The Terms Of The Experiment: An Interview With Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates, five-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and recipient of a National Book Award and a National Humanities Medal, among many other honors, is one of the United States’ most prolific living writers, having published nearly eight dozen novels and short story collections in five decades, in addition to essays, novellas, and poetry collections. And that’s just the books she’s written under her own name.

Oates’s latest is a novel called The Man Without a Shadow (Ecco, 2016), which follows the lives of neuroscientist Margot Sharpe and her prize patient, amnesiac Elihu Hoopes (or “E.H.”), who can only remember events for 70 seconds at a time. It’s a fascinating novel that explores the meaning of memory, loss, and the possibility of loving and building a history with someone who can never remember you.

I had the pleasure of a lengthy conversation by phone with Joyce Carol Oates, who is currently teaching in Berkeley, the week before her new novel was released. We talked about the development of her writing over many decades, the role of obsessions and social engagement in a writer’s life, and the many mysteries of the human brain.

CL: How did The Man Without a Shadow start for you?

JCO: The Man Without a Shadow began as a short story, a long short story. It was about thirty pages long, that became thirty-five pages, and then forty pages, and I kept building on it. I perceived it as a work that a woman is recollecting in her own memory. She is now somewhat of an elderly woman perhaps. Or she’s retired and she’s much older. She’s outlived the love affairs, and she has outlived most of her career. She’s a very famous neuroscientist. She’s now in the phase of her career where she’s winning awards. She’s receiving lifetime achievement awards, and she’s giving lectures and talks and so forth in different parts of the country. She’s sort of remembering — that’s what the novel is, she’s remembering these things.

We move through the novel in a chronological way, and we’re with her as she is accumulating these memories. But in the very beginning, like the first page, basically, of the novel, the romance is over, because at that point her lover has died. So all this has to be put into a form, and the form is very challenging and intriguing to the writer.

CL: I was wondering about your decision to write The Man Without a Shadow in the present tense. It’s such a great choice for your character Elihu Hoopes, who can only recall new experiences for 70 seconds at a time and really just lives in the present tense.

We all suffer short-term memory loss all the time.

JCO: Yes, when people who have normal brains get older, their short-term memory starts to deteriorate. We all suffer short-term memory loss all the time. We write down numbers, we write down telephone numbers, we don’t trust our memory, even though, supposedly, most of us have normal brains. The man in The Man Without A Shadow is someone who has suffered very definite brain damage, but it’s not ultimately that different from, say, an Alzheimer’s sufferer — if you know anyone in your family, and I did know someone in my family, who suffered from this deterioration of memory– Eli, he’s not that different. One could fall in love with this man because he seems to exude normality. It’s only after a while they start to realize that he’s not remembering anything. I have been with people — always older people, even friends — where you tell them something and then a few moments later they’ll actually have forgotten. They weren’t listening, or they were distracted or something. They ask you the question again, and it almost doesn’t matter how old they are, because students forget things, too — they can forget things within a matter of minutes. So in writing about this particular person, I wasn’t really writing about experiences so different from what many of us have had.

CL: As I was reading the book it seemed to me that, in many ways, Margot and Eli aren’t that different — there is selective memory happening as well on the part of Margot. This idea of creating your own past, and how much control you have over that…

JCO: Yes, we all have selective memory. I see it in myself. I know it’s there, so maybe that’s why I recognize it. Many people don’t recognize it, the selective memory — literally just completely forgetting something that is unpleasant or that you don’t really want to do, and then realizing that you haven’t done it. And sometimes people have actually forgotten– there’s a purpose to that. I can see that — and I don’t feel I’m quite like Margot — Margot is trying to deny certain things. She’s not considering them at all, and of course she starts drinking, which definitely causes a deterioration of memory.

CL: Yeah, there’s definitely some dishonesty with self that happens in your novel, and it brings up a couple of questions, like, what is reality, and who is defining what reality is, ever?

JCO: That’s so true.

CL: Well, who does define what reality is?

JCO: When Margot’s professor is being accused of moral turpitude and scientific misconduct, it’s a subject I know quite a bit about because my husband wrote an article about it for The Nation magazine, and he was reading all these books and so forth. But scientific misconduct is so uncommon. It’s very scandalous and usually kept quiet when it involves famous people — they maybe just retire precipitously from Harvard or something, which happened not so long ago. But Margot either doesn’t want to acknowledge that, or she actually doesn’t think he did it. He was exploiting her and he did exploit some of his other assistants. But he also rewarded them, and he was also a wonderful and brilliant man. These are the kinds of people you meet in real life, especially in science, they’re charismatic, they’re brilliant, and they have a whole cadre of graduate students, younger people, who they are training and sending out in the world. But then at some point they may just be exploiting these students, and they’re not really in the lab as much as they used to be, because they’re in Washington doing something. So Margot just defends him absolutely. She says no, he never did anything like that, she really denies that. But the reader knows that really she does know that he’s done that. But it’s not clear that she’s lying. It’s more that she stubbornly is not going to say anything negative about him.

When all of us talk about some friend or parent or something, we usually use superlative adjectives — she’s this wonderful this and that– and we’re deliberately not acknowledging that maybe once or twice this person was not so perfect, because we are selecting the details we’re giving to other people. Reporters and police officers never believe anything that people tell them because they know that it’s not going to be perfectly true. Anyway, it’s very normal to do this, and I’m not suggesting that people who do this are immoral in any way. It’s just very natural.

The famous scientist in The Man Without a Shadow is based on a composite of several great neuroscientists. Since my husband is a neuroscientist, I know all of these people. I know them by name, from his stories about them. It was really lots of fun to write about these people, because everything in the novel is basically true in some way.

CL: Your initial interest in the subject matter when you started this novel is clear, but then what kind of research went into writing the novel? There’s so much detail in The Man Without a Shadow.

JCO: I had several books. I acknowledge them in the acknowledgement page. Mostly Suzanne Corkin’s book about the most famous amnesiac in the history of neuroscience: Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesiac Patient H.M. She just retired recently from M.I.T.; she’s a friend of my husband. And then there is this younger professor, a neuroscientist at Princeton — his name is Nicholas Turk-Browne. I acknowledge him also. There was a long article about Nick in the New Yorker about eight months ago. He’s working with a severe amnesiac who got amnesia from brain damage caused by encephalitis. That’s maybe a little more like my character, who has brain damage from encephalitis, probably caused by a mosquito bite up in the Adirondacks. He didn’t get the proper treatment. It’s terrible to think that this could happen from a little mosquito bite, but it can. So I did that research, and I did some general reading. Then my husband read the manuscript and he pointed things out that I should explain or I needed to put more in. And then he read it again when it was all finished and offered some suggestions. His library is just filled with all these books, many, many books, including books by Darwin — Charlie is interested in the history of neuroscience also. So I had access to a lot of books — I basically was just reading a lot.

CL: I’m amazed how mysterious the brain really is, still.

JCO: I know, it’s so fascinating, just the dreams that we have. Almost every night, our dreams are so astonishing. Sometimes they don’t seem to make any sense, and sometimes they do make some sense. But nobody really understands them.

CL: I remember a scene in the book, among the various experiments that take place, where the amnesiac patient is woken up in the middle of sleep and asked to recall his dreams. This idea of recollection in dreams…

…when you’re alone, or when you’re married to someone who doesn’t really know your background, you just start drifting into all these memories that are sort of half confabulated, and half real…

JCO: Confabulation is something that we all do, and those are experiments that are done with normal people. Say, you’re wearing something, like right now you have a wristwatch on or something, and somebody says, “Oh where did you get that?” You don’t really remember where you got it. So you make up a plausible answer. You say, “Well, my mother gave it to me.” Or something like that. That’s confabulation. It’s not really lying. It’s supplying a plausible answer because you’ve forgotten where you got something. So then, the next time you’re asked the same question, you just give that answer. So within families there are all these stories, and then it turns out that someone remembers, “Oh, that’s not from your mother, that’s my watch!” Or something. That happens all the time in families because people are confabulating constantly. But in a family you have somebody who can check you. If I said something that was just wrong, my husband might not know about it, but my brother would. So when you’re alone, or when you’re married to someone who doesn’t really know your background, you just start drifting into all these memories that are sort of half confabulated, and half real. And there’s nobody to check you, especially people who live all alone.

CL: Hearing you talk about that makes me think of Margot, who has this attraction to this man, her amnesiac patient, who knows nothing or will remember nothing about her.

