Culture & Conversation

Hanging On Every Word

Perhaps the highlight of the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival is the International Literary Grand Prix, awarded to a very deserving Joyce Carol Oates at the Bibliothèque Nationale last night. The prolific writer, who began her career at the tender age of 26, has penned some 70 works, which include novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, plays and children’s fiction. She has also written under the pen names of Lauren Kelly and Rosamond Smith. In spite of her many literary achievements and her prominent professorship at Princeton University, Oates came across as affable, calm and poised, with many fine words for Canada, where she taught in the 1970s and founded the Ontario Review with her late husband.

In an interview with award-winning writer and broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel, Oates spoke of her humble beginnings on a poor farm in Millersport, New York, a mere crossroads, a little ways from Lockport and the Lake Erie Barge Canal. When Wachtel asked why the Canal and Niagara Falls often resurfaced in her work, Oates replied, “Language is inadequate so we must revisit them to make sure.”

The Princeton professor attributes her impressive body of work to a farmer’s work ethic and her life-long love of animals to her days on the farm. Her father, Fred Oates, performed his daily chores and then went to work as a tool and dye designer in a factory, Harrison Radiator. It was when Fred Oates retired that he attended university in Buffalo and that Oates and her father were able to interact on different level. Her maternal grandparents were Hungarian, her grandfather a hardworking, hard-drinking smithy. Upon his death, her grandmother wanted him to be buried in a Catholic cemetery, but the long-lapsed Catholics apparently had a few problems persuading the priest and finally offered themselves as converts to cinch the deal.

The writer’s education started out modestly in a small rural school, then a suburban high school, Syracuse University and later Princeton.”We may have had two books in our house,” Oates told Wachtel. It was her paternal grandmother who gave her her first book by CS Lewis and her first typewriter. It was much later that she learned of this grandmother’s Jewish heritage and of her great grandfather`s tragic suicide, the raw material for the Gravedigger’s Daughter.

When asked why Joyce Carol Oates was drawn to the dark side and the tragic, the author replied that her work was lighter than the tragic side of her country, the US: the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and slavery. But among her remarks I found the most insightful were on US politics, specifically why working class Americans voted Republican, against their best interests. Apparently, it has to do with the elusive dream of one day being wealthier than Croesus.

The author did make a remark about Canadians being on higher political ground, evidently unaware that just two metro stations away students and riot police had been hurling projectiles at each other for two days. When asked by a member of the audience about her thoughts on the current Quebec student standoff, Oates graciously replied that she did not have the cultural or political knowledge to comment, but offered that she and her husband would be offering their support to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The International Literary Grand Prix event was an evening that will not soon be forgotten. Not only did it gave us the chance to see Eleanor Wachtel, Canada’s finest literary interviewer, in action, but it also afforded us the opportunity to see Joyce Carol Oates, possibly a soon-to-be winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.

Heather Leighton blogs at www.theunexpectedtnt.com

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