Hello, boys and girls, this is Tim Ferriss, welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferris show, where it is my job, my privilege to attempt to deconstruct world class performers from all different fields. My guest today is a writing icon, Joyce Carol Oates. Joyce Carol Oates is the author of novels, Short Story Collections, Poetry Volumes, plays, essays and criticism, including the national bestsellers We Were The Mulvany, Blonde and A Widow's Story. Among her many honors are the National Book Award, the Pen America Award, the National Humanities Medal, the 2013 Jerusalem Prize and the 2020 Seno Del Duca World Prize for Literature.
OT's is the Roger Espeland, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. So that is the approved bio. There are a few other things I would like to say though, because I think Joyce certainly is prone to understandably understating her prodigious talents. She has published and again, this is getting into Semina, in fact check territory, but I think I do have most of these right.
She has published around 60 novels, not to mention all the other formats and genres. She is so prolific that in her Wikipedia entry, there is a separate entry just for her bibliography to give you an idea. So Joyce Carol Oates bibliography is its own gigantic page. Her first book was published in 1963, and I have read at least from two sources that on average she has had two pieces of her work published per year since just let that sink in three of her novels and two short story collections.
If I'm getting it right, we're all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and her work is incredible. This is just an endlessly impressive woman, enormously impressive human, endlessly impressive writer and teacher. And with all of that preamble, please enjoy this wide ranging conversation with Joyce Carol Oates. One very quick note. We had some Wi-Fi connectivity issues for the first ten minutes or so, so please bear with us as we work through that. And then we were able to change a few things and improve it dramatically.
So might be a little bit of touch and go in the beginning. But if you stick with it, we'll get to smooth audio pretty soon thereafter.
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Tim to protect your data today optimal at this altitude I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Can I ask you a personal question now? It is. I'm a cybernetic organism living tissue over metal inputs go to Paris, so. Joyce, welcome to the show. I wanted to start with a name that will be familiar, and that's Jonathan Safran Foer, former student of yours, now a colleague of yours, who also happened to be in my same class, I believe, of the class of 99 at Princeton as an undergrad.
And you wrote him a letter, perhaps his parents at some point. But the way that he recalls it, there's a specific line that I wanted to ask you about, and we can take it any direction you would like. And the line is this, quote, You appear to have very strong and promising talent, coupled with that most important of writerly qualities, comma energy. And he then later has come to strongly agree with that. And Manish, you write, energy is the most important writerly quality.
Could you expand on what you mean by that?
You could think it's evident that we need a good deal of energy to be a creator. We need a good deal of spirit and kind of optimism, I think, of the kind of positive delusions or illusions about the worth of what we're doing. I was reading a biography of Walker. Evans is a very distinguished early 20th century photographer, and Walker Evans has makes the point that he would be asked, like, why is he doing this? Who's his audience?
And he he said that he wasn't thinking of that. He was thinking of the pleasure of the camera and seeing where it led him. And I think that's true of all created effort, that there is a kind of spirit or like a flame that leads us somewhere to tell the story. It could be an entire novel to paint a painting of something extraordinary that's never been done before. And beyond that, it's just the the feel that is the sheer pleasure in creativity, which is energy.
And the opposite of that, I think, is being interrupted many times in situations professional or familial, where one is interrupted and one's energy is drained off in different directions so that we don't have the concentration that we need. That is really the great enemy of creativity.
If we're looking at maybe enemy's is would wouldn't be the right label in the way that I'm going to use it. But obstacles as would be writers perceive them. I'd like to speak to getting started. So a writer friend of yours, I think with the initials L.M. you described as having remarked that she'd like to be married and not get married. And in other words, and I'll take some liberty here, but not to find the perimeter of the parameters, go through the growing pains of those first few years.
But to be sort of settled in the existence of being married and you likened that to creative projects and writing, how do you overcome the the difficulties or advise that students overcome the difficulties in starting a given writing project? You could choose the genre. Well, I think we're all very different. Some people have a good deal of energy and excitement in the beginning and they can stay up all night long and working on a novel now, writing a complete short story.
I think as we get older, we we sort of we got our energy differently. We don't quite that we don't want to stay up all night working, but parcel it out in a more reasonable way. So it does depend upon who the person is. I have I have writing students have a good deal of energy, but I have others who have been working on one project for some time. And so they're kind of focusing their energy. But as I said, the one, the great adversary is being interrupted and distracted.
So distraction is our main adversary right now, I think. And in contemporary America, in the world of the Internet and cell phones, at the moment, we have a kind of toxic political situation that's very draining of goodwill. So all these distractions make it difficult to concentrate.
When you look back at your own creative process, I've read I don't know if it was in the Paris Review, it could have been or elsewhere this series called The Art of Fiction that you need the title.
And I want to say last line before you began writing, was that true or is there any truth to that? Was there at some point? Oh, yes.
I need to I need to see the ending of the novel. I need to see it in a kind of cinematic way to sort of envision it. And then I, I usually have some words to go with that I really need a beginning and an end and I need a title. The title is What Brings It All Together. It's sort of like a triangular. Shape, so the title will give you a sense of what? The totality is the beginning, obviously, is the precipitating factor of the story should be in the first.
