Joyce Carol Oates on Writing, and Running

Guest of Honor: Author Joyce Carol Oates in dialogue with biographer Greg Johnson at the Schwartz Center.
Photo by Ann Borden.

Literary icon Joyce Carol Oates shared her words and her wit at Emory’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts in August as the opening keynote speaker for the 2014 Atlanta Journal-Constitution Decatur Book Festival. The evening featured a conversation between Oates and Greg Johnson 79PhD, former assistant professor of English at Emory and the writer’s authorized biographer.

GJ: When asked “Why do you write fiction?” Flannery O’Connor answered, “Because I’m good at it.” I wonder
if you identify with this response or would you have a more nuanced answer?

JCO: “I think Flannery O’Connor would have been really good at Twitter. She has all these wonderful one-liners and she’s not afraid to be funny. I don’t think most people who are writers or artists really feel that they’re good at it. In just one morning I can have a gamut of emotions, from despair and despondency to mild curiosity over where this is going. I think that we all tell stories—our species is a storytelling species. We love to tell stories and we love to hear stories. So a writer or artist is someone who takes that impulse a little farther.”

GJ: You’ve been at Princeton for a number of years and before that at other universities. Evidently, the academic environment has been very congenial to your writing.

JCO: “When I asked John Updike why he didn’t want to teach, he said that he felt young writers sort of sucked his vitality, like vampires; they took his life’s energy from him. And I feel just the opposite. I really enjoy my students, and they’re not all young! There’s just something wonderful about people who care deeply about writing and who bring their stories and chapters of novels for us to read. Such an intimate sharing, there is something almost mystical about it.”

GJ: How does movement motivate you as a writer?

JCO: “I do a lot of running and walking fast—that’s where I really do a lot of my writing, in my head. I remember when I was a girl, and I lived on a small farm, some nights I couldn’t sleep and I would go outside in the light of the moon [and] run along our long driveway. There was such a feeling of some strange romance, smelling the fresh air—it was almost unspeakably exciting and beautiful. [Now] I run in my neighborhood. There is a country road that goes up a hill. And when I run up that hill—I’m not making this up—I feel that there will be ideas waiting for me, it’s like they’re waiting for me up in that place. So I run up there. If I just sat in a room it wouldn’t be the same thing.”

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