Online Exclusive

04.29.20
A Quarantine Collective Interview with Joyce Carol Oates
Conducted by the Students in Bradford Morrow’s Innovative Contemporary Fiction Class
INTRODUCTORY NOTE

For some thirty years I have taught a course on contemporary innovative fiction at Bard College. From the beginning, it’s been integral to my course design to invite a wide array of authors to join me in class, discuss their work with my students, and, afterward, give a public reading from their latest book or work in progress. Well over a hundred writers—David Foster Wallace, Kathy Acker, Richard Powers, Samuel R. Delany, Susan Sontag, John Barth, Lydia Davis, Jessica Hagedorn, William Gass, Michael Cunningham, to name a few—have generously spent time talking fiction, opening up about their creative lives, and connecting with young, sharp, intrepid readers eager to ask difficult questions.

     When the coronavirus outbreak caused Bard, along with other schools across the country, to move to remote teaching, my plan to host a campus visit with one of my closest longtime writer friends, Joyce Carol Oates, had to be canceled. Disappointed, we agreed to reschedule for the fall.  But then I had an idea. To salvage some semblance of a class visit, what if I asked my students to read her recent collection, Beautiful Days, and send me an email asking her a question about a favorite story, or about the fictive imagination, and I would forward them to Joyce for her responses? When I ran this idea past her, she floored me by suggesting I give them her personal email address and tell them to write her directly, cc’ing me so I’d have both questions and answers to discuss during our Zoom class on Monday, March 30. Needless to say, my students leapt at the opportunity.

     The results were beyond my expectations. Yes, the questions were generally as crisp, insightful, and well considered as I hoped they’d be, but they also bore a kind of edge, an urgency, a rich meaningfulness that the self-quarantine each of us was suddenly living under—most of the students back at home in Texas, Oregon, California, New Jersey, elsewhere—seemed to engender. And, in turn, Joyce’s intricate, personal, energetic responses—all written as the numbers of people stricken by COVID-19 rose along with the death toll—were charged with gravitas and depth, which our shared historic moment surely prompted. Curiously, our virtual class felt more real to me—as my students, compartmentalized by Zoom on my computer screen here in Greenwich Village, read aloud their questions and Joyce’s answers—than it normally would have, had we not been operating under the shadow of a deadly pandemic. 

     Before class was even over, I knew this probing if unexpected collective interview—for that was what it had morphed into—ought to be shared with other readers of Joyce Carol Oates’s work. What follows is the document, unedited but for the occasional typo, that emerged thanks to the students in my Lit. 333 course, Innovative Contemporary Fiction, for the spring semester of 2020.   

—Bradford Morrow



 



Danielle A. Martin: 

Dear Joyce Carol Oates,

I hope you are well. I’m delighted that you are still able to join our class despite the circumstances, as I interned with Conjunctions for a few years and I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to read your work throughout my undergraduate studies. I am a Written Arts major at Bard and your writing has been one of many sources of inspiration that has helped me develop my own writing. As a senior, I am currently working on a senior project, which is essentially an undergraduate thesis. For Written Arts students on the fiction track, this often takes the form of a novella or a collection of short stories. This was one of the primary reasons I was interested in Bard, and while it has been exciting and fulfilling, I've quickly discovered what a challenge it can be to write one’s first novella in only eight months.

     Regarding your collection of short stories, Beautiful Days, I am interested in how you create characters. The characters in my work tend to be Frankenstein-esque amalgamations of people I’ve known personally or people that I’ve eavesdropped on in cafes, libraries, or grocery store checkout lines. I tend to approach a piece of writing by first thinking about the people I’d like to write about or certain qualities of theirs that I’m interested in before I think about the plot. What struck me about the stories in Beautiful Days was the authenticity of the characters—I couldn’t help but wonder if they were refractions of the people you’ve encountered. If so, do you begin writing a piece by considering the type of person you’d like to write about, or is your inspiration for a piece rooted in an interest in a particular situation? What I mean by that is, do you begin by deciding the plot of a piece before the characters? For example, in “Big Burnt,” did you begin by wanting to write a story about a man who has decided to kill himself and so spends his final days with his former lover so that the inspiration for the characters came as a result of the plot? Or did you begin by thinking about a man like Mikael Brun or a woman like Lisbeth Mueller, with their hang-ups and obsessions, and the plot then was a consequence of thinking about how those two types of people would interact with each other in a stressful situation?

