There aren’t many people who are considered both a bona fide giant of American letters and a master of oddball tweets, but such is the peculiar mind of Joyce Carol Oates. At 85, she has written so many books that it is difficult to work out the precise number: I counted 58 novels alongside several short story collections, volumes of poetry, and plays. She has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction five times, but never a winner. Oates also teaches writing and literature, and from 1978 to 2014 worked at Princeton University before taking up a visiting professorship at the University of California, Berkeley. She now lives in rural New Jersey, the kind of quiet place in which someone like Oates can peacefully produce page after page of writing.
If there is one overarching theme in Oates’s work, it is her interest in underdogs. Her protagonist is often a marginalised figure: a young woman in thrall to an older man (Black Water), a psychopath (The Triumph of the Spider Monkey), a woman exploited because of her fame (Blonde, a novel about Marilyn Monroe recently adapted for film). And her work always delights in the possibilities of form.
In recent years, Oates has also become famous for her posts on Twitter – where she is just as prolific. She has authored nearly 150,000 tweets, on occasion posting dozens of times in a single day. These can trigger days of literary debate, as when Oates described the recent spate of autofiction as “wan little husks”. But she tweets widely: not just discussing literature but whatever weird video is going viral online, or stray thoughts from her own mind.
Oates has tweeted that her cat was infected with a “woke mind virus”, wondered why we never hear anything about the “joyous” side of the terrorist group Isis, and once posted a particularly graphic photograph of her own foot, mangled by poison-ivy blisters. Around Halloween in 2021, she responded to a picture of a house decorated with climbing skeletons with the words “you can always recognise a place in which no one is feeling much or any grief for a lost loved one & death, dying, & everyone you love decomposing to bones is just a joke”.
Oates’s latest book is a collection of short stories, Zero-Sum: like much of her work, it is alluringly dark and spiky. The title refers to the question that runs through each of the stories: is love a zero-sum game? One particularly memorable story, “Mr Stickum”, sees a group of teenage girls lure a number of men to an abandoned house with the promise of underage sex, and leave them there to die in an enormous human fly trap. Ahead of its publication, I spoke to Oates about what drives her to write, who she reads, and – in theory, at least – Twitter.
Imogen West-Knights One of the reasons I wanted to chat to you at this moment, in particular, is the death of Twitter. I know Twitter is something that you engage with.
Joyce Carol Oates I don’t really know what you mean. Twitter’s up and running. Are you on Twitter?
IWK I am. I’m interested to hear your view on it, because people are talking about whether Elon Musk is going to finally drive people off there or not.
JCO I’m not interested in social media. I’m really focused on my writing. Twitter is just something very, very peripheral in my life.
IWK So you don’t spend much time on Twitter?
JCO I’m a writer and a professor, that’s basically what I do. Twitter is very ephemeral. It’s like conversations that you have with friends, and then you walk away and forget about it. It’s really not very important.
IWK What is the physical process of how you write?
JCO I have a keyboard and I type. I usually take notes longhand, many, many hundreds of pages of notes. I’m working on a novel.
I was travelling and reading the New Yorker, and I suddenly got an idea. [She holds up a page of the New Yorker covered in handwriting.] So I just scribbled all over this page. I don’t think there’s anything too special about it. James Joyce and Emily Dickinson and others were like that too, maybe Saul Bellow. Dickinson put her little scraps in her apron pocket during the day.
IWK What’s the novel you’re working on at the moment?
JCO Well, it’s a work of fiction. It’s set in 2013, in New Jersey. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s about various points of view, each with its own language. “I think that’s why it’s hard to talk to writers, because eventually the writing is about itself. We’re interested in language, and creating something that hasn’t maybe been done before. I’m very interested in language and structure, and in putting together prose into a structure that’s new, and using a voice that I have cultivated for the work.
In the story that I’m telling in this novel, a body has been found, dismembered by animals. I’m beginning the novel with parts of this body being found by different people, and the focus from their perspective. To me, the story is interesting, but what is particularly challenging to me is how I want to tell it.
IWK What is it about an idea that tells you that there’s a kernel of something worth doing with it?
JCO If I feel at the end of a short story that there’s more to it, then I may pursue that further. I just “have so much material. These are just like drafts and ideas for novels. [She lifts sheafs of papers from “her desk.] This is like a whole novel, and this is another one.
But I have to acknowledge, I’m probably not going to live long enough to write them. I have a whole stack of exciting ideas for stories. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I think I’ve got to write this exciting story. I mean, it doesn’t look like much but…
IWK It looks like plenty to me.
JCO Obviously, the problem in my life is that I don’t have enough time to execute these things. That’s the sad thing: I have so many ideas. I do a lot of my writing, actually, in my head. I go walking and running and thinking. I get more ideas about structure when I’m away from my desk. It sounds a little mystical. It’s very difficult to explain, unless you do it.
