I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
With five titles short-listed for National Book Awards, and the fiction prize for Them in 1970, Joyce Carol Oates has been one of the presiding voices of American literature for the past four decades.
Joyce Carol Oates writes close to the bone. She is as unsparing with her “autobiographical” characters, as she is fascinated with the murderers (serial, accidental, penitent), racists (black and white), liars, sociopaths, boxers (champs and losers), hustlers, and brutal malcontents who populate her fiction. She strips them down and lays them bare. It’s not a pretty view of the world, but no one suggests that it’s anything less than authentic. Her febrile prose draws you in like the dream from which you snap awake—exhausted, soaking wet—in the middle.
Her new novel, Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart, will be published this May by Dutton.
Stuart Spencer I’ve read your new book, Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart…
Joyce Carol Oates You’ve read it? Already?
SS I have.
JCO How did you get it?
SS A friend of mine works at Dutton. She let me see the galleys.
JCO That’s fine. I’m just astonished. I feel very close to that novel, I must say. It’s as if my heart’s been lacerated and my blood’s in the novel. I’m mildly shocked that you’ve read it so soon, because, I think, there’s a sort of quiet, idyllic period when you’re done with a project and you’ve surrendered it but your heart’s still in it. It isn’t yet out in the world; during this interlude you feel almost blessed. Then others start reading it, and, of course, it starts getting reviewed, and that seems so abrupt. Suddenly, the external world is making its judgment. I’ve been coasting along in this idyllic period.
SS The thing that strikes me as most bold—and I mean this both in an artistic and in the political sense—is that the moral problem, the anger and hatred, exists for both the races in this novel.
JCO Yes. At one point, Jinx is thinking, “I just hate white people. Just hate them. The men especially.” And I feel close to him in that way. Not that I hate white people, but I understand how he must hate white people. And there’s a point where Mrs. Savage says, “Oh, how wonderful Martin Luther King is; he’s a saint. There’s so much anger except for him.” And Iris says, “Well, anger’s an appropriate response for some people.” So hatred and resentment and bitterness, and even a desire for violence, are a necessary response, a healthy response, for people who’ve been so ill-treated. Writing the novel made me feel that even more strongly. I’ve always felt a wonderment that people can be black in this country and be able to tolerate even the ordinary fabric of existence. It would be such a strain for me.
SS Do you experience those emotions as you write? Or do you create a greater distance than that between you and your characters?
JCO The experience of writing was so intense it seemed almost electric. I write out of a profound sense of another world, contiguous with this world—though it’s invisible—set in some other dimension of the spirit. Where are you from?
SS I’m from Wisconsin.
SS A place called the Fox Valley.
JCO In Lockport, New York—which is the model for Hammond, New York, in Because It Is Bitter—there’s a long hill, and there’s Uptown and Lowertown, and the black people used to live exclusively in Lowertown. A very clear distinction, painfully clear, like an allegory. I went to school in the city, and I knew some of these black kids. [The novel is dedicated to a particular boy, a classmate in junior high school.] So it’s hard for me to discuss my characters, because they’re not flat and delimited; they’re somehow still living and still real, with many conflicting emotions.
SS I saw it as a romantic novel in some ways.
JCO Very romantic. The death of romance. Jinx goes off to Vietnam to die, and Iris is marrying up into the upper-middle class. And here I am in Princeton. It’s rather like my secret autobiography…
SS She’s swept along by forces against which she’s as powerless as he is powerless against his. Isn’t that true?
JCO She’s very calculating, though. She wants, as some of us do, to enter a world that’s not hers by birthright. You know, she gets an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, and she gets another invitation.
SS And then she passes out in the middle of dinner.
JCO And she decides that she’ll go with these new people, the Savages, because they represent something much more rich and exciting. So she’s hardly swept along.
SS She also creates a need in them to take care of her.
JCO Oh, yes.
SS And is that calculating?
JCO I think she works her way intuitively. Insidiously, she works her way into the family, but she genuinely likes them. There’s a good deal of autobiographical experience in here; one works one’s way into a new social and economic world. It isn’t truly calculating, in the sense of Stendahl, because there is genuine affection. And who would stay in Hammond, New York, if one could live in Philadelphia in an 18th century townhouse?