     The first three stories especially seemed to depict the complex interactions between the sexes in love, and while they weren’t explicitly political, I found myself interpreting their messages through a feminist lens as well as considering the role that class dynamics have on modern love. The message of those stories for me was a statement on how men and women are socialized, though I’m not sure if that was your intention when you wrote them. I was also wondering if the messages of your writing is something intentional or incidental. Do you write as a way of speaking to these cultural conversations on love, gender, and race? What is it that drives you to write? 

     My apologies for writing such a long email. I sincerely appreciate the time you are dedicating to our class and I look forward to discussing Beautiful Days on Monday with Professor Morrow. 

Best,

Danielle A. Martin


Joyce Carol Oates: 

Danielle—

what an exquisite letter!  it’s a pleasure to receive this; I can see why you are a “Written Arts” major.

     your questions, while astute, or perhaps because astute, are somewhat difficult to answer.  my “writing” begins as a sort of willed day-dreaming— perhaps what is meant by “thought-experiments”— & requires a certain amount of time before it is converted into words— prose.  the settings are immensely important— the story becomes a sort of manifestation of the setting.  I recall one story that was written after a suggestion from Brad Morrow— one of the special issues of Conjunctions— “Walking Wounded”— that was set in the Finger Lakes region of NY State— very distinctly!  And when I think of it, really no fiction of mine is set anywhere other than it must be, as an expression of the story’s meaning.  it’s as if the very landscape expresses itself in the people who inhabit it— as in “Fleuve Bleu” on the Canadian border in upstate New York— an imagined place that is like a smaller version of Windsor, Ontario (where my husband Ray Smith & I lived for ten years).  

     “Big Burnt” is a very real island in Lake George, NY.  my (second) husband Charlie Gross spent time each summer at Lake George— dating back to when he’d been an infant brought by his parents to a summer colony of New York - area Communists who lived & studied together in summers.

     Lake George is a large, often wind-blown & tumultuous lake.  I’d endured many boat rides there in rocky waves— spent many hours on Big Burnt— (not actually an island, but a peninsula)— though not camping, only just hiking for a day.  all of the vivid, sensory details in this story are from life.  And the atmosphere of uneasiness, dread— the past overshadowing the present— all very visceral, immediate.  (I have set other fiction of mine here, notably in parts of the novel The Man Without a Shadow—— to me the place represented an intense, almost unspeakable yearning (not mine: my husband Charlie’s)  to retrieve the past of decades ago, that is, was, of course irretrievable.  the characters in my story undergo the same intense yearning.  

     however, the characters in the story “Big Burnt” are not my husband Charlie & me but imagined versions of an actual person, a research neuroscientist at Harvard, who’d had professional & familial difficulties, & was indeed accused of scientific misconduct; the woman, though fictitious, is based upon an actual person who’d accompanied the troubled Harvard scientist on a weekend trip, not to Lake George but elsewhere, following which he committed suicide, as he’d planned before the weekend.  the professor was never known to me, he’d died long before I had even met Charlie (who knew him professionally); the woman is someone I came to meet, later, as, in an entanglement too complicated to be brought into fiction, she had been a romantic partner of Charlie’s long before I had met him.  (I know, this all very complicated!  but you can see the deep roots of a story that, on its surface, should glide along without suggestions of such complications.)

     having imagined characters related to a specific setting, I must then determine the “voice” for the story, or “voices”— these are mediated, specifically expressing the characters.  ideally, there should be just one “voice” for each fictional character.

     Joyce writes in mediated voices throughout Ulysses— that is why the novel is so brilliant & original.  D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, even Faulkner— tend to write in their own, elevated & stylized voices, with small variations.  but that sort of writing doesn’t engage me as much as Joyce’s— though all of these writers are superb of course.

     “Owl Eyes,” too, drew upon a story told to me by my husband Charlie.  & “The Bereaved,” drawing heavily upon a trip we had taken to the Galapagos, with the professor husband a variant of the professor-lover in “Big Burnt”—the figure of authority, whose authority is now undermined.

