The delightful and erudite Terry Meagher provides us with this report on the author Joyce Carol Oates' visit to Kepler's:
The petite and soft-spoken Joyce (JCO to those in the know) thought her event began at 7P, so I was startled to spot the renowned author, outfitted in a sleek black pantsuit, browsing (of all places) the calendar section at 6:50P. I suggested we use the 40 minutes to sign stock instead, to which she readily agreed. Seated and signing, she shared her frustration at not being able to find the passage in her own book that she wanted to read (!): “Oh well, I’ll just read the first three – brief – chapters.” Of course, I couldn’t resist sharing the B&W archival photo of her hanging at the end of aisle 8N. It was clearly Joyce, only the hair and eyeglasses were both much bigger. “Golly, when do you suppose that was taken?” she asked. (I was thinking early eighties). “I’m not sure…but Kepler’s been around a long time.” “Yea, well, so have I,” she deadpanned.
Joyce began her presentation by noting her slight annoyance with the reviewers of her latest novel Little Bird of Heaven: “Strangely, not a single one has mentioned that a major theme of the novel is social injustice.” Indeed, the book revolves around a father accused of murder but with no charges ever being filed. Unable to have his “day in court”, the ensuing cloud of suspicion never lifts, wreaking havoc on his relationship with his wife and children. The author then read the first - brief - three chapters from the P.O.V. of the daughter Krista.
During Q&A one person wanted to know why Joyce changed the title of the book from “Sparta” to “Little Bird of Heaven”. Because 1) the author is planning to title a novel down the road “Carthage” and 2) her friend Steve Martin - of SNL fame and a successful bluegrass musician - sent the author a CD titled “Little Bird of Heaven”, the title track with which Joyce fell in love, a song the author easily imagined the book’s murder victim Zoe - herself a musician - singing beautifully.
Joyce did speak movingly of the written correspondence (she avoids email, as “you don’t do email, email does you”) that she maintained with the recently deceased John Updike. “He was tender, kind, unpretentious, but was still interested in “gossip” and could be playfully “wicked” - I, on the other hand, find it difficult to be “wicked”,” she joked. She approached Updike’s widow, Martha, about publishing the authors’ correspondence as a book. Martha said absolutely NOT. Disappointed, Joyce, raising more than one eyebrow from the audience, was still optimistic, matter-of-factly reporting: “the way these things go, the widow will die, subsequent generations will be more flexible with the author’s estate, and eventually the letters will be published.”
The author handled rather well a prickly question about comments she made in the British Guardian after the death of Ted Kennedy…the person subtly suggesting Joyce was “judging” the senator. She made it clear that as a novelist she “doesn’t judge” and was simply being “balanced”, reiterating certain facts about him and admiring his tenure as senator, an attempt at personal redemption in her view. (Recall that her novel Black Water was loosely based on the Chappaquiddick incident.) Even still, “certain people on the “Right” quoted me out of context, demanding I be “water boarded”…I think of myself a “kind” person and I’m rather disconcerted some would want to torture me!”
Joyce also spoke of her early aspirations: first wanting to be a grade school teacher, but upon entering high school thinking gym teacher would be cool - not because she would have had any interest in her students’ physical well-being per se, but rather because after class she could lock the door and have the entire gym to herself, free to bounce with complete abandon on the school’s trampoline. (I suddenly have this incongruous image in my mind: Ms. Oates, acclaimed writer, Nobel Prize contender, 30 feet in mid-air, in a state of utter exhilaration, her hands slapping the air trying to touch the ceiling, all the while fumbling on the down bounce to keep her eyeglasses in place.)
She finally settled on teaching at Princeton University, a job she loves and always finds a positive experience: “social, illuminating, and rejuvenating”. Importantly rejuvenating, as the prolific author finds writing, while not without its spiritual rewards, incredibly draining. While she often commiserates with fellow writers Edmund White and Russell Banks, most other people “don’t want to hear about it”.
Ms. Oates was funny and insightful, overall a terrific event. Oh, and yes, she did buy a beautiful Audubon calendar featuring wildflowers.