Joyce Carol Oates Speaks About Inspiration at Hunter
The renowned author makes a return to the school
Oates called her first appearance at Hunter a “provocative and stimulating evening,” but one had to wonder if the venue would end up being the most memorable thing about her follow-up. In her hour at the podium, the chatter of students entering and exiting school accompanied Oates’s speech.
One group near the turnstiles was so loud that Oates had to pause, professing that the noise was “distracting.” It’s a testament to her power as a storyteller that Oates was able to transcend the undesirable environment and transfix the crowd.
Oates’s chosen subject was “inspiration and obsession, if there’s any difference between the two.” She revealed where authors like Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson drew inspiration from, often seemingly confounded by their writing processes.
Oates called it “peculiar” that Joseph Heller could come up with acclaimed works like Catch-22 by merely imagining the novel’s first line in his head, and described the dream that prompted Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein with a sort of awe, as if these strokes of inspiration were foreign to her.
Oates’s reverential tone and unassuming appearance—one attendee said it was funny to imagine that such a “little woman” possessed so much power as a author—made it easy to forget that she is a genius in her own right, but that became apparent as she began to detail her own writing process.
“For a writer, inspiration isn’t the challenge. The execution is the challenge,” Oates said before describing the birth of her bestselling novel Blonde, a fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe’s life and death. The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.
The book, more than 700 pages long, was inspired by a photo Oates had of a young Monroe, back when she went by the name Norma Jeane Baker. Oates originally conceived of the story as a novella. She described being caught up in imagining the woman behind the sex symbol.
“What you did with Marilyn Monroe was mind-blowing. I love Marilyn Monroe,” one attendee said after Oates shared the story. “I fell in love with her too,” Oates replied, blowing a Marilyn-like kiss to the admirer. “I had such respect for her. Nobody talks about her as a career woman. She was a working woman […] She was like the proletariat. I felt the same way. My heart went out to her.”
Oates’s connection to her characters— often women or girls in peril—was revisited throughout the night. “Your empathy—your ability to express the inexpressible, the unbearable—just has always amazed me. I don’t know how— how do you do it?” one audience-member asked.
Oates had no special trick for delving into the psyches of hurting characters. Her mind seems to travel to such places as naturally as Shelley’s conception of Frankenstein’s creature. “I thought, ‘What about that girl?’” Oates said of a character based on Mary Jo Kopechne, the young woman who died after Senator Ted Kennedy left her to drown in a sinking car. “I was haunted by the nightmare of what it would be like to be in the car.”
As she recounted her horror at the prospect of being left in the car, the audience was silent, clearly as moved as the author.
A similarly emotional moment came when Oates described a character in her novel We Were the Mulvaneys, based on her own father’s decline in health as he aged. “My own father had been a very loving man, but then when he got to be in his 80s and he had illnesses, his personality started changing and he wasn’t quite as loving as he had been. And I remember being stricken, just stricken to the heart. I remember being so hurt and so wounded… I thought my father didn’t love me,” Oates confessed, adding that all of those feelings were put into the novel.
Many writers open up through their work. It was Oates’s willingness to open up not just in writing but also in person that took the audience out of Hunter’s busy lobby and into a personal space. “I feel like I know you,” a fan said to the author. By night’s end, those who hadn’t felt that way walking into Hunter surely did walking out.