Line, and then everything is a consequence of that, and then the ending is the ending, which has been moving toward that ending on page 19 or ninety nine or one hundred ninety nine. You're moving toward that inexorable ending. So you have a destination that is an ideal way of writing. It may not be possible for everybody. Some people like your doctor or my friend a doctor or he said that he never knew how his novels were going to end.
He thought it was like a car trip. He was he was driving along a road. He didn't really know where he was going, but I'm not like that.
How much do you think about structures if you have the beginning in the end? And the title, even if it's a placeholder, I guess two questions to the titles often change after you've decided upon what you think it might be. And then the second is, how do you think about or how much do you think about the structure? Once you have those initial points in place, the title could definitely be changed.
That would probably be an equivalent title. Something that was the same tone and the same symbolism, but maybe a different word. I have changed titles a few times. Ideally, if you have the title first, then you have you have a vision. So until you work out the mixture of a law and work, it's not a good idea to begin. However, I have begun and I have made mistakes that I had to correct this. I am so much of writing.
Like all I wrote. I think it's exploratory. We don't always know what we're going to do. But ideally, if you have an outline of a sense of where you're going, it's much easier. I spent a lot of time running and walking. Every day I go walking or I love to run. And when I'm running, I think of my writing in structural terms. I have a spatial sense. So if I don't go running every day, my writing doesn't work as well.
It really depends upon this kinetic release and energy. Could you speak more to that? Is it an active thinking about or considering of the writing or is it moving the body and letting the medically loosely, let's just say in the case of structure, pointed consciousness, just kind of bubble up in the process of movement? Could you just speak to running and walking? Because I know it is a seems to have been a huge part of your life. What about you?
Are you a runner?
I used to run. I used to run. I do a lot of walking, so I walk and swim and bike. I try to walk at least a few hours a day, so I walk a lot.
That's let's say there's a hell no. I live in a semirural area. There's a hill near where I live, a country road at the top of the hill. I've gotten so many ideas. I run over there and that's about that's about a mile or maybe mile and a half. So it's like waiting for me on top of that hill will be some idea. Now, that's obviously a mystical, superstitious notion on my part, yet it seems to happen quite often.
So if I'm stuck trying to work out a plot at my desk, I'm sitting right now at my desk. I really can't work it out here. I have to go somewhere else, preferably up the bigger hill. And I need to be alone with my thoughts.
Let's talk about. Once you have set foot into this exploratory process of writing, even if you have some landmarks laid out ahead of time, let's just say the beginning and the end. Actually, before I hop to that, I'm going to ask you about revision. But when you say you have an idea of where it ends or, you know, the ending, is it just a a concept? Is it finished prose? Is it a finished page?
Is it a paragraph? What what does knowing the end look like concretely?
It's pretty definite. It's like knowing you get in your car and you're going to drive to.
San Francisco, and you want to go to San Francisco, you don't want to wind up in Salt Lake City or somewhere in Montana, you're sort of aiming your vehicle for a destination. So it just sensible to plan that ahead of time. If we look at then charting this path and going from point a beginning to ultimately see the end.
San Francisco, like you said, when you have an initial draft, I've read that you're strongly in favor. This is, quote, strongly in favor of intelligent, even fastidious revision, which is or certainly should be an art in itself. How do you describe. The revision process to students. Well, I think a revision is so much fun, it's so exciting to me that first draft is like material and then the second draft, the revision is my my use of that material.
Mm hmm. And so a subsequent revision I revise all the time, I'm revising a novel now, I don't even know how many times I've gone through it. I tend to write the first chapters over and over and over again. And the second chapter is over again. Then as I go on and the novel, I get more momentum. So I'm going forward a little more fluently. But yet when I come to my desk in the morning, I definitely always revise what I did the day before and then I get a little momentum moving forward again.
But the revision is really like ninety nine percent. Of ours, I think there have been very few. Artists who don't revise are visual artists make sketches, they may do several variants of the same scene and apart from a real, very small number of composers, just could compose sort of in their heads like Mozart and I guess Chopin sometimes. But then Chopin would work on what he had. He would he would work on it anyway and revise it.
But I think Mozart was probably the most spontaneous creator. But almost nobody is like that. I mean, Beethoven worked very hard revising and just about everybody that I ever heard of. Let's speak to the revision process. I would love to hear in more specifics if you're able what you're looking for, what you're looking to take out when you're revising it. And it is, I'm sure, second nature at this point to the extent that maybe it's hard to describe.
But I'll give an example.
Some authors or writers look to say, first of foremost, remove anything that is confusing. There could be confusing, right. Or that is unclear. Or they ask proofreaders to help them and ask them to indicate if they had to cut 10 percent or 20 percent of what they would cut. That's involving other people. But in your case, when you sit down to revise, could you walk us through any of the lenses you use to look at that draft or the questions you ask yourself as you're going through?
