For all of us who would love to write one book — just one — in our lifetime, the steady stream of output (40-plus books) from Joyce Carol Oates dazzles our eyes. How does she do it?
So a recent interview with Oates on the website Buzzfeed caught our eye. In the interview, conducted in July, Oates was asked how real life events in her hometown of Princeton suggested the story line for her most recent novel, “Jack of Spades — a Tale of Suspense,” published in May by Mysterious Press.
Following are excerpts from that exchange:
Buzzfeed: What happened to you in real life?
Joyce Carol Oates: When I first moved to Princeton, New Jersey, I started receiving some strange attention from someone you would call a stalker. She was an older woman — she may not be alive any longer — and she did not stalk me physically. She didn’t come to my house, but she stalked me indirectly. One of the things she did was she went to the local courthouse and accused me of breaking into her home to steal ideas for my writing. She thought my writing mirrored things about herself and her life. I had a lawyer and then I discovered, just as the main character in the novel does, that she had been stalking Stephen King as well. It turned out that I was a lesser interest of hers and Stephen King was her major interest. She was mostly stalking Stephen King for years but because I moved to Princeton, where she also lived, she may have thought that was some coincidence or that it was suspicious.
Stephen King and I communicated about this and Stephen was very worried — he thought she might actually go to Maine and threaten his children — so he hired a private detective to investigate her and see whether she really was dangerous. They concluded that she probably was not dangerous; she was a severely psychotic person but she didn’t have a record of hurting anybody. She also was stalking John Updike and Norman Mailer but, again, not in a physical way; she was fixated upon these authors in a psychotic way and we didn’t know why. Eventually it just kind of faded away. That’s what gave me the idea to write Jack of Spades, but I didn’t write it for a long time.
Buzzfeed: Why did you write it?
Oates: I have a lot of projects that I’m working on. I also was not sure if this person was alive anymore and I really didn’t want to stir up her antagonism; she’s obviously very unbalanced and I don’t want her coming after me again. The story’s main character, Andrew Rush, has a dual personality — he has a darker side to him that comes out as a result of this experience — and this part of the fiction doesn’t correspond with my own experience and reaction when this happened to me. But I was still concerned and worried because she didn’t live far away from me. I have met people who have had stalkers and there’s really a spectrum. Some are really just intense fans — they really like somebody’s work and turn up regularly — then it goes along the spectrum towards people who show more dangerous behavior, and then at the farthest extreme they might want to kill you.
Buzzfeed: Jack of Spades largely deals with ideas about plagiarism and taking ideas without exactly being conscious of it. Do you ever fear that another piece of writing might subconsciously seep into your brain and you’d emulate it too closely?
Oates: Not really; I’m not too worried about that myself. When I write, I take an idea, explore that idea, and push it to an extreme. It’s like a philosophical quest — we take ideas and possibilities and then explore them. It’s like an exercise of pure intellect to push an idea and see the different sides of it.
Buzzfeed: In Jack of Spades you also mention that Rush’s daughter was a linguistics and literary theory major at Brown. Since you were an English major at Syracuse University, is there an important lesson you remember learning while you were there?
Oates: I think it’s less about the specific school you attend and more about how old you are when you start discovering important, life-changing books and authors. Between the ages of 18 and 21 is a very volatile time. Overall, I had great teachers and it was just really wonderful. Since then, I’ve taught at many universities, and the university atmosphere and experience is truly unique. Some people might consider it useless in commercial terms, but it’s very revitalizing and extraordinary for individuals.
Buzzfeed: What book did you read in your formative years that changed your life?
Oates: I read Nietzsche when I was only 18 and I had never heard of Nietzsche before. When I was at Syracuse I minored in philosophy and did a lot of reading on the subject. Philosophy is basically about methodology rather than content; it’s a way of looking at the world and teaches you to question, be skeptical, and not take easy answers. Sometimes it means not taking any answers at all. Those ideas came to me [after I read Nietzsche] when I was 18 and influenced how I think about art and literature.
Buzzfeed: If you could go back in time and tell your teenage self anything, what would you say?
Oates: Most young people are somewhat insecure, so I’m sure that I was insecure. If we could tell our younger selves that things would turn out all right, that would be a good thing. But maybe a sense of faint anxiety about the future is a necessary part of being younger, and maybe that’s a good thing, too. It might be better not to interfere with the younger self at all.
That was in July. As we prepared this issue in September, we received a press release from Labyrinth Books in Princeton. Oates would be appearing there Tuesday, October 27, to discuss her newest book, “The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age.”
The press release calls the book a “memoir of childhood and adolescence,” in which “Oates vividly re-creates the early years of her life in western New York State. The Lost Landscape is an arresting account of the ways in which Oates’s life (and her life as a writer) was shaped by early childhood and how her later work was influenced by a hard-scrabble rural upbringing.”
With “Jack of Spades” fading in the rear view mirror, we looked forward to the latest effort from Oates. As the New York Times reported in its mini-review of the Jack of Spades book:
“Just when you think you’ve got her all figured out, Joyce Carol Oates sneaks up from behind and confounds you yet again.”