Here I am in Princeton, and I too have come very far from my background, from my roots, and from people to whom I was close. I’ve come very far from those people. Thinking of my adolescence and people like Iris’s friends and those black kids in her world. I see them diving off a bridge. They’re swimming in this filthy water…and then I wake up decades later, and I’m in a completely different community: it’s affluent, it’s so congenial. It’s virtually all white. It’s Princeton University, let’s say. Sometimes I can’t even figure out how I got where I am, except to know that the earlier world is gone and lost; and yet it’s somehow more real. In some imaginative way, it’s more real.
SS Even though it’s so forbidding in its material aspect, the world is—spiritually—an idyll.
JCO Yes—and innocent, and also beautiful, in a way.
SS When you write about her entrance into the upper-middle class world, it seems to me that the description of that world reaches its epitome when you get to the dining and drinking scenes. I see this in several of your novels. American Appetites was just full of the sumptuous detail of dining. And Soul Mate, also. It fascinates me that this recurs in your work again and again. Do you enjoy wonderful, elaborate, ritualistic meals?
JCO If I did I wouldn’t be writing about them; I’d be inhabiting them. I try to cultivate an anthropologist’s unsentimental eye.
SS Because it is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart —whose heart and whose bitterness?
JCO I suppose it’s both young people, but mainly Iris. This is a quotation from a poem by Stephen Crane, “In the Desert.” “In the desert / I saw a creature, naked, bestial, / Who, squatting upon the ground, / Held his heart in his hands, / And ate of it. / I said: ‘Is it good, friend?’ / ‘It is bitter—bitter,’ he answered; / ’But I like it / Because it is bitter, / And because it is my heart.” I like bitterness. Bitterness has some tang and some power to it. The opposite might be sweet, which seems to be superficial, cloying. But bitterness—there’s more to it.
SS When do you write and where do you write?
JCO I become completely enraptured with what I’m writing, so that I’m writing it almost all the time if I’m in a novel. When I’m doing other things I’m thinking about the “fictitious” characters who are wonderfully alive for me. I was writing this morning—I don’t want to say fiercely or frantically—but I was trying to get just one page done, one clean page. Off and on during the day, I’ll return to this scene. It’s as if there were another room close by—you open the door and the characters are in there. And they’re still in the scene. They’re waiting: what comes next?
SS And you have to quick, catch up …
JCO I’m running through it—it’s like a play rehearsal. So by the time I get home, at around 6:30, I’ll return to my desk and jot down what I’ve been thinking all day and try to do a little bit more. Then I’ll be interrupted for dinner, and then maybe go back and work until about midnight. But I’m often in a state of terrible tension. Novelists have a sense of mortality, worrying we’ll die or get some terrible illness before we finish.
SS Do you get up early in the morning?
JCO If I can get writing by 8:30, that’s fine. And then I’ll write till 1:30. I don’t have any breakfast, so by 1:30 I’m usually pretty exhausted, and I’m ready for a break.
SS But you can leave the writing and come back to it because, in a sense, you haven’t left it all day.
JCO That’s right. And I have many notes and things to myself. I write in longhand first, and there’s a good deal of typing and retyping—it’s like embroidery or sculpting.
SS Are you exhausted after your writing or elated?
JCO I never really stop until I feel exhausted. I like to feel mildly headachy or exhausted. Then I feel that I’ve done the best I can. If I still feel energetic, then I know that I shouldn’t quit yet. So I have good associations with being hungry and tired and exhausted and having a mild headache.
SS I’ve been told that you hold an image in your mind as you write, that it helps you to focus—can you describe that process for me?
JCO In Because It Is Bitter, I always knew the ending, where Iris is trying on a wedding dress that she’s more or less inherited—a beautiful antique wedding dress. And she says, “Do you think I’ll look the part?” I always knew that would be the ending of the novel. Uniforms appear in the novel in certain ways. At one point, Iris has a Girl Scout’s uniform, and Persia wears ‘uniforms’ as a cocktail waitress, and there’s Jinx in his U. S. Army uniform …
SS And also his basketball uniform.
JCO Throughout, I had a clear sense of where both young people were going to end up. A privilege we’re granted, others of us, only in retrospect.
