Renowned Author Joyce Carol Oates Schools UNCW Student Writers with Creative Q&A

Monday, November 01, 2010

"One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, as soon as a certain committee comes to its senses," is how UNCW Professor of English John Clifford introduced famed author Joyce Carol Oates, referring to her three nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. The prolific Oates, who has more than 50 published novels, collections of short stories, essays, poetry and books for young adults under her belt, was speaking to students at the University of North Carolina Wilmington Oct. 29.

Dressed in a striking turquoise lace top, Oates was an almost ethereal presence in the stark white classroom of Kenan Hall. Throughout her talk, her language was peppered with words like psyche, oscillates, mythical, subjective and algorithmic – all of which could be used to describe Oates' style.

Oates was quick to dispel the notion that she grew up in a dysfunctional family - a common misinterpretation because of the compelling, emotionally intense, often morbid subject matter of her work. On the contrary, she told the students, she grew up in a happy home in the farm country of upstate New York, wanting to be a teacher. "I was grounded in the world of books and school. Professional writing didn't exist at the time, a writing career seemed vaporous and elusive," she said.

Oates did indeed grow up to be both a teacher and a professional writer. A professor of humanities and creative writing at Princeton University, she said she likes teaching workshops because of the surprises that arise from various literary interpretations. "Eleven different points of view on a single piece of work can provide a reality check the writer can't reach alone," she said.

In terms of writing as a career, she advises would-be authors to have a back-up plan, pointing out that Hemingway was also a journalist. Oates' best pupil is a microbiology student whose work crosses two disciplines. She also encourages her students to step outside of writing, noting that "too much anxiety leaves no space for writing."

She said writing starts through reading, "Storytelling begins when being read to as a child, something triggers, makes one later want to contribute to that process…stories come from somewhere other than you," she explained.

When asked about her highly anthologized short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?," a work inspired by three murders committed by Charles Schmid in Arizona, Oates said she read about the incident in Life magazine. She was drawn to the story because it was about a serial killer at a time when the concept of serial killers didn't exist. "I was fascinated by the strange bond of silence – that the young protected him," she said. She told the students she didn't want to tell "a Germanic Death and the Maiden tale," referring to a medieval German engraving from which she took her initial title for the story, so she wrote "an American story set in shopping malls and restaurants."

Offering more insight to her craft, she explained that "Characters don't come from news stories. They are reports of events, the brain crafts characters. The human personality is limitless…some items need described once, with others the description lingers." Once she seriously starts writing a piece, she said she never stops and usually starts writing with the ending in mind. "It's tough having a 'how to finish without giving up philosophy'," she said.

Not surprisingly, she encouraged the audience to simply write - every day. "If a bulldozer has just run you over, you can still write – even if traumatized, exhausted, the memoir can be that outlet," she said. "One certainly can't write an ambitious novel in that state, but there's always a genre you can do. The work is what comes out of that state."

Oates' visit to the UNCW campus was part of the university's Buckner Lecture Series and co-sponsored by the Department of English and the Department of Creative Writing. She held an afternoon Q&A session with writing students and delivered a sold out evening lecture and book signing on Oct. 29.

Photos: UNCW/Caroline Cropp, for additional images/info.