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Books Chat

Joyce Carol Oates

Welcome to CNN's Book Chat with special guest, author Joyce Carol Oates. Please ask your questions in the channel. Read more about Joyce Carol Oates and her latest work, a children's book, "Come Meet Muffin," at

Question: Good evening - My question - Why a childrenís book? Isn't this a big change from previous work?

AuthOates: A number of factors entered into it. First of all, I had a very wonderful cat named Muffin. I was invited to write a children's book by the publishers of Ecco press, who are friends of mine. And they have a little girl named Lily. So, naturally, I wrote the story for Lily, who was then three years old. I'm very interested in the emotional bonds between people and animals, I think, because I grew up on a farm in upstate New York, outside Buffalo. I wrote about Muffin in an adult novel called "We were the Mulvaneys"-which is about a farm family.

Question: You last book, I think, was 'My Heart Laid Bare' - also a departure of sorts - is this a trend for you now - exploring new territory?

AuthOates: Yes, it is a big change from my previous work. I've always loved children's books and writing it reminded me of my own childhood. I began reading when I was quite young. I'm also interested in fairy tales, and children's literature is very much like fairy tales, benign fairy tales.

Question: Is the illustrator a friend, or someone chosen by the publisher? Do you plan to also continue writing books with emphasis on the constraints placed on women?

AuthOates: The illustrator is mark Graham, the editor of Ecco and I chose him after looking at a number of illustrator's samples. We wanted a tone of soft realism. And, yes, definitely. This is very crucial to me

Question: Something I've always wondered about was how an adult gets into the minds of children so well. It's a completely different style of writing.

AuthOates: We've all been children at one time. Basically it's an act of remembering.

Question: What age group do you target your readers?

AuthOates: For children up to the age of eight for the children's book.

Question: Will you write more children's books, or was this just an experiment of sorts?

AuthOates: I did not think of it as an experiment. All the factors were so special that I'm not sure that I can write another children's book.

Question: What is it about Muffin that will appeal to children?

AuthOates: The cat or the book?

Question: The cat.

AuthOates: Well, Muffin is very kindly, generous, brave, and loving. Basically, the story is that Muffin was lost and finds his way home. I think that fear of being lost is very common to children...and adults.

Question: In other words, this (writing children's books) is something that you will definitely do again?

AuthOates: I might, if I have other cats. I will say this: the reception has been so warm and wonderful that I have been invited to write other children's books.

Question: Is self-reliance a deliberate theme in the book or did I just read that into it?

AuthOates: Yes. It's a definite theme. I believe very strongly that children can become self-reliant-but they have to learn from adults.

Question: You once said, when asked for advice to a young writer, 'To be as invisible as possible so that you can experience life.' Can you elaborate on that?

AuthOates: I think it's very important for writers and artists generally to be witnesses to the world, and to be transparent. To let other people experience the world. And memorialize it.

Question: What do you mean by, witnesses to the world?

AuthOates: I've always been interested in writing about people, including young children who are not able to speak for themselves. As in my novel "Black Water", I provide a voice for someone who has died and can't speak for herself.

Question: I have been reading about your other works, and I would like to know if you are a feminist.

AuthOates: Yes, I am what would be called a "mainstream feminist", not a radical feminist.

Question: How old is Muffin now - I am curious about how you found him and when.

AuthOates: Well, I found Muffin just the way it is described in the book on a road just outside of Princeton, New Jersey. He was a tiny kitten who had been abandoned. Muffin is no longer living. He died at the age of thirteen. So the book is a memorial to him.

Question: Are there any themes of mainstream feminism in Come Meet Muffin?

AuthOates: Maybe because there is a little girl heroine. She is the one who finds Muffin and brings him home.

Question: I am curious about your pseudonym - I didn't know you had one until tonight. Could you tell us about your work under the name Rosamond Smith?

AuthOates: I started writing suspense thrillers under the name Rosamond Smith about twelve years ago. I wanted to begin again, without my reputation influencing the reading of a new book. But the secret was revealed in a New York Post gossip column before the first novel was published, so Rosamond never had a chance. But I continued anyway with the project.

Question: Where do you see the short story going, and what kind of short stories do you think will be anthologized over the next ten to twenty years?