IWK I’m thinking of the “wan little husks of autofiction” that you tweeted about. That seems to be a huge contemporary preoccupation, this idea of using your one perspective to create literature.
JCO The great writers of the 20th century were modernists who all wrote about themselves. What we call autofiction today is really the same sort of impulse. I’m interested in other people. I’m not so interested in my own experience. I don’t think we would call Philip Roth’s writing autofiction – maybe today, if he was a young writer, we would.
IWK Why is this seen as a modern phenomenon?
JCO Because people don’t have a sense of history. People have not really read too much, so they don’t see it’s the same thing.
Some of Ernest Hemingway’s earliest stories are basically about his experience with his father in northern Michigan, but I wouldn’t call what he does autofiction. Hemingway makes real art. He makes it strange, and makes it universal. Typical autofiction is very self-oriented, it’s very domestic. Hemingway is writing about life and death. Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that.
[See also: The decline of the literary bloke]
IWK You say you’re not a political writer.
JCO Well, I’m political in myself. But in my writing, I try to give voice to different points of view.
IWK Does it irritate you if people assume that views espoused in your works, by a narrator or a character, are reflective of your personal views?
JCO Well, to some extent that is necessary. You know, you’re reading a poem by Seamus Heaney, you’re not reading a poem written by a machine, it’s coming from the personal experience of Seamus Heaney. But we’re interested in literature, I think, for reasons that are not necessarily political.
I’m just not going to run out and buy a novel because it’s written by a liberal who doesn’t like Donald Trump. Somebody does or does not like Joe Biden. That’s fine. But who cares about reading that?
IWK Are your friendships with other writers an important part of your creative life? Or is it more social?
JCO All I need for my creative life is some time. I get panicky. It’s not just that I won’t get to write all these novels, I’m worried that I won’t even get to write the one I’m working at. I look ahead and I see I have to do this, I have to do that, I have to travel somewhere. Some people like Philip Roth really didn’t do anything but write. I don’t have that kind of isolated life. I’m teaching and I see people.
IWK Can you tell me about your new collection of short stories, Zero-Sum?
JCO Almost all the stories are about this zero-sum psychological situation we find ourselves in sometimes. Is love a zero-sum contest? I’m interested in that, and then interested in how to express it.
IWK I had a dream about Mr Stickum last night.
JCO That’s a story that I felt was very close to my heart. The funny thing is that it was published in Playboy. I didn’t really know that Playboy still exists.
Today, Playboy is very “woke”. This is surprising. They have a lot of material by persons of colour, transgender writers, they’ve evidently made a real effort. In the old Playboy, that story could not be published because it would provoke anxiety in men, the sexual attack and emasculation of men by a group of schoolgirls.
IWK I was reading an interview in which you said that you doubt whether you have a personality, and that a personality is to a certain extent just playing a role in public life. Is there a role that you feel you play when you’re tweeting, for instance?
JCO Twitter I take to be a conversation. Most of my tweets are in reference to other tweets. Almost always – including tweets that become controversial – somebody plucked out a tweet from the middle of a conversation.
It’s like we were having a conversation and you said, “I really don’t like Chinese food, but I love Indian food.” And somebody just took out, “I really don’t like Chinese food.” It violates it. That’s what Twitter is. That’s why I say it’s very trivial.
IWK You wouldn’t be sad if it didn’t exist any more?
JCO Not at all. I mean, we didn’t have it before. “We didn’t have email, we didn’t even have voice messages. A long time ago, the phone rang. If you weren’t home, they called again. I even had a couple of friends who didn’t do email. I have a friend who just types on a typewriter – Paul Auster, the writer. He uses an old-fashioned typewriter with a ribbon. But Twitter is just some little froth.
IWK Why do you do it?
JCO It’s like a respite from serious things. I have probably about 30 people with whom I converse there. I might have talked to some of them on the phone in the past, but I don’t talk on the phone any more. Do you know Elaine Showalter, the feminist writer? We would talk on the phone every day.
IWK So for you, Twitter is just a way of staying in touch with certain people?
JCO Yes. The main thing that I learn from Twitter is a kind of grass-roots journalism. It’s rife with all these personal accounts of things happening to people that never rise to the level of national news.
IWK So maybe on one level, it would be a shame if it didn’t exist because those voices would be lost.
JCO That’s so true. The George Floyd phenomenon is an example. A 17-year-old black girl just had to be standing there on the sidewalk, and this horrible white racist police officer in Minneapolis is literally killing a helpless black man in front of everybody’s eyes. She records it with her cell phone. Eight minutes, and it goes viral. Now in the past, that would have only been a police report, and they would have said that he died resisting arrest.
“Zero-Sum” is published by Harper Collins on 20 July. This interview has been condensed and edited
[See also: Why literary snobs don’t get Bridget Jones]