Joyce Carol Oates is famously prolific — how many author’s have a section titled “Productivity” on their Wikipedia page? The staggering number of novels, short story collections, volumes of poetry and non-fiction, novellas and plays are near impossible to tally, but sometimes the focus on the quantity of writing Oates has published distracts from the remarkably consistent quality of that writing. She began winning significant literary awards and honors over a half century ago and is still receiving them today — she was named a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist for fiction. The world is a vastly different place than it was when Oates first came on the scene in 1963, and yet she remains one of our most reliable literary talents. With her new novel, “The Lost Landscape” out this fall, NeueJournal Writer-in-Residence Gideon Jacobs sat down with Oates to discuss her career and the writing process behind it.
Gideon Jacobs: Do you enjoy the process of writing because it is difficult, or in spite of the difficulty?
Joyce Carol Oats: I enjoy the challenge of trying to find a voice that is suitable for a narrative and is reasonably original. Maybe there is a strain or challenge to finding a structure for it, so I spend a lot of time working on the voice. I’m really not exaggerating — I spend a lot of time finding the voice. People think that I write quickly but I actually don’t. I have to go through the process of trying about 8 different things. Then it works. It’s like flying: First you’re groping around on the floor like you’re pushing a peanut with your nose, but then the next time you’re flying. It’s a fantastic feeling but you have to do one before you do the other.
GJ: I’ve read that you don’t really experience writers block, a phenomenon that is such an inescapable part of the creative process for so many. Why do you think you are someone who does not get stuck?
JCO: I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe that some people are starting to write too soon. They haven’t done enough note-taking, thinking, meditating, outlining. An architect doesn’t just build a huge cathedral without plans. You don’t just start hammering some wood together. You have to have a plan.
GJ: So you think writers block is a result of poor preparation?
JCO: Inadequate preparation. Take notes and research before you start, then the writers block with just disappear.
GJ: Does your work leak into your life? Do your fictions leak into your realities? Or are you able to compartmentalize?
JCO: I don’t think I compartmentalize. Writing has to begin with thinking and I like to do my thinking when I’m walking or running. For instance I was walking around New York today, thinking, and when I sat down in a place where I could take notes, I put my thoughts into writing. And then later on, maybe tomorrow, I’ll type out my notes.
GJ: So many writers fear of facing the blank page but it sounds like you never really face the blank page.
JCO: Facing a blank page is paralyzing.
GJ: You’ve said that you always know how a story ends. So, does your creative process consist of figuring out the best route to that established end? Is there improvisation in that? Or, in some way, does the story feel complete as soon as the idea is born, and all you have to do is write it?
JCO: Yes, I know the endings. I might write little scenes and then I figure out where the chronology is but I always have the end and the beginning. So, the question is how do I get from ‘here’ to ‘there.’ A lot of it is organizational. Writing is almost sculptural — moving things around — and then its also like music — the pacing and rhythm.
GJ: You published your first book in 1963. The world is so radically different than it was in 1963. Do you feel as though you’ve changed as a writer to adapt to the changes in your audience? Or do you write the way you do isolated/independent from audience?
JCO: I never really thought about that. I think we all write for our own contemporaries, our generation or maybe for people that are a little older, so that’s basically who I am writing for. But I don’t think about the audience. I have to get the work to be correct in its own way, with its own integrity. Then if it finds an audience, that’s good, but I can’t worry about that.
GJ: Simply put, why do you write? Did becoming a writer feel like a calculated and deliberate choice or something beyond your control?
JCO: I don’t think it was a deliberate choice. I started writing and telling stories when I was really little. I began with crayon, just drawing. I had the desire to tell a story before I had a story to tell.
Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal