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May 20, 2011

Oates opens up about writing, death

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Renowned author Joyce Carol Oates read her work and spoke on her personal life and the future of the printed novel at the I-House on Wednesday to a full audience. Oates’s talk was part of her tenure as the 2011 Kestenbaum Writer-in-Residence in the Division of the Humanities.

Oates, who won the National Humanities Medal in 2010, read the story “Pumpkinhead,” from her most recent collection of short stories, Sourland. In the story, a widow is accosted in her home by a man she met at the supermarket. Oates said that writing the story helped her get over the death of her husband.

“Reading this story makes me feel very anxious and excited, because it makes me go back in time to a place I don't have access to,” Oates said.

Oates, who won the 1970 National Book Award in fiction for her novel Them, was animated during her reading, speaking quickly and gesturing with her hands.

During the interview with moderator Donna Seaman, a literary critic for Chicago Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune, Oates delved deeper into “Pumpkinhead” and other writing she did to help cope with her husband’s death. Oates said she believed that in the depth of her mourning she experienced profound dislocation from her powers of representation.

“You go back to your house, and all the things that you shared with a person have no meaning,” she said. “I’m so interested in the fact that for so many people around the world throughout history, life has no coherence.”

Oates also spoke about the digitization of books, saying that she felt that a complete bound book with symbolic cover art added to the meaning of a book.

“Would you work as hard as James Joyce if your book was only going to be published online and it’s not going to be this beautiful book?” Oates asked the audience. Oates added that she owns an Amazon Kindle, and reads both online and in print.

Oates, who has taught creative writing at Princeton since 1978, also spoke about her current work, saying her upcoming novel will follow the breakdown of a female president of a college modeled after an Ivy League school.

“I want to show someone who disintegrates but then picks herself up and comes back,” she said.

During her stay at the U of C, Oates visited Humanities lecturer Bonnie Metzgar’s 21st Century Dramatic Texts class, where she spoke about a film adaptation of one of her novellas and answered questions about adapting works from the page to the screen.

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