Joyce Carol Oates on bringing Foxfire back to the big screen

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl GangFoxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, the film based on a book written in the 1990s about a small town in the 1950s, has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday night and its theme is more timely than ever, says its author, Joyce Carol Oates.

Rebellious Margaret “Legs” Sadowsky and her classmates Maddy, Lana, Rita and Goldie form the titular secret gang to revenge themselves against the men and boys of their 1950s small town.

“They were girls whom I knew — a composite of girls, not necessarily all in one group, some I went to school with,” Oates, 74, says in an interview from her home in Princeton, N.J., last week.

“I saw the first [version] years ago,” she says of the 1996 adaptation that starred a young Angelina Jolie as Legs, and moved the setting to a high school in present-day Portland. “The problem with the first film, as you probably noticed, was that it was so low-budget that they couldn’t do it in the proper time. And as a result it just was middle- and upper-middle-class suburban girls.”

The National Book Award winner is more optimistic this time around, though, as this film is adapted and directed by Palme d’Or-winning French filmmaker Laurent Cantet …

Read the complete interview at the National Post.

Joyce Carol Oates: By the Book

Through the Looking GlassWhat book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?

Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass,” which my grandmother gave me when I was 9 years old and very impressionable. These were surely the books that inspired me to write, and Alice is the protagonist with whom I’ve most identified over the years. Her motto is, like my own, “Curiouser and curiouser!”

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Our great American tragic-epic, Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” This truly contains multitudes of meanings: the Pequod is the ship of state, the radiantly mad Captain Ahab a dangerous “leader,” the ethnically diverse crew our American citizenry. And to balance this all-male adventure, “The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.”

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I was trained to consider “disappointment” of this sort a character flaw of my own, a failure to comprehend, to appreciate what others have clearly appreciated. My first attempt at reading, for instance, D.H. Lawrence was a disappointment — I wasn’t old enough, or mature enough, quite yet; now, Lawrence is one of my favorite writers, whom I’ve taught in my university courses many times. Another initial disappointment was Walt Whitman, whom I’d also read too young (I know, it’s unbelievable, how could anyone admit to have been “disappointed” in Walt Whitman? Please don’t send contemptuous e-mails).

Read the full interview in the New York Times Book Review.

Joyce Carol Oates on Shirley Jackson

Joyce Carol Oates reviews Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the New York Review of Books:

Of the precocious children and adolescents of mid-twentieth-century American fiction—a dazzling lot that includes the tomboys Frankie of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding (1946) and Scout of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), the murderous eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark of William March’s The Bad Seed (1954), and the slightly older, disaffected Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Esther Greenwood of Sylvia Plath’sThe Bell Jar (1963)—none is more memorable than eighteen-year-old “Merricat” of Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece of Gothic suspense We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). At once feral child, sulky adolescent, and Cassandra-like seer, Merricat addresses the reader as an intimate:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Con- stance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.Merricat speaks with a seductive and disturbing authority, never drawn to justifying her actions but only to recounting them. One might expect We Have Always Lived in the Castle to be a confession, of a kind—after all, one or another of the Blackwood sisters poisoned their entire family, six years before—but Merricat has nothing to confess, still less to regret. We Have Always Lived in the Castleis a romance with an improbable—magical—happy ending. As readers we are led to smile at Merricat’s childish self-definition, as one who dislikes “washing myself”; it will be many pages before we come to realize the significance of Amanita phalloides and the wish to have been born a werewolf.

In this deftly orchestrated opening, Merricat’s wholly sympathetic creator/ collaborator Shirley Jackson has struck every essential note of her Gothic tale of sexual repression and rhapsodic vengeance; as it unfolds in ways both inevitable and unexpected, We Have Always Lived in the Castle becomes a New England fairy tale of the more wicked variety, in which a “happy ending” is both ironic and literal, the consequence of unrepentant witchcraft and a terrible sacrifice—of others.

See also the NYRB’s podcast with JCO discussing Shirley Jackson. Joyce Carol Oates will edit the Library of America’s forthcoming volume on Shirley Jackson, due out in June, 2010.

Mike Tyson

Oates and Tyson in 1986

Oates and Tyson in 1986

Joyce Carol Oates attended a screening of James Toback’s documentary Tyson with the director and Iron Mike himself, and participated in a Q & A session, as reported in New York Magazine:

“What’s the experience of watching yourself in this movie?” [Oates] asked. “Do you feel like you yourself are an abstract piece of art?”

