By Edward Schwarzschild
From the archives: Joyce Carol Oates
Welcome to a regular Trolley column that will feature highlights from the New York State Writers Institute’s extensive archives.
What are the NYSWI archives? For 35 years the Writers Institute has hosted some of the finest writers and filmmakers in the world, bringing them to Albany for talks, panels, colloquia, and more. That adds up to more than 2,000 events, and all of them, thanks to efforts led by associate director Suzanne Lance, have been recorded and collected in the archives. (Digging Deep to Digitize: Writers Institute works to make immense archive publicly accessible, Albany Times Union, January 20, 2018)
Until recently, the NYSWI archives have been an under-utilized resource, in part because the changes in technology over the years have made it difficult to access the material both in-person and online. Over the last few years, however, the Institute has committed itself to digitizing the archives and making them more readily available. This regular feature is just one part of that commitment.
For this fourth column, in celebration of the 2nd annual Albany Book Festival, we have chosen to feature a wide-ranging interview with one of the luminaries who spoke at the Festival, Joyce Carol Oates.
Oates, born and raised in upstate New York, is a National Book Award winner, five-time Pulitzer nominee and widely acclaimed fiction writer and essayist, has written more than 100 books, including national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, a fictional retelling of the Marilyn Monroe story nominated for the National Book Award, and the New York Times bestseller The Falls. Her latest novel is My Life as a Rat (2019).
Though this interview took place in early 1995, you’ll find that the conversation touches upon many issues of current concern, from American politics, to Supreme Court justices, to quantum physics and the vicissitudes of memory.
And of course, once again, as with so much of what you can find in the Institute’s archives, this interview overflows with wisdom, laughter, and a love of literary conversation.
Edward Schwarzschild is the author of the novel "Responsible Men" and the story collection "The Family Diamond." His new novel, "In Security," set in the world of the TSA at Albany International Airport, will be published next year. He’s an associate professor at the University at Albany, and a fellow at the New York State Writers Institute. www.edwardschwarzschild.com
Joyce Carol Oates, interviewed by Douglas Glover
Recorded for The Book Show, January 2, 1995
Douglas Glover: My guest today is Joyce Carol Oates, author of more than 50 works of fiction, poetry and criticism, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction for her 1969 novel Them, and twice nominated since, most recently in 1992 for Black Water. Now, Oates has written a new novel, What I Lived For, an intense, driven, densely packed account of the last days of Jerome “Corky” Corcoran, an upstate New York real estate operator and petty politico, who inadvertently becomes involved in a sex and blackmail cover-up when a black power groupie named Merrily Plumber sensationally and ambiguously kills herself.
What I Lived For opens with a brief reprise of the night 30 years before, when Corky’s father was murdered by strangers, and then we are plunged into Corky’s own phantasmagoric dark night of the soul, the eerie, relativistic arena of death, where all Corky’s certainties are dashed, and his vain attempts to pull himself back together, save his teetering financial empire, save his self-destructive step-daughter, and his relationship with his remaining family and lover Christina, become increasingly fevered and frenetic.
Joyce Carol Oates, welcome to The Book Show.
Joyce Carol Oates: Thank you.
Glover: I think you’ve used the word “witnessing” to describe the kind of fiction you write. Witnessing the state of society in America or a portion of America at any given time is one of the things that you’re doing when you’re writing a book like this.
Oates: Yes, very definitely. I see myself as an American writer, and well, there’s equal stress on both words, “American” and “writer;” so I’m trying to portray, with the very best intentions and the most sincere motives, the world that I see—the world I was born into. I do love my subjects, however, and I see the characters whom I write about as representative of real people who are very complex and really are not to be reduced to any sort of sociological unit. So, they may be victims in one sense, but they may have surprising interior strengths in another sense.
(Photo by Dustin Cohen)
Glover: I think I understand what you’re saying in regard to Corky. The events of the novel take place, roughly, during five days in May of 1992, in an imaginary city called Union City on the shore of Lake Erie in upstate New York. It’s a bit like Buffalo, I guess.