Is there any any level of specifics that you might be able to offer? Well, it does it does depend upon the manuscript, for instance, if I'm working in a Gothic mode or a serial mode, it's a different voice from sociological realism. Sometimes sometimes my writing is social realism and everything in the novel is authentic. It is really happened in some way. If you go to that city, you can walk around and see those streets. There's a certain pleasure in that verisimilitude of the actual world.
James Joyce, who was in many ways a surrealist writer, nonetheless, he believed in the beauty and sanctity of the art of the actual, so that one can walk in Dublin and sort of walk through the day of Ulysses. And that's one way of writing. There's a poetry in realism, there's a beauty. And just in things as they are, however, have maybe more than half of our lives are spent in dreams and the unconscious. So that's a surreal landscape.
Every night we sleep and the perimeters of realism are dissolved with great, great, extravagant energy, I think. And all sorts of images and improbable things sweep into our minds when we were dreaming. So I'd like to write in a surreal mode, too. And if I'm revising the work of fiction, it's surreal. I consider that so very exciting because each time I sit down to write or to revise, I will get some golding's, some nudging, some hints, something surfacing from the unconscious so that a sentence that may be relatively simple by the time I revise that, it might be a full page long because something else is pushing and pulling and it is like an octopus with many, many legs or limbs or arms or.
Anyway, the pull of the unconscious, I think, is very powerful, and the more we can let that feel what we're doing, the more potent it is. Also, the more enjoyable for the writer.
Jumping back to Jonathan Safran Foer for a moment, it's on a website called Identity Theory. It probably appears elsewhere, but he mentioned that you gave him a reading list. And I don't expect you to build or remember necessarily the exact books or pieces of work that you recommended that he read. But do you have any recollection of how you chose what you did?
Well, as I remember, when Jonathan was very young, he may have just been a freshman at Princeton. He was already an experimental writer and artist. As you probably know, his first book was Joseph Cornell Compendium, which he brought together, which is most unusual for a young person to bring together work by. Like older people, most young writers write their first novel, which is very autobiographical. But Jonathan did not do that. He went in a slightly different way.
So I saw in him an experimental personality, and I like that myself. But most young writers should not be experimenting. They should just write what they want to write. They may want to write about their parents. They might write about their girlfriend or boyfriend or something in the first person. That's funny. You know, that's droll or witty. They may want to write some satire, but by no means should they try to be experimental because they're not ready for it.
Whereas Jonathan, I think, was never really that interested in replicating the actual world. He was more interested in experimenting with the medium of writing, which is worse. Now, I know that later on he has written much more realistic. He's done autobiographical work. He's written pretty transparently, I think, about his own life and about his marriage and family life. So, I mean, he has done different kinds of writing, but because he had an experimental personality, I probably gave him some I probably gave him Kafka to read.
I don't remember exactly what it would have been. Hmm.
I want to stick with Jonathan, just one more question and then move into some different areas. But does that also mention, and I'm paraphrasing here, that you were the first person to take him seriously and that you recognized there was such a thing as his writing, his work, so to speak, write that he had a work, a body of work and development that had never occurred to him. When did you personally first have that feeling about your own writing?
On about my own writing, about your own writing, no, I probably never had that feeling. I did have teachers who singled me out and said very nice things to me. And I had a professor at Syracuse who even wrote a letter to my parents. And because he did that, I did that for Jonathan also. I always remember that. It was a very short, beautiful letter, just said, Joyce is a born writer and she should be encouraged.
I can't remember the details of it and I don't know if the letter even exists anymore. I hope it's somewhere. So I thought that I would do that. You know, when Jonathan came along, I wrote this, I wrote his parents. Now, I don't remember exactly what I said that mimicked that original letter. So maybe Jonathan will write a letter or has written. Maybe it's just something we should a tradition we should carry on, but not overdo.
So I don't I have not actually done it since this. It's quite a quite an honor to bestow upon. Jonathan is a very skilled writer.
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Tim, that's it. Go to ship station dotcom then enter offer code tim ship station dot com make ship happen. As I understand it, your ID please correct me if I'm if I'm getting the details, you're wrong, but your first book was published in nineteen sixty three by the North Gate, which was a collection of short stories. Was that impactful or important to you or was it just the act of writing and the fact that you are so continuously writing more engaging, more important than that type of milestone would be for many writers.
How did that affect you, if it if at all?
Oh, of course, it was very profound. I was just a very young writer. I had had a number of stories in The Best American Short Stories and the O'Henry awards. So I had been published in magazines and then some of the stories were anthologized. So the next step would be a book. And it came when I was about I don't know, I was about 22 years old, I think, when I received notice that my manuscript had been accepted.
So I called my husband at the time, Ray Smith, and told him about this. He was at university and I was at home. And I was absolutely disbelieving. I mean, I was so happy. I was I was overwhelmed. I could hardly believe it. And it was a it was, of course, a milestone, it's tremendously encouraging. I had been encouraged earlier and in preceding years by various publications are winning an award or something.
So I've had that encouraged. So I try to encourage younger writers. I've endowed a number of awards, fiction awards at different universities for young writers.
