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Monday, March 4, 2013 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.
From Woodrow Wilson to Twitter: A Q&A with Joyce Carol Oates
By Mary Ann Gwinn
Seattle Times book editor
Longtime readers of Joyce Carol Oates won’t be deceived by the portrait of an elegant lace-swathed lady on the cover of her new novel, “The Accursed”(Harper, 669 pp., $27.99). The book is no drawing-room diversion. This acclaimed author is quite adept at scaring your pants off and making you think hard at the same time.
The prolific Oates, a professor at Princeton University, has set her latest novel at Princeton in the early years of the 20th century. “The Accursed” tells the story of a curse on the upper-class Slade family, whose patriarch, a respected preacher, is hiding a dark secret. It’s safe to say that everybody connected to Winslow Slade pays dearly. Along the way, the reader meets Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Jack London and a host of other historical characters, though they may not be precisely who they seem.
Oates agreed to answer questions via email about her new novel. She reads March 12 at Seattle Public Library. Here’s a slightly abridged version of the conversation:
Q: I’ve read that you started this novel in the 1980s, set it aside, then picked it up again. Describe why you decided to resurrect it.
A: I’d done the research into Princeton during the era of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency when I first arrived in the early 1980s. By 1984 I had completed a lengthy manuscript which I intended to revise and to rewrite, but could not quite find the narrative “voice.” Years passed and other projects intervened.
Then in late 2011, I revisited the novel and fell under the spell of the era once again, and this time quickly rewrote it. Each chapter is imagined as a vehicle propelled by a certain storytelling velocity. I retained all of the original characters but altered the voice and the tone to make it less 19th century. Now, “The Accursed” takes as its thematic destination the Presidency of Obama — an utterly unspeakable possibility in the racist, narrow-minded epoch of 1905-06.
Q: Several writers and books came to mind while reading “The Accursed” — Edith Wharton, “Dracula,” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” fairy tales of the dark persuasion, Stephen King, a Gilded Age version of Faust. How do you describe it, and what were you trying to accomplish with it?
A: The primary influences are my earlier gothic novels — “Bellefleur,” “A Bloodsmoor Romance,” “Mysteries of Winterthurn,” “My Heart Laid Bare.” “The Accursed” is in that tradition: American epics exploring and dramatizing leading issues of the day like women’s suffrage, racial discrimination, the moral bankruptcy of the Christian ruling class. The novel rehearses cultural crises of the 20th century as conflict between the generations.
Q: “The Accursed” is set in Princeton, N.J., at the beginning of the 20th century. You teach at Princeton, and many of its traditions are featured (or take a drubbing) in the book. What are the benefits and liabilities of writing about your own backyard?
A: Princeton in 1905-06 is very different from present-day Princeton. The University is racially diverse. It not only began to admit women in the 1970s but has a woman president — all of which would have been unthinkable in the past. The advantage was that research was easy, and highly enjoyable, in Firestone Library where there are tons of materials relating to Woodrow Wilson.
Q: Readers of historical fiction sometimes have a hard time separating the fictional character with the real person, and lots of real people walk across the stage in “The Accursed.” Taking Wilson as an example, in “The Accursed” he’s a man of learning and vision, but he’s also something of a hypochondriac, possibly a drug addict, a stroke victim, paranoid and tainted with racism from his Southern upbringing. How many of these things were true of the real Woodrow Wilson?
A: Except for consorting with “demons”— all of this is true. (But everyone in that era took drugs in a way that would seem astonishing to us in 2013, including opiates.) Wilson was highly bigoted, contemptuous of women’s suffrage as he was of “Negroes,” but he was not a monster so much as representative of his era. The novel explores the tragic limitations of the era’s Christian “leaders” — and the rise of a younger generation with an interest in social justice, egalitarianism, women’s rights and evolution.
Q: In a general way, what is the nature of the curse on the Slade family? Not trying to give anything away, but metaphorically speaking, what is the burden that brings them to such grief?
A: Repression of the “demonic”— refusal to admit that there is racism in the “good” Christian community. A failure on the part of Christian church leaders and community leaders like Woodrow Wilson to speak up on behalf of beleaguered African-Americans.
Q: The devil plays a pretty big part in “The Accursed.” Do you believe in devils, or The Devil?
A: No. But I do believe in the emergence of “demonic” (i.e., repressed) elements. I believe in vampirism (i.e., the exploitation of one class by another, more powerful class).
Q: I follow you on Twitter. What do you like about Tweeting?
A: Twitter is a radically new way of communicating, at least on its higher, more idealistic levels. It’s a forum for the exchange of haiku-like impressions, insights and poetry. Also a kind of broad magazine in which individuals provide links to features and videos of interest
I follow Nicholas Kristof, Steve Martin, Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, James Gleick, Daniel Mendelsohn, NYRB classics, “The Daily Show,” the Tweet of God, several writer-friends (Ayelet Waldman, Margaret Atwood, Meghan O’Rourke, Bradford Morrow, Walter Kirn, Sherman Alexie, Colson Whitehead, Dexter Palmer), philosophers (Peter Singer, Gilbert Harman), several animal shelters ... Writing tweets requires a discipline not unlike writing poetry, where each word, even each punctuation mark counts.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli
(go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.
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