     I think that I have not really answered your question— because it is unanswerable!  As I write this, I am listening to piano music by Chopin— if the composer were asked, where did this exquisitely beautiful music come from?— he could not have answered.

warmest best wishes—

Joyce Carol Oates


 
***


 
Sundar Pratt: 

Dear Joyce Carol Oates,

I hope you are in good health and spirits.

     I have a question for you about your writing process. When you are first writing a story, how much of your ideas are preconceived vs how much of the final product comes from drafts and laboring over your characters? For instance, was Juliane fated to have cancer from the beginning, or was that a development that came after you began writing "Fleuve Bleu"?

     Thank you for doing this despite the current events. It is very generous of you and truly appreciated.

Best,

Sundar Pratt


Oates:

dear Sundar— 

I don’t usually begin writing a story until I have the title & the very ending secure.  then, I construct a first paragraph or passage that is inexorably connected to both of these points. it is particularly important to imagine such a construction for a long, complicated work of fiction like a novel.

     once you have the structure in place, you can create the individual scenes or vignettes that bring you to the ending.  within this, you can place digressive scenes or passages that have a thematic, if not direct relationship to the ending.  it is essential to me to have a specific, visual & visceral setting—my stories never take place “nowhere” but in particular places.

     yes,  I knew that Juliane would be stricken with cancer.  the initial, adulterous love affair is but one part of the love-relationship— surprising to each, their love is moving into another, more mature phase which transcends the early, feverish phase. it is my belief that a powerful love is a kind of current carrying individuals along, sometimes without their knowledge; it is not so easily set aside or abandoned, but may reassert itself at a later date.

warmest best wishes

Joyce Carol Oates

 
***



Wyatt Alger: 

Dear Joyce Carol Oates, 

My name is Wyatt Alger, and I’m in Brad Morrow’s Innovative Contemporary Literature class at Bard. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions, it is greatly appreciated, and such a pleasure to get to communicate with you! My question is as follows:

     I noticed that in a number of the stories in this collection there is a lot of importance placed on the value, or lack thereof, of names, as well as an interest in the way names can be used as a tool, or as a signifier of interior thought. Names are often forgotten by characters, or never known in the first place, and often people are referred to by their base characteristics, such as the man, the woman, the stranger, or, in a more specific instance, Owl Eyes. By the same token though, names can carry a large amount of weight, as seen in the idea of being a “Rutherford Man,” or Kovacs versus Tabor versus something else. My question is, how do you view the significance of names, and what kinds of things can you convey to the reader through experimentation with the concept of a name?

     Thank you again for being willing to write to us. I was very disappointed when the state of the virus made your visiting our class impossible, but this is an excellent consolation!

Wyatt Alger


Oates:

dear Wyatt— 

except for your interesting question, I would not have given this subject much thought. names are important, including place-names, & indeed I would find it difficult to write without the “names” fixed in place.  but often I have to continue writing, without a really definite, ideal name or title.  this is usually a clear sign that the story isn’t fully imagined yet, & it will take a while to realize it.

     as a child I’d been fascinated by maps— place-names. often so much more intriguing than the actual places, when/if you come to discover them.

     we perceive some people at a little distance— consciously or unconsciously, we see them as types/representative—until we draw closer, & their names come to seem a natural part of them.

     in my novel Blonde I begin with the child “Norma Jeane Baker”— who becomes, by degrees, “Marilyn Monroe”—(until finally there is an hour when she is with people who had never known “Norma Jeane”— only “Marilyn Monroe”)— beyond this, as she becomes ever more estranged from her exterior image, she becomes the “Blond Actress”— & then finally, in her last days, she is again “Norma Jeane.”    her names are inextricably tied to her (unstable) identity.

     in the story “Fractal”  the mother & child have names— but— in the Fractal Museum they become “the mother”— “the child”— as the Museum dissolves their individuality & makes of them objectified, observed figures.

     in the story “Undocumented Alien” the female employer of the lawn crew workers cannot tell them apart & has no idea what their names are— but the reader knows that “J.S. Marda” is at the core of the story even as his identity is being taken from him.
sometimes in writing a story the writer feels resistant to assigning names— as if sensing that “names” can be misleading & are at best superficial.  as Kafka wrote of “Joseph K__”— then, later, as “K___.”  