How do you encourage young writers in your classroom? And that might sound like a strange question, but you've had a lot of trial and error or maybe just lots of trial. I don't know. Maybe it's mostly success. You've certainly been able to, I'm sure, test a lot of things in the classroom. You've been able to see what students go on to do or how they gravitate to the craft of writing or not. What if you found most important or impactful in terms of.
Cultivating and encouraging young writers, most writers who are in my workshop have already been writing for a while. Especially at NYU, the graduate writers graduate student, so they know what they're doing and they have a project and they have their own stories based on their own lives, experience, imagination. So I'm a good reader. I mean, I'm a sympathetic reader, an editor for what they're writing. I don't tell them what to write. We have a workshop situation where everybody critiques a submission for the day.
Everyone has an opinion. We have a conversation. So it really isn't just a professor. I have opinion and everybody else does, too, so that a writer, a young writer might feel well, they liked what I wrote, but they didn't quite understand it. Or they thought it should be longer or they thought it was too long. So kind of consensus of editorial suggestions in a typical writing workshop, I mainly see my role as being a very sympathetic and careful reader.
What does it mean to be a sympathetic reader? Well, I'm not I'm not critical or judgmental. I'm on the side of the writer. I want to see what they've done. I mean, in other and other years, like in the decades past, there were male professors who told women writers that their subject matter wasn't literary. I mean, even as a well known women writers who went on to become famous and win the Pulitzer Prize, they they were discouraged by by some of these remarks.
I would never think and I would never say those things. I don't concern anything that subject. For fiction, if it's treated, if it's treated well. I try to get writers to write about what they really care about. I read a beautiful line from you describing a certain aspect of your creative process, and that is this is from the Paris Review, the art of fiction, number 72.
One must be pitiless about this matter of mood. In a sense, the writing will create the mood. And you continue to say later in that same paragraph, I forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Could you expand on this? I mean, I think it's pretty well put, but I know that there are a lot of people who feel they need to get themselves into the mood to write.
Is there anything else you could add to this?
No, I definitely feel that you create your mood by by working. And I have a sort of work ethic, I come from a part of the world where people did work rather than just talk about it. And so if you feel that you just can't write or you're too tired or this, that and the other, just stop thinking about it and go and work. I mean, life doesn't have to be so overthought and you don't have to wait to be inspired to start working a particularly, I think first go for our long run and a nice walk and think about what you're going to do.
Come home and start working, but try not to be interrupted. That's that's the problem. Most people are living and families are living with a partner and the other person has a schedule and expectations. And while you may love your family, they can be the ones who drain you of energy. For women, that's always been a problem. Women are nurturing. There's nothing wrong with that, that women find it very hard to say. No. Women writers are always being asked to do things pro bono, to volunteer their time, to do different things, you know, to read manuscripts and to be on committees and so forth.
And the instinct is really to say yes. And I say yes to these things. But it's really, if you are careful, custodian of your own time, like Philip Roth, for instance, or Flaubert, you would never give away a whole lot of your time. Philip Roth would never he wouldn't do one one hundredth of the things that I do. He was too smart. He knew how to take care of us to guard his own privacy.
Do you tend to work on multiple projects at a time or when you're immersed? I've heard you describe A being immersed in a project, and as soon as you finish a novel, you get assaulted by all of these new ideas.
Do you ever work on multiple projects at the same time? No.
I usually focus my energy on one project that I'm working on a novel right now that I'm taking a little time off to write a review of a biography for the class. And I'm also writing an introduction to a new edition of Dostoyevsky Short Stories. So I'm taking time off from the novel. And then if I'm doing copy editing for I've been going through a copy editing manuscript for another book that's coming out. I'll take a week off from my novel to work on that.
Part of the reason I ask is I came across a comment in The Guardian and this is not only in The Guardian. This is certainly something I've come across a few different times when doing homework for this conversation, and that is something along the lines in different places. The quote, I don't have any anxiety about writing. Not really. You know, it's such a pleasure. And our lives are so relatively easy compared to people who are really out there in the world working hard and suffering.
That's from The Guardian.
Could you speak more to that? Again, I know it's like self evident on one hand, but also an uncommon contrast to a lot of lamentations and descriptions of anxiety around writing by other people, difficulties writing, writer's block, etc.. Could you expand on not having anxiety around writing?
Well, I just don't have and if I did, I well think I would want to be a writer. I would have I would have tremendous anxiety if I were a performing artist, like a pianist and I had to give a recital, I would be overwhelmed with anxiety, or at least I think I would be, I suppose by practicing every day by day, playing, you know, three or four hours every day, you get to a point where the technique is just totally, totally internalised and you don't have to think about it.
And I would be anxious if I were an athlete, you know, competing with other athletes right in. In real time, with people watching you, I would find that in immensely anxiety provoking, but writing or or painting, drawing these these are hard done on our own time. You can take as long as you want. Nobody's watching you. Nobody cares either. It's a very different medium. As I said, I, I find it anxiety producing it to even imagine playing piano in front of an audience.
