From the pulpit of a downtown church during the recent Boston Book Festival, keynote presenter Joyce Carol Oates read a soft, complex story of loneliness and violence. In contrast, the interview that followed was comedic and farcical. The audience gasped and laughed and nearly booed as the interviewer asked one ridiculous question after another. Oates gracefully sidestepped the too-personal ones and boldly confronted the too-simple ones.
Even though she wasn’t the greatest reader, the piece Oates read from her recent book, Sourland, was gorgeous and chilling in its emotional subtlety. Especially compared to her interviewer, who seemed to have been selected as a foil to Oates’ intelligent and nuanced speech, she presented compassionate, transcendent perceptions of the human condition. What follows are selected quotes and summaries based on notes.
Your stories have a lot of violence in them. Why do you write so much about violence?
“Writers don’t write about violence. Writers write about people.” A work of art has its own trajectory, Oates said, its own inevitable ending. She added that writers don’t think in terms of happy endings but in terms of the integrity of the piece of writing.
Have you experienced violence in your own life?
“Why is there this tendency to ask women writers this question? … It’s not like I invented violence.”
Do you believe in God?
Are you a Catholic? An atheist?
“I don’t call myself anything … Calling oneself an atheist would be too aggressive … Most people have a sense of religion that honors their family and community, and they just follow that … It’s not fruitful to discuss whether I believe in God.”
Do you know when you sit down to write if you’re working on a short story or a novel?
“Of course! I wouldn’t be a good writer if I didn’t.”