imagined.
OATESWhat a wide range of story titles you mention. That's quite vertiginous.
PAGEWalter, thanks very much for your call. Let's talk to Patty. She's calling us from Houston, Texas. Patty, thanks for holding on.
PATTYOh, my pleasure. I just wanted to thank Ms. Oates because she's an instrumental part of my life without her even knowing it. When I was six years old and in first grade, back then you had some rudimentary learning in the kindergarten level but luckily my parents had put me in front of "Sesame Street." And my folks are Mexican immigrants. So, if you can imagine, a four-year-old being able to speak perfect English by the time she was five and a half and, to the point that my parents were so worried they took me to the doctor and they said, why is she speaking perfect English? We don't understand.
PATTYAnd then the doctor, I mean, the doctor explained to them, well, probably all that "Sesame Street." And, sure enough, it was. But the second most important part of my literary life was in first grade. And back then, in the 70s, this was 1976, there was some sort of effort among book publishers to do, like, these literary -- how should I say? -- these little public relations projects. And I remember reading a supplement for children. And it was a short story by Joyce Carol Oates. I can't tell you for the life of me what it was about. But I remember reading it. And I had read, before, children's material, but this was different. It was sophisticated. It was like, oh, this is something about the adult world.
PAGEThat's so interesting, Patty. "Sesame Street" and Joyce Carol Oates being big factors in your life. Do you remember this effort to introduce works of literature to children?
OATESYes, I think I do. I think it was a very short, short story. And it was a great idea. It's very wonderful to hear that.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. When we come back, we'll go back to the phones, we'll read some of your emails and we'll continue our conversation with Joyce Carol Oates about her new book. It's called "The Lost Landscape." Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Joyce Carol Oates. She's written a new memoir about growing up. It's called "The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of Age." Earlier in the hour, you read a section of the book that talked about your dad and his work, making signs that you would then see along the community way. A caller named John and some others have sent us emails, asking us, where can we see images of her father's signs or other pieces of the landscape you grew up with. Can you still find your dad's signs? Do you ever see them anywhere?
OATESNo, this was a long time ago. It was very sad. Each time I went home, I would drive along Transit Road and see these signs, and then as the years went by, of course, after my father was no longer living, the signs just gradually disappeared.
PAGEHere's an email from -- that's the fate of signs, I guess. Here's an email from Charlie, who writes us in Washington, D.C. He writes, I grew up in Buffalo, about an hour south of Ms. Oates' home town of Lockport. The nearness of one of the world's great spectacles, Niagara Falls, had a significant influence on my youth, and I'm wondering whether the falls had a similar impact on her.
OATESWell, I wrote a novel called "The Falls." Yes, it's very much evoking those emotions and memories and just the visceral reality of the falls. In fact, I visited the falls just a few months ago, and you never, ever get over the astonishing power of Niagara Falls. I wrote a whole novel about it.
PAGEThis is a memoir, talks very much about specific people, the sense of place, of where you grew up. But if someone had read a lot of the fiction that you've written, would they recognize things that you tapped from your childhood that then became characters or places in the books you wrote?
OATESWell, that's a good question. I think writing is giving form to feelings and emotions. It's a little like a musical phenomenon, where you may be writing something out of a state of mind, but you will not necessarily choose a literal manifestation. So I've written many, many times about girls and women, or maybe boys and even men, who are threatened and abused and assaulted, and all that is part of my background.
OATESBut I've almost never written directly or literally about these things. What -- the fiction writer choose emblematic subjects that are emotionally equivalent to the originals but not identical.
PAGEYou write in the memoir about a family called the Judds who do seem like characters from a book, I've got to say, yeah.
OATESThat's right. Yeah, that's right.
PAGETell us about the Judds.
OATESWell, I've changed names, and I've changed the location of where they live, just a very poor family and probably not so uncommon, in which the father drank and was abusive to the children. The mother worked. She was pretty strong, a physically strong woman, I think maybe not so mentally strong, which is very sad. This is the kind of dysfunctional family that today would be dealt with by social workers, and maybe the children would've been put into foster care. I guess they would be have put -- they would have been put into foster care, but none of that existed then. We didn't have those social welfare, those provisions didn't exist then.
PAGEAnd I want to talk just briefly about a terrible tragedy in your childhood, which was the death of a good friend, Cynthia, and also something that involved some of the -- I think some of the secrets that you talked about earlier that a family -- that a community can keep. Tell us about Cynthia and why she looms as such an important figure for you.
