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More Writers: Oates & Tan

July 18, 2008 - Phyllis Sigal
Joyce Carol Oates is one of those authors whose name I've heard forever. But amazingly, I couldn't remember anything I'd ever read. Nor could I find friends — even in my book club — who had read her or could make any recommendations. I found one friend who had read "We Were the Mulvaneys," but she didn't even realize it was written by Joyce Carol Oates until I listed it as one of her many works.

I scoured my collection of books for something written by her that I could read before listening to her speak, and found a short story in one of my short story collections from my college English classes. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," was an interesting short story. I loved the way it was written, but I wasn't sure I "got it" after I had read it. But I liked it. That story was made into the film, "Smooth Talk," which featured Laura Dern and Treat Williams.

Many describe her work as dark and gothic, often involving violence against women. That short story I read certainly falls into that category.

Oates is described as one of the most prolific writers of our time, with close to 100 books to her credit. She's written novels, novellas, short stories, poetry and plays. She's also edited many collections.

From the Chautauqua Amphitheater stage last Wednesday, with Roger Rosenblatt, she talked about her life and her writing.

She told us that the first two books that influenced her imagination were Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass."

"His world is somewhat distorted. We see things both as they are and also in this distorted way, as in a dream. Basically, that's my own world vision, shaped by age 8," she said.

Oates talked of her process of writing, saying that she writes every day. She also likes to walk and think about her writing, "If you're walking, you can think. You can let it unfold, like a little movie," she said. And, unlike author E.L. Doctorow, she always knows the first sentence, the last paragraph and the title of her works. (Doctorow said he only writes as far as the headlights illuminate.) "If you plan it out and know where you're going, it's easier to get where you're going," she pointed out. "Otherwise, you can write 800 pages that are worthless."

Even though her work is well thought out, there are still surprises along the way she said.

"There are many surprises each minute, in the sentences, the metaphors, the way the character speaks."

Amy Tan, who was Rosenblatt's "friend" on Thursday, said she "follows Edgar's (Doctorow) way" — "... but with bicycle lights, not car lights. My mother thought my keyboard was like a Ouija board .... the words came down from my grandmother and came out through my fingers." "I can't begin to write until I have both the voice and the setting — a sense of place. I also need to have a question I want to answer. ... I don't know all the specifics; by the end I know what I'm moving toward. I have a number of the elements to begin with."

Someone in the audience asked Tan if she is a feminist. She started the answer by telling the story of someone once whispering from the audience, "She's not a feminist, she has lipstick on."

"I usually resist any kind of category. I don't like to be called one thing or the other because it's all a matter of context. ... I'm not a generalist, I'm a specifist. I have no favorite book. I have no favorite place. I have no best mentor. I have one mother so she's the best and the worst. So everything is that context."

Tan is known for "The Joy Luck Club," "The Kitchen God's Wife," "The Hundred Secret Senses," "The Bonesetter's Daughter" and "Saving Fish From Drowning." She's presently working on a new novel and creating the libretto (text) for "The Bonesetter's Daughter," that will be premiered by the San Francisco Opera in September.

Next: Garry Trudeau ... a funnyman who made us all cry.

 
 

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Amy Tan on stage with Roger Rosenblatt.

 
 
 
 

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