Author Q&A: Joyce Carol Oates

  • January 24, 2012

Vanessa Becknell does a Q&A with Joyce Carol Oates about her book The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares.

In her new story collection, The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, the remarkably prolific Joyce Carol Oates offers seven tales of suspense. “The Corn Maiden” traces the story of Marissa, an eleven-year-old girl taken by an older girl from her school who plans to carry out the Indian legend of the Corn Maiden, in which a girl is sacrificed to ensure a good crop. The volume includes six other tales of the night, including the never before published “Helping Hands.” The Independent is proud to be able to share a conversation between Vanessa Becknell and this supremely-gifted story-teller.

The stories included in this volume were written over the past fifteen years – do you find yourself looking at past work and seeing it in a different way?  Do they surprise you as you reread them? Where do you keep them?

Each of the stories has been revised slightly, usually to tighten scenes. It is very helpful to look back upon work previously published in magazines or in anthologies, in preparation for hardcover publication, to see if a story needs re-imagining and rewriting. Yes, there are some surprises — usually dialogue. My characters sometimes speak quite sharply and cleverly, as I don’t remember them speaking.  And the endings have held up well. (A suspense story is basically hurtling toward its final paragraph.)

Are the stories timeless or have you updated the setting/or characters to 2011 paradigms?

I think of the stories as timeless, and so I did not purposefully update them.

Jude Trahern just might be one of the scariest child-villains readers have ever come across – what lead you to creating a character like Jude?

Jude is yearning to be loved — to have a true, loving mother as the Corn Maiden has; therefore, she wants to appropriate the Corn Maiden as herself. And when it comes to the sacrifice, she realizes this: it is herself who must be sacrificed, not the innocent girl. So Jude is really not, finally, such a villain; she does the ”decent” thing.

Was there any real-life inspiration behind such a calculating young girl?

Perhaps I had read some true-crime stories about girls, or women, being cruel to other girls. I’m afraid these episodes are not so rare, and not “fictitious” in our culture.

The way “The Corn Maiden” ends was incredibly surprising and violent – when you craft a story like “The Corn Maiden” do you start at the ending and work your way backwards or does it unfold as you write?

In both ways: there is a necessary, inevitable end, and as you proceed toward it, you begin to half-consciously experiment with alternate endings, to determine if one might be superior to the original ending you’d devised. In this case, I knew how the ending would emerge — who the “sacrifice” would be. And I knew how the survivors would be drawn together into a new little family, very vulnerable but hopeful despite the traumatic memories that bind them.

In addition to the title story, jealousy and revenge are recurring themes throughout the collection – did you write them during the same period? Or did you put them together because they seemed to belong?

The stories are written over a period of years but some stories, like the double twin stories, “Fossil-Figures” and “Deathcup” are obviously linked. “A Hole in the Head” is immediately inspired by my neuroscientist-husband Charlie Gross’s most recent book, A Hole in the Head: Further Tales in the History of Neuroscience. “Helping Hands” is very recent also, with some painful biographical elements having to do with the widow’s “posthumous” existence after her life has been shattered.

Parental ties and responsibility, both positive and negative, is another theme that runs through several of the stories. Leah Bantry portrays a modern, caring single-mother in “The Corn Maiden,” a stark contrast to the uninvolved parents in “Nobody Knows My Name” who are too enamored with their new baby to pay enough attention to their nine year old daughter, or the completely absent step-father, Brad Shiftke in “Beersheba” – as a master storyteller, how did your parents play a part in the cultivation of your work?

My parents did not have a direct role in the cultivation of my work but they were always loving and supportive. They were not educated people — each had to quit school in eighth grade to help their families by working. But they loved reading, and they always read my books with much admiration and affection.

Speaking of family, we’re already in the midst of holiday season.  Do you have a favorite holiday recipe or tradition that you’d like to share?

A favorite tradition is having Christmas Eve or Christmas Day dinner with old, dear friends here in Princeton whom I have known for thirty years.

You’ve often been compared to another great suspense writer, Edgar Allen Poe – how does that make you react?

Obviously Poe isn’t at all a “social realist” — I like to think that my writing includes much of the world that the gothic writer doesn’t consider …

I have to ask, what was Halloween like at your house?

Nothing unusual.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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