JCO: I was thinking how wonderful it would be to talk to some person who maybe could give you good advice in the moment, but then wouldn’t remember. I know a number of people who would never go to a psychiatrist or a therapist, because they don’t want their problems to get out. You don’t really want to talk about your problems to anybody because they may write a memoir, they may go online. You can’t trust anyone. But if the therapist had…

CL: A memory problem?

JCO: …then they could give good advice and then just forget it. They wouldn’t remember; it would be such a solace.

CL: I think you’ve discovered a new profession for amnesiacs.

JCO: Yeah. I do know people who would never go to a therapist even though maybe they would benefit from it, because they’re really terrified that it would get out. I remember years ago I was reviewing a book for the New York Times, a biography of Anne Sexton, and there it was: her psychoanalyst had actually revealed her fantasies, and notes from their sessions. I thought that was extremely unprofessional. Because she was dead, but her children were still alive. It’s very hurtful. So most people are afraid of therapists revealing and behaving unprofessionally.

CL: That’s interesting. The Sexton book is different of course because it’s a biography, but do you think that writers have a responsibility to be engaged politically or socially? Do you have any opinions on that?

JCO: It all depends on who the person is, obviously. There are very activist people who go out in the world, like Walt Whitman, who was working with wounded soldiers in the Civil War, and his contemporary, Emily Dickinson, basically was a recluse who stayed in the house. They’re both great poets. I wouldn’t say that one was more ethical than the other; they’re just very different. Some people are extremely involved in the world, but those are people who may not be comfortable staying at home, they may be restless at home. And then there are people who can only work in a quiet way, they have to schedule their lives very carefully because they need all their energy to focus on something. So, we’re all extremely different people.

I do have friends who are quite active — animal activists and women’s rights activists. Ecologically and environmentally involved people. But then I have friends who are poets and who are really quiet, who just like to lead quiet lives.

CL: You’ve taught at Princeton and elsewhere since 1978. How does the experience of teaching affect your own reading and perhaps your own writing?

JCO: I teach a large variety of works of fiction. I teach a story by Hemingway, by Faulkner, by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, many, many different styles. It’s the attentiveness to sentences and to the construction of a short story. Usually I teach short stories. So it’s a sort of attentiveness that we pay in a workshop to the way that a story is structured. What does the title mean, what is the first sentence, and what is the last sentence? How is it paragraphed? There are formal things that we look at in a writing workshop that most people, when they’re reading, are hardly aware of, except perhaps subliminally. Most people could never tell you, or they wouldn’t be interested in, what the paragraphing is in a story by Hemingway.

But when you’re writing a story you have to make all these decisions that seem, to other people, trivial. But they’re part of the building of the world.

But when you’re writing a story you have to make all these decisions that seem, to other people, trivial. But they’re part of the building of the world. It’s put together like a wall or a mosaic, it has to be put together. And as soon as people start to write they realize that you don’t just write in one long paragraph. You are breaking up into different sections, doing things of a spatial nature. We spend a good deal of time on those things in my workshops.

CL: You mention constructing a wall or a mosaic. What is the impetus for you for a story or a novel, and how do you build on that? For yourself, in your writing practice, is there a spark that says, this is an idea I want to explore?

JCO: Well, certainly one does get an idea. You have to have some emotional connection with a story, with characters, with a scene, with a setting. I really like to place my fiction in very definite settings. Usually I do spend a good deal of time describing places visually. I may not leave all of that in the prose, but I do that for my own purposes. Setting a scene is very exciting, and part of writing. It’s partly like a person making a movie. Let’s say it’s set in a natural setting, and the nature and the background are part of the emotional tone of the movie — and if it were set somewhere else, or interior, it would be quite a different experience. So I spend a good deal of time setting these things up. As I said, maybe not all of it gets into the final version. I may take some material out, or I may develop it or enhance some material.

CL: You’ve written so much over several decades. Has your own practice of writing or your own approach to writing changed in this time?

