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An afternoon with Joyce Carol Oates

interior-jcoPublished in the Age on August 4, 2017.

In the opening essay of her latest non-fiction collection, Soul at the White Heat, Joyce Carol Oates discusses social injustice as a source of inspiration. She quotes Vladimir Nabokov, who believed that “mediocrity thrives on ‘ideas,’” and offers the “political, propaganda-art” of Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Upton Sinclair and John Dos Passos as a rebuttal.

“Mainstream American literature with its predilection for liberal sympathies with the disenfranchised and impoverished… remains the most attractive of literary traditions even in our self-consciously postmodernist era,” she writes. In Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow and her friend Russell Banks, she finds comrades writing fiction “that is both morally focused and aesthetically ambitious”.

Oates has written more than fifty novels, forty collections of short stories, a dozen volumes of poetry, several plays, a full shelf of books for children and an entire academic career’s-worth of criticism and theory, in an astonishing variety of voices and styles. She is impossible to pigeonhole, and proudly so. Her latest novel, A Book of American Martyrs, is among her most explicitly political.

The martyrs in question are Gus Voorhees, an outspoken abortion provider, and Luther Dunphy, the “soldier of God” who murders him in the opening scene. Dunphy, narrating, describes how “…the blast of the first barrel knocked Augustus Voorhees backward and tore into his lower jaw and throat in a way terrible to behold, as if the Lord had dealt His wrath with a single smote of a great claw.”

The first third of the book traces Dunphy’s radicalisation, and the stubborn defiance of Voorhees, despite constant threats. “Each is convinced he has the truth and is acting in a moral way,” Oates tells me. “Ultimately my own sentiments are with pro-choice people… but I wanted to write a novel that was not just propaganda. I wanted to show the multiplicity of viewpoints in America.”

She notes that the book was written more than two years ago, before Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Nonetheless, the contrasts she draws between religious and secular, liberal and conservative, urban and rural, critical and faithful, are acutely relevant at a time when the prospect of reconciliation and mutual understanding seems more remote than ever.

Oates lives in the suburbs of Princeton, New Jersey, with her second husband, neuroscientist Charlie Gross. She gets up early each day to write, in longhand, and to revise drafts on her computer until too tired to continue. Today, she is a little sore, having had typhoid and hepatitis shots to prepare for a stopover in Bali, but she is otherwise in fine health for seventy-nine years old. Hyper-observant, eternally curious and sharp as a mussel shell, she lives by Henry James’s advice to writers: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”

Dunphy, the protagonist of A Book of American Martyrs, is an evangelical Christian and member of the Army of God, a militant anti-abortion group. A devout but peaceful man, he is “called” to act following a series of personal tragedies and reversals. In his rage and shame, and his embrace of martyrdom as an extreme form of celebrity, he shares much with the jihadis of ISIS.

Oates references real life killers of abortion doctors, James Kopp and Michael Griffin, and the esteem in which they are held in the so-called pro-life movement. “When Luther committed his act he understood that he would now be martyred, and he’d be a poster on a wall. That’s very like an Islamic terrorist,” she says.

Dunphy is portrayed as an easily manipulated “soldier,” groomed by the ideologues of Operation Rescue and the right wing media. Television host Tom McCarthy is based on Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, who regularly railed against George “Tiller the Baby Killer” on his show, equating him with Al-Qaeda and the Nazis. On May 31, 2009, Scott Roeder shot Tiller in the head.

The remaining two-thirds of the book surveys the damage, in particular to two teenage daughters. Naomi Voorhees reckons with her father’s legacy, the price he paid for his principles, and the disintegration of her family. Dawn Dunphy becomes a boxer, ‘The Hammer of Jesus,’ in search of meaning and self-respect.

Some of the most deeply felt sections concern Jenna Voorhees, Gus’s widow. Nine years ago, Oates’s first husband, Raymond Smith, died suddenly in hospital after being taken ill with pneumonia, and she has lent some of her own thoughts and experiences in that traumatic time to Jenna.

“It is a stranger’s voice that will bring you the news to tear your life in two,” she writes. “Like an arm torn out of its socket – first there is disbelief, then a throb of pure astonished being, then immeasurable pain and gushing blood.”

For a while, after Smith died, Oates could not write fiction. She clung to the routine of teaching her classes at Princeton University, and writing criticism. She returned to writing novels after producing a memoir, A Widow’s Story, shattering in its candour. Jenna’s grief and exhaustion are hers.

Oates has rarely lifted so directly from her own life. “Most of what I take is a skeleton, and it’s enhanced with other things,” she says. In A Book of American Martyrs, she describes a character being battered by an airbag, and splashed with acid, as she once was herself in a car crash. “I shut my eyes, it’s so vivid. It’s like it happened yesterday. Emotional trauma, you always remember.”

Several of her novels are set in cities she has lived in, including Syracuse (I’ll Take You There), Princeton (American Appetites, The Accursed) and Detroit (Do With Me What You Will, and Them). Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart takes place in Hammond, New York, a fictionalised version of Lockport, where she grew up. The stunning opening, in which schoolchildren watch a body being fished from the river, is based on a sight she never forgot.

In A Widow’s Story, Oates writes that she has maintained a deliberate separation between her writing and her personal life: “I have walled myself off from ‘Joyce Carol Oates’… I can’t think that this has been a mistaken strategy.” Smith, her partner for forty-seven years, was an editor and publisher, of the Ontario Review. To “shield” herself, and avoid adding to the reading required by his job, she never showed him her work.

A Book of American Martyrs is dedicated to, among others, “my husband and first reader, Charlie Gross.” What caused this change of heart? “I just assumed that I would not show any of my work to Charlie, but he said ‘are you kidding? I’m gonna read it.’ I said ‘you are?’ He said ‘of course I’m gonna read it.’ There was never any doubt.”

Her 179,000 Twitter followers are treated to a running commentary on the latest outrages of the Trump administration, but she is not inclined to write “propaganda-art” about it. “I’m much more politicised than I had been. Immediately all I can do is send out tweets,” she says. “I think novels have to be timeless.” Her next, Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. will be published later this year. She tells me the title is taken from a poem by Walt Whitman, but declines to reveal anything else.

At one point in A Book of American Martyrs, a character describes the difficulty she faced getting an illegal abortion in 1956, long before the US Supreme Court declared that a woman’s right to choose is protected by the Constitution. “Now they have a conservative Chief Justice who will, I think, overturn Roe vs Wade,” Oates says. “They have all their guns lined up.”

For now, Justice Neil Gorsuch having replaced comparably right wing Justice Antonin Scalia, the court’s ideological balance remains unchanged. But liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is eighty-four, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, a centrist who has upheld Roe vs Wade, has hinted he is ready to retire.

Partly because of the rhythm of their names, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Joyce Carol Oates have long been linked in my mind: two elderly women, still at the very top, in fields that require continued intellectual brilliance and punish the first hint of muddled thinking. Oates is certainly nowhere near retirement – she will keep on writing to the end. Supporters of abortion rights must hope the same is true of Ginsburg.