Joyce Carol Oates's 60-year romance

“I have never thought that my life could be nearly as interesting as what my imagination could make of another’s life.”

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“I have never thought,” writes Joyce Carol Oates in her new memoir, The Lost Landscape, “that my life could be nearly as interesting as what my imagination could make of another’s life.” Did this sense of being unremarkable stand in the way of her writing her memoirs, I ask the author down a transatlantic phone line? “Oh, no. It was very enjoyable. Very.”

The Lost Landscape is a collection of essays written over the past decade, most of them revised. The book picks over events from Oates’s early life on a farm in New York State, yet it is also an elegy for the United States as it was in the middle third of the 20th century. Oates’s family was part of a pragmatic, practical working class. “The one thing I think is so different about our generation is that most of the people I know don’t do anything with our hands except type. But my parents and grandparents did everything with their hands,” she says.

Bucolic images of a rural American childhood, complete with a one-room schoolhouse and a favourite chicken that narrates an early section of the book, are joined by far darker events. Several essays focus on the lives of two of Oates’s schoolmates, one marked by incest, abuse and learning difficulties and the other by suicide. (She notes in the afterword that the story of incest was a portmanteau of various contemporaries’ experiences.)

Oates tells me that even though the form brings memory to the fore, she also wanted to write about our tendency to repress what we find disturbing. “I don’t really remember the slaughter side of our farm, for example. It’s an interesting amnesia. These blanks seem trivial but they’re also revealing.”

Although most of these difficult and sad events affected Oates only tangentially, she explores their themes in her fiction. Rape recurs in her writing, most strikingly in the novella Rape: a Love Story. Her fierce sense of social justice (“But we haven’t even spoken about violence against women yet!” she cries, before our interview draws to a close) seems to have sprung from these early experiences of darkness, death and the kind of hushing-up that was endemic in rural America. She writes that when she is working on her novels, she imagines: “If I can solve the mystery of the fiction, I will have solved a mystery of my life.”

At 77, Oates is a frequent Twitter user and an advocate of social media, partly for its ability to shine a light on what communities might wish to keep quiet. “De facto censorship went on in this country for decades. There were probably as many as 4,000 lynchings in the US but the major and local news outlets didn’t report them at all. Today, we don’t need them: people can post sightings, take pictures of police brutality. It’s a complete revolution.”

But even social media can't cure all modern society's ills. The election of Republican candidate Donald Trump as US president would be, says Oates, a "global crisis": "We would hope that presidents don't want to go to war, usually a president will hesitate, but this man is eager to do all kinds of almost literally insane things, but we don't really know if he means it."

Oates is still a voracious reader, though she says she prefers "poetic" writing to popular fiction by authors like Jonathan Franzen, whose long, state-of-America tomes currently dominate the US literary scene. "I've met Jonathan Franzen, I really liked him. But I'm not the ideal reader for his kind of novel - I look to literature for a different reason. Another writer could write a story that's, say, 20 pages long, and it touches upon many things of the culture at that moment. You could take the same material and write a 400 page novel about the same things, but it wouldn't really be that much better than the 20 page story. If I were to read that kind of writing, I'd rather read a distilled version of it, by Joan Didion, for example." 

The memoir form faces the same problem: how do you write about the very particular in a way that resonates on a much larger scale? Oates praises Anne Tyler, whose last novel, A Spool of Blue Thread is on the Booker longlist, for her ability to commemorate the mundane: "She's almost like a memoirist of a certain kind of American experience. She writes with such unfailing enthusiasm and tenderness about families that other people would just walk past without giving them a second glance. I sort of felt that my own family was a little like that. There's no reason why anyone would write about my family except me."

At the heart of both Oates' family and The Lost Landscape are Oates’s parents, with whom, she writes, she had a “long romance of over 60 years”. “If you write a memoir about your own life, you’re dealing with people who are gone, vanished,” she tells me. “The great wheel of time turns and we lose people at every turn.” Does she write about people from her past in order to immortalise them? “Yes.” 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article appears in the 10 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles