Monday, September 10, 2007

Novel as act of atonement

Sarah Crown has a rather wonderful interview with Joyce Carol Oates at the Guardian. All sorts of interesting things in there:
Rebecca's very deliberate transformation - via make-up, haircut and dress - from German-Jewish Rebecca into all-American Hazel reminded me, I say, of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel, Passing, in which mixed-race women "pass" themselves off as white and marry white men who know nothing of their heritage. There must be, I suggest, a deep loneliness at the heart of a marriage in which you're unable, as Rebecca is in her second marriage, to talk about your past with your husband. Oates readily accepts the comparison with Larsen, whom she admires, but offers a more ambiguous view of the substance of marriage itself. "I don't know what marriages are like in general," she says, "but there are many things which I don't talk about with my husband. We discuss practical problems, but I wouldn't sit down with him and talk about the distant past. It's somewhat in contrast to other Americans, who feel that they have to confess things, but I'm really not like that. It all comes out in the writing; that's enough. And my husband doesn't read my writing either." He doesn't read any of it at all? "Some of it, here and there," she qualifies, "but not this book. He doesn't" she adds, lightly, "really know much about my family."

Was that, I ask, a conscious decision on her part?

"Yes - I asked him not to read it," she replies. "He's an editor and publisher, he's reading all the time. I wouldn't inflict a 600-page manuscript on him in the evening - or expect some reaction from him, which maybe he can't, or doesn't want, to give ... In fact, the only people who read my novels are my agent and my editor. You look at acknowledgment pages these days and it's astonishing how many people are involved in reading one book. My students often say, "My roommate read this story and really liked it", and it's hard to convince them that there are things wrong with it. I say, "well, people who love you want you to be happy. But I'm your professor and I'm supposed to be teaching you something."
I must say that Joyce Carol Oates is one of my absolute heroes...

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