“I just look at it like Jim asked me questions and I answered the questions,” Tyson explained. “It looked very simplistic to me at first, but watching it with a conglomerate of people here, I feel very vulnerable. I don’t like watching it.”

JCO of course has written extensively on boxing from her book on the subject, to many articles on Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, and others. Of the young Tyson, JCO wrote in 1986:

Mike Tyson, a boy warrior, has become legendary, in a sense, before there is a legend to define him. And never has the collective will of a crowd—the very nearly palpable wish of a crowd—been more powerfully expressed than it is tonight in Las Vegas. With his much-publicized 27-0 record as a professional boxer, of which twenty-five victories are knockouts (fifteen in the first round, several within sixty seconds), with so much expectation centered upon him as the “new hope” of heavyweight boxing, Tyson recalls the young Jack Dempsey, who fought his most spectacular fights before winning the heavyweight title. Like Dempsey in the upward trajectory of his career, Tyson suggests a savagery only symbolically contained within the brightly illuminated elevated ring, with its referee, its resident physician, its scrupulously observed rules, regulations, customs, and rituals. Like Dempsey he has the power to galvanize crowds as if awakening in them the instinct not merely for raw aggression and the mysterious will to do hurt that resides, for better or worse, in the human soul, but for suggesting incontestable justice of such an instinct . . .

A Woman’s Work

Deborah Solomon interviews Joyce Carol Oates for the New York Times Magazine:

Why do you find violence so alluring as a literary subject?

If you’re going to spend the next year of your life writing, you would probably rather write “Moby Dick” than a little household mystery with cat detectives. I consider tragedy the highest form of art.

Topics briefly touched on include widowhood and memoirs, JCO autistic sister, housework, religion, and JCO’s fiance (first mentioned in this blog back in January).

Art For My Sake

The Guardian asks Joyce Carol Oates and others whether writing for a living is a joy or a chore; JCO suggests don’t trust anybody’s answer:

Recall that DH Lawrence warned us to trust the tale, not the teller – the teller of fictions is likely to be a liar. Darwinian evolutionary psychology suggests that none of us really knows what has made us what we are, still less why we behave so eccentrically as we do; when we are pressed to explain ourselves, we invent. In the Renaissance, poets claimed repeatedly that they wrote for posterity – to be “immortal.” In religious communities, the creation of any art was for the glory of God. In a capitalist society, one is likely to claim that one writes for the same purpose that everyone else produces a product – for money.

Kentucky Welcomes JCO

Cheryl Truman, books editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, profiles and interviews Joyce Carol Oates in advance of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference.

Tidbits of interest:

Oates didn’t used to be much of a TV watcher but admits immersing herself in tabloid-news TV to research My Sister, My Love: Bill O’Reilly, Geraldo Rivera and Nancy Grace (“I think sometimes she has a moral agenda that is laudable,” Oates says of Grace. “Sometimes she just seems to be on attack.”).

Truman says that JCO no longer reads the print edition of the New York Times, instead favoring the online edition, which is “very rich, whereas the newspaper itself was very finite.”

Finally, Truman asks if JCO sees herself winning the Nobel Prize:

No. Her husband is dead now, and so are her parents (“It’s one’s parents who care,” she says). Who’s going to celebrate with her, be proud of her now? Winning the Nobel would be, she says, just a little sad.

(Nothing can replace family; but for what it’s worth, I would celebrate with you, Joyce. I would be proud. You’d be surprised just how many of us would.)

In a related article, Truman interviews two conference presenters and asks them about JCO.

Novelsit Laura Benedict: “Every writer has heroes — writers to whose work they turn again and again when they forget how to write and of whom they say, ‘I wish I could write like that.’ Certainly Joyce is one of those writers for me, and I feel privileged just to be in the same room with her.”

Poet Lisa Williams: “Most recently I’ve been reading her journals, just published, which are absorbing and inspiring. One of my favorites of her novels — though I’ve by no means read them all — is I’ll Take You There. I deeply appreciate the strange young woman at the center of that story, and the period of time it takes place in, 1960, is of special interest to me as a sort of turning point for women as social beings and writers.”