I did that once. I was a I took piano lessons for quite a while, for about 11 years. And I was playing I would be the student who played the piano when the students marched into the assembly and my middle school. And so I actually did this and it wasn't too bad. But being on a stage, performing in front of people who know the music, I always find that overwhelmingly terrifying. Is it the real time?
That's my dog barking in the background, if you can hear that. But is is it the real time nature of that, the necessity to deliver in front of an audience in real time versus being able to take your time without people really necessarily paying attention or caring? Is that the largest distinction between those two?
Oh, yes, but some some pages and my novels I've rewritten so many times, so there would not be any one time. That anyone could watch anything like that, you know, I think when. Really good professional musicians are playing the probably. Replicating what what they've done before. I know actors. Almost exactly and precisely do the same the same performance night after night, so they've sort of it's internalized in their brains and they just have to go through it another time or with writing every time I.
Every time I look at a page, I can be wiser. There has to come an end to this. Eventually you just have to stop doing, you know. But in theory, James Joyce could still be working on Ulysses and Finnegans Wake because he was like that. He was experimental. And every morning you wake up with some new ideas and you could write you could write another another novel. The whole different novel would come out of your your mood that morning.
But we can't allow ourselves to do that. That's just too fantastical.
How do you decide when something is done or when you need to stop? Because you could just continue otherwise indefinitely?
I try to use common sense. I'm going through a novel now that I've gone through probably 10 times. It's in the computer. So I go through a scroll through it and I'm still changing and changing sentences. I'm taking out paragraphs and moving things around. But this has got to be the last time because the is coming out in August, so the time is left. I've been working at it for a year off and on, and it has metamorphosed quite a bit from the beginning.
The main structure was always there and the main characters. But the sentences, the sentences always change. But I'll be done with that by Monday so that I send that to my my editor and I'm not going to change that anymore. I'm looking at 10 tips of yours for writing. I believe these were originally tweets at one point. It's mentioned a list of ten. I want to ask about a few of these. And if any of these are incorrect, please correct me.
No one is right. Your heart out. Number four is keep in mind, Oscar Wilde, quote, A little sincerity is a dangerous thing and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal and then it goes on. But could you explain why the Oscar Wilde quote about sincerity?
Well, yes, he's being funny. I think he is recoiling against the kind of deadpan, overwhelming, boring rectitude that one encountered in the Victorian world where literature was seen as a vessel for ethics and morality. So it's a lot of preaching. There used to be a good deal of preaching and did that to decision. In prose fiction. And he was probably related to that. So that kind of sincerity is just. It's just very boring and one doesn't want to hear much of that literature should be interesting.
I think it should be dramatic and characters should be colorful and unusual in each sentence, should be as original as possible. And then write your heart out is something that Vernon Bernard Malamud said. I'm really quoting him. It's just right, right, right and right. And don't don't hold back.
So, Joyce, I would love to ask you about a few more of these, and then we we can move on. The number three in this this top 10 list is your writing for your contemporaries, not for posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become posterity.
Could you expand on that, please?
This is probably aimed for people who were English majors and who were reading the great classics. Know if you're reading Paradise Lost or great plays of Shakespeare or Middlemarch or Ulysses, you're overwhelmed. Those audiences also no longer exist. So you're writing for your own time. You're writing for your own generation, usually maybe a little older than you are and then people younger than you are. But basically the audience that that revered Paradise Lost is long gone. So this probably doesn't even have to be told to people in New York.
Twenty twenty one. That's mainly that you're writing for your own time. Sometimes people are writing to impress a parent, sometimes people are trying to be outstanding and and distinguish to impress someone who's not even living any longer could be a parent. You know, the people have many unconscious motives, but this can be impediments. And I think there's a natural voice if you think back on your own experience as a writer.
Are there any impediments, short lived or long lived that come to mind for you? Well, I think it was a little self-conscious in the beginning to write very freely and openly because my parents would read what I wrote. So I may have been a little inhibited, but I tried. I definitely tried to overcome that or to ignore it. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to be a writer. But I did begin writing under different names when name was Jayce Smith.
So I had married Raymond Smith, so I use J.C. Smith as a name for a while and then was J.C. OT's, which is not necessarily a woman, kind of androgynous person. And finally just settled on Joyce Carol Oates. Though for a while I had a couple of pseudonyms, but they were women, they were women's names, and why did you decide to use the pseudonyms? Was that to sort of preempt any type of criticism directed at you?
Was it a creative exercise? Did it give you more liberty in your own mind to push to the edges? What why? Why did you use the pseudonyms? The first pseudonym was Rosemann Smith and I had probably been writing about 20 years, so I wanted to embark upon a new voice with a different focus. These were more suspense novels, rather like movies, cinematic and in movement and structure, or without much exposition or background, not as much description.
Each chapter like the scene in a movie moving forward, these were totally different. And so I just wanted to have a. An outlet for a sort of imaginative writing that wasn't so much in the mainstream or my my usual writing, like conventional or whatever my own writing is, it's a little more I mean, maybe mainstream. And this is more like suspense, psychological suspense novels. Number eight on this top 10 list, this will be the last one on the list that I'd love to hear you expand on, and it is don't try to anticipate an ideal reader or any reader he or she might exist, but is reading someone else what does?