Glover: But Corky is really a man of the 1990’s, and this is the post Go-Go 1980’s. His business is falling apart. He, like everyone else, has invested in failing partnership units in the West, and his sexual and political relationships, too, are falling apart. He’s confused, hapless, and sort of struggling. But, deep down, you mean him to be a kind of moral soul.
Oates: Yes. He discovers he really is perhaps a person of integrity. He had always wondered, maybe like many men, whether in a time of emergency, he would be strong—whether or not he’d be a coward, and when the moment of crisis comes, he acts instinctively. He is courageous in his own somewhat blundering way.
Glover: The kind of heroism, the kind of morality that he portrays is, as you say, blundering, but it’s not a conscious morality that he has. I think of it as a kind of internal moral radar.
Oates: Yes, I think so. He wants to do the right thing.
Glover: But he doesn’t quite know what that is; it’s not clear to him all the time.
Oates: He doesn’t always know what the right thing is. That is very clear in our own lives, when we’re faced with political choices, for instance. In such a heavily politicized world as ours, we try to choose the best person, and yet we don’t know that much about these politicians. When we know a good deal about a politician, we tend to be very critical of this person because we know about him. So, the human instinct is to vote for someone about whom we know very little, not realizing that when or if we do learn more about this other person, he too, may be revealed as very morally deficient. So, Corky’s in that world where you don’t repudiate your friend just because he’s not perfect… because he’d be left completely alone and isolated. And he’s really terrified, as many Americans are—I suppose I am, too—of winding up completely alone.
Glover: He has, in the plot of the novel, this relationship of something like friendship and patronage and political support with the Slattery clan: Oscar, the father, Vic, the son, who is roughly Corky’s age. Through the course of the novel, they are the ones who are revealed to be less than squeaky clean. I understand exactly what you’re saying, that he’s afraid of being left alone. A lot of what he’s doing is self protective. A lot of his impulses are, in fact, not the best impulses. I’d like to actually talk about the sex life of your character just for a few minutes. Sex is on Corky’s mind just about all the time.
Glover: And I noticed that the reviewer in the New York Times, who actually ended up giving you a very good review, was a little bit prim about the sex. He called it “Playboy sex.” It seems to me that actually, you’re making a much more complicated point—something to do with the violence of the act of sex itself, but also this sort of chaotic, sexually charged nature of human consciousness in the American male.
Oates: Plus, he is, I thought, somewhat representative of an American male of a certain type, a certain education level. He didn’t graduate from college, and he comes from a world of Irish-American macho background. So he’s measuring himself in terms of other men, or what he perceives what other men are like, or would be like sexually. He has been a subscriber to Playboy as long as Playboy has been published… and actually an excerpt of What I Lived For was published in Playboy, so it comes full-circle. I was surprised in a way that Playboy would publish an excerpt from this novel because of that particular scene in which Corky is made a fool of by two young women. One of the women gives him her earring and puts it on his ear and, in a kind of symbolic castration, one might say, he can’t get this terribly painful earring off his ear. I was surprised that Playboy would publish that because it’s sort of anti-macho, anti-sexual fantasy.
Glover: Right. Those young women, who he thinks he’s going to get into bed with, have a kind of revenge on him.
Oates: They definitely have their revenge. And we have a sense that they’ve been sort of guiding him and making a fool of him, even though they like him well enough. He’s the kind of man that women do like very much, but a woman who knows anyone like Corky Corcoran also knows that she can’t trust him. He can be so attractive and so attentive and it’s very flattering to be approached by a man like that, but basically, you can’t trust that man, because the ardor and the enthusiasm that he brings to any romantic situation will be somewhat ephemeral. He’s incapable of being faithful to a woman for a very long period of time. I think many, many marriages—not just with a man like Corky--are based upon a romantic misconception of intense sexual desire.
Glover: And that is, in fact, portrayed in his failed marriage.
