Ghosts in the Canon: Joyce Carol Oates at the Chicago Humanities Festival
Prolific octogenarian writer and writing teacher Joyce Carol Oates (along with a brief appearance by one of her cats) engaged in an hour-long online chat with Chicago-based author Rebecca Makkai as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival on March 25, 2021.
Speaking in a Zoom box from Houston, Oates discussed her most recent short story collection The (Other) You and her poetry collection, the aptly-named American Melancholy, both published in February this year. She said that her short stories, featuring “kindred relationships,” represent “intensive emotional epochs in our lives that we can’t understand or control.” She referenced the COVID pandemic as well as the 2019 death of her husband Charlie Gross, a Princeton neuroscience professor.
Makkai noticed Oates’ consistent thread in the story collection, of a lurking sense of danger and dread, of things crumbling and not standing on solid bedrock, akin to Flannery O’Connor.
Oates agreed that The (Other) You is speculative fiction fraught with emotion and “intensely mortal” feelings, adding that she is a quite different person now than when she started writing. Now she is someone “shrouded with melancholy going into another dimension, like time travel.”
Ghosts in memory underpinned the evening’s conversation, and both Oates and Makkai remarked on this “posthumous time” we’re living in that could be considered morbid, yet Oates’ narratives have often proven prophetic. Oates’ 2019 New Yorker piece “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” featured characters wearing masks as a prophylactic against toxic soil, not far removed from the reality of toxic COVID air. She wrote that story while in Berkeley, inspired by the California wildfires, landslides and other extreme weather at the time.
Oates wished she could ask her neuroscientist husband about memory: why are the locations we recall and dream about never exactly like what exists in reality? “A tidal wave takes us off our feet,” Oates added, “into a place full of sinkholes, going where we don’t imagine.” When queried, she said she creates domestic realism from characters rather than concepts. “I write from a sense of being haunted,” she said, “and from a cocoon of darkness.”
Unlike Edgar Allan Poe, Oates’ ghosts aren’t wraith-like, but dragged from clichéd gothic tropes into daylight.
Throughout quarantine, Oates taught online classes about classic American stories, including by authors Jack London and Stephen Crane, and was a competition juror. She was also part of a book club that read War and Peace, 12 pages a day, and she enjoyed Tolstoy’s ambition, range and depth of empathy.
Oates also shared what she did during lockdown while not in an online classroom: running, her lifelong love. She said she’s happiest when running, past the cow fields outside of her residence in Princeton, saying “my heartbeat is normal then. Walking feels slow to me, like I’m in a net.”
Some of Joyce Carol Oates’ many accolades from over 60 books include the National Book Award, the National Medal of Humanities, and several Pulitzer Prize nominations. Some of her national fiction bestsellers include We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and the 2005 Prix Femina-winner The Falls. She is a Princeton University humanities professor and has been an American Academy of Arts and Letters member since 1978.
Upcoming Chicago Humanities Festival events include author George Saunders talking about his book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain on April 6: https://www.chicagohumanities.org/events/george-saunders-swim-pond-rain-book/ as well as Madeline Miller discussing her book Circe on May 18: https://www.chicagohumanities.org/events/madeline-miller-circe-book/