AuthOates: Well there are as many short stories as there are short story writers. I don't think the form will mutate. I think that it has found its ideal expression in a sharp focus on a limited number of characters. Forms develop sometimes when certain segments of the writing population experiment with them. For example, there are ethnic minority writers who experiment with the form who write short stories like prose poems

(like Sandra Cisneros-a Latina writer).

Question: I recently found out that you taught literature and writing. How long did you do this?

AuthOates: I started teaching at Princeton in 1978. With an emphasis on undergraduates.

Question: Who are your favorite writers, and have the works of these other writers influenced your work?

AuthOates: I have so many favorite writers it's very hard to select a few...of classic writers I have always admired Emily Dickinson and Henry David Thoreau.

Question: Faulkner??

AuthOates: Yes. My first children's book that I loved was Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass."

Question: Have any of your former students gone on to publish their own work?

AuthOates: Quite a few. Pinckney Benedict. He writes about West Virginia very beautifully. There's Jonathan Ames. Whose fiction is set in New York City. He has a new novel just published called "The Extra Man."

Question: Are there authors you closely associate with and you read each otherís work?

AuthOates: Quite a few in Princeton. There's Russell Banks, who is a very close friend. There's Edmund White, there's Daniel Halpern, there's the poet and feminist critic Alicia Ostryker and there's the feminist cultural critic Elaine Showalter. And many others.

AuthOates: Oh one more...Bradford Morrow.

Question: If you had to name ONE of YOUR books that best exemplifies who you are and what your life has been and continues to be about, what would that book be?

AuthOates: "We were the Mulvaneys." (This has Muffin in it too!)

Question: I've noticed a theme of "triumph over adversity" in many of your writings - does that come from personal experience?

AuthOates: Yes it does. I believe very strongly in the ability of individuals to forge their own destiny (Sometimes it's very difficult).

Question: Even the young women of Foxfire were superb at confronting circumstances.

AuthOates: Well that's good that you think that. That novel is based partly on girlhood memories.

Question: How did you feel when you won a 'Stoker' award? This is an award for 'horror' fiction, right?

AuthOates: Yes. I won two Stoker awards. One was for a novel called Zombie, "the best horror novel of that year." And I won a lifetime achievement award in that category.

Question: What is your feeling on the belief that someone has to be in certain literary circles to be recognized in literature today?

AuthOates: I don't think that's true. There are writers like Cormac McCarthy, who are very isolated and remote, but very highly regarded.

Question: Are you fan of McCarthy?

AuthOates: I'm not a "fan", but I admire his work. It's very bold and very imaginative.

Question: Where do you get the inspiration to write horror novels?

AuthOates: Well we all have dreams. I think the imagination is very surreal and filled with images of terror that writers and artists have always expressed in order to alleviate fear.

Question: The other side of that would be science fiction?

AuthOates: Yes. I don't read much science fiction so I don' t know much about it. They are both imaginative and deal with certain fears. Gothic horror is about psychological fears and science fiction is predominately intellectual.

Question: Was it that "ability to forge destiny" that drew you to Mike Tyson - and would you care to comment on his recent troubles?

AuthOates: I was originally interested in Mike Tyson because he was such a great boxer. All great athletes forge their own destinies and that's why their stories are so exciting.

Question: I am a interested in knowing more about the plays you have written, and the titles of the books you wrote that have been made into films. Which do you enjoy writing more-novels or plays?

AuthOates: Writing novels and writing plays is very different. Writing plays is collaborative and writing novels is solitary. Whatever I'm doing at the moment I tend to like best. Plays are wonderful because you're working with other people. I've come to know and deeply admire actors.

Question: What's next on the agenda? What do you plan to work on next or are you working on something new now?

AuthOates: I have a new novel coming out in June 1999. I'm just finishing the pages on that.

AuthOates: its called "Brokeheart Blue". It essentially asks the question "I s there life after high school?"

Question: Do you have a set time during the day that you write? Or do you write 'as the spirit moves you?

AuthOates: I work usually in the mornings and often in the evenings. It is true that many writers have a time of the day when they sit down and make themselves write. Writers often write out of inspiration-when they feel really excited.

Question: Oates, what do you think of this media, have you ever been in a chat room like #cnn?

AuthOates: I really enjoyed this experience it was quite unusual for me. Usually at this time I am writing and very solitary and lonely...but tonight I felt like I had a lot of friends.

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