Oates: Right, and he sees his wife as very attractive; he was extremely attracted to her when she was younger, but it just wore out over 11 years. It’s a kind of tragedy, and Corky’s very aware of that. He wanted to have children, and it just didn’t happen. Now he’s a divorced man, and he’s really fearful of being all alone, so he’s invented a creative kind of macho bluster personality that masks his inner self.
Glover: And this macho bluster keeps, in the course of the novel, being presented with its own failure. His business world is kind of teetering, his sexual relationships are fraught with a kind of failure, or the agony of humiliation. The woman who gives him the earring shows up, as a friend of his stepdaughter, later, and actually brings him into bed but then humiliates him afterwards. And, there’s a way in which this is very horrifying. The density of failure is horrifying, and also in some ways it has a slight comic edge. I wonder if you meant that.
Oates: Well of course it’s comic. It’s obviously very comic.
Glover: At a certain stage, when he goes into a bar, buys the bar and then comes out and finds that he bought a really bad piece of real estate, it’s almost like a roadrunner and coyote kind of cartoon of despair.
Oates: Well, I think so. I think many of us suffer humiliation and make fools of ourselves in small ways all day long, you know, every day. But nobody’s writing it down, and nobody’s recording it. So we move on, we sort of laugh at ourselves and try to keep a kind of ironic distance. Corky’s just accumulating all of these things which are exacerbated by his drinking, and his being open for adventure. If a woman seems to be inviting Corky, he can’t seem to say no. He’s sort of yearning and eager, so he’s open for humiliation.
Glover: Now, one of the things about the structure of this novel, Joyce, is that it’s set up as a kind of quasi-detective novel.
Glover: Now, Corky is not a detective, but what happens near the opening of the novel is that a young woman, a friend of his step-daughter, named Marilee Plumber, commits suicide apparently. Corky receives a mysterious phone call from his daughter, who tells him not to trust appearances, and then he investigates this murder. It’s not a murder, I should say, and he doesn’t exactly investigate it, but he goes to the morgue, which again is a kind of comic scene because he faints. He goes to the funeral, he goes to a crematorium, he kind of pushes his way into the milieu of this suicide, and discovers what really happened in the end. I’m sure you did intend this as a kind of quasi-detective book.
Oates: Yes. On two levels, because he’s also searching in a much less structured way for an answer to his questions about why his own father had been murdered.
Oates: So, he and the reader both find out answers to these questions by the end of the novel. I think that it’s common to many of us that there are questions about our lives, perhaps about our parents, our family lives—mysteries that we never really understood, things that happen when we’re young that are never explained, that are purposefully kept secret from us. So we go through our lives sort of vaguely wondering what happened, but yet not making any systematic investigation.
Glover: Yes. There’s a sense in which, in his mental make-up, Corky is actually avoiding, or has avoided asking the questions about his own father’s death, till now.
Oates: Yes, I know there are mysteries in my own family, and, though it sounds absurd, it’s the hardest thing in the world to ask a simple question of a parent. Sometimes, it’s just the most impossible thing. A question that maybe a stranger could ask, one somehow can’t ask one’s own parents—it’s very strange.
Glover: Now, through Corky, the unwilling detective, as he backs his way into the investigation of Marilee Plumber’s death, we come into, again, the intersection of the public and private, which is part of the thematics of this novel. The Marilee Plumber incident rings all sorts of topical bells, and reminds us, for example, of J. Edgar Hoover trying to spoil Martin Luther King’s image with evidence of sexual shenanigans, and more recently, the senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, where Clarence Thomas is portrayed as a kind of victim of a white vendetta.
Glover: Marilee Plumber has been in the process of suing a black politician who has been a thorn in the side of the local white political aristocracy. It turns out in the end that the Slatterys have put her up to this lawsuit in order to frame the black politician. And then, for whatever reason, she, under the pressure of this, commits suicide. I know that this is part of the idea of witnessing what is going on in America today.
