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Find Identity with Joyce Carol Oates

Novelist and short story writer Joyce Carol Oates has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for Achievement in the Short Story, and various other awards. Known best for her short stories, many of which have been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize and The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century, Oates still manages to bridge the natural gap that exists between novel and short story writing. But there is one thing that some may not k

As a little girl, novelist and short story writer Joyce Carol Oates used to tell stories and then illustrate them. "That's very typical of children to be extremely creative," she says. "Children are creative without any purpose other than to express their imaginations." Oates, the author of the novels Blonde and Wonderland and, most recently, of Faithless: Tales of Transgression (HarperCollins, March), a collection of short stories, has come a long way from that little girl "without any purpose."

Oates has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for Achievement in the Short Story, and various other awards. Known best for her short stories, many of which have been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize and The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century, Oates still manages to bridge the natural gap that exists between novel and short story writing. That's a feat that she acknowledges is not an easy task.

"A novel is so much more difficult than a short story. If you run, it's almost like you can think through your whole short story as you ran. Say you ran 40 minutes or an hour, you can think through the whole story and have it very finite and controlled. With a novel, it's almost impossible to do that."

But that's not to say that Oates doesn't enjoy writing novels. "A novel is much more challenging, and it's also very rewarding because you stay with it for so long, you get to love your characters. I feel very close, emotionally engaged with most of my main characters."

Two different spaces to write in
Like many writers, Oates has a specific space in which she crafts her stories and novels; however, she is unusual in that she has two spaces to write in—a generalized space and a physical space. "I write on airplanes and I write in my head a lot. I do a lot of running and walking, and I compose in my imagination. So, that's kind of generalized space."

Spotlight Question

Why did you choose Faithless: Tales of Transgression as the title of your new collection? "Well, because most of the stories are about people in relationships that involve faith or faithlessness, and many of them are unfaithful to either one another or some ideal. But the woman in 'Faithless' [the title story] is not actually faithless—she was a good mother, but she was murdered. So, it's like a woman has been betrayed, like many women are misunderstood. She was a really good mother, but she was slandered. So, it's ironic because something can seem faithless, but in fact, not be."

The physical space, on the other hand, the space that she literally writes in, is in a study "with a lot of glass" and a skylight.

While in her study, Oates writes first in longhand and then on a typewriter, a somewhat ancient tool given current technology standards. "I don't have a computer. I had a computer for two years and I got very tired at looking at that little screen for so many hours.

"I didn't really want to spend the rest of my life staring at a little electronic thing. I made a conscious decision just to get rid of it."

Given that one of her writing spaces is always with her, it's no wonder that Oates has emerged as the writer she is today.

Two names to write by
But there is one thing that some may not know about Oates—she also writes suspense, thrillers and mystery novels as Rosamond Smith.

"I wanted to write under a pseudonym because I really wanted to have a separate identity for those novels—suspense, mystery, thrillers. They tend to be leaner and shorter than my other novels. They don't have as much sociological or political detail, they're more cinematic."

However, Oates never intended for readers to know that she was the person behind Rosamond Smith, and she still doesn't really know how the information actually got out.

"It's very hard to keep a secret today because of copyright and income tax, and certain things in our society make it difficult to have that kind of privacy that people had in the past."

Oates illustrates her point by citing that Jonathan Swift and Voltaire wrote under pseudonyms and they were never tracked down the way that she was. Still, she continues writing under the name Rosamond Smith and, in fact, has a new book coming out in June 2001 that will say, "Joyce Carol Oates Writing as Rosamond Smith."

Oates says that writing under a pseudonym has helped her develop a separate identity, but that it has also allowed her the freedom to write "novels that were faster and leaner, more like movies."

In fact, she has a unit in her writing workshop at Princeton University, where she has been a professor since 1978, in which she focuses on the process of writing under a pseudonym.

"I suggest to my students that they write under a pseudonym for one week... that allows young men to write as women, and women as men. It allows them a lot of freedom they don't have ordinarily."

Oates believes that writing under a pseudonym has its good and bad points, especially in relation to her role as a female writer.

"I think it's still difficult for women to be taken very seriously as writers—that there's some resistance—even though things have changed wonderfully for the better. It's very hard to be an experimental woman writer."

She says that Blonde was an experimental novel and almost nobody talks about that, but had she been a male writer, it would be accepted as such.

"If I had been writing under a pseudonym, just initials, I might have a different reputation—but, then I couldn't be myself either.

"I think everything in life has compensation. We may do one thing and then because of that there are advantages and also disadvantages."

This article appeared in the February 2001 issue of Writer's Digest.

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