The Center for Fiction (in conjunction with CUNY) brought Joyce Carol Oates and Richard Ford together for a lively conversation. The longtime friends discussed everything from homesickness as muse, to defining success and failure, to the genius of wondering what the dog is thinking. Ford began by asking Oates about the uncharacteristic use of profranity in her most recent book, Mudwoman. Here are highlights of their discussion.
RF: I’ve never heard you say anything profane in the 35 years we’ve been friends. Fiction frees you, doesn’t it?
JCO: Well, when I was growing up in the country [in upstate New York] girls never said anything remotely profane. The boys had more freedom of explosive language.
RF: So you’ve waited, haven’t you?
JCO: I’ve waited a long time. I’ve learned the language of the captors, the language of the other gender.
RF: When we’re someplace together do you ever just want to say, “Fuck this?
JCO: No, I actually don’t. But these characters are not me. Do you know the strange busts of [Franz Xaver] Messerschmidt? He was a sculptor who had been disappointed in his career, so he went off somewhere and he did this series of busts. They show very distorted, distended faces of disgust, madness, boredom, and lunacy. They’re the face of somebody who is outraged and murderous. That freedom the sculptor gave to himself is an explosive kind of subversive language.
RF: There’s a wonderful essay of Richard Hugo’s called The Triggering Town in which he says what he would or wouldn’t do in a poem. He would use this word and he wouldn’t use that word. And he said, “To not use this word would be to lie about my feelings.” I take note of that because I wonder if what we write in a novel is in fact our feelings, that there’s a kind of fidelity we put in a novel, which actually does portray what we think.
JCO: Well, near the end of your novel Canada, your character is a high school teacher in Windsor. The students say, “Why are we reading about this because this has nothing to do with our lives?” Richard’s character says, “Why do you only want to know about your own life? You should be interested in other lives.” I think that’s basically why we write.
RF: You wrote once that novels often originate out of a sense of homesickness. I wonder when you set things in upstate New York, does that compensate for some absence in your life or does it address some sense of longing for a place where you were young?
JCO: That was one of the questions I was going to ask you! When I write a physical, geographical scene, I’m right there in the field or in the road or I’m walking along the sidewalk. It is such an uncanny and thrilling experience, and I felt that when I was reading Canada, those scenes in Saskatchewan were the boy is walking around. I felt that visceral sensation of a real adventure. Ulysses is such a great book of life because it’s like a mirror that’s held up. You’re walking around Dublin with Leopold Bloom. It’s just so sensuous and so beautiful. It’s not necessarily 1904. It could be right now. I guess that’s what we mean by the power of art.
RF: You’ve ducked my question about homesickness.
JCO: Homesickness, yes. That’s definitely the reason that I write. I feel very lonely. Just the thought of creating a novel where I’m with family in the novel already makes me feel better.
RF: So it’s consoling for you.
JCO: Absolutely, very much, yes. That’s why I was going to ask you, because I thought that maybe some of those feelings of homesickness might propel some of your writing.
RF: My home is who I live with. But there’s that other place, which is where I came from. It’s Mississippi. I have suppressed that feeling of homesickness about Mississippi if I ever had it, because for me it’s not a place I want to go back to.
JCO: Well, let’s just say home, not a place. In your novel a boy who’s 15 loses his father and his mother. That’s your life too. So you were reliving your emotional life with different players… All of the greatest writers have been obsessive about certain things. Eugene O’Neill was always writing about his father and his mother. He hated his father, but he loved to hate his father. Ernest Hemingway was writing about his mother in different ways. He hated his mother but he loved to hate his mother. D.H. Lawrence is writing obsessively, Proust, James Joyce, Dostoevsky.
RF: Do you think of yourself as a natural writer?
JCO: Writing has always been something I’ve liked to do. I wouldn’t say it was easy exactly. I love words and if I’m not writing I read the dictionary. I get excited.
RF: I take that as a yes.
JCO: Yeah, when I first started writing, before I could write, I was drawing pictures of cats and chickens. They were involved in intense conversations – tablet novels. It was like War and Peace, except it wasn’t quite as long. And I think that all young children are embroiled in this strange creativity. They chat or they babble. They draw. We’re all trying to tell stories before we’re able to even talk.
RF: That reminds me of when [my wife] Kristina and I used to ride around with Eudora [Welty]. She was, by this time, in her 70’s and she would just be sitting shotgun in our car. We’d be driving around someplace in Mississippi and she’d be looking out the window. She would see a dog and say, “Oh, I wonder what that dog is thinking. It’d be fun to know what’s going on in his mind.” And that used to always make me think that her art was a kind of natural extension of what was going on in her head all the time.
JCO: That’s a childlike curiosity.
RF: She was certainly free and unfettered in what she did.
JCO: Well, how do you feel yourself?
RF: I was probably meant to be a police officer.
RF: In fact, when I got out of college I went to the Office of the State Police. I knew I was on the way to law school but I thought, “This would be a good interim job.” This was back in 1966. I went to the New York State Police and I said, “Can I have a job?” They said, “No, son. You’ve got a college degree. We don’t want anybody with a college degree.” I always thought that the reason I became a novelist was because I was a failed police officer.
JCO: Really, looking at the fineness of your writing and the subtlety of thoughts, I can’t image that you’re not a born writer. Most people who try to write do fail. They fail honestly and repeatedly.
RF: If you ever want to read a great literary essay for writers, Joyce has the most wonderful essay about failure. It is so humane. It is so various. It’s so smart.
JCO: Thank you. Notes on Failure. People probably know that Faulkner tried very hard to be a poet and he failed egregiously. Then he wrote a novel that was a very bad imitation of Hemingway and failed. Then he wrote a novel that was a very bad imitation of Aldous Huxley. It was a failure. Then when he was about 28-years-old, he started writing about his old Mississippi and he found his voice. That’s so corny I know, but it happened. So between the ages of 28 and about 34, he wrote these masterpieces one after another: The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August.
And I can give you a new example: My student Jonathan Safran Foer. Some of you have read his novel Everything is Illuminated. Between his junior and senior years he wanted to write a memoir. He was going to the Ukraine.
RF: What was he? 18?
JCO: Yeah. He was going to go to the Ukraine where his grandfather had been saved by a Christian woman from the Nazis. But when he got to where the village was it was completely rubble. The Nazis had destroyed everything. He has nobody to interview. He said that he went back to his hotel room and thought, Well, either he hangs himself or he makes it all up. And he made it all up.
RF: I’m interested in the flip side of it, the little-known success. When you write a book and it’s done as well as you can possibly do, what causes you to think it’s a success?
JCO: I don’t think in terms of success or failure. I think in terms of whether the novel or story has realized its fullest essence. See, first you write it and it’s nine pages long. Then during the night you’re thinking about it and you wake up in the morning and write a little more. It’s 14 pages long. Then you think, “Oh, it needs a second part. Let’s put this in.” And you keep on working on it for two or three months. Then at some point it’s finished. You don’t get any more ideas about it.
RF: Does that sense of the novel’s success have nothing to do with what the world says back to you?
JCO: No, it doesn’t, because that’s so much later. I can be thrilled and excited about something that I finally got right. Then months or even years later, if someone says that he or she likes it, to me that’s a social comment. It’s like saying that you have a nice hat. But it doesn’t have any integral, visceral meaning… When Moby Dick was published, it didn’t really have any readers, here or in the UK. It got universally negative reviews. I think Melville might have known it was a great novel. I hope he knew. But he couldn’t honestly say the novel was a success in any conventional way. But then as the decades went by, it became an enormous success. So I think we can say that success and failure are relative terms that can change over time.