How to write: Joyce Carol Oates shares some pointers at Morristown book fest

Joyce Carol Oates at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Joyce Carol Oates at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
0

 

By Marion Filler and Kevin Coughlin

If you ever dreamed of becoming an author, take heart.

“Anyone can be taught to write if there is some modicum of talent to begin with,” Joyce Carol Oates told a rapt audience Saturday at the fifth annual Morristown Festival of Books.

Author Joyce Carol Oates at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Author Joyce Carol Oates at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Writing like Joyce Carol Oates, however, is another story.

For starters, you’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way: Long-hand. And you will scribble almost continuously. Oates has churned out more than 40 novels, along with plays, novellas, poetry and nonfiction.

At 80, she shows no signs of slowing down; she came to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church to discuss her new H.P. Lovecraft-inspired collection, Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense.

Joyce Carol Oates at St. Peter's, for the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Beth Kujan
Joyce Carol Oates at St. Peter’s, for the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Beth Kujan

You also will have to be nimble enough to write about everything from boxing (she considers herself an amateur historian of the sport, thanks to her late father) to blondes (her 2000 historical novel about Marilyn Monroe won acclaim).

Speaking of acclaim, you’ll need to be extremely good at all this.

Oates has won a National Book Award, two O.Henry Awards and the National Humanities Medal, and been a Pulitzer Prize finalist several times.  Oh, and don’t forget to squeeze in teaching gigs at Princeton and New York University, a jog and a bunch of tweets.

Fans listen to Joyce Carol Oates at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Fans listen to Joyce Carol Oates at the 2018 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Of course, the great ones always make it look easy.

Instantly recognizable in her oversized glasses, with thin ringlets framing a piquant face, the slender author described a deceptively simple creative process.

“Start with a title in mind. I outline everything – the beginning, the end. And then I work every day.” 

Six short stories comprise Night-Gaunts. Oates read from one of them, The Woman in the Window, a title inspired by the 1926 Edward Hopper painting 11:00 AM. It depicts a nude woman, wearing only shoes, looking out a window.

“I immersed myself in the vision of this woman,” said Oates.

A few minutes into her talk, it became apparent that Oates finds inspiration everywhere.

'Night-Gaunts,' by Joyce Carol Oates
‘Night-Gaunts,’ by Joyce Carol Oates

“Images come to be part of a dream, but an image is not a story. An image has to be galvanized into a plot,” she said.

Her familiarity with Shirley Jackson, a brilliant author married to a serial adulterer, inspired Long-Legged Girl, another short story in Night Gaunts.

Overweight and agoraphobic, the wretched wife invites one of her husband’s girlfriends to tea. This is Bengal tea, herbal, strong, with aroma that fills the room.

“It inspires women to do terrible things,” Oates said.

Spoiler alert?

“There is a lot of #MeToo in my work,” was all she would divulge.

MORE FROM THE 2018 MORRISTOWN FESTIVAL OF BOOKS

If you’ve read this far… you clearly value your local news. Now we need your help to keep producing the local coverage you depend on! More people are reading Morristown Green than ever. But costs keep rising. Reporting the news takes time, money and hard work. We do it because we, like you, believe an informed citizenry is vital to a healthy community.

So please, CONTRIBUTE to MG or become a monthly SUBSCRIBER. ADVERTISE on Morristown Green. LIKE us on Facebook, FOLLOW us on Twitter, and SIGN UP for our newsletter.

[interactive_copyright_notice float='left']
[icopyright_horizontal_toolbar float='right']

LEAVE A REPLY