     children especially relate to adults as “roles”— there is a mother, a father, a grandparent— the actual identities of the individuals may be hidden.  (as in “Owl Eyes” & “Fractal.”)

     names & place-names are chosen for their associations & (poetic/musical) sounds.  but some names, like “Big Burnt,” are actual names, & the story with that title is set at Lake George, an “actual” place exactly like the place described in the fiction.

     in the last story in the collection, an individual who is “President”— (unnamed, but one is meant to think of George W. Bush & the Iraqi War)—is made to experience personal guilt, grief, punishment; he cannot hide in the generic “President” as persons of power have always done.

     thank you for these questions.  I hope the answers are helpful.

warmly

Joyce Carol Oates

 
***
 


Joshua Murphy: 

Dear Joyce Carol Oates, 

It is such an honor to be emailing you! My parents, particularly my mom, did double takes when I told them that this was my assignment, they are huge fans of yours (as am I after reading Beautiful Days). I was particularly drawn to, moved, and disturbed by “The Undocumented Alien.” I was attracted to the story for a multitude of reasons: I am from New Jersey, I am hugely skeptical of the Government, and I am currently taking a psychology class and am learning about brain functions. The idea of systematic deceit is quite prevalent in the collection as a whole, but is glaringly evident in “Undocumented Alien.” As I am someone who is skeptical of the truth behind the US government, is this story meant to be a warning against blindly trusting people in authoritative positions or is this story grounded in some actual truth or rumored truth? I have heard similar (not as gruesome) rumors about appalling testing being done by the government still and I was wondering if this was based on something like that or if it was a brilliantly imaginatively thought up lesson not to blindly trust. 

Thank you so much and I love the way you write,

Josh  

P.S. I particularly love the bit on page 292 where the government’s “zero tolerance of exploitation” policy regarding the subjects was only looked at from the financial standpoint. I found that to be a wonderful and helpful contradiction in understanding the thought process behind the people in charge.


Oates: 

dear Joshua— 

thank you for this excellent letter.

     my late husband Charlie Gross was a distinguished neuroscientist, & so during the eleven years we’d known each other I became very interested in neuroscience & the ethics of science generally.  (my novel “The Man Without a Shadow” traces the thirty-year relationship between a woman neuroscientist & the [famous] research subject to whom she devotes her scientific life, an amnesiac modeled after “H.M.”)  the study of memory is particularly fascinating, & has much to do with novel-writing.

     “Undocumented Alien” is intended as a cautionary tale or parable, but, in truth, it is not really so improbable an experiment.  in the United States such an experiment would not be allowed, but elsewhere in the world there are not so many restrictions.  (Charlie also wrote about scientific misconduct & taught a course in neuroethics.)  virtually anything that is possible to do scientifically will be done, eventually, by someone, somewhere, whether it is transplanting a brain (which will surely be done one day) or trying to create a chimera that is the offspring of a human being & a chimpanzee (which is possibly less likely, though it has been tried).  (the subject of my story “The Experimental Subject,” which appeared in Conjunctions online several years ago.)

     it is certainly the case that the federal government has experimented on human beings on many occasions, including subjecting (unwitting) American soldiers to atomic explosions in the 1940s & 1950s & wide-ranging pharmacological tests on incarcerated or hospitalized persons & the mentally disabled.  before restrictions on experiments in the US there were horrific experiments on living animals.  

     I continue to be interested in scientific experiments & in neurological explorations into memory & other brain functions.

     I believe that I’d met your parents at a very special dinner party celebrating the birthday of a mutual friend, Kate Hughes, who is the widow of the late Robert del Tuffo, a onetime New Jersey attorney general.  your parents came late—your father had been very busy that day—wonderful to shake their hands!  (as we could not do now, unfortunately.)

warmest best wishes—

Joyce Carol Oates

 
***
 


Vanessa Shapiro: 

Dear Joyce Carol Oates,

My name is Vanessa Shapiro, I’m a Written Arts Major, and I really enjoyed your book. I managed to read the whole thing in one sitting, I was so enthralled, and while I could go on about each individual story and their meanings, I wanted to ask a blanket question about the stories’ endings. I found that many of the stories end right when a climax is expected: Rutherford does not confront his lover, Lizbeth is spared from both the boating accident and the trauma of witnesses Mikael’s suicide, Becca does not get to confront her husband, etc. Each story builds such immense pressure, and that pressure is ultimately never released. There is no “punchline.” As a writer who struggles with outlining and finding “punchlines,” I was both frustrated and fascinated by this. I was wondering if you could shed some more light on these endings, the function of endings in general, and if the ending is present in your mind before you begin writing.

