Sunday, June 17, 2007

Joyce Carol Oates in Boulder

I can clearly remember my first encounter with Joyce Carol Oates. I was suffering through a hot and humid summer in Calvert County, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C. without air conditioning. On the days when I didn't have a game to cover for the paper, I would dress up in a button-down shirt and nice pants (to look like a respectable consumer) and sit in the furniture sections of different stores reading a book or the Sunday Washington Post to get out of the heat. One day, I took the new book that I'd discovered displayed at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle, Oates' paperback Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.

It was while sitting on a cool, leather La-Z-Boy chair in a mall just south of Annapolis that the intertwined fates of Iris, a white girl, and Jinx, a promising black basketball player who kills a white man to protect Iris, drew me in to the unique world of Oates' writing. I read the novel for hours as the agitated and bored sales clerks periodically asked me if I needed any help. I'd wave them off and say I was just testing out the chair. By the time I got up to leave, the mid-afternoon sun was setting, and the heat of the day was finally dissipating.

My energy was certainly not dissipating as I left the mall just in time to see carloads of high school kids arriving to watch Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Despite sitting still all day, I was completely wired, as if I had lived through a movie thriller. My senses felt heightened, and my mind was filled with thoughts that would haunt me all through another sweaty night. Oates' prose, her diction, her fevered descriptions had entered me like a virus. Reading her was like tumbling down a hill when you are a little kid. It starts out as a fun lark, but if the hill is too steep, it becomes unstoppable, almost dangerous, and it leaves you dizzy. With Oates, the hills are often treacherous cliffs.

After that, I was hooked on the adrenaline rush that her prose gave me. In the last 15 years, I have read over 20 of her novels, some under her pseudonyms Rosamond Smith or Lauren Kelley, and more than 10 collections of her short stories. Among all of these works, only three of her other novels struck me the way the tale of Iris and Jinx did in Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.

You Must Remember This, another in Oates' line of simply but superbly titled novels, tells a tension-filled story set in a small industrial town in 1950s upstate New York. The model family unravels under the incestuous passion between a niece and her uncle. Felix, the ex-boxer uncle, is one of Oates' most memorable characters. What I Lived For features a minute-by-minute first-person narrative of a small-town politician over a long Memorial Day weekend. As all facets of his life seem to come unglued at the same time, the reader becomes transfixed by Corky Corcoran's rush of thoughts, anxieties, and bad decisions. Finally, her National Book Award winning Them is an extremely satisfying epic that views American life from the Great Depression to the tensions of the Sixties through the eyes of one family.

Given my near obsession with her work, I was extremely excited when the bookstore was able to schedule her for an appearance in Boulder for her new novel, The Gravedigger's Daughter. Before I even knew what I was saying, I volunteered to do the introduction. As the weeks wore on, I began to agonize about what my remarks might be. What could I possibly say that wouldn't sound trite?

I had seen Oates speak once before, at a multi-author breakfast, and it was a truly brilliant performance. Even people who weren't fans of hers, and there were many in the audience that day, sat with mouths agape as she regaled us with tales of her family, a perfect 5-minute exposition on Darwin's theories of natural selection and other asides that left no question that we were in the presence of someone with a renaissance mind. Perhaps most surprisingly, she also had the crowd in stitches with her self-deprecating wit and well-timed bon mots.

Finally, on the day of her talk, I sat down and composed my introduction. I tried to keep it simple; after all, no one would be there to hear me talking. When I was finished delivering the intro, she thanked me and said she was honored by my "gracious" words. I realize that "gracious" does not have the connotation of "brilliant" or "witty" or "insightful," but hey -- to hear one of your favorite authors say your name into a microphone and attach any sort of compliment to it is more than you can hope for, really.

With that introduction to my introduction, here it is:

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the world's most eminent literary authors. She has written short stories, novels, poetry, plays and essays since the early 1960s. Her debut collection of short stories, By the North Gate, was named a New York Times Notable book of the year in 1963. She has followed that up with 38 more books that have made the Times' year-end list. Oates won the National Book Award for her novel Them in 1970. She has been featured in Best American Short Stories 17 times. The O'Henry Awards have twice given her a special award for continuing achievement for her short story writing.

Oates' vivid characters, riveting plots and breathless prose (her writing often leaves me breathless with tension when I'm reading it) are the hallmarks of both her novels and her short stories. In novels such as Them, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart and We Were the Mulvaneys, Oates' intensely realistic and psychologically rich characters bring to life some of America's most difficult issues, such as racism, sexism, violence and poverty, in ways only great fiction can.

It is in part because of this willingness to tackle humanity's most difficult challenges, and to bring to light the biases that women face, that she was just named the 2007 Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.

I cannot think of a more apt award for Joyce Carol Oates (unless it would be the Noble Prize in Literature) because through her work, one can gain a clearer understanding of humanity in all its various guises. Characters ranging from innocent high school girls to serial killers, from corrupt local politicians to crusaders against corporate corruption, from poverty-stricken inner-city men and women to wealthy suburbanites are all given their due in her work. When Joyce Carol Oates creates these characters, it is never as a stereotype, and we as readers find our sympathies going out to people who on first glance we would revile.

Tonight, she is here with her newest novel, The Gravedigger's Daughter. It is the story of a girl, Rebecca, born to Jewish parents forced to flee Hitler's Germany. After they arrive in upstate New York, they find that the terror that they escaped in Europe still torments their relationships and lives. Rebecca, left orphaned through terribly violent acts, must make her way through an America rife with danger.

Please welcome Joyce Carol Oates to Boulder.

A few notes on the event:
  • I asked Oates about the Humanist of the Year award. She seemed pleased but a bit befuddled by the whole thing. She had just received the award last weekend in Portland. "They are kind of an odd group," she said. "Well-meaning, and very idealistic."
  • She read several short sections from The Gravedigger's Daughter, setting each of them up with an explanation of the setting and the characters. She called it her most personal novel -- it is based on her grandmother's life -- and one that she found extremely difficult to publish. She wrote it and then threw it in a drawer for several years before taking it to her publisher.
  • During the question-and-answer period, she was asked about On Boxing, her book of essays centering largely on Mike Tyson. She talked at length about what drew her to the sport and her experiences in watching Tyson. She approaches boxing from a proletariat point of view. She looks at the waves of immigrants getting involved in the sport over the years and thinks about this in literary terms. She was shocked by Tyson's ear-biting of Evander Hollyfield. "He might have had the talent of a great champion, but he didn't have the heart."
  • Oates said that she imagines the scenes of her novels and stories as if they were movies while she walks or jogs. Before she sits down to compose the words, the scene is nearly complete in her head. She also mentioned how important structure is to her. "You wouldn't build a house by putting a board here and then another one on top of it. You have a plan, a structure. A novel is the same."
  • Before the event, she signed dozens of copies of books for the store. When she was finished signing the books, she wanted some time to herself before her talk, so she could continue reading Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes. It's the only Conrad she hadn't read yet, she told me as I left the room.

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