Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Interview: Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is not only one of the most acclaimed authors of our time—her more-than-forty novels, novellas, plays, short stories, poetry, and nonfiction works have earned her a National Book Award, two O. Henry Awards, the National Humanities Medal, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination—but she’s also an acclaimed horror and suspense author who is a multiple winner of the Bram Stoker Award, a recipient of the World Fantasy Award, and the first female author to receive the Horror Writers Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Her genre works include the novel Zombie (1995), the short story collections The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares (2011) and Black Dahlia & White Rose (2012), and, under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith, Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon (1999). She also edited American Gothic Tales (1996) and Tales of H. P. Lovecraft (2007). This year she retires from Princeton University, where she’s been teaching since 1978.

While growing up, you wanted to be a teacher. At what point did you realize you also wanted to write?

Like most children, I was always “telling stories”—in Crayola initially, eventually in prose form when I was a young adolescent.

You once said, “We all have numerous identities that shift with circumstances. The writing self is likely to be a highly private, conjured sort of being—you would not find it in a grocery store.” Is it really possible for you to separate out “your writing self”?

Not only possible but essential. The “social self” is not the writing self.

You’ve cited Kafka as an influence on your fiction. What is it about Kafka’s work that made such a profound impression on you? Have you ever consciously imitated Kafka?

Kafka has influenced countless writers. This is a question that could involve a very long answer but, since I have written an essay on Kafka, that may (or may not) be available, I will let that stand as my most thoughtful commentary on his work.

You’ve also edited a volume of Lovecraft’s work (Tales of H. P. Lovecraft). How did you go about choosing what stories would go into that book?

Like any editor, I chose stories that I liked, and that are considered important. It is hardly a difficult task! There are classics of Lovecraft’s which I have reprinted elsewhere—“The Rats in the Walls,” for instance, in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Another favorite is “The Dunwich Horror” for its very excess.

Some reviewers suggest that you began to explore horror and mystery in the 1980s—do you believe that’s accurate?

Possibly. But I have always been drawn to “gothic” elements in my prose fiction from the earliest stories of In the North Gate (1963), which suggest an austere Kafkan influence.

How conscious are you of genre when you write?

My writing is usually very “conscious”—I am concerned with formal properties. I am always seeking the ideal voice and the ideal form with which to tell a story. The essential horror springs from life—fiction is a mirror of life, sometimes distorted in the interests of meaning, sometimes raw and unmediated. There is no fiction so horrifying as the horror of actual life—not just life in wartime, or life amid violence, but the incursions of our ordinary lives upon us: aging, illness, gradual loss of family and friends. Sometimes to tell a realistic story, you must choose a non-realistic form to emphasize a point—this is the power of genre. Orwell’s Animal Farm works brilliantly as a parable—to translate the author’s vision into a realistic novel would perhaps result in something far more ordinary and forgettable.

You’ve written, “Any kind of creative activity is likely to be stressful. The more anxiety, the more you feel that you are headed in the right direction.” So, I have to ask: are you frequently very anxious when you write?

I am probably “excited”—which can seem like anxiety when the writing is not going well. (This is frequent!) But for me, as for many writers, most of the activity of writing is revising, which can be slow, but deeply thrilling.

Do you think the mainstream literary establishment is somewhat dismissive of genre fiction? If so, why?

Yes, because it is perceived that much genre writing has been formulaic. But then, so has most “mainstream” literature—and that is not reviewed, either.

Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon was written under the pseudonym “Rosamond Smith” (as were seven other novels) and contains descriptions like this: “A bullet piercing the man’s flesh, his bone, plowing into his brain in an instant.” Do you use pseudonyms to explore grittier genre fiction?

Writing under a pseudonym is a kind of literary experiment which I have not repeated recently, but it is appealing. Again, it’s a way of finding an adequate “voice.” My pseudonym novels have a distinct feminist cast, at times rather wickedly so, as in the novel you have mentioned in which a murderous feminist rage is unleashed.

You often find horror in relationships—a short story like “Deceit” from Black Dahlia & White Rose hinges on a strained and disturbing mother-daughter pair, for instance. How often do you start a story with the relationship and build from there?

I have no idea . . . “how often”? I just don’t think in those terms. Perhaps all stories are generated by relationships . . .

Does the best horror contain an element of tragedy?

Very likely, yes. I can’t relate at all to lighter treatments of horror—unless the treatment is clear-cut comedy like Monty Python.

Conversely, this line from “The Good Samaritan” (from Black Dahlia & White Rose)—“There is joy for the taking if you are not afraid”—suggests a relationship between fear and joy. Can you talk about that?

I think it is the joy of utter recklessness—the flinging-aside of restraint and concern for one’s own well-being that sometimes accompanies radical break-throughs for an individual—but sometimes also disaster. Like tossing dice—and your life depends upon the consequences.

Your 1995 novel Zombie came out just after novels like The Silence of the Lambs had turned serial killers into the new superstars of the thriller genre, but Zombie is really more an exploration of a killer’s thought processes. How does a middle-aged female teacher and writer go about transforming herself into a young male murderer?

Well—writers write . . . Playwrights imagine dialogue for characters unlike themselves. Shakespeare doesn’t “transform” himself into Iago or Macbeth . . . We all have empathic instincts that are not limited by our personal experience.

In the introduction to American Gothic Tales you reference both nature and Puritanism. Are there other elements that separate American Gothic from British/European?

Interesting question! “American gothic” is a hybrid, and if anything is just a way of speaking of Poe and his descendants. Essentially this is an ahistoric, totally apolitical way of writing, focusing upon individuals and their (darker) emotions.

In reviewing The Accursed, Stephen King said it “may be the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel.” Was The Accursed a deliberate riff on the traditional Gothic novel?

It is a novel in a sequence that contains also Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, Mysteries of Winterturn, and My Heart Laid Bare. These are substantial novels one would not call “riffs.” These are enormously ambitious quasi-historical novels exploring the “new” sciences, feminism, Marxism, and much more.

You once said that research is your favorite part of being a writer. Have your research methods changed in the era of the internet?

Research isn’t my favorite part of being a writer—I think you must be quoting my playful self-interview for the Washington Post. I have no “methods” at all—I simply read where my interest takes me. In researching Blonde, I read one or two biographies of Marilyn Monroe and watched all the movies of hers which I could locate—in chronological order. It was an utterly captivating sort of research, which I wish I could repeat with another subject.

You’ve embraced Twitter, which you call “an outlet for my sense of disturbance and outrage.” Is 140 characters really enough for that?

140 characters is more than enough.

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Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. She is the author of four novels and more than 130 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert who has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple Magazine, and The History Channel (for The Real Story of Halloween). She co-edited (with Ellen Datlow) the anthology Haunted Nights, which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly; other recent releases include Ghosts: A Haunted History and the collection The Samhanach and Other Halloween Treats. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at lisamorton.com.