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Joyce Carol Oates: "Everything that you think is solid is actually fleeting and ephemeral."

Did you read David Marchese’s interview with Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times Magazine yesterday? Titled “Joyce Carol Oates Figured Out the Secret to Immortality,” the profile is both insightful and candid.

Here’s an excerpt:

“I have,” Joyce Carol Oates says, “so many ideas.” That’s putting it mildly. It’s hard to think of another writer with as fecund and protean an imagination as the 85-year-old, who is surely on any shortlist of America’s greatest living writers. Oates, whose latest is the unsettling short-story collection Zero-Sum, has published 62 novels, 47 short-story collections, 16 collections of nonfiction, 9 collections of poetry, plays and books for children and young adults, as well as a torrent of tweets (the latter of which occasionally get her in trouble). The sheer quantity of her output, impressive as it may be, is almost beside the point.

The real achievement is that the quality of that work is so consistently high. You can be confident that if you throw a dart at the Oates catalog, you’ll hit a piece of writing that is emotionally intense, full of knife-sharp sentences and painterly description, rich with thematic daring and grave moral and philosophical reckoning (and, now and then, a morbid sense of humor). You can also be confident that there’s more on the way.

“I have a stack of notes for my next novel, and another novel, and I have a lot of short stories,” Oates says excitedly. “The one I’m doing now, the reader’s going to be surprised.”

In your book On Boxing, you have a line about how for fighters, life is about the fight and the rest is just waiting. Do you feel that way with writing?

That’s a good question. It points to a philosophical issue of what is essential in our lives and what is existential or incidental. Thinking of my early married life, my husband was a professor, and we talked about books all the time. Though we talked and talked for years, I don’t really remember that dialogue. I don’t remember the students I was teaching, whom I loved.

It’s 2023, and I have to concede that I don’t remember those students. All I have left of all that happiness is my writing of that time. A book or two, some stories. I think that’s a profound fact. It’s a kind of devastating fact. Everything that you think is solid is actually fleeting and ephemeral. The only thing that is quasi-permanent would be a book or work of art or photographs or something. Anything you create that transcends time is in some ways more real than the actual reality of your life. If you set your hand on fire right now, it’s ephemeral. It would hurt, but Plato would say it’s not as real as something that transcends time. I am a person who was married, and was very happily married. Yet, that’s all gone now. Where is it?”

(Oates receiving a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2011. AP photo)

Joyce Carol Oates will be joined by poet April Bernard for a reading at 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 18, at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College. She will also join a group of writers for a tribute to the late Russell Banks at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 19.

It’s the final week of our Summer Writers Institute, now in its 37th year since it was founded by Skidmore Professor Robert Boyers in collaboration with William Kennedy and the NYS Writers Institute at the University at Albany.

Kennedy will be the final guest of the season, joined by novelist-memoirist Danzy Senna (Caucasia; Where Did You Sleep Last Night).

New York State Summer Writers Institute

Readings and talks are free and open to the public.

Except where noted, the readings begin at 8 p.m. at

Gannett Auditorium, Palamountain Hall

Skidmore College

815 North Broadway in Saratoga Springs

Phone: 518-580-5593

Week 4; NYS Summer Writers Institute Monday, July 17:

Fictionist Francine Prose (The Vixen) and novelist-memoirist Danzy Senna (Caucasia; Where Did You Sleep Last Night)

Tuesday, July 18:

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates (Zombie; Blonde; The (Other) You: Stories) and poet April Bernard (The World Behind the World: Poems)

Wednesday, July 19:

Remembering Russell Banks

Joyce Carol Oates, Nicholas Delbanco (It is Enough; What Remains), Tom Healy (What the Right Hand Knows; Velvet; Animal Spirits), Adam Braver and Robert Boyers.

Payne Room, Tang Museum, Skidmore College

Thursday, July 20:

Update: Marilynne Robinson (Gilead; Housekeeping) and poet Henri Cole (Blizzard: Poems, Nothing To Declare) Note: Jamaica Kincaid was originally scheduled to read at this event.

Friday, July 21:

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and NYS Writers Institute founder William Kennedy and novelist-memoirist Danzy Senna (Caucasia; Where Did You Sleep Last Night)


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