JCO Miscellany: One

“What is the worst thing that can happen?”

Lisa, from the long-running TV show The Simpsons, imagines herself in prison on the March 23, 2008 episode. The guard arrives with the book mobile …

Lisa: “Got any Joyce Carol Oates?”
Guard: “Nope, it’s all Danielle Steele.”


Now that’s a rough prison. (Thanks to TVRecapMatt)

Woundedness, Rejection and Inspiration

Tammy Ayer reports on Joyce Carol Oates’s visit to Sanibel Island, Florida for the News-Press: “Oates’ hectic schedule didn’t surprise Tom DeMarchi, an instructor in the department of language and literature at Florida Gulf Coast University … I said to her, ‘You are so prolific. You must write eight hours a day to do all you do.’ She looked at me in almost a pitying way and said, ‘Oh, that would be a short day.'” Ayer notes that JCO’s current project is “The Writer’s (Secret) Life: Woundedness, Rejection and Inspiration,” featur[ing] her essays on famous authors and the many kinds of rejection they suffered, not only from skeptical publishers but also from family, friends and fellow authors.”

Six-Word Memior

Smith Magazine is publishing a book of “six-word memoirs” by “famous and not-so-famous folks,” including JCO’s contribution, which can be found all over the web:

“Revenge is living well, without you.”

Smith Magazine offers the “Story behind the Six: Joyce Carol Oates.”

JCO at Fairfield University

Blogger Elizabeth Howard presents a strangely angry depiction of Joyce Carol Oates’s appearance at Fairfield University on Sunday. The afternoon event is presented as a would-be ambush by Professor “Buttercup,” an “eminent nobody” whose puny attack is casually dismissed by an Olympian JCO. Howard ridicules the presumptuous “man-professor,” academics in general, and any Connecticut resident there who might have a concurrent interest in literature and local sports. Not having been there, I hesitate to call the account simply cranky. But I will call it interesting, on a number of levels.

Naughty Chérie is Published

Joyce Carol Oates’s third children’s book, Naughty Chérie, goes on sale today. Illustrated by Mark Graham, all three books involve kitten characters based on real cats who have owned JCO. The cat from the first book in the series, Come Meet Muffin!, has also appeared in JCO’s adult fiction: interviewed about We Were the Mulvaneys, JCO notes that “everyone in the novel is enormously close to me, including Marianne’s cat, Muffin, who was in fact my own cat. One writes to memorialize and to bring to life again that which has been lost.”

Other works in JCO’s catalog include the short story “The White Cat” (opposed to Poe’s “The Black Cat”) reprinted in Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, the poem “To an Aged Cat, Dying in My Arms,” reprinted in Tenderness, and the magical cat Mahalaleel who opens the novel Bellefleur. Greg Johnson notes in Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates, that an incident in which JCO and her husband found and adopted two kittens abandoned by the side of the road (one of which was Muffin) is recreated in the story “The Seasons,” reprinted in Raven’s Wing. JCO has also co-edited with Daniel Halpern an anthology of cat-writings, The Sophisticated Cat. Halpern, a founder of the literary magazine Antaeus, and of Ecco Press (now an imprint of HarperCollins and JCO’s primary publisher), is also the father of “Lily,” the little girl who appears in both Come Meet Muffin! and the second book of the series, Where is Little Reynard?

JCO continues in the Mulvaneys interview, “I’ve never before written about the emotional interdependence of human beings and animals, though it has been so much a part of my life (and the lives of many of my friends). I hoped to show, in the novel, the intensely connected parallel lives of people and animals. For Marianne, obviously, Muffin is far more than merely a cat; he’s her deepest connection with her family and her girlhood, almost an aspect of her soul. In families with animals, there is always tragedy: animals age more quickly than we do, and their lives run out before our eyes. How difficult it is to speak of the secret meaning of animals without sounding sentimental … Yet it was a risk I was willing to take in order to tell the story of the Mulvaneys.”

But JCO’s cat writing can be traced much earlier. Greg Johnson in Invisible Writer relates the following anecdote. “On one occasion, Joyce wrote a story to be read aloud in school, but her parents suggested she change the title. ‘Joyce was headstrong as a child,’ [her father] remembered. ‘She didn’t want to change it.’ Finally, he had to explain to his daughter why ‘The Cat House’ was not an appropriate title for a story about cats.”