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.

It was in a workshop that I got the idea for the story—of delving into the ethical issues surrounding biotechnology. I was passing a book called The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Agearound to my students. It's a very comprehensive book, and it deals with cadaver art. Have you heard about cadaver art?

I actually haven't.

Well, it's just what it says. Art made from cadavers. There are photographs of people whose outer skin has been taken off, and you can see the insides. There's a sad mouse with a human ear growing out of its back, and there are chickens without any feathers. There are some animals that they've crossed with chlorophyll so they're green. And all of this is presented as art. And of course there are the experiments that we know about with cloning and with the introduction of genetic material from other species, so that's where we're getting toward my story. It's just a small step from there to having a brain transplant. I actually do feel there will be brain transplants sometime in the future. When you think of the developments of the past fifty or a hundred years, this is obviously going to happen. Imagine our ancestors hearing about lung and liver and heart transplants. They'd never, never believe it. So the brain transplant is just another one. In certain parts of the world like China, they do already sell organs pretty openly—and they even sell skins. The skins are from condemned criminals. They are very poor people, and twenty-four or forty-eight hours after they die, their skins are gone. In other words, it's a lucrative trade, and as soon as capitalism is introduced in this, you have a whole unprotected class of people who will be bought and sold for their organs. In this country, of course, it would never be talked about, and maybe it would never happen here. I don't like to be that critical about our country, but things get farmed out and you can imagine some biotech companies doing things in Indonesia and shipping them back here. Very wealthy people could be buying skins or new organs. I'm sure it will happen. Maybe it's happened already. So the boy in the story—this is what his whole life is. He was conceived for this. There's a contract, and he never would have lived otherwise.

I think that, given the heated debates over cloning and stem-cell research in America, the possibility that someone like Danny could be engineered as a "body donor" is certainly a feared and controversial idea. Did you feel that there was a timeliness to taking on this topic?

Yes. When I was showing The Molecular Gaze to the students, which was last December or so, some of the student were so shocked. There was a young woman from Texas who just couldn't get over it. She was looking at some of the deformed things and said, "This is so awful. I can't believe this. I can't look at it. It's so horrible." And so I was thinking, Yes, it is horrible, but in another generation a young person will say, Well, this is what I want to go into. This is the cutting edge. And so I thought I'd write a story about someone who was at the transitional period where it's not really talked about, yet it's happening. And then there's a kind of interesting ethical issue that I think one could debate philosophically: If you were given eighteen or nineteen years of life that you wouldn't have had otherwise, isn't that better than nothing?

In a 1993 interview with The Gettysburg Review you said that you can't write a novel until you know the ending—"where the people are, what they are saying, the literal words. I aim for that, always have that in mind. So the sentences of a work are a meditation on this ending." I think this process is fascinating. When did you discover that this was your process, and does this also apply to the way you approach short stories?

Oh, yes, I always know the ending of stories. I work them out in my head before I write. When you're younger, you might write fifty pages, of which you'll keep fourteen, but when you get a little older, you can do that early writing in your head. I do a lot of running and walking, and of course I lie in bed in the early morning and am working on my writing, so I just do a whole lot of writing and working things out and throwing things away and trying different things in my head. By the time I get to actually write, I've worked it out pretty clearly, so I can eliminate all those first and second drafts. That's why running is so important to me because running allows me to work through the cinematic process.

Do you run every day?

Yes. I actually run as much as I can, because it helps me write. I also have short-term photographic memory, so that I can scroll through in my mind the writing I did in the morning and be copyediting it and proofreading it. I really can do that pretty precisely. I can see that I've typed a word wrong on page twenty-five, and then I get back and check it and it was wrong. But this short-term memory doesn't last. I guess I wouldn't want it to last. It's like when you memorize a sequence of numbers and then a couple seconds later you can recite them, but not a day later.

Perhaps the fact that you're able to work those things out in your head explains why you can be as prolific as you are.

I can write at any time. When I'm riding in a car, I'm sort of working things out. Even when I'm being introduced to give a reading—when I'm in a situation that's fraught with adrenaline—I get some really good ideas. Or if I have ten minutes in a hotel room, sometimes I'm flooded with ideas. Unfortunately, I won't live to execute a thousandth of these.

Your new collection of essays, Uncensored: Views and (Re)views, includes two reviews of short-story collections and involves meditations on the short-story form, where it's been, where it's going. You pose what you call the "perennial question"—Is the short story an endangered species?" While you argue that "endangered" may not be the right word, you do say that "it is unlikely that the twenty-first century will be hospitable to short stories." What is the state of the short story, and what do you think needs to change for it to survive in this "inhospitable" environment?

