Author Joyce Carol Oates is best known for being one of the country’s foremost fiction writers. She is second best known for being prolific. She is the third most well-known for posting unfiltered, messy, and occasionally puzzling thoughts on Twitter, a platform on which she has achieved unexpected late-career notoriety. In August, Oates published “Baby sister”, his latest novel, which joins a host of poetry, essays, reviews and short stories, including the slew of anthologies “Where are you going, where have you been?” Partly taken from 1970s Detroit headlines, “Babysitter” follows a sheltered, perfumed housewife who begins an affair with a man she knows only as YK. Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose, horribly murdering children. The book returns and reconfigures some of Oates’s predominant psychological themes—the disorder of desire, the shame of pleasure—as well as some of his predominant social themes: violence against women, the essentializing prisons of race and class.
At the end of September, “Blonde”, a film adaptation of Oates’ play 2000 novel, which turns the stuff of Marilyn Monroe’s life into mind-boggling fiction and is widely regarded as Oates’s masterpiece, will be available to stream on Netflix. “Blonde”, the film, stars Ana de Armas and was directed by Andrew Dominik. “Blonde,” the book, is over seven hundred pages long, but it distills the author’s career from her, expressing her gore-goth sensibility and her interest in gender archetypes more transcendently than ever. Oates has called Marilyn Monroe “my Moby Dick, the powerful galvanizing image on which an epic can be built, with countless levels of meaning and significance.” The novel explores Hollywood as a microcosm of American artifice and exploitation. It also elaborates a vision of men as perpetrators and women as victims. “All dead birds are female,” Marilyn thinks, in the prologue of a ghastly robbery. “There’s something feminine about being dead.” (Hannah, the star of “Babysitter,” is prone to similar musings. “If you don’t want a woman,” she decides, “a woman doesn’t exist.”)
The last few years have not been kind to Oates. In 2019, her second husband, neuroscientist Charles Gross, died; Eleven years earlier, she had lost her first husband, publisher Raymond J. Smith, after he contracted pneumonia, an experience she wrote about in her earliest memoir, “The story of a widow.” When I met with the author in mid-September, she was juggling her fall teaching load (she’s the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, at Princeton and also teaches at Rutgers), her daily writing practice (he spends between five and ten hours a day on his job), and interviews about “Babysitter” and “Blonde”. We discuss the lure of underdogs, the smell of piano keys, and the quirks of having one’s work adapted for the screen. We also discussed autofiction and the mythical Man and Woman. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I was thinking of Marilyn Monroe and Hannah, the rich and elegant blonde from “Babysitter”, your most recent novel. Some of her most iconic creations – Connie in Where You Going, Where Have You Been?, Iris in Because It’s Bitter and Because It’s My Heart – have been seemingly pure blonde women threatened by deterioration. Would you agree that this is a topic? And, if so, why do you find it attractive?
A theme in my writing, or in general?
Oh, no, no, no. I have written many, many, many novels and short stories. You just selected the ones you are asking about. You’ve talked about three or four titles dealing with blonde women. But I’ve written, let’s say, fifteen hundred stories. It is tautological, your question. Every project I work on is pretty independent from the others.
But those characters are so evocative. I figured they must have had a special fascination for you.
Well, it’s hard to say. If you are a writer or an artist, each project you work on is really very special and challenging. Each project brings its own challenges and its own seriousness. I’m probably drawn to writing about relatively underprivileged people or people who have been marginalized, impoverished, or disenfranchised. They don’t have to be blonde girls or women. They could also be men.
I’ve written about boxing, which is an analog, I think, to all the drama or iconography of Marilyn Monroe and other young women who were stars in those days, late ’40s and ’50s. An analogue with the boxers who were also exploited. These are working class Americans who didn’t have unions to protect them.
Certainly, Norma Jean Baker was one of the hundreds of thousands of aspiring stars who were exploited by the studio system, by male producers and directors, and by the people of Hollywood. She was not like Elizabeth Taylor, who came from a different class in society. She did not have the protection of a family. Her mother was often institutionalized.
She was like a girl in a fairy tale. And she had to make her own way. She worked in an airplane factory when she was only about sixteen years old, and she was doing the type of work where she breathed fumes. If she had stayed working in that factory for a long time, she might have gotten sick. If Norma Jean Baker hadn’t become a star and then Marilyn Monroe, the world of capitalism would have worn her out. Perhaps she would not have lived long. That’s what attracts me more than having a blonde woman. I have also written about Mike Tyson and other fighters who have had similar experiences. That connection is probably a bit closer to what I’m interested in.
You told your biographer that you were inspired to write “Blonde” after seeing a photo of seventeen-year-old Norma Jean. You said that “this hopefully smiling, very American young woman reminded me powerfully of the girls of my childhood, some of them from broken homes.” Could you say more about what these girls were like and how you met them?
I came from Upstate New York, Western New York, North Buffalo. It was not a very prosperous community; there were broken homes, families where the father was an alcoholic and there was a lot of brutality.
Actually, my family was quite unusual. We, my parents, my brother and I, lived with my mother’s parents. So we had a multi-generational country house and more stability, but I went to school with these other girls who were often victimized. Your parents may have been drinking, or they may have been sick, or left the family. Norma Jean Baker is one of those girls.
I hope I’m not choosing, but I noticed a kind of family archetype in many of his books: remote parents; involved and ambivalent moms; siblings who don’t necessarily get along. Do those dynamics resonate with his own experience?
A writer holds a mirror in front of life. So I’m writing about life in America. I don’t think anything writers do should be reduced to their own families. Let’s say someone is writing about the war or the Holocaust, it’s not related to his own family. It is basically something that is in the world. We are dramatizing it, showing it for others to examine. I have written so many books. I certainly exhausted my own life a long time ago.
You have written that you inherited your father’s musical “temper”, if not his musical talents. He made me curious about the role of music in your writing.
Music is very important to me. I love listening to music and I am very attracted to piano music. I have a kind of romantic and emotional bond with the piano, even smelling the piano keys, just touching them, pressing a chord. It has a lot of emotional resonance with me.
But, with my writing, there is a kind of mediated voice. I look for the music of the voices of different people; the voices change from person to person. I spend a lot of time listening to music in my head or singing to myself, like people sometimes do.
“The music of the voices of different people.” Somehow, I feel that the music in your work is the voice of mass culture. You weave lyrics from pop songs. I’m particularly thinking of “Where Are You Going” and “Blonde”.