Thank you very much in advance,

Vanessa


Oates: 

dear Vanessa—

this is an intriguing question.  my sense is that the stories’ final lines are true endings— we can peer into a future for the characters that has been made quite clear & probable; we would not need to have an explicit ending spelled out.  perhaps it is more a Chekhovian/Joycean mode than  you are accustomed to, though I would doubt that a Written Arts major has been reading much commercial fiction— (which usually will spell out an ending).

     “endings in general”— this too is difficult to address, for there are no “endings in general.”  

     the 19th century novel usually had explicit endings, like the explicit & many-times-repeated endings of 19th century symphonies.  but if you look at, for instance, the “endings” of Chopin’s piano pieces, you will find a very different, more subtle & nuanced sort of music.  

     poems that rhyme seem to “end” more definitely than poems that do not rhyme in a conventional way.  this is a matter of taste— some readers enjoy having to think a little, or to reread; other readers want to know more clearly.  there are endings of works of fiction that seem perfect, though no doubt other, more definitive endings might have been preferred— the ending of Ulysses, & the ending of As I Lay DyingLight in August.

     commercial detective & mystery fiction always “ends” clearly— in final chapters in which everything is spelled out for the reader.  but literary fiction is often irresolute.  one “feels” a kind of closure.  

     yes, the endings of my stories & novels are usually determined before I begin writing, as well as the titles.  in “Fractal,” for instance, I knew that the “hidden wish” of the mother would be realized in the Museum, yet she would be unconscious of this wish, & that “unconsciousness” is a part of the wish.  (I think this is true for many of us— not just for this fictitious character.)  In “Fleuve Bleu” it is clear that the former lovers have re-found each other, though the nature of their relationship is now much altered, “mature”—one would not want a cinematic ending in which they embraced & kissed— such an explicit ending would be inappropriate given the nature of the story.  Only with the final line of “Except You Bless Me” does the story end— but one would not want more sentences, surely.

warm regards

Joyce Carol Oates


 
***
 


Mitchell Watson: 

Dear Joyce Carol Oates,  

Thank you for corresponding with our class. I can still hardly believe we’ve been given this opportunity. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Beautiful Days so far and I hope to finish reading it tonight.

     In a 2018 interview, A. M. Homes asked you what your idea of a “good day” is and you described a quiet day, one spent gazing out your window while organizing your thoughts. How (if at all) have these recent weeks—those in which we are all being urged to self-quarantine—affected your time spent alone, your time spent writing or preparing to write?

     On a completely different note:

     How do you approach the subject of photography when you are writing a work of fiction? Have you ever written about a photograph that you’ve never seen?

     Again, thank you so much. I’m excited to hear your thoughts. 

Best,

Mitchell Watson


Oates: 

dear Mitchell— 

probably like most of us, I have found the quarantine, but also the dismal political situation, very distracting; to be in the midst of a historical pandemic, & facing the possibility of many deaths, including many that might have been prevented had we had a more competent, less hateful federal government, is injurious to any sort of sustained concentration.  of course, I am continuing to “work”—— but with many interruptions. …

     there is a profound difference between time spent alone amid a normal social milieu & time spent alone in quarantine.  (though in fact I do often see friends, for “social distance” walking & Zoom sessions.)

     in “Fleuve Bleu” the protagonist is a serious photographer who has not taken time to develop his art; it hovers just out of reach for him, like a scarcely recalled dream that nonetheless exerts strong emotion.  His photography, yet to be fully realized, is akin to his love for the elusive woman who has not been “fully realized” by him, either.  It was necessary to imagine what his photography might have been like.  When he sees his lover’s house, surrounded by playful scrap metal sculptures, he feels a sudden kinship, or rather the reader should feel this kinship— that the lovers will be reunited in some way.

warm regards

Joyce Carol Oates


 
***
 


Matthew Robinson-Wrobel:

Dear Joyce Carol Oates,
 
Thank you for taking the time to respond to our class like this. I apologize for sending this out so close to the class date itself and I hope this doesn’t reach you too late in the day through whatever time difference exists between us.
 
