Guest post by Tanya Tromble
Joyce Carol Oates made an appearance in Paris on Saturday, July 4, for an interview and book signing session at the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysées. The appearance was to promote the release of the French translation of her Journal. She responded to questions from an interviewer and then from the audience for about an hour and then signed books. This is the first time I had met her in person, and she was just as gracious and natural as I had imagined her.
She spoke about the difference between fiction writing and journal writing and encouraged everyone in the audience to begin keeping a journal if they were not already doing so. She said that though there are a few things in the journal she wishes she hadn’t written, overall she feels that looking back at it allowed her to realize the past difficulties she had confronted and gotten through. Responding to the seemingly mandatory question about violence in her work, she pointed out that an artist is not his/her subject matter, rather the subject is just the material used by the artist. She thinks that criticism of violence in her work stems from a miscomprehension of what an artist is and stressed that an artist lives in his/her imagination, whereas her own life is a peaceful one. She quoted Flaubert who said “live like the bourgeoisie so you can be violent in your writing.”
When asked about the relationship between her work and detective fiction, she responded “I don’t write thrillers, exactly” and went on to list many different genres and subgenres of detective fiction. “I’ve never written a thriller and I’m not drawn to the genre,” she said before going on to explain what she views as the action structure of the thriller. “The genre I like is psychological mystery/suspense which I think is very true to life.” For her, this genre is written from the point of view of one person, sometimes a detective, and represents the position we are often in when confronted with something mysterious. She spoke about family secrets at the periphery of her experience when growing up and expressed the idea that a writer is always pursuing mysterious threads toward illumination and knowledge. She distinguished between genre fiction and literary fiction saying that in genre fiction the mystery is always explained because of the contract between reader and writer, whereas literary fiction operates in a different dimension where each literary work is supposed to be unique, so things don’t need to necessarily be explained/resolved. Oates offered Black Girl, White Girl as an example of one of her works with the form of a mystery/suspense novel. Told from the perspective of the white girl, you know immediately that the black girl is dead. The novel looks back over fifteen years, dealing with white guilt, class-generated guilt, and the (sometimes wrongly) perceived cliché qualities in the Other.
Before concluding, she went on to answer questions about The Gravedigger’s Daughter, her play I Stand Before You Naked, her writing process and her favorite French authors including Flaubert (especially Madame Bovary), Camus, Sartre, Duras and Colette. She apologized for not being familiar with the work of contemporary French authors, explaining that as far as she knew, there were few, if any, English translations available, publishers being wary of venturing into this domain.
It was a surprise and a joy to have Oates finally visit France!