“It is important for a writer to have a routine — a comfort zone of sorts,” National Book Award-winner Joyce Carol Oates told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in a recent exchange. Oates, who has authored more than 70 books — including novels, short story collections and poetry volumes — will appear in Brooklyn Heights on Oct. 10 to discuss her latest collection of stories, “Lovely, Dark, Deep” (Ecco). The event, hosted by BookCourt at St. Francis College, includes a reading, audience Q&A session and book signing.
“It is helpful to get up early, before the rest of the household is up, to think and write quietly…this is a precious time,” says Oates, who is known for authoring some of the most enduring works of the last half century, including the national bestsellers “We Were the Mulvaneys,” which chronicles a struggling family, and “Blonde,” which reimagines the life of Marilyn Monroe. A recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, among other accolades, Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.
Oates’ latest is a testament to her ability to conjure fresh characters and scenes in each of her books. The stories comprised in “Lovely, Dark, Deep” are distinct yet tied together in their focus on the dark, sometimes veiled aspects of human nature that are eerily beautiful when exposed.
Her story “Mastiff,” which also appeared in The New Yorker, follows a man and woman who share a terrifying, intimate experience when they are attacked by a dog while hiking together. At the beginning of the story, the characters — who have just recently begun dating — are simply called “the woman” and “the man.” “Most of my characters are very specifically named, but those in ‘Mastiff’ begin as ‘the woman’ and ‘the man’ because their relationship to each other is so indeterminate at the start,” Oates explains. “Only after they have shared an intensely emotional experience do they emerge as individuals — ‘Simon’ and ‘Marietta’ — in each other’s eyes.”
Much of Oates’ work deals with memory and loss. “Since I have married a neuroscientist, and have been exposed to a kind of knowledge I had not had previously, I’ve become extremely interested in the mysteries of memory,” Oates told the Eagle. “One of my new novellas is about a severe amnesiac, based loosely upon the life of the most famous amnesiac ‘H.M.,’ who died not long ago.”
Oates seems to move rather seamlessly between novel and short story writing. She explains that while a novel tends to be more fixed in its character selection, time span and setting, “short stories explore many different settings and characters, and each story is much smaller in scope. There are intimate stories that transpire only between two people, perhaps the sort of story in which I am most interested. In ‘Lovely, Dark, Deep,’” Oates says, “a number of the stories, including the novella, end with two characters in a new, sharply defined relationship.”
Oates, who teaches writing while creating her own, emphasizes the importance of preparing and researching before sitting down to write. “Think of a film,” she says. “Pre-production in a film may involve years of research, while the filming itself may be only a few months.” Oates advises her students who struggle with writer’s block to familiarize themselves with their subject matter. “Take more notes, write dialogue, sketches, outlines — not try to begin with the narrative just yet. Often I assemble large folders of notes, before I even try to write the first sentence.”
“But writing is an adventure, essentially,” says Oates. “You must trust your intuition, and you must read widely and enthusiastically, for inspiration.”
The Oct. 10 event will begin at 7 p.m. St. Francis College is located at 180 Remsen St. in Brooklyn Heights.