This Day In Literary History
On June 16th, 1938, the famous American writer Joyce Carol Oates was born in Lockport, New York. She was very close to her paternal grandmother, Blanche Oates, who lived with the family and planted the seeds of her future writing career.
When Joyce was a little girl, her grandmother gave her a copy of Lewis Carroll's classic Alice in Wonderland, which she credited as "the great treasure of my childhood and the most profound literary influence in my life." When Joyce turned 14, her grandmother gave her a typewriter, and she began writing.
Joyce Carol Oates described her family as average, happy, and close-knit. Many years later, after her grandmother died, Joyce learned some surprising secrets about her life.
Blanche Oates' father had committed suicide, after which, Blanche decided to conceal the fact that she was Jewish. Joyce used these and other details of her grandmother's life as the basis for her 2007 novel, The Gravedigger's Daughter.
As a young teenager, Joyce Carol Oates became an avid reader, devouring the works of William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Hemingway, and the Bronte sisters, whom she claimed were a strong influence on her writing.
After attending the same one-room school that her mother had gone to, Joyce transferred to bigger suburban schools. At Williamsville South High School, where she graduated in 1956, Joyce worked for the student newspaper. She was the first member of her family to graduate high school.
Joyce Carol Oates won a scholarship to Syracuse University, where she joined the Phi Mu sorority, a decision she came to regret. In college, Joyce read the works of D.H. Lawrence, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Mann, and Franz Kafka, all of which she claimed were still strong and pervasive influences in her own writing.
When she was nineteen years old, she won a college short story contest sponsored by Mademoiselle magazine. She graduated Syracuse as valedictorian in 1960 and received an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison a year later.
During her college years, Joyce taught herself to be a writer by "writing novel after novel and always throwing them out when I completed them." In 1964, when she was 26 years old, she published her first novel, With Shuddering Fall.
Two years later, she published a short story, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?, loosely based on the life of serial killer Charles Schmid, the "Pied Piper of Tucson." The story was frequently republished in anthologies and was adapted in 1985 as a feature film called Smooth Talk.
Joyce Carol Oates would later use real life crimes and criminals as the basis of her novels, changing names, dates, places, and details, and adding fictionalized elements. Her 1995 novel Zombie, which won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel, was based on the life of cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
The novel presents the diary of Quentin P., a psychotic sex offender on parole who becomes a serial killer as he searches for the perfect "zombie" - a mindless, obedient, handsome young man to be his companion and lover.
The brilliant, cunning, and strangely child-like Quentin lures young men into his clutches and lobotomizes them with various weapons as he conducts experiments in creating a zombie. In addition to Quentin's diary entries, the book contains his bizarre sketches of objects such as weapons and staring eyes.
In her 2008 novel My Sister, My Love, Joyce Carol Oates presents a dark and scathing satire of the famous JonBenet Ramsey murder case. It's told in the form of a memoir written by 19-year-old Skyler Rampike. When he was ten, his beloved six-year-old sister Bliss - a child ice-skating star - was found raped and murdered.
In his memoir, Skyler paints a grotesque picture of his family before and after the tragedy. His father, Bix, is a ruthlessly ambitious, money-hungry philanderer; his pathetic, neurotic mother Betsey is determined to impress the snooty neighbors in their affluent community.
She's also obsessed with living out her childhood dream by turning her daughter into a figure-skating star, dressing her in provocative costumes and forcing her to practice and perform.
After Bliss's murder, the already dysfunctional Rampike family is plunged into tabloid hell, as suspicion falls on both Bix and Betsey - and even 10-year-old Skyler. Joyce Carol Oates' powerful writing - and her fascination with violence and the dark side of the human condition - earned her the respect of male peers such as Norman Mailer.
Her 1996 novel, We Were The Mulvaneys, was selected by Oprah Winfrey's book club in 2001. The Mulvaneys are a happy, close-knit, affluent model family living in upstate New York.
Then, on Valentine's Day, 1976, after attending her high school prom, teenage daughter Marianne Mulvaney goes to a party, gets drunk, and is raped by a fellow student whose father is a respected businessman and close friend of Marianne's father.
Her refusal to press charges against her attacker leads to the slow and painful disintegration of the once perfect Mulvaney family. Years later, at a family reunion, the Mulvaneys finally come to terms with the past and receive the closure that had eluded them.
An extremely prolific writer, Oates has written over 40 novels, (plus 11 more under pseudonyms) with three more due out soon. She has also written over 35 short story collections.
Her other writings include seven books for young adults and children, ten books of poetry, eight plays, and numerous nonfiction works. She will no doubt be remembered as one of the most gifted writers of her generation.
Joyce Carol Oates' most recent novel, The Book of American Martyrs, was published in February. It's an amazing book, a testament to the literary talent and power of the nearly 80-year-old author.
The Book of American Martyrs opens with devout Evangelical Christian Luther Dunphy ambushing Gus Voorhees, chief doctor at the Broome County Women’s Center in Muskegee Falls, Ohio, and blasting him in the throat with a shotgun.
The horrific murder destroys the lives of both men and their families, and as the 700+ page novel progresses, (and is narrated by various characters) we see that these two men, these martyrs to their respective causes and complete polar opposites, were more alike than they ever knew.
The Book of American Martyrs paints a dark portrait of the abortion debate in America, the dangers of unchecked idealism, the poisonous influence of religion, and the insidious nature of prejudice from which no one is immune.
Quote Of The Day
"If you are a writer, you locate yourself behind a wall of silence and no matter what you are doing, driving a car or walking or doing housework, you can still be writing, because you have that space." - Joyce Carol Oates
Today's video features Joyce Carol Oates speaking at the 2016 National Book Festival. Enjoy!