     I hope this isn’t ultimately a shallow question, but I think what I was most curious about throughout this collection of stories was how the style of writing was used to reflect a certain ever present tension and lack of understanding between characters in the reader’s own experience of them. Clarifying my perspective on this further, it seems to me that you often used a third person perspective which would dip into the character’s own thoughts and experiences with little need for indicated transitions. This created an effect in my own reading where the distinction between what character’s thoughts about each other, what they thought others thought of them, what they imagined happening, and what might actually be an “objectively” happening were all blurred (to different degrees in different stories). This felt like quite an effective way of giving the reader something like the experience the characters were going through without directly describing such in the text. Am I reading too much into your writing style, or was something like this effect your intention from the start? Does this form of writing tie into some greater theme of conflict and misunderstanding between people throughout this collection, or am I perhaps projecting the themes of a few stories onto all of them?
 
     To add a question more specific than that, I was curious about a story in your collection which at first seemed somewhat at odds with the above. “Except You Bless Me” remains in the first person throughout its whole length and firmly in the perceptions of one character. However, am I missing some more obvious theme when I think it’s still doing something quite similar to what I perceived above? The story is filled to the brim with the Professor’s attempts to imagine the actions, problems, and inner feelings of her student Larissa Wikawaaya. The presence of a divide between them is bluntly obvious, though exactly how that divide is defined is something the Professor changes her opinion on and debates with herself throughout the story. I found myself doubting her initial impressions of Larissa before she did, I believe, though I don't think I could confidently put forward an alternative. In fact, as the story went on the act of doing so on both my part and the Professor’s felt like an intrusion. I'm not quite sure how I would tie that feeling into a theme. Am I off base with this feeling in your view? Regardless of that, was it an effect you were aiming to create?
 
     I’ll wrap things up here. I’ve been going over this for a while and I’d hardly want to delay getting this to you any further. Thank you again for taking the time to read this.
 
Sincerely,

Matthew Robinson-Wrobel


Oates: 

dear Matthew—

when I first began writing fiction, I employed a sort of general narrative voice for anything I wrote; over the years, I am far more interested in “mediated” voices, that may be literally third-person, but spring from the sometimes idiosyncratic voice of the subject.  I am fascinated by the variations of human speech— “voice”— & often take great pleasure in just allowing characters to speak in their own voices— without the intrusion of a narrative voice.

     at the same time, I like to employ a sort of floating omniscient consciousness— a “limited” omniscience (!)— to elevate the prose just slightly above & beyond what a character might naturally be thinking.  in my novel Blonde— which was an experiment in varying voices of a single character— my intention was to elevate the natural speech of the protagonist (Norma Jeane Baker/ Marilyn Monroe) so that she remains both herself & an idealized possibility of herself.  

     yes, it is my intention to allow the reader access to the consciousness or sensibility of a fictitious character through the language, as distinct from dialogue or plot.

many thanks for your close reading—

Joyce Carol Oates


 
***



Avery Sicular: 

Dear Joyce Carol Oates,
 
I hope this email finds you safe and well. I would like to thank you for your generous offer to correspond with me and my fellow classmates—it is a massive privilege to be able to learn from you. 
 
     While reading Beautiful Days, I was struck by the range of experience and emotion that you were able to capture by compiling multiple stories into one volume instead of one long piece. As an amateur writer with an affinity for short stories, I am fascinated by your ability to seamlessly incorporate in-depth characterization with a well-developed and streamlined plot. I am curious about what draws you to short fiction in particular—within your writing process, what do you feel is the greatest limitation to overcome when sticking to this format, and what do you feel is the greatest reward?
 
     Again, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. 
 
Sincerely,

Avery Sicular


Oates: 

Dear Avery—

this is a complex question.

