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Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates

"Audiobooks are wonderful inventions...we all love to be told stories, especially by skilled professional storytellers."

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Talking with Joyce Carol Oates

"Audiobooks are wonderful inventions," says the award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates. "People are often so enthralled by them that they’re disappointed when their trips end. I’ve often sat in our driveway listening to the ending of something—reluctant to break the spell. Obviously, we all love to be told stories, especially by skilled professional storytellers."

Oates often listens to audiobooks. "Too many to list," she says. "Just recently, the poetry of Emily Dickinson. I’ve only listened to those audiobooks in my car, however, since I do prefer to read, moving at my own speed and often rereading and underlining."

Happily for listeners, this consummate storyteller has created another novel, THE FALLS. The work features characters from two generations, a fascinating family whose lives have been profoundly altered by the constant powerful presence of the Falls of the Niagara River. Oates agrees that the title itself suggests some of the book’s qualities—danger, risk, power—as well as "an elliptical suggestion of the biblical fall from Eden. (And, in the area of Niagara Falls, people do refer to ‘The Falls’ in this way to distinguish it from the city.)

"Some of the early chapters are operatic in tone—romantic, mythical, and legendary. Ariah [the heroine] is a romantic-minded, passionate, and possessive woman who is, nonetheless, a piano teacher who enjoys her work, though it’s not very exalted. For both Ariah and Juliet [her daughter], music is the transcendental force that lifts them above their crimped environment. There are musical strains in another of my long family novels, MY HEART LAID BARE, in which a son of the hero, Abraham Licht, becomes a composer in the American avant-garde mode of Charles Ives."

Oates adds, "My longer novels often present two generations, ending with the younger on a note of redemption, if I can make it plausible. I see the human world as naturally evolving in this way, one generation passing into another as into the future."

The infamous environmental disaster that is Love Canal becomes another powerful theme in Oates’s new book, appearing and reappearing as the plot unfolds, affecting and driving some of the characters. Some years ago, Oates wrote a one-act play, "The Ballad of Love Canal," which has been performed a few times. On that subject, she observes, "Obviously, writers hope to make social concerns come alive to readers in a way that abstract argument can’t."

Remarking on the distinction between popular and literary fiction, Oates points to several classic writers. "Charles Dickens was an immensely popular writer, as well as a literary genius, and so were Hemingway, Jack London, and Mark Twain. Over the centuries, Jane Austen has emerged as a popular writer of a kind. I can’t believe popular writing is merely escape since it touches so many people so very deeply. Much of popular writing has strongly delineated characters. What we can say about literary fiction is that, ideally, it attempts to transcend formulas and to achieve some sort of linguistic originality. Literary fiction is stylized in a way popular fiction often is not."

And how does the author get inside her different characters" "That’s a question that’s virtually unanswerable. How do birds fly" Fish swim" This is what writers do, or try to do, ideally."—Louise Collins

© AudioFile 2005, Portland, Maine

Photo © Marion Ettlingerr

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Photo by Shaun Calhoun

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