Joyce Carol Oates on the Book (and the Person) That Made Her a Writer
In Conversation with Linn Ullmann on the How to Proceed Podcast
How To Proceed is a bi-monthly conversation about writing, creativity and the world we live in. Author Linn Ullmann talks to some of the world’s most exciting literary voices about their books, their writing process, and how they view the world and current events around them.
On today’s episode, Linn Ullmann talks to Joyce Carol Oates about memories and loss, bearing witness through literature, writing, failure… and boxing. Oates’s newest novel, Night. Sleep. Death. the Stars., is out now from Ecco Press.
From the conversation:
Linn Ullmann: I want so much to ask you about your grandmother. Because in the speech where you accepted the Jerusalem Prize, you talk about how she was the one who gave you books, who read for you. That reminded me of my grandmother, because my grandmother was a bookseller. She gave me books. But then you write, “It would not be until after her death that we came to realize how little my grandmother spoke of herself, and how little we knew of her.” And I’m wondering, this woman who you knew so little about, but who was so important to you, I’m wondering what kind of meaning she has had in all your writing?
Joyce Carol Oates: Well, she was a fascinating person. I wrote a novel called The Gravedigger’s Daughter, which is basically about the secret life of my grandmother. But it’s mostly fiction; I had imagined it. She had a very difficult life. She is from a Jewish family, but they were Jews who came from Germany in the late 19th century. They did not want to be identified as Jews. By “them” I mean the parents, because my grandmother was a child; she wasn’t really part of any decision. But they did not identify as Jews, so they never acknowledged their religion. They wanted to put history behind them because of the anti-Semitism of Europe and the barbarism. And then of course, during the Nazi era, they wouldn’t have wanted to acknowledge that they were Jewish. So, my parents, even my father who is my grandmother’s son, never knew that my grandmother was Jewish. Only when a biographer wrote about me and did some research did it come to light. Her name was Morgenstern, which was translated into Morningstar. But the Jewish name is Morgenstern; that was the original name.
My grandmother was the most important person in my life shaping me as a writer. She gave me all my books. When I was a little girl, she gave me my first real book, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I was eight or nine, and that changed my whole life. I had no idea at the time, but it was the great book of my whole life that my grandmother gave me. Then she gave me other books and a toy typewriter. Then she gave me a real typewriter. And so she started me on a world of storytelling and reading that’s been my whole life.
Litteraturhuset in Oslo is Europe’s largest of its kind, dedicated to presenting literature in the broadest sense of the word. Since its opening in the fall of 2007, the house has welcomed authors from all parts of the world, and through readings, conversations, lectures and debates, it strives to open up for new horizons and perspectives on the society, the world and the people around us.
Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and has been several times nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award, and the New York Times bestseller The Falls, which won the 2005 Prix Femina. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.