Don't try to anticipate an ideal reader. Well, to you, I think it's pretty self-evident. Just there is an integrity to the work. You have to express the work and you shouldn't be curtailing it or shaping a. To impress some person. So when you write you do not have any reader in mind, it is really just a creative process for you and you alone?
Well, the the work itself has its own integrity. You have to express the work. Each work is different. I mean, if you think of one novel of mine, they're all really quite different from one another. They're totally different. And the voices tend to be different. They're different in each novel. So there will be no way that I could be writing for one audience. I'm not I'm not really thinking of an audience. Can you suggest any one novel of mine that that you've read, that you might have a particular question about, like the tone of the voice?
Because I can't sing so much in abstract terms.
Sure, yeah. No, it was more a question of of when you work on any given piece, if if you ever think of sort of who is targeted towards not necessarily curtail your creative boundaries, so to speak. I just I think of it in contrast to something I know a much more familiar with, which is nonfiction fiction I really have no experience with whatsoever. But in the world of fiction, thinking about, just as an example, what levels of expertise you assume in your audience as a way of determining how much terminology you need to explain or omit or include to make it compelling.
And I mean, this, I guess, just makes me think of, say, John McPhee writing about geology. Right. It would be very easy to lose the reader depending on how close you zoom in on some of the the details of something like that. So it was really just a broader question.
Now, let me talk about that. You see, you've just suggested a particular work. You wrote that for The New Yorker. He was working with William Shawn, who is an editor who won, and many, many, many details and everything. You had to be very authentic. And the fact that The New Yorker is famous, you know, they're very, very careful. So John actually writing for The New Yorker, he would write a certain kind of a work if you were working, if you were writing for TV Guide, you know, or TIME magazine or The New York Times Book Review would have been very different.
That's a good example of nonfiction and aiming for a particular market. So John McPhee would be given the whole issue of The New Yorker for one of his long nonfiction pieces, and it was tailored for that magazine. And then they all became books and some of John Nephew's essays are really classics, I mean, they're wonderful, though. Writing for The New Yorker for him was perfect. Somebody else maybe writing for, you know, a pulp magazine. And one is criticized for having a complex sentence structure.
But when John Murphy was writing for The New Yorker and other people wrote for The New Yorker for nonfiction and I have written for The New Yorker reviews and essays, you definitely are aiming for a certain kind of reader. But that's a little different from fiction. Fiction is in its own world and has its own voice. And I don't usually think of there being a particular audience for fiction.
How do you. Give assignments or think about giving assignments to students. Well, I can in my drawer and look at some of these assignments. I've always given assignments to introductory writers, so I teach on different levels. I'm teaching advanced fiction at Rutgers this semester, and I taught in the graduate writing program at NYU. And they're all older students. But at Princeton, sometimes I have taught introductory writers, so I give them assignments. They want assignments.
They're very happy to have assignments and assignments, really work very well. See if I can find some and just read some. Perfect. We have a textbook and so I assign stories for them to read. And for instance, one one assignment is to write. To introduce a character. To read a number of stories which I have assigned and in the trilogy, maybe a story by Margaret Atwood, a story by James Joyce, William Faulkner, and then to write just a page where they're introducing a character.
And then at the end of the introduction, they have the character say something. So that's not really a story. They don't have to worry. They don't have to worry about writing a story. They're just doing something very basic. And then in another assignment, I have them write a piece that's like a memoir, very short. It doesn't have to be a literal memoir, but it's like a memoir, like something that happened when I was six years old.
When I was 10 years old. Last week. Then another assignment, which is very difficult for the students, and I often don't get that unless I think the students are are up to it, it's. Mimicry of prose style, first example is to write a few pages in the style of Hemingway and then write the same story again, the same material again in the style of Jack Kerouac. And then finally, in the style H.P. Lovecraft, now that's an assignment, as I said, I don't always give because it's demoralizing for some students.
They just cannot do it. So I didn't give it recently. I probably gave it a couple of years ago when I have good students. That's assignments. Terrific. They really enjoy mimicking Hemingway and writing a little Hemingway short story. And I really enjoyed Jack Kerouac. And they find Lovecraft very challenging. But it's sort of like with music. If you have gifted pianists, you could give them assignments and they will do well. Others are just hopeless and demoralized.
So I try I try to measure the assignments according to the aptitude of the students. But then one assignment that I always give, the last assignment in the course will be to write a short story that turns a moral decision on some ethical or moral decision in somebody's life. And they do very well with that. Young people have a natural moral instinct and they're interested in morality and they want to know what's right and what's wrong. And I have other assignments, too.
I mean, many, many different assignments. And one of them I, I did recently at UC Berkeley, we read Shirley Jackson's The Latter. And instead of writing a critique of the story, I said, if you want to, you can write a little story from the point of view of one of the characters in the lottery, a minor character. And so they did wonderfully with their. How much of your writing have you for, for lack of a better term, thrown away, finished writing could be short story.
