Interviews July 2005

The Art of the Unconscious

Joyce Carol Oates talks about modern science, the writing life, and "*BD* 11 1 86," her short story in the fiction issue

[Note: The plot of "*BD* 11 1 86" is given away in this interview. Click here to read the story first.]

"My belief is that art should not be comforting," Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her introduction to The Best American Essays of the Century; "for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish." Tall demands for art in this next, twenty-first century? Perhaps. Yet these demands remain the very lifeblood of Oates's incredibly wide and varied body of work.

Her new short story, "*BD* 11 1 86," published in The Atlantic's first fiction issue, is a case in point.

The protagonist, Danny Neuworth, is trying to understand why the adults in his life—his teachers, his coach, his foster parents—are treating him so strangely. Just at the time in his life when he is ready to graduate from high school and think about his future, they have been distancing themselves, avoiding his eyes, discouraging him from thinking too highly of his abilities. While meeting with his guidance counselor, Danny sneaks a peak at his student file (conspicuously marked "CONFIDENTIAL"), where he finds the code "*BD* 11 1 86-6 21 05." He knows that 11 1 86 represents his birthday; 6 21 05 is his graduation day. But what to make of "*BD*"? And the *BIOTECHINC* letterhead? What to make of all the mathematical symbols?

He soon discovers that "BD" stands for "body donor" and that "11 1 86" represents not a birthday, per se, but the day a crop of BDs, himself included, were engineered in a biotech lab. He will also learn that his graduation date is the day he and many others are scheduled to be "harvested."

That Joyce Carol Oates has loosed her imagination upon the world of bioethics and biogenetic engineering should come as no surprise to her readers. She has never shied away from the difficult, the dark, or the controversial. She has looked through the eyes of a serial killer (Zombie) and stepped into the boxing ring (You Must Remember This and On Boxing). In We Were the Mulvaneys, a daughter is raped and a family unravels due to their individual attempts to cope and to avenge. In Blonde she offers an utterly compelling and page-turning look at the tragic life of Marilyn Monroe.

But giving these few examples hardly does justice to the range and breadth of Oates's writing. She is among the most accomplished American writers of our time, and her rate of productivity is mind-boggling. A novelist, a short-story writer, a poet, a critic, a book reviewer, and a playwright, her book publications are so numerous they're difficult to count. She has written several novels under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith and has written a number of novels for young adults. Three of Oates's novels have been nominated as Pulitzer Prize finalists, Black Water (1992), What I Lived For (1994), and Blonde (2001), which was also a National Book Award finalist. With a new collection of stories due out soon, a recently published young adult novel, and a novella, Blood Mask, in the works, Joyce Carol Oates shows no sign of slowing down.

In addition to her own work, she also finds time to encourage new writers. She and her husband edit the literary journal The Ontario Review, and she teaches writing at Princeton. While we spoke over the telephone, Oates flipped through the images in a book about genetic research and manipulation that she has shown to her writing classes there as creative inspiration. It was in these pages that she found the initial germination for "*BD* 11 1 86." Read on. The images are, if not comforting, certainly grist for Oates's imaginative mill.

Jessica Murphy

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates   

How did the character of Daniel Neuworth and his situation come to you as an interesting premise for a short story?

I wanted to write about a boy who doesn't really have any unusual experiences and is just so average—except for his background. He's on a track team, and he has some friends, but then he happens to be confronted with a little glimpse into what I would call cutting-edge science.

Do you usually start with a concept or do you usually start with a character?

It's hard to answer those kinds of questions because so much of art and what we call art is governed by the unconscious. You wake up one morning. Maybe you've had some dreams. Maybe you've been brooding about something for years, and you remember a scene in your grandparents' house, and you start thinking about that. There's a character in the story, who is maybe a little girl who turns out to be someone like you, and the characters are sort of like your grandparents, and then there's a theme or a concept that has nothing to do with them at all. All these things come together. I would describe a work of art, especially a novel, as a river into which a number of tributaries flow. No one of those tributaries can explain or lend identity, in a sense, to the river. The river is something quite different from the tributaries, but they all add up. So with the boy in this story, I'm identifying with him and sympathizing with him and thinking how at points in our lives, especially when we're adolescents, it does seem that we are misfits or that people don't seem to like us as much as they like other people, and we wonder what's wrong with us. Is there something about us, like, written on our foreheads? Or is it classified somewhere in a folder and we can't get to it? It's a slight paranoid feeling adolescents sometimes feel.

And you've certainly written about adolescent characters and for adolescents many times before.

Yes, I've written very often about adolescents. I really identify with girls, and to some extent with boys, ages thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. It just seems a time when things are very volatile, and emotions are undefined, and the world seems mysterious and opaque and obviously governed by adults. Adults say things to you, and they seem to mean something else. Now, I'm an adult and I'm a professor, and there certainly are times when my students want to know if they should continue as writers, and secretly I'm thinking, Well, probably, you shouldn't. But I never want to discourage anyone, so I say positive things. You know, the way they do to the boy in the story. I have to; I'm a professor. Also, I don't really know them, much less the totality of their talent—and I feel that I can be wrong. In the story, I am both the boy and one of the teachers who's not exactly lying to him but not telling the truth.

Do you see fiction as a platform to weigh in on political issues?

And moral and ethical issues? Oh, definitely. Most of my stories and novels have some turning point that involves an examination of morality. I've written a number of young adult novels now, and each one revolves around a very strong ethical issue. It's not that I want to write novels that are open for debate, but I think when you're an adolescent much of the world is on that level. When you're that age, you sit around and actually talk about issues that grown-ups no longer talk about because they've compromised and given up. They don't have their ideals. In my classes in Princeton, the kids really do care about ethical ideals, and some of them want to be working in ecology and the environment.

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Jessica Murphy Moo

Jessica Murphy, a former Atlantic staff editor, is the 2006-2007 Milton Center writing fellow in Seattle, Washington. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and her fiction is forthcoming in Memorious magazine.

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