The books interview: The prolific author on the unreality of romance, the fickle memory of Americans and how tweeting has got her into trouble.
When Joyce Carol Oates, the 77-year-old author of well over 100 books, told the New Yorker last year that she thought of herself as “transparent”, before adding “I’m not sure I really have a personality”, the admission felt scandalous. We live in a time when the concept of personhood has been enshrined, in the monetising parlance of late capitalism, as “my personal brand”. To posit its non-existence is a kind of taboo. Especially if you happen to be someone often described as “America’s foremost woman of letters”.
Oates, a five-time Pulitzer finalist, might be “very intensely interested in a portrait of America”, but clearly she has no truck with the ego-vaunting, personality driven paradigm of contemporary celebrity. She appears more to belong to some other, long-passed era, with a pronounced gothic streak colouring much of her fiction, which tends to be peopled by powerful men and introverted women who frequently experience sexual shame. In the afterword to her 1994 collection Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque, she seems to find a human truth within horror: “We should sense immediately, in the presence of the grotesque, that it is both ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ simultaneously, as states of mind are real enough – emotions, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs – though immeasurable. The subjectivity that is the essence of the human is also the mystery that divides us irrevocably from one another.”
At her home in rural New Jersey she serves mugs of herbal tea and when her bengal kitten, Cleopatra, settles against my leg, Oates says: “I see you have quite a conquest there. She assumes you’re here to meet her.”