JOYCE CAROL OATES AT MILLS COLLEGE: twitter, crayons, and the role of violence

JCO twitterOn February 12, I attended a reading and talk at Mills College by the elegant, distinguished Joyce Carol Oates. It was a memorable evening.

Oates spoke in a lovely room in Mills Hall, just the sort of place one pictures when thinking of academia. The wood paneling, beautiful architecture and park-like views were as removed from the often violent and gothic atmosphere of Oates’ fictional worlds as one could possibly imagine.accursed

A soft-spoken woman, slim and fragile as a reed, Oates was introduced by Professor Cornelia Nixon. Professor Nixon called our attention to Oates’ famously prolific output: 50 novels and three dozen short story collections, plus poetry collections, young adult novels, and a variety of essays in creative nonfiction. Professor Nixon also mentioned the often repeated assessment that Ms. Oates is a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. We were well prepped for an extraordinary encounter and were not disappointed.

The author grabbed our attention with a discussion of her recent encounters on Twitter. (She is intrigued by Twitter and identifies tweets as “a genre.”) The evening continued with her discussion of the question that many interviewers ask: “Why is your work so violent?” She paused and shot us a look of disdain that would chill a pile of burning coals before remarking,  “….as if the world were placid and only art disturbs it….”

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Electrifyingly charismatic, Oates moved like a dancer or an actress full of eloquent gesture. Speaking of her earliest creative experiences, she described her childhood love of coloring books, and as she remarked, “I loved my crayolas,” she unconsciously lifted her fingers to her face as if sniffing a crayon. We could see the child in the woman right there, fully present.

She went on to read a new short story, not yet published, with the intriguing title “Sex With Camel.” It is about a boy and his grandmother, age and youth, love and loss. Oates explained that this was her first time reading the story for an audience and readingoatesadmitted to some uncertainty about its effectiveness. Later, in the reception line, I told her how much I enjoyed the piece and she asked me whether certain parts of it had worked, if I had understood specific details. What did I think? Fortunately, I found the presence of mind to demur and not advise her on craft. But I was marvelously charmed by her modesty and willingness to be a writer among writers, not just a distinguished visitor from the Olympian heights.

As is our tradition, we would have liked to record this occasion for our Litseen followers, but in this instance videotaping was disallowed. We are pleased, however, to offer a link to a fine interview of Ms. Oates by Michelle Tea of Radar Productions.

charlesCharles Kruger joined the rigorous litseen diet before Litseen existed; he began to assist Evan at in May of 2010, recently unemployed and quite down in spirit, and experienced nothing short of a complete resuscitation, reinventing himself as The Storming Bohemian. Read his remarkable story here. Charles has since founded the website Theatrestorm, is a staff writer and videographer here at Litseen, and serves as secretary for the Quiet Lightning Board of Directors.