SS The images couldn’t give you any intellectual answer for, say, what to do in the next scene. They must get you in touch with the spiritual aspect of what it is that you’re writing. I mean, they don’t tell you, “Oh, in this next scene I have to do such-and-such,” or …
JCO But strategies of writing a novel do become, as you say, intellectual. There’s a point where you’re just thinking very rationally and calculatingly: I know that the scene I’m working on at home should not be more than ten pages long. So while I might have any number of rapturous feelings and a certain intuitive sense of where I’m going, at the same time I’m calculating, plotting. I have on my wall what I call a flow chart. I need to know precisely where I am at nearly every moment of my writing in terms of the structure of the whole. Something that will take place at the one third point, something at the two-third point, and then the ending.
SS In your book The Profane Art, in fact, you say, “A novelist’s strategy reveals itself in structure and process, not in isolated passages or in speeches.”
JCO That seems to elevate the intellectual over the emotional, and there’s some kind of equipoise between the two. A novel could be very elegantly structured, and yet not have any flame of life in it.
SS It reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s comment to Hemingway, to the effect that good writing is not phrase making. He was forever talking about his sentences and how beautiful they were.
JCO In a sense, good writing is phrase making, essentially; in another sense, of course, it must be much more—it must engage us on so deep and so unexamined an emotional level that we’re left breathless by it, as we are turning a corner in a museum and seeing an extraordinary work of art that no amount of iconographic art criticism can explain. Some synthesis, as I’ve said, some equipoise, between the “intuitive” and the “intellectual” is no doubt at the heart of enduring works of art: Joyce’s Ulysses, for example.
I’m involved in an informal sequence of experimental “genre” novels that are extremely plotted, calculated: Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, and Mysteries of Winterthurn, thus far. The stories are complex, and multilayered; they require a good deal of visual aids—maps on the wall, for instance, time-flow charts, chronologies. The next in the sequence will probably be The Crosswickis Horror—set here in Princeton, New Jersey, when Woodrow Wilson was president of the University.
SS In that same book, The Profane Art, you paraphrase Virginia Woolf, saying that “the task of the novelist is not to imitate objective life by means of a plot, but to present the luminous halo or semitransparent envelope of consciousness as it is experienced inwardly.” Does this describe your work?
JCO Yes, except I also provide a kind of external historical, political context for the work. I won’t say Virginia Woolf slighted that side of life, but she wasn’t interested in it. She doesn’t have the capaciousness of imagination that one finds in George Eliot. And if you have to choose between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, it would be very difficult, because they’re both really wonderful writers. One is so inward—Virginia Woolf is really like Emily Dickinson in exploring the refinement of consciousness. But if you want to know what’s going on in the world, if you’re interested in politics and history, you go to George Eliot.
SS Did you write as a child?
JCO Yes, I wrote on tablet paper. And I drew. Like every other child in the world who likes books, illustrations. Recently, somebody whom I haven’t seen in many years from my high school sent me a copy of our old literary magazine, and there, amidst all the student work, is a long story of mine. I’m astonished that they even published it. It was 15 pages long. Everybody else’s work was very short and seemed very innocent! And my story had all these grim overtones, about a young soldier coming back from the war …
SS Mrs. Savage, in Because It Is Bitter, admonishes the other characters saying, “I wish you could all keep in mind—’perfection’—can lacerate the heart.” Are you a perfectionist?
JCO I try to be.
SS Do you find it lacerating?
JCO I suppose so. John Berryman once said we have more faith in and we love better things that are open-ended, things that are provisional and flexible and a little bit messy and not perfect. There is a feeling that life breathes through something that isn’t perfect, that there’s something very real and vital in certain romantic visions that seems missing in classical work. Scholars and historians tend sometimes, in approaching art, not to see or even care about the life in it, simply to talk about the historical context and what certain symbols mean.
SS My feeling is that often your central character is a perfectionist. Things go terribly awry for him or her and the novel is often, on a certain level, the tension between their trying to maintain control against the overwhelming odds that things will never be perfect.
JCO Such things become analogues of writing the novel and keeping it in some sort of control. The most obvious example is really very transparent, and very deliberate. I wrote a novel called Mysteries of Winterthurn, where the central character is a young detective. He is like the novelist: there are clues, and from them he tries to piece together a narrative. While the novelist was in control, the young detective was never in control. He kept being led in ways that were injurious to his own spirit. And he finally discovered that the murderer—a murderess—he’d been searching for is the woman whom he loves very much and wants to marry; he suffers a nervous breakdown. He simply can’t acknowledge that she’s the murderess.
SS Do you worry about failure?