OATESWell, when I cast my thoughts back over the past, there are mysteries, like why did this person do that, why did this person never talk to me, why did this person disappear. And I think writing the memoir was an opportunity to deal with these unsolved mysteries. So why did my friend from high school just stop writing to me? Why did she sort of drift away from me? Why did I really never see her again? Why did she kill herself? I mean, all these questions just have no answers, I think.
OATESWhen there's a suicide, especially in the past, within a family, it's very, very, very traumatic, and nobody would talk about it. I mean, they would never have talked about it. These things were not reported in newspapers. When students, for instance, at Cornell University would throw themselves into the gorge, off the footbridge, that was never reported. How many suicides might there have been? My chapter is basically about a time when things were not spoken of.
OATESBut she was my friend in different ways, and I remember the great excitement and thrill that I felt when she had asked me to accompany her. She was going to be playing violin, and she was going to be playing a musical instrument, it wasn't a violin, but I was supposed to accompany her on the piano, and then suddenly one day she said that she'd found someone else.
OATESSo basically it was just these different, unresolved mysteries that still sort of are -- they're sort of unresolved in my heart, so to speak.
PAGEWe have an emailer, Emma, who asks, why did you decide to focus on your childhood and adolescence? And I wonder if it might be because you had these mysteries, and you wanted to figure them out.
OATESWell, I did write a memoir a few years ago called "A Widow's Story," and that's about losing my husband of 46 years, Raymond Smith. That has a lot about my adult life, with some -- with a lot of background material about when I met my husband, Raymond. So that dealt with quite a bit of my adult life. This is about a coming-of-age of a writer. That's the subject. So naturally I would write about my childhood and where I went to school and what I was reading and what I was reading in graduate school. I can remember all those things very vividly. So it's part of what makes a writer, I think, that was the motive.
PAGELet's go to another caller. We'll talk to Ann, she's calling us from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Ann, hi, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
ANNHi, thank you so much. I am -- I am just so full of respect and admiration for you, Ms. Oates. Thank you so much for writing, and thank you so much for "A Widow's Story," which I just read, and I was riveted and deeply moved. And I was really struck by your writing about loss and the immediate panicked aftermath of loss, which is something I've also struggled with writing about. And I was wondering, how did you manage to create a container for that because I feel like it was -- you went to the absolute extremities of the experience, but yet I never got lost, and I never felt sort of overwhelmed by it.
ANNAnd I just wonder, did you have readers all along that you were offering your manuscript to, or did you just write it through and then make assessments later of what needed to be there, and what didn't? If you could speak to that, I would really appreciate it.
OATESWell, if you mean writing the memoir "A Widow's Story," basically I composed that maybe a year or so after the experiences. I had kept notes in a journal. I didn't necessarily know I was going to write a memoir. I couldn't write any fiction. I couldn't really sit still very long. I remember I just couldn't stay in one place. I was very, very anxious. After my husband died, it would not seem to be any reason to be anxious because the worst had already happened, and yet I couldn't really sit still, and I couldn't sleep very well.
OATESBut I could write in this journal. I would just write in long -- longhand. I wrote. I wasn't typing it. So I'd sort of write down what happened that day and what was going on in my life and maybe only one page long. And on each -- I did that each day, often very late at night when I couldn't sleep. I was teaching at that time. So I was really - my experience over that time was being very tired after my husband died. I think I was tired, actually for years.
PAGEAnn, thank you so much for your call. Here's an email from Hayley, who writes, I randomly stumbled upon Oates in the Virginia Quarterly Review in my first college writing class. Please talk about the role of such journals in your career. You were just mentioning the journals you wrote after the death of your husband. Talk about them more generally.
OATESWell, when I was really quite young, a freshman at Syracuse University, I went into the library reading room, and I discovered all these magazines. I discovered every little magazine, like Poetry magazine and Epoch and Paris Review and Partisan Review and Virginia Quarterly Review and Georgia Review and many, many, many others, Kenyon Review was very prominent.
OATESI didn't -- I had not known that they existed. So I started reading contemporary fiction in this way. So just reading the Kenyon Review, which came out four times a year, wonderful, wonderful journal, and then when I got a little older, I started sending my stories. The first one came out in Epoch magazine, which is still published at Cornell. It's an excellent magazine with a long history.
PAGELet's talk to Mickey. He's calling us from Rochester, New York. Mickey, you're on the air.
