Joyce Carol Oates Doesn’t Prefer Blondes


The author Joyce Carol Oates is best known for being one of the country’s preëminent fiction writers. She is second best known for being prolific. She is third best known for posting unfiltered, helter-skelter, and occasionally baffling thoughts on Twitter, a platform on which she has achieved unexpected late-career notoriety. In August, Oates published “Babysitter,” her latest novel, which joins a towering stack of poetry, essays, criticism, and short stories, including the much anthologized “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Ripped partly from the headlines of nineteen-seventies Detroit, “Babysitter” follows a sheltered and perfumed housewife who begins an affair with a man she knows only as Y.K. Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose, gruesomely murdering children. The book returns to and reconfigures some of Oates’s predominant psychological themes—the messiness of desire, the shame of pleasure—as well as some of her predominant social themes: violence against women, the essentializing prisons of race and class.

At the end of September, “Blonde,” a movie adaptation of Oates’s 2000 novel, which converts the stuff of Marilyn Monroe’s life into hallucinatory fiction and is widely regarded as Oates’s masterwork, will be available for streaming on Netflix. “Blonde,” the film, stars Ana de Armas and was directed by Andrew Dominik. “Blonde,” the book, exceeds seven hundred pages yet distills its author’s career, expressing as transcendently as she ever has her gothic, gory sensibility and interest in gendered archetypes. Oates has called Marilyn Monroe “my Moby Dick, the powerful galvanizing image about which an epic might be constructed, with myriad levels of meaning and significance.” The novel explores Hollywood as a microcosm of American artifice and exploitation. It also elaborates a vision of men as perpetrators and women as victims. “All dead birds are female,” Marilyn thinks, in the prologue to a ghastly assault. “There is something female about being dead.” (Hannah, the protagonist of “Babysitter,” is prone to similar musings. “If a woman is not desired,” she decides, “a woman does not exist.”)

The past few years have not been gentle with Oates. In 2019, her second husband, the neuroscientist Charles Gross, died; eleven years prior, she’d lost her first husband, the editor Raymond J. Smith, after he contracted pneumonia—an experience she wrote about in her first memoir, “A Widow’s Story.” When I caught up with the author, in mid-September, she was juggling her fall teaching load (she is the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities, Emerita, at Princeton and is also teaching at Rutgers), her daily writing practice (she devotes between five and ten hours per day to her craft), and interviews about “Babysitter” and “Blonde.” We discussed the appeal of underdogs, the smell of piano keys, and the vagaries of having one’s work adapted for the screen. We also tussled over autofiction and the mythic Male and Female. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I was just thinking about Marilyn Monroe, and about Hannah, the rich, elegant blonde in “Babysitter,” your most recent novel. Some of your most iconic creations—Connie in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” Iris in “Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart”—have been seemingly pure blond women threatened by spoilage. Would you agree that this is a theme? And, if so, why do you find it alluring?

A theme in my writing, or generally?

Your writing.

Oh, no, no, no. I’ve written many, many, many novels and short stories. You’ve just singled out the ones you’re asking about. You’ve talked about three or four titles that are about blond women. But I’ve written, let’s say, fifteen hundred stories. It’s tautological, your question. Each project that I work on is fairly independent of the others.

But those characters are so evocative. I assumed that they must have held a special fascination for you.

Well, it’s hard to say. If you are a writer or an artist, each project you work on is actually very special and challenging. Each project exerts its own challenges and its own gravitas. I’m probably drawn to writing about relative underdogs or people who’ve been marginalized or impoverished or disenfranchised. They don’t have to be blond girls or women. They could also be men.

I’ve written about boxing, which is an analogue, I think, with the whole drama or the iconography of Marilyn Monroe and other young women who were starlets in those days, the late nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties. An analogue with boxers who were also exploited. These are working-class Americans who had no unions to protect them.

Certainly Norma Jean Baker was one of hundreds of thousands of starlets who were exploited by the studio system, by male producers and directors, and by Hollywood people. She wasn’t like Elizabeth Taylor, who came from a different class in society. She didn’t have the protection of a family. Her mother was often institutionalized.

She was like a girl in a fairy tale. And she had to make her own way. She was working in an aircraft factory when she was only about sixteen, and she was doing the kind of work where she was breathing in fumes. If she’d stayed working at that factory for long, she might’ve gotten some illness. Had Norma Jean Baker not become a starlet, and then become Marilyn Monroe, she would’ve been used up by the world of capitalism. Maybe she wouldn’t have lived long. That’s what I’m drawn to more than there being a blond woman. I’ve also written about Mike Tyson, and other boxers who’ve had similar experiences. That connection is probably a little closer to what I’m interested in.

You told your biographer that you were inspired to write “Blonde” after seeing a photo of the seventeen-year-old Norma Jean. You said that “this young, hopefully smiling girl, so very American, reminded me powerfully of girls of my childhood, some of them from broken homes.” Could you say more about what these girls were like, and how you knew them?

I came from upstate New York, western New York, north of Buffalo. It was not a very prosperous community; there were broken homes, families where the father was an alcoholic and there was a good deal of brutality.

My family was actually quite unusual. We—my parents and my brother and I—lived with my mother’s parents. So we had a multigenerational farmhouse and more stability, but I went to school with these other girls who were often victimized. Their fathers may have been drinking, or they may have been ill, or they abandoned the family. Norma Jean Baker is one of those girls.

I hope I’m not cherry-picking, but I did notice a kind of familial archetype in many of your books: remote dads; involved, ambivalent moms; siblings who don’t necessarily get along. Do those dynamics resonate with your own experience?

A writer holds a mirror up to life. So I’m writing about life in America. I don’t think anything that writers do should be reduced to just their own families. Say somebody is writing about war or the Holocaust—it’s not related to their own family. It’s basically something that’s in the world. We are dramatizing it, holding it up for others to examine. I’ve written so many books. I certainly exhausted my own life long ago.

You’ve written that you inherited your father’s musical “temperament,” if not his musical talents. It made me curious about the role of music in your writing.

Music is very important to me. I love to hear music, and I’m very drawn to piano music. I have a sort of romantic, emotional attachment to the piano—even smelling the piano keys, just touching them, depressing a chord. It has a lot of emotional resonance with me.

But, with my writing, there’s a kind of mediated voice. I try for the music of different people’s voices; the voices change from person to person. I spend a lot of my time hearing music in my head or singing to myself, the way people sometimes do.

“The music of different people’s voices.” In some ways, I feel like the music in your work is the voice of mass culture. You weave in lyrics from pop songs. I’m thinking particularly of “Where Are You Going” and “Blonde.”


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