By David Karp
Just in time for Halloween, Joyce Carol Oates is coming to Morristown with Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense.
The celebrated author and Princeton professor is scheduled to give a free talk today, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, at 2:40 pm in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on South Street, as part of the fifth annual Morristown Festival of Books.
Oates knows something about scary stories. The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares earned her a Bram Stoker Award for Short Fiction in 2011.
Her mantel also includes a National Book Award and the 2010 President’s Medal for the Humanities. Her national best-sellers include The Falls, Blonde and We Were the Mulvaneys.
We caught up with Oates this week to chat about the art of spooking people, and more. Here is our electronic conversation.
MorristownGreen.com: In your new collection, Night-Gaunts, your stories explore the darker sides of love, the human condition, and the conflicts within us. Where do you draw that darker side from? How you escape that head space after a day of writing?
Joyce Carol Oates: History, including (especially!) current history, is “dark”—often terrifying. But the “dark” can also be illuminated, not merely dreaded, and it is this engagement with the darker, more tragic, though not (necessarily) irremediable elements in our lives that challenge the writer or artist to explore them fully and honestly.
I don’t really “escape” my subjects— I tend to write through the day, and am often writing (or rewriting) at midnight, or later. (My husband always wants to watch the news—I try to avoid the news, at least its repetition—in the late night, around midnight; this is a great opportunity for me to return to my study for a while.)
MG: Short stories appear to be a dying art — yet writing them would seem an essential skill for any writer. For emerging writers, how risky is it to propose a collection of short stories, instead of a novel, to a publisher?
JCO: Short stories are not really a dying art— I don’t have statistics but a quick glance at new books on the tables in my study (heaped with books!) suggests that there are many collections of stories, some by first-time writers, others by more established writers, and others that are anthologies containing many stories by diverse hands. (Some of these may be paperback originals, though they are still literary publications.)
In high school and college English courses short stories are always taught— everyone has read, for instance, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery…. Of all of my works of fiction, the only title that is likely to have been read by very many people is a story titled Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?—originally published in a very small literary magazine called Epoch (Cornell).
MG: Can you talk about the theme that runs through Night-Gaunts? How did you choose the right stories for your theme?
JCO: The theme is the “night-gaunts” of the title, which is taken from H.P. Lovecraft, the great master of the uncanny and what he called the “weird.” A night-gaunt is the projection of human fear, terror, panic, unease—in each of these stories’ individuals confront the “night-gaunt” inside them.
In the first story, The Long-Legged Girl, a woman writer confronts her nemesis—she thinks—in the form of a beautiful undergraduate girl; in reality, her nemesis, or “night-gaunt,” is herself. (Has she really poisoned the innocent girl, or has she actually poisoned herself?)
In The Experimental Subject, the experimental subject is a young woman who unwittingly becomes part of a diabolically elaborate scientific experiment arranged by (male) scientists—but the young woman’s essential innocence, goodness, and generosity wins over one of the scientists, who saves her from the others; here, the “night-gaunt” of inhumane selfishness is actually overcome by one of the principal characters, who happens to be a naive young woman.
MG: How do you decide if an idea is right for a short story, or merits a novel? Have you started short stories that morphed into novels? Or vice versa, where novel ideas proved better suited for short story treatment?
JCO: The activity of writing more or less determines the genre—short stories generally involve very few characters, and may take place within a sharply delineated period of time; novels generally involve more people, over a longer period of time, and perhaps in different settings.
I’d intended the long story about H.P. Lovecraft—Night-Gaunts—to be a novella of about 120 pages; but it progressed to a natural ending, with Lovecraft (dis)embodied as a ghost in the very library in which he’d spent so much time, the Atheneum in Providence, R.I.
To make a longer work out of Lovecraft’s life I would have had to explore his career as a pulp-fiction writer, his eventual marriage (to a most unlikely woman, a Jewish writer and intellectual), and to deal in some way with the fact that he was an astonishing correspondent — I would have to check the number, but I think it is something like 30,000 letters through his lifetime. But the Lovecraft of the exterior world, a more “public” Lovecraft, did not really engage me.
MG: You have written novels, plays and short fiction. At the outset of a project, how do you determine which format to pursue? And what do you love about short stories?
JCO: I do love short stories— the most experimental form of fiction. An ideal story is immediately compelling— “Let me tell you a story! ‘Once upon a time…’”
Edgar Allan Poe believed that the ideal short story is short enough to be read at one sitting. Obviously a novel requires many sittings. Unlike the 19th century, our (accelerated, fragmented) 21st century has grown impatient with lengthy novels, over all. Obviously there are exceptions, and many of them are in fact bestsellers, but a novel of the sheer heft of Tolstoy’s War and Peace will have some difficulty finding an audience, however meritorious it is.
MG: I must ask: What turned you on to Twitter?
My publisher/editor Dan Halpern at Ecco Books suggested strongly that I start an account; in fact, Ecco Books started it for me. The original intention was for persons on Twitter to announce when they were appearing in public—concerts, book signings, etc.
Twitter was not very politicized at first—mostly, it was a vehicle for humor. Twitter is fundamentally what you make of it— you create your own Twitterverse by following people you admire who provide information you don’t have, or make you laugh, or help you commiserate — thus, the preponderance of adorable cat and dog videos in our troubled times.
More seriously, Twitter has opened a door, and many windows, into areas of life not much known to me—from all over the country, every sort of voice, the most serious being those who bear witness to social injustice (police brutality, to name one subject).
MG: We can’t wait to see you at the Morristown Festival of Books. Can you give us a hint of what stories you’ll be reading from, and why you picked those excerpts?
JCO: I may read a new story that has not been published….I often like to read very new work, though any story I read will be similar in tone and atmosphere to the “tales of suspense” of Night-Gaunts.
MG: What have you heard about this festival? Have you visited Morristown before? Any impressions of the place?
JCO: Yes , I have visited Morristown many years ago. My impression was very good— the remarkable history of this community and region is fascinating—but now I would guess that there are many changes, which will be fascinating. Thank you to the organizers for inviting me.