     Beautiful Days is a collection of stories that are thematically linked in some regards, but tonally quite different.  like most of my story collections it is arranged according to an (intuitive) structure— beginning with the most “realistic” story and proceeding, by degrees, into a realm of fiction in which the “real” shades into the “surreal.”  usually, the final section of  my story collections differs considerably from the first section.  

     & so, it could not be likely that these multiple stories could be “one long piece”— as you suggest.   they are gathered from amid a much larger store of short fictions & arranged to constitute a  new unit—“Beautiful Days” as a thematic title, meant to be ironic, though also in some regards, as in “Fleuve Bleu,” sincere.   (this is a story in which an impassioned, romantic, adulterous love flames up, is allowed to fade, yet is reconstituted at a later date in the lovers’ lives: my conviction that love, once established, does not vanish, but may become dormant & re-flourish again at a later time, to the astonishment of the lovers themselves.)  the least conventional stories are the last several, which explore  the nature of reality itself—its psychological depths.  “Undocumented Alien” is a short story obliquely rendered in the form of a lab report written by highly imaginative research assistants.

     one of my favorite stories is “Fractal”— which takes us into the Fractal Museum in which, as in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, one’s deepest wishes are realized; however, these are wishes that are  not conscious wishes…  I think of the art of fiction as a kind of Fractal Museum which the author enters at their own risk.

     (like many of my stories, “Fractal” originally appeared in Conjunctions, inspired by Brad Morrow’s thematically focused special issues.)
 
warmest regards

Joyce Carol Oates



***
 


Jens Jebsen: 

Joyce Carol Oates, 

Having never read your work before, I am in a state of astonishment. Reading your stories reminds me of reading the work of the great poets; not only has every, sentence, word and syllable been correctly and beautifully placed, but they propel your stories forward through some incredibly beautiful moments, like this one in “Fleuve Bleu”: 

     “But do you really love that other life?”—she spoke wistfully.

     He thought—I will have to lie to her. She expects it.


     I was wondering if you’d be willing to share your inspiration and process for writing “Fleuve Bleu” with me. I’m particularly interested in what your writerly or philosophical concerns may have been when you created the story or how they changed during the process of writing it. 

Thank you so much!

Jens


Oates: 

Dear Jens— 

thank you for your interesting insights & question.

     “Fleuve Bleu” is intimately related to the place in which it is set— a semi-fictitious small city on the border between the US & Canada, in upstate New York.  to me, there is a mysterious, somewhat magical connection between a place & the story that evolves out of it, as if “characters” are born of the place itself, & in some way represent its essential nature.

     this story is written in an impressionistic, fluid style— in emulation of the river’s current—  a flow that continues, & continues, out of the frame of the story, as, at the end, the lovers who had assumed that their love for each other had vanished, are made to realize that it is still alive, though diminished: time has passed, one of  them is ravaged by cancer, yet still living; the other, who feels that he is outliving his own life, in particular his youthful ambitions, feels a sudden dramatic revival of love, & (it is implied) a renewed commitment. I had intended to evoke two distinctly individual people, but submerge them into something like a living narrative flow—— they are caught up in a story that envelopes them, & will rejuvenate them.  as the woman comes to think that her marriage is ending— “Their time together is ending of its own volition”— she will be made to realize that her intense emotional relationship with her lover has established a bond between them that is not so dissolvable.

     the effect of time’s passing on (fragile, volatile) emotions is one thing that prose fiction can do very effectively, certainly in a novel in which time passes inevitably, but sometimes in a short story as well, if the story is imagined as a condensed novel or novella.  the particular poignancy of time passing is often felt by us in life, & sympathetic prose fiction can mirror this.  I am frequently drawn to the story that is enlarged in ways unanticipated by the characters as by the reader, & aim for final passages that point into the future.   (or, as in the endings of “Owl Eyes,” “Big Burnt,” “The Bereaved,”  & “Fractal,” subtly rearrange the past).

very best wishes,

Joyce Carol Oates

Longtime Conjunctions contributor Joyce Carol Oates is currently Visiting Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is the author, most recently, of the novel My Life as a Rat and the story collection Beautiful Days (both Ecco), in which several stories originally appearing in Conjunctions have been reprinted. Her story “Undocumented Alien” in Conjunctions:67, Other Aliens received a Pushcart Prize. She is the 2019 recipient of the Jerusalem Prize.