JCO: Oh, yes I think very much. When I first began writing, my first several books, I narrated by a literary voice. I basically narrated. But my more recent novels, maybe recent like the past ten or even twenty years, are more mediated voices. The characters are speaking more. The characters’ vocabularies and idiomatic ways of speech are the style of the novel, whereas when I started writing it was more like a literary style that was narrated. Now I have more people talking, more characters. The Man Without a Shadow is very much in the voice of Margot, and, to some extent, Eli’s voice. There’s no place in the novel where Joyce Carol Oates starts talking about these people. Basically they are presenting themselves through their memories and dialogue.

I had a very interesting time with the experiments in the book because they are all based on real experiments. Some of them are famous experiments.

CL: I can see that it would be really interesting to play with experiments like you did in the novel. To have these characters you are exploring in your writing, and to be able to put experiments on them…

A con man is someone who is trying to sway us. But other people, particularly normal people, are trying to impress one another.

JCO: Yeah, people are conditioning one another all the time. Politicians, when they give speeches, are trying to condition the people, they are trying to sway them. A con man is someone who is trying to sway us. But other people, particularly normal people, are trying to impress one another. When a man and a woman are in a romantic situation, it goes into high gear, because they are both trying to impress one another. The woman puts makeup on, or she has a nice dress on, or the man has shaved. And all these things are so much like an experiment. They are basically setting the terms of the experiment. The real people may not even be like that. I sort of joke about my husband, that when I first met him he was a certain person, and I never saw that person again. You start seeing the older clothes and the worn out shoes. A person hasn’t shaved or something. Real life starts to come forward when you get to know someone, which can be really wonderful. But it’s not really like the original meetings, which are more like these formal experiments.

CL: That is something that I wanted to ask you about, this exploration of the male-female dynamic in the book. Margot makes this comment: “To be female is to be weak, and to squander time. To be female is a second choice.” And yet she seems to yearn for a romantic relationship with a man and all the possibilities there.

The laboratory situations are just fraught with these kinds of emotions, because everybody is looking to the principal investigator — he’s the boss, he’s the patriarch.

JCO: Well, especially with that man. There may be other men around she’s not so interested in. But she falls in love with her professor, her mentor, her dissertation advisor. He is a very charismatic and handsome man. She falls in love with him in a kind of adulatory way. She’s not his equal; she doesn’t imagine that she’s his equal. And he looks around the laboratory and sees who the women are and how they are gazing at him. The laboratory situations are just fraught with these kinds of emotions, because everybody is looking to the principal investigator — he’s the boss, he’s the patriarch. Usually, they are men. And so there’s sibling rivalry and the desire to please him. And if he likes you, he helps you get promoted, he helps you get your book published. There’s so much he does for you that it is just fraught with all these emotional stretches and strains.

Also, when Margot first meets Eli, she’s really surprised at how attractive and well dressed he is, because, with many people with brain damage, you can tell that they’re brain damaged, there’s something wrong with them. Eli seems to even recognize her, he does remember someone like her, whom he knew before his brain damage, and so he’s just kind of looking at her and smiling, being very charming. And because he has that attraction to her, she has an attraction to him. That’s how romances are. If you know that somebody is attracted to you, you like that person a little better, and you’re flattered and happy because somebody values you. Somebody that you might not have even looked at, if you know that person really likes you, you start liking him, and as time goes on, you might end up liking him more than he likes you. It’s a conditioning, a psychological mechanism that happens all the time. Anyway, these things are very interesting.

CL: There seems to be so much material here that you could dive into, with psychological experiments and whatnot. Do you think this is something you’ll continue exploring?

JCO: Oh no, I’m actually working on other things. I think this is probably it. But I’m interested in it, just intellectually.

CL: Do you think that humans can live without a shadow?

JCO: Well, what I mean by shadow is just a sense of one’s identity and of the past. I think we all live in different ways. Some people don’t look back; some people dwell on the past. They are surrounded by mementos and pictures of the past. Other people don’t want to do that. It really depends on who you are. I think the whole literature of the Holocaust, and films and so forth, is testament to the great gravitational pull of the past to give people their identity. If you’re descended from Holocaust victims, for instance, part of the gravity of your existence is to look back. But somebody else who doesn’t have that might have virtually no interest in his grandparents, or there might not be a particularly good reason to have any special interest, so that person’s more looking towards their future. As I said, we are all different. I’ve had a number of Jewish students at Princeton, and they have written profoundly about their grandparents’ experiences, because there was nothing else like that in their lives: the profound experience of having survived the Holocaust. A boy who is twenty years old is writing about something that happened in 1939 or 1940, because he’s mesmerized by it, because it involves his own family. But another boy who is twenty years old maybe doesn’t have that at all, he’s maybe writing science fiction or something different.