It could be a poem, could be anything or never looked at once you finished it unpublished. I come across a mention of I believe you were tucking away or getting rid of a fair amount of at least your early work. Do you have any guests on or commentary on how much of your finished work never gets shown to anyone else? Well, now I probably publish everything that I do when I was younger and had more material, sometimes I just didn't like something and I would take it out of circulation.
Now, in the in the other room, I could show you a huge stack of short stories. And those are stories that were published in magazines. But I never gathered them into a book. Those go back four years and maybe one or two of them, even one summer war like Academy Award. But I never felt that I really wanted to. Put them into a hardcover collection for one reason or another. I'm not sure why, but there they are.
There are many of them. There are only about 300, 400 pages. They're never been published.
This is also a Segway and really just have a handful of additional questions. I could keep going, but I think just a few more would be really fun for me. This leads to a question about productivity or it's really a question about a comment that I've read of yours on productivity, and that is productivity, quote, Productivity is a relative matter and it's really insignificant. What is ultimately important is a writer's strongest books. It may be the case that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones, just as the young writer or poet might have to write hundreds of poems before writing his first significant one.
Do you have any additional comments on the relationship between volume of. Writing and enduring quality, or if you want to take that question in different direction, you could as well. But do you have any thoughts, thoughts to add to that?
Well, it's inevitable if a number of books, some books have come to seem traditionally more important than others. That is inevitable if DH Lawrence wrote a good deal. He's a brilliant short story writer, but probably only a few of his short stories tend to be anthologised over and over. Same with Faulkner and with Hemingway to Hemingway wrote many, many short stories, but you'll see the same two or three or four stories reprinted quite a bit. There are probably Jane Austen novels that are Pride and Prejudice and Emma.
And then you get to Mansfield Park. Not as many people would read that. Same with Shakespeare measure for measure, just not as popular as Hamlet. It's not as important a play, but it has wonderful things in it. Troilus and Cressida is often a very fascinating play of Shakespeare. But if you're only going to teach two or three plays of Shakespeare, you would not be teaching Troilus and Cressida. You would be teaching Macbeth and Lear and Hamlet and maybe Othello.
Those are the ones that come to the surface. But the other plays of Shakespeare, I mean, every one of them, even Titus Andronicus, they have much to them. He was always a very remarkable playwright. So if I had written 50 novels, not all 50 novels are going to be admired by by everyone or by anyone. That's just not the way it is. So some things just seem to come to the surface and maybe there's a perversity.
Somebody might prefer Faulkner's the Hamlet to Faulkner's, the sound and the fury. They might prefer sanctuary to light in August. But again, with Faulkner, he wrote a lot. And some of it is considered the most important writing in American literature in the 20th century, but usually just two or three or four titles. You have an incredible body of work.
Novels, short story collections, poetry, volumes, plays, essays, criticism, I mean, the the list is extensive, the number of publications, even more so for someone listening. If they have no familiarity with your work, do you have any recommended starting points? I know that you could you could probably just as easily pick any number of different pieces of your work. But are there any that that come to mind offhand as places if people want to get an idea and appreciation for the range of your work?
Well, of course, that depends upon what they're looking for. I have a long novel called Blan, which is about the private life, really the interior life of Marilyn Monroe. Norma Jean Baker, the person who became Marilyn Monroe for that novel, is about 800 pages long. And so some people might feel that's just too long. That's one of my favorite novels of my own. But then I have novellas that are only like one hundred eighty pages long pursued as a new novel that came out last year.
It's really almost like a novella. It's a short novel. It's probably only about two hundred pages. That's a novel that's more like a suspense psychological suspense novel so that it's a mystery and you're not really sure what has happened until the very end. So somebody might prefer a much shorter novel that's driven by a plot bland, which is about Marilyn Monroe. Isn't that really driven by a plot? It's her life, her complete life. I've selected details from her, her life.
But the main parts of Marilyn Monroe's life are treated in great detail in that novel. And then I have them, which is based on my own experience living through the civil disturbance or a riot of Detroit in July 1967. So if you read them, you're plunged into Detroit in that era. And it's a family novel. Some people like family novels and I love family novels myself and I write them to many of my novels are family novels. They're about families and usually starting with the older generation and then ending with the focus on the younger sister kind of shift in the novel from one generation to the next generation.
And often my novels will end. The very final page or a paragraph is in the province of the younger. A younger member of a family we were the Mulvany was an Oprah selection. So that's the novel. That's more people I've read. We were with the Mulvany than any other novel of mine because it was an Oprah selection. So it's sort of guaranteed, I think, like a million copies will sell in the past. That may not be quite like that.
Now with Oprah's Book Club and I have a novel that's sort of about the, you know, the Vietnam War. I mean, the different subjects. And I have many short stories that are Gothic, like the haunted. Haunted short stories, tales of the grotesque, the corn made, and these are collections of short stories that are that are surreal or gothic horror, literary horror, some of them have won awards for like the Bram Stoker Award for for literary horror.
