Susan Lerner


In the Kenyon Review, Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, “Writing is our way of assuaging homesickness,” and this is the quote that came to mind in the fall of 2015 when Oates read as part of Butler University’s Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series. At Clowes Hall, she read from her memoir, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, which tells of her childhood home and her formative years. She read with ease, pausing occasionally with a humorous aside. Oates, the serious-looking woman on the book jackets of countless dark novels, is funny.

In the introduction to The Best American Essays of the Century, an anthology Oates edited, she wrote: “Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” Oates carries this sentiment through in her novels and stories, which provoke and disturb by employing plots that often spark from an act of violence. The author’s empathetic prose never excuses her characters’ cruelty, but informs it by providing a window into their deepest hurts and desires.

Oates’s list of accomplishments, still growing after fifty years in the field, is so vast and unwieldy that it defies attempts to catalogue. Her work ethic embodies the historically American idea of success—a Horatio Alger story—that a dream can be achieved through perseverance and hard work. But Oates’s career also fits another narrative of success, that some individuals are born with a bounteous talent. In The Lost Landscape Oates reveals that as a girl she told stories by coloring pictures with her Crayolas because her desire to narrate came before she learned to write. Oates’s oeuvre fills bookshelves and includes novels, short story collections, memoirs, essays, and literary criticism. The New York Times has included dozens of her books on its list of notable books of the year, and other honors include the National Book Award; nominations for the Pulitzer Prize; the National Humanities Medal bestowed by President Obama; and the PEN Center USA Award for Lifetime Achievement.

After her reading, Oates fielded questions from the audience, and the next morning she sat in a room with thirty students to answer more questions. In this more casual setting she spoke about being a formalist. She explained that different stories call out for specific types of language, and that she is always seeking forms to tell the multitude of stories that crowd her head and fill her files at home. “I’m really happy when I’m running,” she said. “I get lots of ideas when I run.” Before Oates headed home she sat down with Booth.

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"A Conversation with Joyce Carol Oates" was originally published at Booth.