Glover: Were you actually thinking of Clarence Thomas when you were doing this?
Oates: Oh no, I wasn’t thinking of anyone specifically, it was more of a generic phenomenon. I was also thinking of the Mike Tyson case.
Glover: Oh yes, of course.
Oates: And Mike Tyson was found guilty of rape, and maybe some other charges also on the testimony of a young woman. So, too, with the characters in my novel. We really don’t know exactly what happened. We do know that a young woman was being encouraged, sort of being paid, by some politicians—she was given what is called a patronage job, at an art museum, as a kind of reward for her testimony. Now, this doesn’t mean that she wasn’t really sexually abused by this man. It’s just that she was encouraged to come forward and to give her testimony, and without their monetary encouragement, she might not have come forward. However, we don’t really know whether or not she was sexually abused. She may have invited it, in a way, or she may have not wanted it. We just don’t know. And, Corky himself never really knows. I think this is our human condition. We don’t really know the truth about so many events, especially large, public events. We know what people testify. We know what juries decide, but we certainly don’t know the truth.
Glover: And it’s certainly true of the Clarence Thomas case that now there are books coming out which purport to prove exactly the opposite of what was said in testimony.
Oates: Well, yeah. That’s very true, and I think that positions and perspectives among us shift the significance of truth. We might think that Clarence Thomas may have thought what he was doing or saying was not as extreme as Anita Hill thought it was because our position, our perspective, helps to determine what we think of as true.
Glover: Now this whole idea of perspective, or relativism, is also a theme of the novel, and it’s kind of interesting that you have the physicist Stephen Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time, pop up on almost every book shelf and coffee table. And hardly anyone’s actually reading the book, right?
Oates: It’s too difficult to read… it’s the same thing here in Princeton. People who are not scientists have tried to read it and they don’t get very far in it though they try, and I think it’s admirable to have tried.
Glover: But there are references to the book, there are quotations and references also to some astronomical imagery.
Glover: The emphasis being on exactly this relativity of truth, relativity of time, and that has to do with the way that the time of the novel actually works. The novel takes place over a very short period of time, but it’s 600 pages long; the scenes which might take a half an hour in real time stretch on for page after page after page. The time stretches out. It’s filled with all kinds of thought processes and memories and sexual imaginings and speculations on outcomes.
Oates: Yes, absolutely. If we were to chart the flow of our minds in just one hour, we’d be quite amazed, I’m sure, at all the digressions, and then the underlying pulsations, the themes we keep coming back to which determine our character—the thoughts that we have repeatedly. We may not even be aware, but see, if we were to chart our mental processes for one hour, we’d probably see a very distinctive rhythm.
Glover: Now, as I say, this takes place in Union City, which is somewhat like Buffalo, and this is very close to where you grew up yourself. You come from Brockport.
Oates: Yes, Buffalo was “the big city.”
Glover: Now, one of the triumphs of this book is the visioning of the city itself. There are long travelling sequences where Corky is driving through town. He has sexual memories, memories of real estate deals. The neighborhoods which once were Irish neighborhoods are turning to black neighborhoods. There are descriptions of block after block of storefronts and buildings. Did you actually model it on Buffalo, or did you imagine it?
Oates: Well, of course, some of it is memory.
Glover: I was actually going to ask you a trick question. I was going to ask you if you could remember what was on the corner of Pearl and Water street.
Oates: I’d have to really think about that.
Glover: I know this book is really far back in time for you.
Oates: Well, if I were able to shut my eyes and go into a semi-dream state, I could travel along these streets.
Glover: You could? Still at this point?
Oates: I could travel along the streets of my childhood and my adolescence because they’re deeply imprinted in my memory. I’m sure that all of us, including you, could shut our eyes and suddenly be back in our first house, when we were really little; you can see your first room, and see your living room and your parents. I think we have this ability to go back very rapidly in time, and very wonderfully. It’s all there in the brain.
Previously published from the NYS Writers Institute archives: