A Conversation with Joyce Carol Oates

The eNotes team visited this year’s LA Times Festival of Books to bring you recaps of the captivating interviews with some of the most anthologized writers. You may recognize the first as part of your syllabus if you’ve ever read her infamous short story, “Where Are You Going, Were Have You Been?” It’s the prolific and talented Joyce Carol Oates!

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In 1984 Joyce Carol Oates relegated a manuscript she’d been working on, complete but imperfect, to a dark drawer. As its pages yellowed and mildew took up residence, the would-be novel emerged into the light of day just once every seven years or so, only to promptly return. “Writing is very intuitive,” Oates says of her most recent (or most recently published) novel’s thirty year history. “You can’t quite force it.” Luckily for her readers, the manuscript found its way back into Oates’ hands at just the right time, for now we have The Accursed.

Oates began her conversation on the novel with some explication on its genre. As a formalist, she admits the attraction of writing in various styles. Over the years she has dabbled in just about everything, though the same vein of sinisterness is rather pervasive throughout. As for The Accursed, Oates herself called it her foray into “a neo-Gothic genre… a post-modernist horror.” (In case one couldn’t tell from the book cover, it has a bit to do with vampires.)

But the author could just as easily be noted for dipping a toe into the historical fiction pool, given the number of historic figures who meander in and out of the plot. Set in Princeton in 1905, The Accursed‘s minor players include writers and politicians who lived in the college town at that moment in history; Franklin Roosevelt (then just 23), Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, and Jack London to name a few, which Oates labels the “Shakespearean sub-figures” of her work. In a minor way, their presence as relative rabble-rousers of their time advances the themes of The Accursed: those of “class betrayal” and racial discrimination—hardly light topics for a vampire novel.

To unpack these themes a bit more, it is imperative to point out the timing of that mildewy manuscript’s resuscitation. When Oates picked it up again in 2010, America had at last elected an African-American man as its president—a decision that is a far cry from the attitudes of 1905 upper class Princeton, though the threads of racial tension remain. The author admits that her choosing to revive the novel at that particular time is not unlike Miller’s writing of The Crucible when he did, since it takes a contemporary problem and places it in another time, thereby highlighting it more.

In all, one could look at Oates’ latest as a Gothic family drama, a supernatural romance story (complete with the bride being kidnapped by a vampiric seducer at the altar), even a historical satire.  Or one could simply recognize The Accursed for what it is outside of Oates’ formalist play—an homage to American history, literature, and themes, however sordid those may be.

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