Awed and inspired by Joyce Carol Oates

Each year, the personality of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference is a little different. This year, it will be dominated by the presence of Joyce Carol Oates — novelist, poet, short story writer, critic, teacher and an odds-on bet for the Nobel Prize within the next decade. Novelist Laura Benedict will present alongside Oates; poet Lisa Williams, who won a poetry contest judged by Oates, also will be a presenter. Books editor Cheryl Truman talked to Benedict and Williams and offers, alongside a snippet of each's work, what the writers think about being at the same conference with America's great woman of letters.


From Isabella Moon: "Watching the rain, she let the knowledge that she would kill Miles comfort her. There was a tightness in her chest made up of tears she couldn't yet shed for her child, for herself. The haze of the drugs kept her from letting them out. But she was patient. The ribs would heal. The bruises on her body would heal, and she would no longer need the drugs. In truth, a very small part of her felt a little sorry for Miles because he would soon be dead and didn't yet realize it."

Question: What's it like to appear with a literary icon such as Joyce Carol Oates? Is there a certain element, even among writers, of hero worship or awe?

Answer: The phrase literary icon describes Joyce perfectly, but she's a woman of such great personal modesty that I can't imagine that she thinks of herself in such illustrious terms. It would be undignified of me to tell you that, when I learned that I would be appearing onstage with Joyce, I was so overcome with shock, excitement, and, yes, momentary fear, that I had to sit down immediately or risk falling down in a faint! Every writer has heroes — writers to whose work they turn again and again when they forget how to write and of whom they say, "I wish I could write like that." Certainly Joyce is one of those writers for me, and I feel privileged just to be in the same room with her. One of my greatest pleasures is to hear her talk about her work and influences. So if I appear very quiet and star-struck at our event, you'll know exactly why.

Q: Why is it important for writers to come to gatherings such as the Women Writers Conference?

A: Writing is a solitary and often lonely experience. While the solitude is necessary for the work, the writer has emotional, social and professional needs that can only be met in a community of like-minded souls. I love to share the joys and challenges of my writing life with other writers, and their experiences enlighten and nourish me. I'm always exhausted when I leave professional conferences, but it's a happy kind of exhaustion that's soon followed by a burst of energy that sustains me until the next event.

Q: What's the most important bit of advice you can offer women writers and readers?

A: My frequent advice to writers is to never give up. It's all about sitting down and working until the work is done, and not getting discouraged. I call my debut novel, Isabella Moon, my third first novel because it took me almost 20 years and two practice novels before I was ready to write and publish it. In the interim, I was a copywriter, worked in sales promotion for a beer company, bore two children and lived in five different cities. But between my own stubbornness and the support of many other writers (especially my husband, Pinckney), my dream finally came true.

For readers — I'm so grateful to every reader who takes the time to read my work. It takes commitment in our busy age. And if you like a writer's work, think about dropping the writer a note or an e-mail to let her know. It's always, always appreciated.


She is the author of the poetry book Woman Reading to the Sea, published by W.W. Norton in April. Oates chose the book, Williams' second, for the 2007 Barnard Women Poets Prize. Williams teaches at Centre College.

From the poem Woman Reading to the Sea: after a painting by Franco Mondini-Ruiz

"Without an audience, she makes a noise

swallowed by waves and wind, just as

the waves themselves — or not, just like the drops

lost in the waves, which neither care nor keep

distinctions — sweep out a place

inside an amphitheatre she imagines

rising around her, with columns that crash

instantly, like the white foam that collides

and shreds its layered castles. Her words drift,

dissolve, and disappear. A crest

of words has surged and poured into the sea.

It doesn't matter now what the lines say."

Question: What was it like for you to know that Joyce Carol Oates had selected your book, Woman Reading to the Sea, for the 2007 Barnard Women Poets Prize? Had you read Oates before? Do you remember the first Oates book you read, and why it left an impression on you?

Answer: I was notified by e-mail, and I was sent the foreword Oates had written about the manuscript at the same time. Her words about the book were so generous, and so sympathetic and attentive, that I thought I was dreaming — I actually pinched myself, hard. After writing poems for this volume for 10 years, and feeling as if it had not found an audience, I was so grateful to have found a responsive reader in Joyce Carol Oates. I had read her essays, reviews, stories, and some of her poems, although I can't recall which I read first.

Most recently I've been reading her journals, just published, which are absorbing and inspiring. One of my favorites of her novels — though I've by no means read them all — is I'll Take You There. I deeply appreciate the strange young woman at the center of that story, and the period of time it takes place in, 1960, is of special interest to me as a sort of turning point for women as social beings and writers.

I'm also intrigued by Oates' abiding interest in teacher/student relationships gone awry. There's a disturbing story called The Instructor about a young woman teaching at a community college that has become another favorite. (I actually taught at a community college when I was in my 20s.) The stories and novels are dark but believable; you get the sense that even in our ordinary lives, we are not so far from some strange, dark turn or choice that can change things utterly.

Q: Why is it important for writers to come to gatherings such as the Women Writers Conference?

A: This conference allows us to be in an atmosphere of galvanizing encouragement, inspiration and creative work. We can reflect upon women's writing in very particular ways: how far it has come, for example, and what "cracks in the glass ceiling" remain to be pushed through.

The simple fact of companionship — meeting other writers, learning about their work and their passions, their challenges and accomplishments, is probably the greatest benefit. Not to mention hearing the great featured presenters, such as Natasha Trethewey and Joyce Carol Oates, read their work. I'm thrilled to be a part of it.

Q: What's the most important bit of advice you can offer women writers and readers?

A: I'm afraid any general advice would sound like a platitude. We're all in different situations, with different challenges. If I could see their particular writing, talk to them in person, I might be more helpful — though I, too, have my limitations, as I tell my students: They must ultimately trust themselves.

One thing that I return to again and again is this idea of self-reliance; no matter what your talent, it is ultimately up to you to do the work and to believe in the work that you do. It's wonderful to have praise and support — the kind of support this conference will provide, for example.

However, self-reliance is key. Two writers I return to in this regard are Emily Dickinson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dickinson's poems on the subject, and her adamant pursuit of her own idiosyncratic poetics without much encouragement, and Emerson's actual essay, Self-Reliance, are two of my poetical bibles.

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