Mary Morris: Reflections on the personal and artistic influence of Joyce Carol Oates

Many years ago, when I was a fledgling author about to publish my first book of twelve stories with a small press in Boston, I got a call from my editor. Actually, I got a message to call him because I was living in the outskirts of Mexico City with no phone and little connection to the outside world. So I was standing at a phone booth in a vacant lot with a line of women, children in tow, trying to reach their husbands and partners and boyfriends in the States. 

“I want to read you something,” he said. It was a short review of the book and when he finished, he said, “Guess who wrote it.” 

I replied, “You did?” 

He laughed and said no. It was Joyce Carol Oates – a review that was to appear in Glamour magazine and, quite frankly, change my life. 

Of course, I knew who Joyce Carol Oates was. I had read a number of her early stories, including the bone-chilling “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”and I had read her novel Them, which had won the 1970 National Book Award. I knew how much people respected her and how some maligned her for being too prolific. I also knew that she was a voracious reader and reviewer. What I did not know was how generous she was to emerging writers. How if she liked your work, she gave you a boost.

Several months later, she was giving a reading at Rutgers, where I was teaching at the time. I went to the reading and afterwards timidly introduced myself and thanked her for the review. And she replied as she was walking away. “Those are very good stories.”

It was not long afterwards when my little book, Vanishing Animals & Other Stories, won the Rome Prize in Literature and I found myself as her colleague at Princeton. I felt at the time as if Joyce Carol Oates were secretly guiding me, helping me find my way, which she was. But then she really did help me. Through her books. When I first got to know Joyce, she was in her gothic phase, which did not interest me that much. But in the late 1980’s she returned to her roots –those hardscrabble narratives of realistic fiction, set mostly in Upstate New York — and then she began to publish the books that have shaped my thinking about what it means to be a writer and tell passionate stories and live a dedicated literary life.   

When I read the prologue to You Must Remember This, in which a girl named Enid is attempting suicide after a disastrous incestuous love affair with her prize fighter uncle, Felix, the earth shifted for me. I had always admired Oates and much of her writing, but this novel brought me to a whole other level. For the first time, I felt Oates’ raw energy, the force behind her words, a power of her storytelling that is hard to describe. The sentences felt breathless to me, a locomotive of language that was pulling me along the tracks with her. Perhaps line for line, as some of her detractors say, the writing isn’t as distinctive as it could be, the sentences not as finely wrought as they could be, but the energy of her prose, the momentum of her narrative, was something I had never quite appreciated before, and it drew me in.

Over the next several years, Joyce published some of the books that I consider to be her masterpieces and American classics, including the breathtaking 1990 novel Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart — one of the best books about race in America written by someone who is not a person of color that I have ever read. Set in Upstate New York, as are several of Oates’ finest works, it’s the story of students Jinx Fairchild and Iris Courtney, who are inextricably linked by a murder they have committed in self-defense – except Iris is white and Jinx is Black, and here their fates will diverge. In one scene, Jinx is shooting hoops late at night as he reflects on his circumstances and his life, his hopes and dreams. I was awed not only by Oates’s ability to inhabit the mind of this African-American boy but also by her knowledge of basketball. Horses, basketball, boxing, astrophysics – it seemed as if there were no subject Oates couldn’t tackle.   

Read Her Like an Open Book has moved to Substack. This account will become inactive on April 30. Please visit the new home at billwolfe.substack.com.

At this point I was hooked and read almost everything she’d published. Then in 2000 she published Blonde, a book whose power has never left me. In it Oates seems to be channeling the short, tragic life of Marilyn Monroe. Over the years, I have come to see Oates as a feminist writer. Several of her novels delve into the victimhood of women, whether through rape (We Were the Mulvaneys), domestic violence (The Gravedigger’s Daughter), or literal entrapment, abandonment, and even murder in the harrowing Black Water, which essentially reenacts the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped in a car Ted Kennedy drove off the Chappaquiddick bridge in 1969, or the retelling of the JonBenet Ramsey story in My Sister, My Love.

I moved on from Princeton, and Joyce and I stayed in touch over the years. But mainly what has kept us connected are her books. Whether you love her sentences or not, no one can fault her storytelling. It is as if there is no subject taboo that she will not probe, no detail too obscure, no topic too dark that her voracious mind will not explore — whether it is the grooming of a horse in Solstice, a black teenager shooting hoops, a boxer with a minor career, the horribly slow drowning of a young woman, or a sad girl named Norma Jean who longs to be adopted and instead becomes a tragic national icon. Her obsessions become our fascinations.

A few years ago in Miami, I had dinner with some old Princeton buddies, including Russell Banks. Joyce was there and she asked me quietly across the table, as she tends to do, what I was working on. I told her that I’d just published a book called The Jazz Palace and offered to send her a copy.

Six months later, when that book was awarded the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Award for fiction, I guess I should not have been surprised to find the secret hand because, of course, Joyce was one of the judges. But beyond what she has done for my career, what has mattered most is what she has done for me as a writer. When I am stuck, it is her books I turn to. In the power of her storytelling I am able to breathe new life into my own.


Mary Morris is the author of sixteen books, including, mostly recently, the novel Gateway to the Moon (2018), three collections of short stories, and five travel memoirs, including All the Way to the Tigers (2020). Her stories and essays have appeared in such places as The Atlantic, The Paris Review and The New York Times. She is also the author of the travel memoir classic, Nothing to Declare:  Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone (1988). The recipient of the Rome Prize in Literature and the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Award for Fiction, Morris is on the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. Her books have been translated into many languages, including French, German and Japanese. When not traveling, she lives with her family, three dogs and a parrot. For more information see her website. http://www.marymorris.net. 


One comment

  1. I love learning of writers’ legacies and influence on other writers— Mary Morris, you have had that kind of impact through your work on me!

    Like

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