CL: There are things that are embedded inside us or not. Are there certain obsessions of your own that you think you continue to come back to again and again?

JCO: I do come back to a rural background and childhood. The family unit. I often write about families. This time was a little different — it’s mostly just about two people. Yeah, I often write about families, family life, and the countryside. Not always, but sometimes. I don’t know how obsessional it is. Most writers write about their own background.

CL: Right, obsession is kind of a loaded word.

Well, the great writers of all time tend to be obsessive.

JCO: Well, the great writers of all time tend to be obsessive. Proust wrote about his own life, obsessively, James Joyce wrote about his own life, D.H. Lawrence. Hemingway often wrote about his own life. But then Shakespeare didn’t. Shakespeare’s a great anomaly, because he never wrote about himself — not in any way that one can discern. Again, it just depends on who you are. Most novels, I think, people begin writing about their own backgrounds. That’s conventional. Some writers like Erica Jong and John Updike and Phillip Roth, through their whole careers they’ve written about themselves. And Saul Bellow. But then Norman Mailer didn’t write about himself at all. I’m just saying in a kind of haphazard way that we are all different.

CL: Is there anything that you’ve read recently that you particularly enjoyed or would recommend to people?

JCO: Well, I’m reviewing a novel now for the New York Times Book Review, which I like very much, but I can’t actually say what that is, I’m not supposed to talk about that yet. I liked the Joan Didion biography that I reviewed for the New York Review of Books by Tracy Daugherty. It was quite a wonderful biography. There’s a biography of Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate, that’s excellent.

CL: A couple of biographies there.

JCO: Yes.

CL: Can I ask what you are working on now?

JCO: Oh, sure. This is really a family novel, it’s about two families. I want to present a sort of portrait of America, very divided, on the abortion issue, for instance. There’s one family in which the father is an abortion doctor. And another family that’s very evangelical Christian, and they are very opposed to abortion. And then how these two families interact. The father in one family basically assassinates the abortion doctor. The two families are compared; the novel spends time with both families. I did a fair amount of research into abortion providers, especially in the Midwest. And then the anti-abortion movement, which is very interesting. So it’s sort of volatile, I feel that probably somebody’s going to be angry with me. Or both sides will be angry at me, because I present the characters sympathetically. People get very angry about these issues.

CL: Well, that’s what writers do.

JCO: That novel will come out in 2017. It’s called A Book of American Martyrs.

CL: A Book of American Martyrs?

JCO: Yeah, it’s the same as a book called A Book of Martyrs, a Protestant book, I don’t remember when it was published — let’s just say the fifteenth century or whatever, could be sixteenth century, I’m forgetting. Anyway, my novel takes that title and makes it the book of American martyrs.

CL: You mention that you’ll probably get people angry from both sides there. Do you care about that reaction?

JCO: No, I can’t really think about it. It’s possible nobody will even read the novel. I think anti-abortion people will probably not read it. Pro-choice people might read the novel. Basically it is a pro-choice novel — I mean, I’m a pro-choice person — so it sort of comes down on the side of pro-choice. But I don’t make the other side into villains or idiots, you know. It’s not a satire; I’m not making fun of the other side. I try to show both sides sympathetically. Why are the anti-abortion people so impassioned? Who are these Christians, and where do they come from? Not all Christians are anti-abortion at all, by any means. It’s just sort of looking at their background, and trying to let them talk. I said before that my characters do a lot of talking, rather than my talking. Having them talk is one of the things I do in my writing.

CL: Right. I feel like it’s the role of the writer to have an empathy or sympathy of some kind with your characters, whether or not they’re like yourself. If you are judging your characters or presenting them with a certain bias, that’s a difficult thing.

JCO: I think that’s true. And when I started writing, I probably didn’t have as many subjects. It was so long ago, I was just in my early twenties. Now that I’m older, and as years have gone by, I’ve become interested in more subjects, and I’m not just writing about my own background. I’m wanting other people to be represented.

Originally published at

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