In a discussion with the Mystery Writers of America’s New York chapter at The National Arts Club on January 6, Joyce Carol Oates discussed her theory that we are all, somehow, fueled by mystery. “The yearning to satisfy the mystery in our lives is never satisfied,” she said. “We are all drawn to solve the mystery and it’s a hypnotic and mesmerizing and deeply seductive practice when we open a mystery novel or perhaps see the beginning of a movie and we are completely thrilled and drawn in.” (Photo above shows Oates with mystery publisher Otto Penzler).
In her long and prolific writing career, Joyce Carol Oates, a National Book Award Winner and Pulitzer Prize Finalist, has made significant contributions to the crime/mystery genre. “Most of my writing,” Oates once said, “is crime fiction in one way or another.” Of the 56 novels she has written, 39 have been on the New York Times Notable Books list. In a way, what makes her writing so fascinating is her ability to look at a subject or event from the least observed perspective.
In Black Water, for example, Oates explored the sensation surrounding the tragedy at Chappaquiddick through the memories and thoughts of a young woman in her final hours. “I was really stunned that so little attention was paid to the young woman,” she explained. “She’s the one who suffered and died a completely horrible death. She didn’t die in five minutes. She suffocated in a little pocket of air over a period of hours trapped upside down in a car in Martha’s Vineyard. I was thinking she would always have felt he’d gone to get help. He didn’t go to get help. He went to his lawyer.”
Oates was troubled by the media coverage at the time. “I thought, she’s the one who suffered. It’s her drama, her tragedy but the newspapers are all filled with the man. I thought it was a terrible affront and really kind of obscene but I didn’t write anything about it for 15 years. It was just in the back of my head. When I took up the idea of writing about it, I thought I would do it as a ballad.” Oates used what’s called, in music, “incremental repetition” where the refrain of a ballad is repeated. “It’s incremental,” Oates explained, “because each time the refrain is repeated, we learn more information, and each time, the black water filled her lungs and she died. It was an historical event but I wanted to see it in emblematic terms about power and how seductive power is but also the kind of myopia and blindness and cruelty of the media in focusing so excitedly on the man while the young woman—Mary Jo Kopechne—was made to be forgotten.”
That’s only one example. Oates calls the JonBenet Ramsay case “a classic American unsolved mystery” and thinks about what it would be like be the child of, say, O.J. Simpson or any other notorious tabloid figure. “The Ramsays were perfect,” she said. “Their pictures were always on the tabloid covers at our supermarket. I didn’t read the National Enquirer but I did the see the picture of the little girl in her cowboy outfit. She was very pretty and all made up in a lurid way and as I was checking out groceries, I was thinking, she’s the most famous child in America but she’s a dead child. What does that mean?”
In My Sister, My Love, Oates examined the unsolved murder of a young ice-skating prodigy through the eyes of her brother, a nine-year-old boy trapped in tabloid hell. “There are so many unsolved mysteries out there in the world,” said Oates. “You have every right to research and write about them. Chappaquiddick is not an unsolved mystery but there are mysterious things that still exist about it.”
Oates’s experimental novel, Blonde, is told—in more than 700 pages—from inside the posthumous head of Marilyn Monroe. “Blonde is my postmodernist novel,” Oates said. “The description of Blonde would be that of an American epic told from the posthumous point of view of Marilyn Monroe, who was Norma Jean Baker, in voice-over. She’s telling her story as if it were a movie. She’s telling it as though she sees herself in the third person. To me, that was very exciting and interesting to do that kind of narration. I would love to do something like that again but it was a very difficult novel—very difficult to write and I became distracted and exhausted writing it.”
During the years Oates worked on Blonde, her father was ill and dying. “We started really communicating near the end of his life,” she said. “Blonde is saturated with the content, theme and atmosphere of our conversations. I got to know my father in a very unusual way.” By unusual, Oates was referring to the hours and hours of telephone conversations they logged with the aid of a hearing-assistance device attached to her father’s phone. She talked about the difficulties one takes on when writing a novel about someone who dies or commits suicide. “In a way, it was a mistake to have taken it on,” she said, “because usually, novels can do anything. You’re free to explore and go in different directions. If you write about an historical figure who comes to a specific end in history, it’s like going into a tunnel. You have to go into that tunnel. You can’t not do it. I felt drawn into something very powerful and malevolent at the end of the novel but I think I would not do that again.”
In Zombie, Oates gets deep into the mind of a serial killer, whom she fashioned partially after Jeffrey Dahmer and partially, Ted Bundy. She makes an especially interesting point about the nature of the artist versus that of the serial killer suggesting that both share a compulsion to repeat events over and over and over. Oates argues that the behavior of serial killers suggests a complete lack of free will or volition whereas the rest of us can exercise volition. “There are some famous directors,” she said, “Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick—David Cronenberg, especially—and many, many others who do some of the same movies over and over again with the same kinds of situations. There are Scorsese scenes with literally the same actors recurring. Obviously, these are very deep fantasies. If you’re an artist, you can make art of these predilections or compulsions. If you’re not an artist, you may be a criminal. You may be somebody who succumbs to that type of serial repetition.”
Oates has taken to watching shows like Forensic Files late at night and is constantly astounded by stories of serial-killing grandmothers. “It’s mind-boggling,” she said. “It makes Jeffrey Dahmer seem like the kid next door. You can’t comprehend it.”
In the meantime, Oates continues to experiment with new ideas and uncharted territory. “I love the idea of experimenting but I don’t have time for all of the ideas I have. Sometimes my head is flooded with ideas. Maybe I should sell some of them.”