MICKEYThank you, Susan, it's a she, though.
PAGEAll right, thanks. Thanks for calling us.
MICKEYThank you for taking my call. It's a real honor to speak with you, Ms. Oates, and I am -- I have always wondered where your stories come from in their variability. The subjects may always be the characters, but the settings and the times and the involvements just seem so different. They're unlike anyone else that I'm familiar with. I remember reading "Bellefleur" when I was young and thinking this cannot be the same woman. And it's just astounding to me.
MICKEYAnd I wonder, is that for a particular reason? Am I seeing something that you don't even think is much of anything? Is there something that motivates you to do it? Or -- I was just so curious.
OATESWell, thank you. I'm interested in different forms of fiction. So "Bellefleur" represents a family epic in a Gothic, post-modernist style for which you need a large landscape, you need a large canvas of people. The scenes are likely to be quite lofty, American themes of transcendental experience, mysticism, capitalism. And -- but then I'm also interested perhaps in writing a novella, which is a very scaled-down canvas with just a few people. And short stories have ever fewer characters. And I sometimes write poetry, which might be a monologue, which is basically one character.
OATESSo it's a matter of these different forms, and I have so many stories to tell. I have maybe 400 pages of notes just brimming with ideas and stories and little novels. So for me it's just a matter of finding the time and finding the voice. And I just finished a novel that's about an amnesiac and the neuroscientist who works with him, and she's a woman scientist. He becomes her life's career, and she always falls in love with him.
OATESSo for that, I found a language that's appropriate to sort of research science, and I did a good deal of reading in neuroscience.
PAGEMickey, thanks so much for your call. I'm Susan Page, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. You mentioned you have all these novels brimming in you, just waiting to be written. And of course you're an enormously prolific writer. When you finish a novel, as you've just recently done, do you have a period of peace and rest and recovery, or what happens at that point?
OATESWell, that's a good question because I'm in that stage now. I think I feel sort of waiting for the next rush of emotion. You can't really write about anything unless you almost fall in love with it and become deeply haunted. So I'm just kind of resting. I mean, we can imagine -- one can imagine a body of water, like a lagoon, and then there's this little boat just sort of tied up at the dock, and it's just kind of -- the waves are sort of gentle.
OATESThe little boat has just had quite a workout, going through a thunderstorm across really deep waves, and now the little boat is just kind of near the shore with very gentle waves. However, the little boat will get very bored in that situation.
PAGEAnd head out to sea again.
OATESAnd basically set out to sea, yes, that's true.
PAGEYou -- in writing about your childhood, you were not exactly overprotected. You had a lot of freedom to roam and to explore. You write about a daredevil recklessness in those days. And that's very different to the experience that a lot of kids have these days in terms of being kind of protected by their families. And I wonder what you think the impact of that is going to be for the next generation of writers.
OATESWell, I don't know. Maybe just like the next generation of people overall. When I think back upon some of the things that we did, which were really reckless and dangerous and silly and stupid, and our parents had no idea what we were doing. I mean really, I remember one contest, I guess you would call it, competition, where children or young teenagers would get -- crawl up on the roof of an abandoned house and walk around the roof and then jump off the edge of the roof.
OATESAnd I remember jumping off a porch roof and how hard the vibrations went up my legs. I mean, I can still feel it right now, and if I did it now, my leg would just break. And I -- it was so scary that nobody else would do it. So I won. I remember winning that competition because nobody else wanted to do it. But when I think back on it, I could've shattered both my knees. I could've broken my neck. My mother would have known nothing about it. We just wandered around, and we were bicycling a lot. I had accidents on my bicycle.
OATESOnce I came dragging home. My whole knee was completely cut up, and it was just bleeding because I had fallen and been dragged along by the bicycle in some grotesque way. Today, however, children are protected. So it's a different world.
PAGEWell, you know, a parent might listen to that story and with a chill going up the back of your neck when you think about a child doing that. On the other hand these are the experiences that made you who you are.
OATESWell, one could say that. I think that boys are even more reckless, and there have been studies about the brains of young boys, of teenagers, are not completely formed. And they egg one another on to these competitive contests that are sometimes very reckless and very dangerous, and sometimes they get killed.
PAGEYeah. Joyce Carol Oates, thanks so much for joining us this hour to talk about your new memoir. It's called "The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of Age." Thanks for being with us.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you all for listening.
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