JCO I think about it all the time, because there’s always the failure of bringing into the real world an inferior vision. If you fail to communicate it, you may have created something other people will like, but not what you intended. There have been novels where I felt I really got it all out. I did so much extra writing and revision and added things on the galleys. I’ve felt that about my recent novels, because I write them so slowly. I know I have a reputation for writing fast, but I don’t. I can spend an entire day on one page; I keep sifting it through till I get it right. But failure takes many forms. Mike Tyson is some sort of icon of success, and yet I would guess that in many ways he feels that he’s a failure. His life is not very much in control. Then again, maybe the word “failure” is too pejorative? Sometimes you communicate to other people things you hadn’t intended, even more successfully than what you hadintended.
SS Are there other sources of anxiety for you when you write?
JCO I had a sense of mortality when writing Because It Is Bitter, because I felt that it was, to me, such a beautiful vision. It was my obligation to get it into the world, and I had so much trouble sometimes. I can remember how painfully hard and slow it was to write a brief scene…Jinx says this, but if Jinx says that and not this, then the whole scene unfolds differently.
SS Have you ever read James Gleick’s book, Chaos?
JCO It’s wonderful.
SS It’s exactly what you’re talking about. Endless possibilities, and the one that has actually transpired is a matter of the purest coincidence, randomness. This reminds me of an essay of yours called “Beginnings.” In it, you say there are two general theories on the genesis of art. Number one, that it originates in play: it’s an experiment, an improvisation, a fantasy, and it remains forever playful and spontaneous. Number two, that it originates out of the artist’s conviction that he or she is born damned and must struggle through art to achieve redemption.
JCO They seem contradictory, but maybe they’re complementary. At the center of art, there should be playfulness. But then, if you have an overall vision and look over the trajectory of a life, probably there is a sense that the artist is trying to, if not redeem himself or herself, then to confirm some sense of identity.
SS For you, does the art come from both places?
JCO I guess it must. I do wish there were more playful elements. I get so wrapped up in it.
SS It seems to me that the playful aspect of it, though, is that situation we’re just describing in which you can take a character down this particular path, and if you don’t like that, you can take him down an entirely different one. It’s chaos, but it takes on a sort of order, eventually.
JCO That’s right.
SS It can be an agonizing, frustrating sort of play.
JCO It’s as if the characters have the playfulness, and the writer has the duty, and I’m trying to track them down. But I wonder if the sense of being damned is just some sort of sense of being incomplete. Like most of my friends here in Princeton who are writers, if I don’t write I feel very incomplete. In another era, we would feel that part of our souls were missing or that we were in danger of damnation.
SS I’m impossible to get along with if I haven’t written in the morning.
JCO Well, one’s brain is so geared to working.
SS Do you find that the series of facts and events which make up the so-called real world is mysterious and difficult to comprehend?
JCO I think it’s very mysterious, difficult. I’ve been doing a good deal of reading on all sorts of subjects lately. For instance, I like very much Stephen Jay Gould’s new book, Wonderful Life.
SS Oh, have you read that? I just read that.
JCO That’s very much like the idea behind Chaos. The sense of randomness and chance in evolution, and what we mean by “progress.” It turns certain Darwinian principles, if not upside down, at least inside out. Is the race always to the swift? Not really.
SS It’s to the lucky, anyway.
JCO I was so struck by those extraordinary animals, the one on seven struts, with tiny antennae…
SS Right. The Hallucigenia.
JCO It’s as if God had been doodling. One day God doodled these bizarre animals and then erased them; they become extinct. So I think just the history of evolution, of millions and billions of years, shows us how random things are. There isn’t much that’s coherent there. Human beings like to claim that they’re in control. But, obviously, only in art is there some semblance of control.
SS That anticipates the other part of the question: Do you find that the world grows clearer as you write or only that the writing grows more clear? That the world actually remains as vague and confusing as it always has?
JCO I think that it’s proper to say that the world is mysterious. The world that’s processed and given to us on television and in newspapers is a grossly simplified and burlesque world. People can read The New York Times and think they have a sense of coherent vision, but it’s only been processed through certain channels. Essentially, the world is opaque with mystery, and it’s well that it should be. That is what the world is. And history and time also—mysterious and opaque.
—Stuart Spencer is a playwright whose work appears at the Ensemble Studio Theater.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee