by columnist Donna Shor
Photo credit: Courtesy of The Hay Adams
Oates, America’s and possibly the world’s most prolific author, started writing at age fourteen after her grandmother happened to give her a typewriter.
By nineteen she had won Mademoiselle magazine’s prestigious college writing competition, doubly amazing because Joyce, who grew up impoverished on a farm in upstate New York, was the first in her family even to finish high school.
She commented that her family never expected much of her. They must have been amazed when she became become a world-renowned author and respected educator.
Replete with degrees, honors and awards sixty years later, Oates is still turning out critically acclaimed―and best-selling―books remarkable in their diversity of subjects and genres.
Novels, short stories, poems, reviews, essays all flow from her pen and that quite literally, as she writes in longhand.
At the luncheon, listeners were twice-blessed by Enokido’s choice of interlocutor, the esteemed author Marie Arana, herself a fine stylist and long the editor of the Washington Post’s late and much-lamented Book World.
Arana succeeded in bringing out many details of Oates’ working life.
One topic was the inherent darkness and violence in many of her widely-read works, in contrast to her fragile appearance. Clearly, Oates' personal world-view has nothing to do with chick-lit.
Her ability to produce speedily such a flow of works has long been a source of wonder to many of her devoted readers.
Guests, who asked many questions from the audience, learned of her work ethic: She carefully polishes and redoes what she has written and writes seven days a week from 8am until 1pm, sometimes returning later to her manuscript to put in two or three more hours and often working on two lengthy books at a time.
It all adds up to millions of words. Were you, too, puzzled by her prolixity? Well that’s how she does it.
Since 1978 Oates has been a professor at Princeton, an academic setting she used to good effect in this newest book, “Mudwoman.”
Her protagonist is the first female president of an unnamed Ivy League college, with all the setbacks and problems that pioneering situation could entail. While she struggles with the burdens of her professional life, she is haunted by the secrets of a hidden past, rife with cruelty, sexual abuse, and attempted murder.
We see her gradually beginning to unravel, overcome by doubts and demons as she wrestles with her current problems while driven to recreate that secret past, hating to, but needing to do so. She feels she must return to the desolate scenes of her early childhood.
As her break-up progresses, she slides in and out of reality under the strain, not sure herself what is dream and what real.
The protagonist relives the day when her mother, a half-crazed religious fanatic, hurls first her doll, then the teller herself into the swampy marsh of the mudflats and leaves her behind to die in the mud.
Her rescue and subsequent life spin out the rest of this harrowing but impossible-to-put-down story.
These were dark scenes to discuss in such a sunny spot as the window-walled top of the Hay-Adams. Oates was stunned when she realized the White House was so near she was looking down directly at it. (“As close as you can get to the White House without staying in it” is the Hay-Adams motto.)
The lunch matched the lovely surroundings: chilled Canteloup and Fresh Mint soup, Pan-seared Atlantic Salmon, Heirloom Tomato salad and silken Pumpkin Panna Cotta to finish.
Barboursville Reserve Chardonnay was the Virginia wine served, but some opted for the admirable Steele Carneros 2008 Pinot Noir, from Jed Steele’s fine California vineyard,
an excellent red wine match for the salmon, which stood up to it perfectly.
The next luncheon in the Author Series will be Friday, September 21, with Walter Isaacson discussing his book “Steve Jobs.”