Are there any particular, whether it's short stories, novels or otherwise of yours that. There's so many elements that go into the publication and release of a book, sometimes things get just overwhelmed by the news cycle. There could be any number of things happening at any given point in time. Are there any pieces of work that you have published that you are particularly proud of, that you wish had received the same or a higher degree of attention? Right. You have.
So you have. We were the Mulvane is, like you mentioned, that was an Oprah pick and boom, all of a sudden you've got a dozen reprints of this particular work. Are there any others that that you're you're particularly proud of and wish had slightly greater visibility when people are citing the better known works of yours?
Well, that's hard to answer. My novel, Middle Age Romance came out the week of 9/11, so that was a disaster. But there was so much in the world that was really a disaster and a tragedy that somehow books, books of fiction didn't seem that important at the time. Writing has a way of making its own and makes its own way. Somehow I think there's a sort of consensus. What remains in your mind to be done? I mean, you've done so much.
Many people would argue and have argued in many lifetimes of other writers you've compressed into your own in terms of work.
What are the the items that remain to be done, if any? Or does that is that just simply not enter your mind as a as a question as it is a religious continuing with the craft as you have?
No, I guess I don't really think in those terms. It's sort of like dreams. We may have had thousands of dreams, but yet when we fall asleep tonight, we'll have one. You know, I have a succession of dreams tonight are waiting. So it somehow doesn't matter that you've had dreams in the past. You know, it's the kind of novelty and originality and the intensity and urgency of the of the new story, the new the new dream, the new novel.
And we always have stories to tell. And we are evolving all the time and we're discovering things as we get older, our perspective starts to change. We start losing many people. When you start losing people in your own family and people who are very close to you, your parents help to define you. So when your parents pass away, you start to be a slightly different person. And many people who are older are thinking back over their lives and they have a new perspective.
So they may want to write a memoir. Women who lose their husbands are so traumatized by that that sometimes led to to write memoirs. I wrote a widow's story which I would never have thought I would never wanted to think I'd be writing. But I did write that. So you were asking who you know, if somebody wanted to read my writing, where would they begin? Well, some people like memoirs, so I've written two memoirs, Widow's Story, which is very raw and immediate.
Based on my journal of the first three months of being a widow, which is the most painful grief. It starts to diminish a little bit after that, but it never really goes away. But and then a more of a full lifetime memoirs the lost landscape. Our writers story sort of looking at my looking at my life from the perspective of being a writer, but looking at my parents and the farm that I lived on, and many people have read that memoir and they can identify with that.
Well, Joyce, this has been so much fun for me. Thank you for writing your heart out. Certainly I think you exemplify that. And I would love to just ask if there's if there's anything else that you would like to say to those people listening, any closing comments or any requests of my audience, anything at all?
Well, if you are if anyone is listening as a writer, I think you basically just have to do a lot of reading and read what you like to read and read for pleasure. And often it's a good idea to read a number of books by the same writer. Like when I was in high school, I just fell in love with Faulkner and I read virtually everything of Faulkner. So I was like the only person in my age group who was reading Faulkner, but that really helped me immeasurably.
Later on, I went through a D.H. Lawrence phase and Nabokov phase. I read a lot of Hemingway and a lot of Virginia Woolf, the sort of like phases that you go through. If you're a writer, that's very natural and very good, just go out and buy all the paperbacks, you know, Virginia Woolf and just spend a few months reading Virginia Woolf. Ever change your life completely?
I love that. That is excellent advice. I'm doing that with Barry Lopez right now. Oh, he's wonderful. Just incredible. The artist recently passed away. But what what an amazing, amazing, amazing human being.
An amazing writer, Joyce. I really I did not have the opportunity to interview him. I actually read of wolves and men, which so impressed me. And I then started to look into reaching out to him and I found out he was in hospice and he he passed away just a week into my reading of offers. And then just a few weeks ago. Yeah.
So how old was he?
He was. I'm not going to hazard a guess, I mean, he wasn't he wasn't extraordinarily young because I know that I mean, he must have I'm just imagining that he was probably my age when he published of Wolves and Men in I want to say nineteen seventy eight. I'm 43 now. So. So he wouldn't have been. Yeah, I think he would have been been older, but I believe, I believe it was cancer. I can't recall the cause but but just getting acquainted with Berry and reading I'm about to start his memoir on what you might consider a memoir.
It's really wonderful.
I mean I do feel like reading his collected works could really change how not not just how I view the craft of writing, but how I look at life, just the lens through which I look at life. And your work is done that for many people as well. So I. I want to thank you for that. Thank you.
Yeah. That's what we all hope for. Yeah. OK, well goodbye. Yeah.
Thanks so much Joyce. Oh hey guys, this is Tim again. Just a few more things before you take off. Number one, this is five Bullett Friday. Do you want to get a short email from me? And would you enjoy getting a short email from me every Friday if that provides a little morsel of fun before the weekend and five? Black Friday is a very short email where I share the coolest things I've found or that I've been pondering over the week that could include favorite new albums that I've discovered.
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