It's a good question. I think the issue is that there's a crowdedness of other forms of emotional and psychological experience today. When the short story was really very strong in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we didn't have all these other alternatives. We couldn't put on a television. We couldn't play a video game. I guess video games are forms, very elaborate in some cases, of storytelling. I've never in my life played a video game, but I know that some of them are extremely sophisticated and complicated. They take the viewer or the player into an alternative universe, which is probably no less complicated than the universe of Joyce's Ulysses. And if you're playing that video game, you're not going to be reading Joyce's Ulysses. One cancels the other out over time. So the short story, while it's a wonderful genre, is now kind of crowded out because other forms of storytelling are being done.

Who knows how the storytellers of a century or two ago would have dealt with all these alternatives. I doubt Shakespeare would be writing for the stage today, because he could do wonderful screenplays and have a different kind of life. And Dickens might be writing best-selling novels or a miniseries on television. He'd be tremendously popular.

I read that you feel short stories lend themselves more to experimentation. How so?

The short story is so short you can do a lot. You can have a certain tone, a certain voice. It can be playful. It can be sort of fantastic. I don't really care for that kind of writing, that light, fantastic, Donald Barthelme kind of writing, but you can do that for a few pages, for twenty pages or so. It would become unbearably coy and annoying over four-hundred pages. You just can't do it. I don't think I've ever written a novel that was wholly experimental. It just doesn't attract me.

Is there one form or genre that you feel more comfortable in?

I love the short story. I read short stories constantly. The short story is probably my natural form, but I love to write novels, too, because they're basically an amalgam of short "stories." Each chapter is like a story, but it's accumulative, and that's a different kind of structure that I find very engaging and challenging.

I remember reading that you had rewritten one of your early novels. You also republished Wonderland (1971) in 1973 with a different ending. What made you decide to take on such a project and what was that process like? How do you revise?

When I wrote Wonderland, I was much younger and had not worked out the best ending—the one I would do today. So I had to rewrite it. More recently I revised about seventy-five percent of A Garden of Earthly Delights, because it was being reprinted in the Modern Library. It was only my second novel, and I felt I could write it so much better this time. The problem with the novel was that I had too much of my own narrative voice. I didn't have enough dramatic dialogue, which is the way I write now. You can get rid of so much narrated exposition by just having people talk. I was finding I could tighten chapters by pages. I could cut out paragraphs, and I added other things that were more dramatic and allowed the characters to speak more in their own voices. It's as if you're a professor of writing and you're going over the work of a student who's promising. You say, Hey, you can do this much better. Why don't you write page five over again. So it was like I was the student and I was also the professor.

I'm so much older now than when I wrote that novel. When I first wrote it, I had to imagine what certain things were, like a mother in a nursing home. But since then I've gone to nursing homes and I've seen my aging mother in a nursing home. What I had only imagined as a young writer of about twenty-five, now I knew. I actually got it fairly right, but there were some things I didn't know about, so I put them in. It's painful to see how time sweeps on.

I wonder if there are a lot of authors who wish they could rework their earlier works.

Oddly enough, anyone I've ever spoken to doesn't want to do that. They just don't even want to go there. They don't have enough energy. They'd be exhausted.

Much has been written about the presence of violence in your work. I'd guess that some readers might read "*BD* 11 1 86" and see that there is perhaps a cold science-sanctioned kind of violence enacted on this boy. Perhaps others might not see that at all. Have you come to any conclusion about why violence is present in so much of your fiction?

I'm really not unique. I mean, look at Homer, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Sophocles. Tragic art is basically synonymous with the human race. It isn't just that Joyce Carol Oates writes about violent things sometimes. What about Herman Melville or Dostoevsky? I didn't invent this. The most blood-soaked work, page by page, is The Iliad. It's just seeping with blood. It's very hard to read. My writing is nothing like that. You could go through hundreds of pages of my work and not see anything violent.

Many describe you as an author who has in many ways chronicled a lot of America, and it seems to me that if that's where your novels are going to take us, a certain amount of violence will be involved.

You're right. I'm a writer who's chronicled America, and I'm seen from that perspective. When you travel around the world you're seen in different ways, and you become representative. Once I met Gorbachev, and he shook my hand and said, "Oh, you are the writer who writes so convincingly about the proletariat." That was the little sign that came up in his head when he met me. Whereas I don't think of myself as a writer of the proletariat; that's not what I was setting out to do.

Do any of those labels sometimes surprise you? Or bother you?

I think it's inevitable. I don't think the labels really are that disfiguring. James Joyce could be seen as an Irish writer, or a regional writer, and still a great writer. Someone like Virgina Woolf might be seen as a woman writer but also a great writer. I don't think the labels really cancel one another out. Maybe they're accumulative. Maybe the more labels you have the better your position is. Let's hope!